The Night The French Quarter Rang Out With Jazz For The Axeman Of New Orleans

A man holds an ax in his hands against on black background [iStockPhoto]

On Friday, March 14, 1919, the editor of the Times-Picayune newspaper of New Orleans received an odd letter. They published it two days later, in their Sunday, March 16 paper. The missive claimed to have been sent by the “Axeman of New Orleans,” an unidentified serial murderer who had been terrorizing the Italian grocers of the Crescent City.

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Among other rambling outbursts, the letter boasts:

“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 axman. When I see fit, I shall come again and claim other victims…. I shall leave no clue, except perhaps my bloody ax, besmeared with the blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.”

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The letter goes on and on, bragging and threatening, but this is the passage that has become legendary:

“Now, to be exact, at 12:25 o’clock (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 the 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 house 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 the people. One thing is certain and that is some of those persons who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the ax.”

Mysterious Axman's Jazz sheet music [Wikipedia/public domain]

“Mysterious Axman’s Jazz” sheet music [Wikipedia/public domain]

Axeman expert and author of The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story, Miriam Davis, doesn’t believe that it was actually the killer who wrote the note, stating that it was too well-written and sophisticated to have been penned by the murderer who she believes to be working class. Additionally, if it were written by the true culprit, one would expect to find some anti-Italian sentiment in the letter.

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She suspects that it was actually a promotional prank by musician Joseph John Davilla who had composed a song entitled “The Mysterious Axman’s Jazz (Don’t Scare Me, Papa).” Davilla actually paid a ragtime pianist to play his composition continuously in a wagon being pulled up and down Canal Street.

On the night of March 18, whether out of genuine fear of the blade-wielding maniac who left a swathe of up to a dozen victims behind him before disappearing without being caught, or just another excuse to make merry, house parties and night clubs alike resounded with raucous jazz.

The Axeman claimed no victims that night.

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Read more:

The Axeman of New Orleans: The True Story by Miriam C. Davis

Main photo: A man holds an ax in his hands against on black background [iStockPhoto]