Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Livin' on a Prayer

(and a lot of cash)

The Oak Bluffs Wesleyan Campground looks like a neighborhood built entirely by very handy ten-year-old girls. The cottages are tiny, more like playhouses than actual houses. Homeowners sit on porches just a couple inches off the ground and a couple inches away from the next porch over. They’re pastel,  lined with lacy trim, and emblazoned with names like the ‘The Angel Cottage’ and the ‘Pink House.’ Some run with a decorative theme, covered in wooden hearts or silhouettes of carousel horses. It’s like a My Little Pony apartment complex designed by a fairy princess Barbie architect.  I mean this in the best way possible.

My boyfriend and I make a trip to the Vineyard every year before the on-season begins, playing preppy millionaires before the island gets swamped by actual preppy millionaires (he took the lovely pictures above!). Except for a visit to Sharky’s Cantina, the nation’s premiere shark-wearing-a-sombrero-themed bar, our stroll through the Campground is my favorite part of the trip. It’s not hard to see that the complex was once, and to some degree remains to be, a Methodist community. The cottages are arranged around a huge open-air church, called the tabernacle, and it’s 19th century Methodist roots are plastered all over the oldey-timey signage.  What’s never been clear to me is how a swanky resort town grew up around an evangelical camp, or why that camp is so darn cute. “Religious compound” brings to mind Waco and Warren Jeffs, not Vineyard Vines and lobster rolls. So what’s the story?

The Campground was born out the Second Great Awakening, a period spanning from about 1790 to 1840 in which the US was caught up in a religious revival.  The movement was driven by the concept of ‘post millenialism,’ an interpretation of the Book of Revelation which purports that Christ will return to earth after 1,000 years (or, more vaguely, a ‘long period’) of peace on earth. If you are related to me, engaged to me, or are or otherwise socially obligated to read this blog with any regularity, you may remember the ol’ SGA from this post- it was a crazy time. Methodist and Baptist preachers took it upon themselves to spread the good word of oncoming apocalypse, taking to the road like travelling rockstars.

Itinerant revivalists spread out across the country.  Some headed to sparsely settled parts of the American west, their sermons drawing pioneers from miles around. Since the worshippers had to travel a long way, they’d pitch tents and stay for several days. Preachers would do their thing in makeshift open-air churches, providing the campground with fire and brimstoney entertainment for hours on end. While these meetings may sound really boring, please remember how difficult  it was to score SXSW tickets in 19th century America.

The camp meetings were a practical necessity out on the thinly populated frontier, but were apparently such a good time that they also flourished in plenty of more established communities. East coast meetings drew a crowd of both devout believers and curious looky-loos. The crowds were often racially diverse, and the meetings were sometimes even conducted in other languages, particularly Swedish.  Häftigt!

The Martha’s Vineyard town of Oak Bluffs bought into the craze in a big way.  The local economy might help explain why the Awakening was such a hit with the islanders. The area survived on the whaling industry, so most families regularly saw their their husbands, fathers, and sons leave on voyages that could last months or years. Many didn’t come back. The revival’s promise of an everlasting reunion on the horizon was probably rather comforting to a town so used to anxiety and heartache. Or maybe they just liked hymnals. What do I know?

In any case, the Wesleyan Campground kicked off in 1835 with a semi-circle of nine tents set up in a shady grove. The 5-8 day summer meetings were pretty godly at the start. The Rev. H. Vincent, who chronicled the campground’s activities over the years, described the atmosphere at the 1845 meeting as so pious that the ungodly were kept away by the overwhelming “spirit of reverence and fear.”  The daily activities included a 2 am singing processional, praying outside during a thunderstorm, and the saving of 50 souls. “Heaven and earth seemed to meet together,” Vincent sighed.

Maybe because of all that angelic atmosphere, or maybe because Martha’s Vineyard is as close as New England gets to an island paradise, worshippers started shipping in from all over the east coast weeks in advance of the meeting. By the mid-1850s, the campground was drawing thousands of visitors, and temporary tents were no longer cutting it. Those adorable “Carpenter Gothic” cottages were built to provide more permanent and posh lodgings to a group of lodgers growingly intent on summer leisure. The style took advantage of newly popular steam powered scroll saws which allowed for the gingerbread trim and intricate detailing. The distinctive pointed doors were designed to resemble the drawn flaps of a tent, and the interiors of the cabins had all the amenities of proper parlors. The nicest homes were built for around $700, or something like 20k today. Things were getting fancy.

The main draw was increasingly non-religious, with one Brooklyn visitor writing home that the Vineyard boasted “excellent fishing, delightful bathing, [and] splendid sailing.” Hotels had sprung up with room for hundreds of guests, and croquet was all the rage.  “If there is a spot on God’s green earth where a man may take solid comfort,” the New Yorker concluded, “it is at Martha’s Vineyard Camp Ground.”

Campgrounds had always battled rumors that the worshippers were, as they would say on the Bachelorette, "there for the wrong reasons:" to socialize or even sin. These remarks had always been rebuffed with examples of the camp's piety, but as the years went on, the summer focus really did begin to shift. This is not to say that the campground ceased to be religious at all. It was still a place for scripture, but it also became a place for socializing. 

As this change occurred, Rev. Vincent’s accounts of the meetings start getting awful defensive. “It does not follow that because we do not live all together in the large tents, and sleep in the straw, that therefore our religion has died out," he wrote. "Having somewhat more of conveniences for the comfort of our bodies may not render our gratitude to the great Giver any the less, certainly.” Besides, he argued, ocean swimming was good for ones health, and everyone deserves a vacation, and maybe if the non-religious hung around the campground they would get religious. Right?!

Despite his protestations, by 1867 even Rev. Vincent was forced to acknowledge the evolution of what had once been a few tents plopped under some trees. “When, on the Friday preceding the meeting, the author had become quartered in a comfortable habitation,” he wrote,  “he looked out upon the grounds, the beautiful dwellings, the costly arrangements, and the business accompaniments so necessary to the comfort of the sojourner, and asked himself,  Is it a reality? Am I really in the old Wesleyan Grove? or am I in some fairy-land? It must be the same place; but, O, how changed!”

How changed, indeed! Renting one of those cottages today will set you back something like $2,000 a week- although, admittedly, modern value is increased by proximity to Sharky’s. The campground may no longer provoke the feelings of religious connectivity its founders intended, but it’s hard not to feel the history in that pretty circle of pastel cottages. So if you need me, I’ll be polishing my croquet mallet, thinking up a cute nickname for my house, and saying my prayers for the second coming of 19th century property pricing.

Works Referenced

Gorham, Rev. B.W. Camp Meeting Manual: a Practical Book in Two Parts. Boston: HV Degen, 1854.

Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield. American Methodist Worship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Vincent, Rev. H. A History of the Wesleyan Grove, Martha’s Vineyard, Camp Meeting. Boston: Press of Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1865

Vincent, EH, History of the Camp-Meeting and Grounds at Wesleyan Grove, Martha's Vineyard, for the eleven years ending with the meeting of 1869, with glances at earlier years. Boston, 1870.http://archive.org/stream/06380142.emory.edu/06380142_djvu.txt

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Looney Trooths

Defying the laws of gravity, having your pupils turn into little hearts upon falling in love, conversing with a stuttering pig: there are some parts of the world of cartoons that we humans will just never get to experience. But if you’ve ever wondered what you and Bugs do have in common (besides that killer comedic timing) you’re in luck. Parts of Looney Tunes aren’t so looney after all.

Beep Beep!

They make it all: high-speed boomerangs, bear traps, explosive tennis balls, earthquake pills, dehydrated boulders, jet-propelled unicycles,  dynamite and, of course, anvils. Despite their brand’s lax quality control, faithful customers like Wile E. Coyote have allowed Acme Co. to dominate the cartoon economy.

Historically, Acme’s always been on top. To the modern consumer, scouring the phone book for an anvil provider seems as old-timey as consulting Angie’s List, but hip flapper blacksmiths used to do just that.  As telephones rose in popularity in the 1910’s and 1920’s, consumers began to consult phone directories. The alphabetized listings left companies scrambling for a coveted spot at the top of the page.  Although I would have personally gone with something like “Aardvark Artificial Eyes’ or ‘Abtastic Cinching Co. Girdle,’ business owners of the day felt that ‘Acme’s’ A-C combo was pretty tough to beat. 

‘Acme’ became a popular business name. A quick look at the 1921 Boston Register and Business Directory comes up with Acme Letter Service, Acme Creamery, Acme White Lead and Color Works paints and finishes (you can thank them for your great-grandfather’s birth defects), Acme Printing Services, Acme Sharpening Co., Acme Co. Dressmakers’ Supplies, Acme Die-Cutting Co., Acme Welding Co., Acme Ventilation Corporation, Acme Trucks, Acme Company Automatic Screw Machines, and Acme Roofing, among others. Sears & Roebuck even sold an honest-to-god Acme anvil.

Boom Boom!

Not only is Acme sorta for real, so is one of it’s best-selling products: those black, spherical bombs with a long fuse. The bowling-ball type bomb loved by cartoon characters everywhere also has historical roots.

Unlike cannon balls, which were solid, cannon shells were filled with explosive material and relied on a time-delayed fuse to explode over their target. Spherical, fused shells that looked a whole lot like those cartoon bombs were used as early as the 14th century and as late as the late 19th century, at which time they were replaced by a more tapered shape. A lot of early grenades worked like this (and looked like this) too.

Ties that Bind

If you’re really looking to go full villain, you might want to skip the bombs and go right to twirling your ‘stache and tying your enemies to the railroad tracks. While I can say from experience that Amtrak delays make it really hard to properly time a railroad-tie-up these days, it seems that this wasn’t always the case.

Here’s a sampling of people who were actually tied to railroad tracks between 1902 and 1934:

- Kenyon College freshman Stuart Pierson who in 1902 was killed after being tied to the railroad tracks as part of a hazing ceremony for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. That’ll get your keggers shut down real fast, bros.

- A non-union railroad worker who in 1906 was tied to the tracks by a group of union workers who also dynamited a nearby bridge for good measure: a double-whammy of classic bad-guyity. Their intended victim was rescued just in time by a heroic constable.

- 18-year old Pittsburgh woman Leona Luppens who in 1909 changed into her newly purchased wedding dress and told her roommate that she was off to elope with her fiancee. Two hours later, she was found dead on the railroad tracks. She had been murdered (presumably by her fiancee, who disappeared) and her body was left on the tracks to get mangled.  

- Missouri man George Underwood who in 1920 was robbed on his way to the train station, tied up with barbed wire, gagged, and bound to the railroad tracks. George managed to partially untie himself from the tracks as the train barreled down towards him, but couldn’t free his left hand and foot, which were cut off by the train. Ouch.

- A French policeman working in French-occupied Germany after WWI, who in 1924 was tied to the tracks by a group of German nationalists.

- The prosecutor in a big-time French embezzling case who in 1934 was lured to the train station by a phone call that said his mother was dying and he needed to visit her quickly. He bought a ticket but never caught his train. Instead, he was tied to the tracks and killed by an oncoming engine in a dastardly case of witness tampering.

It seems like Snidely Whiplash was indeed in good company, but the railroad trope itself predates all of these stories. The theme started to show up in vaudeville shows and novels in the 1860s, and  eventually became a popular silent movie plot as well. Actual railroad-squashings (at least those that hit the papers) seem to have begun only after the idea had become entrenched in pop culture. The cartoon incarnations we’re familiar with are likely a case of art imitating life imitating art- pretty meta for Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Slip n’ Slide

Another peril of the animated world? Banana peels. Despite the fact that I have never in my life slipped on a banana peel, seen another person do so, or ever even just seen a banana peel lying on the ground, cartoon characters manage to wipe out on them all the time.

Once upon a time, banana slippage was a problem even for the non-animated. The fruit became popular in the states in the mid-19th century, and their peels were added to the already garbage-strewn city streets. Left to decay in the sun, they got gooey and slippery. The sheer number of discarded peels made the banana something of a pedestrian menace. The falling on a banana peel schtick became popular in vaudeville shows by the late nineteenth century. Newspapers also loved running stories, both serious and not, about the hazardous fruit.

On the funny side, one 1877 newspaper article jokingly suggested that banana peels should only be thrown on the sidewalk in front of doctors’ offices, as it would “save carrying the broken limb victim far to be mended.” Another fictional story recounted, in poetic verse, the awkward dilemma of a dude who slips on a peel and falls to one knee in front of his girlfriend, who wrongfully assumes he’s proposing. We’ve all been there!

On the other hand, lots of news stories recounted various cripplings and deaths from banana peel slips. Although many of these stories have the same sensationalist tone that I associate with promos for the 5:00 news (“Killer Microbes in your Gatorade? Find out, next!”), some appear alarmingly legit. For example, this 1914 obituary:

For one shining moment, it seemed that the banana peel threat had passed. In 1918, several newspapers covered “a new boon to humanity that should make its discoverer famous if not wealthy”- a ‘non stick banana peel.’ Some jerk out in San Francisco got everyone’s hopes up by claiming to have cross-bred a banana and a cactus pear. The new wonder food, he claimed, had an exterior skin with the same texture as a sandpaper, and was perfectly safe to drop on the sidewalk. Sadly, the fruit was indeed too good to be true.

One group this bust wouldn’t have disappointed are the early twentieth century con-artists dubbed ‘banana peelers.’ The peelers’ routine was to claim that they fell on a banana peel, often on a train car, and then sue for injury. It was good old-fashioned insurance fraud, but with a tropical fruit twist. A NJ boarding house keeper named Anna Strula, or ‘Banana Anna,’ made 17 different fraudulent banana-related claims before she went to prison for the offense.

Jump Around

It’s always seemed to me that inflatable evacuation slides must be airlines’ attempts at appeasing terrified and litigious passengers during a crash. “See?” flight attendants can say as passengers slide out of their burning plane, “there’s a slide! How bad can this be?”

That seemed to be the same approach taken by firefighters in the cartoons I watched as a kid. When people (or anthropomorphic animals) were stuck inside a burning building, firefighters would encourage them to jump out of a window and onto a waiting trampoline. If laughter is the best medicine, I surmised, tramping must be the best balm for third-degree burns.

In the cold light of adulthood, I assumed that firefighters running around with trampoline and trying to catch hilariously flailing fire victims was a cartoon trope. I was wrong on two counts. This life-saving method really did exist, and the ‘trampolines’ were actually 'life nets.’

Life nets seem to have worked a shocking amount of the time, but there were also a lot of horrific ways that they could go wrong. Sometimes jumpers missed the mark, like a 14-year old Dorchester girl  in 1933. She was trapped in a burning building and prepared to jump out of a window into a waiting life net. However, the smoke was so thick that she couldn’t fully see her target. She landed on the pavement and ended up in critical condition.

Sometimes firefighters couldn’t get under the falling victim quickly enough, as in a 1960 tragedy in which a Harlem man carrying his four year old daughter jumped seconds too soon for firefighters to catch him. Not only was a net not waiting for them on the ground, but the father hit a clothesline on the way down.

And sometimes the nets broke.  In 1935, a woman named Martha Williams heroically helped five other people escape from her burning apartment building in Newark before jumping into the waiting fire net herself. However, Williams weighed 300 pounds, and the net ripped. She luckily survived the incident with only a broken leg, but other such stories (such as people jumping onto a fire net in pairs) sometimes ended in death.

So, not as much fun as cartoons had led me to believe.  Still, life nets were successful enough to be used for almost a century- so where did they go? It seems like the answer may be a combination of factors. The production of better aerial ladders, dwindling man-power in firehouses that might have made gathering the dozen men necessary to hold the net more difficult, the potential for injury to firefighters, and the not insignificant risk of injury (and ensuing lawsuit) to both civilians and responders may have all played a part in the life net’s demise.  At least we still have those slides.

Hook, Line and Stinker

I do not handle vicarious embarrassment well.  Men ineptly hitting on uninterested women on the T, middle school yearbooks, that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy accidentally uses superglue that can only be removed with a discontinued solvent to glue a fake beard to her face in protest of Ricky’s new mustache on the very day that a talent scout is coming to dinner:  all of these things leave me burying my face in my hands and chanting “this can’t be happening.”

The worst offenders are stand-up comics, whose desperate need for approval overwhelms me with an uncomfortable mixture of pity and revulsion. My general rule of thumb is just to avoid any place named something like “The Ha Ha Hut,” but I have been occasionally dragged against my better judgement. For instance, I was once talked into attending to a college amateur hour so terrible that I spent the night praying I would bust a gut and die from exploded spleen.  The only thing that kept me going was the hope that a cane would appear from the stage wings and pull those Sociology majors turned sad-sack Seinfeld wannabes offstage- but alas, it seemed such mercies existed only in cartoons.

Or so I thought! In the kinder age of vaudeville, hacks really did risk getting pulled off stage with the hooked end of a cane. Popular in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vaudeville shows featured a rotation of comedians, song and dance men, drag queens and kings, musicians and magicians. In the 1870’s, HC Miner’s Bowery was a vaudeville hall in New York’s tough Bowery and Chatham Square. Terrifying gangs with awesome names like the Irish Dead Rabbits and Nativist Bowery Boys provided a rowdy clientele for dozens of local bars and dance halls, including the Bowery.

Miner’s son, Tom, claimed to have invented the yank-off-the-stage-with-a-cane move during an amatuer night at his father’s bar. On a Friday night in 1903, a novice comedian was bravely bombing on in the face of some serious audience booing. Tom grabbed the pole that stagehands used to adjust stage lights, latched a prop cane onto the end, and used it to grab the comedian’s collar and drag him offstage. The audience loved it. Soon, patrons at Bowery’s and other vaudeville halls were yelling to give the worst acts ‘the hook,’ and the trend took off.’ We can only pray for a resurgence.

With that, I’ll give myself the hook. That’s All, Folks!

Works Referenced

“300-POUND WOMAN HURT AFTER SAVING 5: Crashes Through Life Net.”
New York Times; Mar 18, 1935, pg. 19

Boston Register and Business Directory,  1921. Issue 85. http://books.google.com/books?id=oH4oAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=business+directory&hl=en&sa=X&ei=G_c3Ub2oELGL0QHm-YDgAg&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

“Cut to Pieces.” The Marlboro Democrat, November 24, 1905.

“FATHER IS KILLED IN LEAP AT FIRE: Carries Daughter, 4, in His Arm.” New York Times; May 6, 1960; pg. 17

“GIRL MISSES NET IN LEAP AT FIRE: Second Also Injured at Dorchester Blaze.” Daily Boston
Globe; Feb 25, 1933; pg. 2.

“GIRL SLAIN, TIED TO TRACKS: Leona Luppens, in Bridal Dress, Is Found Tied to Railroad.”
New York Times; Mar 7, 1909; pg. 1

“Held as Wife Slayer.” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), July 12, 1920, Page 3

Kendzior, Russel J. Falls Aren’t Funny: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Slip and Fall Crisis. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

“MAN TIED TO TRACK RESCUED: Dynamiters Who Bound Him Also Damaged a Bridge.” New York Times; Oct 13, 1906.

McManus, Donald. No Kidding!: Clown As Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theatre.Danvers, MA: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003.

Moke, Bernadette. “Tour of the Bowery.” Untapped Cities. http://untappedcities.com/newyork/2011/09/30/tour-of-the-bowery/

“Non-Stick Banana Peel.” Perrysburg journal. (Perrysburg, Ohio) October 17, 1918.

Routledge, Frank. Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1, 2007

Schlags, Mike. “Fire Department Safety Nets...Did they Go Away and Why?” My Firefighter Nation. http://my.firefighternation.com/forum/topics/fire-department-safety-nets-did-they-go-away-and-why?id=889755%3ATopic%3A5984841&page=3#comments. Aug 2011.

“STAVISKY WITNESS IS SLAIN IN FRANCE.” New York Times; Feb 22, 1934; pg. 1

“TIED IN TRAIN'S PATH BY GERMANS, BUT LIVES.” New York Times; Jun 14, 1924; pg. 15

New York Times; Jun 18, 1920; pg. 7

“TWO BOYS TIED TO TRACK.: Freshman Killed Was Going Through Ordinary Initiation.”
New York Times; Nov 4, 1905; pg. 1

“When a Banana Peel is not a Joke.” The Ogden standard. (Ogden City, Utah) 1913-1920, April 30, 1919, LAST EDITION, Page 4,

Obituary. The Day book. (Chicago, Ill.) December 21, 1914.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Four Weddings and a Bunch of Funerals

The Story of the New Orleans Axeman

At the end of a hard day, we all need to unwind: a nice glass of wine, a long shower, a good workout, a big slice of cake, a moment of meditation, a six-hour marathon of dvr’d Four Weddings episodes. Wait, is that last one just me?

Don’t be too quick to judge. For one thing, all programming on The Learning Channel has to be pretty educational (for instance, Four Weddings has taught me that if you don’t like the food at a wedding reception at which you are a guest, you should feel free to dramatically gag on your steak and then order pizza to be delivered to the banquet hall). 

Two, there are guiltier relaxation combos than even sweatpants and reality tv. Jazz and serial killing, say. The New Orleans Axeman knows what I’m talking about. For two years, this serial killer kept the citizens of New Orleans running scared...and ready to dance.

It all started late on the night of May 22, 1918. Joseph and Catherine Maggio, an Italian couple who ran a grocery in the Big Easy, lay sleeping in their bedroom.  An intruder entered the silent home, approached the couple’s bed, and slit their throats with a straight razor. He then struck them with an axe for good measure.

Catherine died instantly, while Joe survived for roughly two hours. The couple was found by Joe’s bachelor brothers, Andrew and Jake, who both lived in an apartment attached to their brother Joseph’s home.  Jake had heard moans coming through his bedroom wall from Joseph’s home. He had roused his brother Andrew from bed, and together they had gone to make sure all was well. It wasn’t.

Joe died soon after his brothers’ arrival. When the police arrived, they noticed that some valuables were missing from the home, and that a wood panel had been removed from the kitchen door, indicating a break-in.  They also found the killer’s bloody clothes, which he had apparently stripped off at the crime scene.  The axe used in the crime belonged to the Maggios themselves. Was a naked, axe-wielding maniac on the loose?

The police were eager to find someone to take the blame, and it didn’t take very long for them to find suspects. Both Andrew and Jake were held in custody. Jake was soon released for lack of evidence, but Andrew was not so lucky. The razor used to slice the Maggios’ throats was recovered from a neighbor’s home, and identified as belonging to Andrew, who was a barber. An employee at Andrew’s barber shop reported that his boss had claimed that he needed to take the blade home to have it repaired. The cops began questioning why it had taken so long for the brothers to discover the bodies, as they thought the violent murder would have been audible in his attached apartment.

Andrew, probably really wishing he hadn’t brought that razor home to sharpen and/or wishing he hadn’t murdered his brother and sister-in-law, explained that he had gotten his WWI draft notice earlier on the day of the murder. Understandably unhappy, Andrew had decided to drink away his sorrows at the local bars. He told police that a combination of sleep and drunkeness had dulled his senses, putting him into such a deep slumber/blackout that even an axe-murdering was not enough to wake him. The police believed his story, and soon removed him from consideration when neighbors reported seeing an unknown man lurking outside the Maggo home before the murder.

Here’s where things get crazy. Soon after Andrew’s release, the cops found a mysterious new clue. On a sidewalk near the crime scene, someone had written a chalk message in crude handwriting. Accounts of the exact wording varying, but the message was something like this: “Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.” Police were stumped, as were the citizens of New Orleans (and me!).

The city was quickly consumed with speculation. Some theorized that a lookout had written the message to warn the murderer that Mrs. Maggio was still awake and he should wait to enter, and that ‘Mrs. Toney’ might be a reference to the 1911 axe murder of the wife of Tony Schiambra, another Italian grocer.

Others suspected that the murder and the message might be linked to an Italian mafia group known as the Black Hand. The group, which existed in many American cities until the mid-1920’s, extorted money from locals by sending a threatening letter to their home. The letters were signed with a hand drawn in black ink. If the Hand did not receive the money they demanded, they would kill their target. Perhaps both the Maggios and Schiambras had refused to pay them their due, prompting the Hand to take the axes and keep the canned goods.

Whatever the message meant, the murderer seemed to have it out for grocers. Louis Besumer, a Polish man who ran another grocery in the city, was the next victim. He was found in a pool of blood next to his mistress, Anna Lowe, in a bedroom in the back of Louis’s grocery store. While they were both (obviously) seriously injured, neither died on the spot.

The police found the weapon in the bathroom of Louis’s apartment. Again, the axe belonged to the victims. The cops tried to place the blame on everyone from an ex-employee at the grocery to Louis himself- who wasn’t helped by the fact that Anna, who seems to have been a bit bats, accused him from her hospital bed of axing both her and himself (women, amirite?). But to the frustration of NOLA’s finest, none of the leads seemed to stick.

By this time, the axe murderer was a New Orleans obsession, a staple of chatter at barber shops and parlors across the city. Hell, even the local Piggly Wiggly took advantage of the fervor,  running an ad in the paper that promised the Axeman would “ruthlessly use the ‘Piggly Wiggly’ axe in cutting off the heads of all High Priced Groceries.” Respectful!

The city’s fear and fascination grew with each attack. A few months after Louis and Anna were attacked, Edward Schneider, a local non-grocery-related businessman, returned home from work to find his pregnant wife lying in a pool of blood. Her head was severely wounded. Edward called the police, and his wife spent several weeks in critical condition. When she eventually recovered, she couldn’t remember any details of her attack. All she could say was that she had woken up from a nap to see a man looming over her bed. He hit her with an axe, and she (logically) could not give a lot of information about whatever happened next.

Her story was echoed by Pauline and Mary Bruno, two teenage girls living with their elderly uncle, an Italian barber named Joseph Romano. A few weeks after the Schneider attack, Pauline woke up to see an intruder in their home. “About 8 o’clock in the morning I lay in bed awake,” she reported.  “Then in the doorway leading to my uncle’s room I saw something I thought was a shadow. I thought at first I was dreaming. I realized I was not, for in the doorway was a tall heavy-set man. He wore a dark suit and black slouch Alpine hat. I screamed and the man turned around and ran out. Then my uncle staggered into my room and went to the parlor which adjoins. He dropped into a chair “Something has happened,’ he said. ‘My head hurts. Call for an ambulance.’” 

Joseph's headache was beyond the Excedrin stage. He was rushed to the hospital with a fractured skull, but died without being able to give any account of his attack. The axe used for the murder belonged to the family, and had been dropped in the back yard (personally, I would have considered chucking my axe stash for the duration of the murder spree, but different strokes for different dead folks).

New Orleans was in a state of high alert. The police received dozens of reports from people claiming to have seen the murderer or know his identity. Several people reported having a man with an axe unsuccessfully attempt to enter their homes, although it is difficult to say if the reports were true or the result of public paranoia and fear.  Despite the fact that not all of the victims were actually Italian, Italians were particularly nervous about their odds of avoiding the axe. “Who’ll be Next is the Question Italians Asking,” blared at August 1918 headline in the Times-Picayune.

The Police Superintendent didn’t do much to soothe the public’s nerves, publically declaring that he was  “of the belief that the murderer is a depraved criminal, a madman with no regard for human life.” Yet, for several months, the Axeman took no more lives. It was a disquieting pause in a spree that the public hoped to be over, but feared was not.

That fear was justified. In March 1919, the Axeman hit again in the New Orleans suburb of Gretna.  Rose Cortimiglia, her husband Charles, and their two-year-old daughter, Mary, were attacked in their home as they slept. Charles attempted to fight off the attacker, but to no avail. By the time the Axeman left the home, Rose and Charles were badly wounded, and Mary was dead. The resumption of murders was scary, but not as scary as what was to come next.

Soon after this attack, the Axeman took to the press. Local papers ran a letter purportedly sent by the madman himself. Get this:

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 fell demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

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

If you wish you may tell the police not to rile me. Of course I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigation in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to amuse not only 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 to the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to visit New Orleans again. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a 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 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 those 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 as it is about time that I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, and 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 fantasy.

The Axeman

Seriously, that happened.

The Axeman had issued a decree, and the city did as it was told. Jazz poured from the windows of every home and business. Dance clubs were filled to capacity with frantic, fearful revelry. A local songwriter even wrote a special ode to the Axeman, entitled “The Mysterious Axman's Jazz (Don't Scare Me Papa)."  No one was killed that night, but the Axeman was not appeased for long.

Over the next year, he made three more attacks. Most of the stories were familiar- dark figures in bedrooms, wounds to the head, axe left at the scene. However, in one odd instance- the murder of Italian grocer and last victim Michael Pepitone- the murder weapon was a pipe instead of an axe. None of the surviving victims or their families could provide any details helpful to police.

But just as the situation seemed totally hopeless, the attacks stopped. There were no more murders, no more sightings of a man trying to enter homes, no more blood-stained axes or letters from hell. The Axeman had retired, and retired for good.

So who was he? The most convincing theory I have found, put forth by Mafia historian Richard Warner, points the finger at a man named Frank ‘Doc’ Manfre. Manfre was a professional pharmacist in New Orleans, but worked on the side as a murderous member of the Black Hand. He was rumored to have been involved in a string of murders committed between 1910 and 1915, including the ‘Mrs. Toney’ murder.  That crime wave had stopped just after Manfre went to prison for Black Hand- related crimes, including dynamiting an Italian grocery. He was released in 1915, at which point the Axeman began his spree. In 1919, when Manfre moved to the LA the Axeman crimes came to a stop. The timing of the murders and his prison stays are awfully suspicious, but the details of the theory are a bit bizarre.

When Manfre moved to the west coast, he opened up an Italian grocery. He also went in on some real estate ventures with  a fellow ex-con named Angelo Albano. The business relationship went south, and Albano mysteriously disappeared. Albano’s wife, Esther, was certain that Manfre had killed her husband, and went to the police with her allegations. Two months later, Manfre showed up to confront her at her home. Esther shot him dead.

When the police took her testimony, Esther claimed that she had fired in self-defense, but that she had a pretty good reason to kill Manfre regardless. The Black Hand member, she told police,  had not only killed Albano, but her first husband as well: possible Axeman victim Michael Pepitone.

After her first husband was murdered, she had moved to the west coast to start over. There, she married her sister’s widower, Albano. Esther was present on the scene of this last potential Axeman murder, and claimed to have immediately recognized Manfre as the man she saw the night her first husband was clubbed to death. Now he had struck again, taking her second husband away. The cops didn’t seem to care: Esther spent 10 years in prison for murdering Manfre.

Muddying the waters is the fact that Esther had originally testified that she saw two men in her home on the night of Michael’s murder, and that, even if she was telling the truth about Manfre’s guilt in both her husbands’ murders, it’s unclear whether the Pepitone murder was really connected to the rest of the Axeman crimes.

There’s not enough evidence to say for sure whether Manfre was really the Axeman, and the murders remain officially unsolved. Maybe this demon from hottest hell is still out there, bemoaning the decline in personal axe ownership. So stay safe, dear reader... and stay jazzy.

Works Referenced

Boyce, Gregory. “New Orleans Birthplace of the American Mafia and the legend of the Black Hand.” The Examiner. May 2010. http://www.examiner.com/article/new-orleans-birthplace-of-the-american-mob-and-the-legend-of-the-black-hand

“Brother's Razor Involves Him In Double Killing Weapon, Found Beside Bodies of Maggios.” The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana. May 24, 1918. page 1.

Dash, Mike. “Fresh Light on the Axeman of New Orleans.” Charles Fort Institute. March 12, 2009. http://blogs.forteana.org/node/70

Piggly Wiggly ad. Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana.  August 23, 1918. page 5

Saxon, Lyle; Dreyer, Edward; Gallant, Robert. Gumbo Ya-Ya. Gretna: Pelican Publishing, 1987. http://books.google.com/books?id=f1nezXt18KIC&pg=PA87&lpg=PA87&dq=axeman%27s+jazz+%28don%27t+scare+me+papa%29&source=bl&ots=LPgw8HIE_-&sig=UJ2ArzBorLsB99bEDva-kxAZ_ZU&hl=en#v=onepage&q=axeman%27s%20jazz%20%28don%27t%20scare%20me%20papa%29&f=false

Gibson, Dirk C. Serial Murders and Media Circuses. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2006. http://books.google.com/books?id=Rk02oF0aCvgC&pg=PA16&dq=new+orleans+axeman&hl=en#v=onepage&q=new%20orleans%20axeman&f=false

“Who'll Be Next Is The Question Italians Asking.” The Times-Picayune. New Orleans, Louisiana. August 11, 1918.