The Shadow of the Axman

The following is from the Spring 1967 issue of The Howard Collector, appearing in the Editorial Notes section:

T.C. Smith writes concerning “The Shadow of Doom,” which appeared in the last issue: “[It] is based on an actual incident which occurred about fifty years ago. Bob was in San Antonio at the time, and the beheading received special treatment from the press, and wide discussion among the people. It made a real impression on Bob, and he referred to the grisly murder several times during the course of our acquaintance.”

As shown below in an except from the opening paragraphs of “The Shadow of Doom,” Howard’s story does take place in San Antonio:

Some ten years ago, I was walking down a street in San Antonio with a casual friend of mine, John Harker.  We were both young working men of very limited means and we had become acquainted with each other because of the fact that we shared the same cheap boarding house.

It was late, nearly midnight.  We sauntered along, talking when suddenly John halted and I saw his face whiten.  He was staring at a house across the street.  We were in a rather second rate neighborhood and this house was a rambling, two story structure, evidently a boarding house.  Downstairs a single light burned in the hall but upstairs all was dark.  Evidently the occupants had all retired.  But John stood gazing with horror depicted on his face.

“My God, Steve!” he cried, “I’ve just seen a shocking murder!”

“What!” I exclaimed.

“I tell you, yes! he cried, “That window there – there was a light in it when I turned my head, and just as I looked, it was turned out.  But in that flash I saw a terrible sight!  The figure of a man crumpled up on the bed, all bloody – and headless!”

I cried out in horror.

But Howard’s close encounter with “The Axman” actually happened not in San Antonio, but some 550 miles away in New Orleans where a series of violent axe murders were taking place. Patrice wrote an in-depth piece on the Axman and Howard’s time in New Orleans while his father was taking some medical courses in The Big Easy. The article appeared in the February 2007 mailing of REHupa as part of Patrice’s zine, Wulfhere Hairsplitter’s French Quarter #1. In his zine, the wily Howardian detective, using excerpts from the Cross Plains newspaper, Howard’s correspondence, an untitled autobiographical essay by Howard — later named “In His Own Image” by Glenn Lord — and New Orleans newspaper accounts of a grisly ax murderer running amok, to place the Howards in the Louisiana city on March 11, 1919. On that date, the city’s two newspapers, The Times-Picayune and the States-Item, covered the horrific attack on the Cortimiglia family in neighboring Gretna the night before. “In His Own Image” contains an account of the Axman’s attack:

I remember strolling down a narrow street one day when the town was electrified by the shout of the newsboys, “They’ve got the ax-man!”

[…]

And it was momentous news they bore. For months the fear of the menace known as the ax-man had laid over the city like a fog. The morning I arrived in New Orleans, the morning papers were full of the latest atrocity, committed across the river among the towns which so crowd the river bank that they are separated only by boundary posts.

The ax-man had butchered an entire family – hacked a young man and his wife almost to death – though they eventually recovered, and killed their baby, a child of only a few months old. This crime was the seventh or eighth of the sort committed within the last year. The victims had usually been Italian and – strange coincidence – had usually occupied the rears of corner grocery stores.

The details of the crimes were usually the same – the murderer or murderers had chiseled out a panel of the door, reached through and sprung the catch, then entered and slain the victims with ax, hatchet or meat cleaver, usually using whatever they found in the victim’s house and leaving the blood stained implement as a mute evidence of ruthlessness.

A Sicilian and his son were arrested as a result of the testimony of the young man and his wife – who were the first to survive an attack by the fiend. How the trial came out I do not know, as I left New Orleans shortly after, but opinions were divided – some thought that the deeds were the work of a maniac, others that some secret society committed the crimes.

The Sicilian father and son Howard refers to were Iorlando and Frank Jordano, who were quickly arrested, tried and sentenced — Frank was to be hanged and his father got life in prison. Funny thing, the Axman’s butchery continued after they were arrested. The authorities soon realized they had the wrong men and the pair were exonerated and released. Actually, no one knows for certain who the killer was — but one thing is certain: he was a jazz fan. Here is a letter he sent to the newspapers a few days after the Gretna murders:

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don‘t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

The public packed the New Orleans jazz clubs that night and true to his word, no one was killed that evening. Of course, 1919 being the beginning of the Jazz Age, a composer penned a lively tune called “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz.”

Since the victims were all of Italian descent, there was some speculation the murders were racially motivated. Another theory was some sort of turf war between rival Mafia gangs (there were some similar killings during a gang war  in 1911) — perhaps a protection shakedown since most of the victims owned grocery stores. But women and children were killed in the 1918-1919 spree and in those days, the killing of  innocents was strictly prohibited by the la costra nosta’s code of honor. Also, a tale of the Axman being a copycat killer mimicking London’s Jack the Ripper was another popular possibility (Jack also wrote a letter “from Hell”). The last of the killings occurred on October 27, 1919, which brings us to the odd epilogue to the story:

More than a year after the Axeman’s final appearance, a former New Orleans man named Joseph Mumfre was shot to death on the Pacific Coast. He had been killed by a woman named Esther Albano, who was later discovered to be the widow of the Axeman’s last victim, Mike Pepitone.

The police began working to try and untangle the mystery that probably linked Mumfre’s murder to the Axeman case. Some curious coincidences were revealed during the investigation. Mumfre had once been the leader of a band of blackmailers in New Orleans who had preyed on Italians. He had also been (for a separate matter) sent to prison just after the first axe murders in 1911. In the summer of 1918, he was paroled — at the same time the Axeman appeared again. Immediately after the Pepitone murder, Mumfre had left New Orleans for the coast and strangely, the Axeman had vanished as well. In spite of this, there was no actual evidence to link him to any of the crimes.

From www.prairieghosts.com

Ester was tried and convicted of killing Mumfre. She was sentenced to ten years, but released after serving three. The New Orleans police department seemed satisfied that the deceased Mumfre was the Axman … or was he? Irrespective of the identity of the Axman, his homicidal rampage certainly made an impression on a young Robert E. Howard that influenced his horror stories to a degree.

I can certainly empathize with Howard’s apprehensiveness about the Axman. When I was about nine years-old, I went to see a little flick called Strait-Jacket and had the living daylights scared out of me.  Of course, this was the pre-movie rating days and my mother had no idea as to the content of the movie when she dropped me off to see it. The movie was produced and directed by William Castle and written by Robert Bloch, with Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford in the lead role. I guess my first tip-off that that it might be a bumpy ride was when the ushers were giving everyone small paper axes covered in blood. Of course, Castle was famous for using such gimmicks to promote his films and titillate the audiences that attended them. While laughable by today’s standards, 50 years ago it was frightening — especially the scene of Lee Majors and Patricia Crest (both uncredited) lying in the bed with their heads severed neatly from their bodies. The movie didn’t scar me for life, but I spent many a sleepless night worried that an ax murderer was lurking outside my window, ready to behead me in my bed. To this day, I still get the heebeegeebees when I think about it.