Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Other Axe Murders – The Axeman of New Orleans

I have received a few emails asking about other, possibly related crimes.  The two most spoken about are the Louisiana-Texas Axe murders and the Axeman of New Orleans.  Now I have some thoughts on both of these subjects but I’m going to address the New Orleans case for now.  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, during the years of 1918 and 1919 an unknown assailant was breaking into peoples houses in New Orleans and assaulting them. Usually the weapon, an hatchet or axe, belonged to the victim.  This case is made colorful by the inclusion of a strange letter sent to the Times-Picayune for publication.  The header is an obvious reference to the Whitechapel ripper murders of 1888 and the notorious “Lusk Letter” which was addressed “From Hell.”  The Axeman letter starts out “Hell, March 13, 1919.”  As if the Axeman was some kind of toe-tapping "Angel of Death" on Passover (which was a month away FWIW) the letter demanded the citizens of New Orleans to play jazz music in their homes on the night of March 19th in order to avoid a visit from the Axeman.  This letter lead to the writing of the song “Axeman’s Jazz.”  The majority of questions about the Axeman of New Orleans naturally are of the “Do you think they are related” variety.  So, do I think they are related?  No, I do not.

Go to Wikipedia and check this map out!
The primary reason behind this thinking is history.  New Orleans is often credited as being the city that first put the term “Mafia” into widespread use.  The earliest forms of organized crime in the United States were the old “Black Hand” (BH) organizations.  The Black Hand is just another name for what is commonly referred to as extortion.  The BH was extremely violent in its extortion techniques and tended to target Italian emigrants who spoke little English and whose distrust of police extended from their own experience in their native country.  Starting around 1880, two organizations, the Matrangas and the Provenzanos, were fighting over control of the New Orleans.  In the late 1880s and into the early 1890s these two organizations began a war over the control of the city’s grocery business.  As the war became more intense, Police Chief David Hennessy interjected himself, allying himself with the Provenzano organization because he believed the Matrangas were the more dangerous of the two.  On October 15, 1890, outside his home, Hennessey was gunned down by about six men using luparas, he died the next day.  So what does this have to do with the Axeman of New Orleans?

Charles Matranga
By 1900 the Matranga organization had won and pushed the Provenzanos out of New Orleans.  But the victory didn't mean the end of Black Hand style extortion.  As I said, the BH tactics were very violent and without pity.  In Chicago, the Shotgun Man rampaged through “Little Italy” in 1910 and 1911, killing people whether they were business owners or not.  In New York, BH organizations would blow up a business without warning then send letters to other business owners in the neighborhood demanding money lest they become victims of the same crime.  In all these cases, the unspoken rule of omerta (silence to the authorities) prevailed.  It is important to note that when Prohibition began in 1919 and bootlegging became far more profitable and far less risky, Black Hand type extortion began to fall out of favor with criminal organizations.  I believe the Axeman of New Orleans was one of the last episodes of Black Hand activity in New Orleans.  The end of the Axeman’s reign of terror coincided with retirement of Matranga Family boss Charles Matranga and the rise of Prohibition era Organized Crime and a more subtle Racket.  That's my hypothesis, what are your thoughts? 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the Mafia would never ever kill violently (or otherwise) a woman or a small child, as the axeman did. They always attacked -adult- males. The axeman was in my opinion a Jack the Ripper copycat.