It’s chilling to imagine the crimes: waking in the night to find your husband murdered in bed beside you, to see the glint of an axe in the darkness, to lie paralyzed with fear for children sleeping nearby.
A killer nicknamed "the Axeman" terrorized New Orleanians for years in the early 1900s. The murders inspired short stories, novels, even a season of "FX American Horror Story."
Such is the staying power of a truly great villain and a really violent crime.
In her new book, Miriam Davis (also the author of “Dame Kathleen Kenyon,” a biography of the 20th century archeologist) turns her scholarly skills to murder most foul.
“I have a Ph.D. in history,” she said. “And you’re trained in a certain way, and not necessarily to be the riveting writer. One of the big challenges for me was to change my writing voice and make this as novelistic as possible, and still stay true to the facts.”
That’s how it reads: a page-turner of violence and skillful research.
Davis recreates a bygone New Orleans, taking the reader back to a time when an Italian corner grocery was the heart of the block, when whole families ran corner stores, when neighbors knew the schedules of families on the street.
Along the way, readers learn about the primitive nature of police work in those days— “Before fingerprinting!” Davis said.
Streets were often so rutted and rocky that ambulances couldn’t get through to crime scenes. There were suspicions of Mafia or Black Hand involvement, and conspiracy theories were abundant. The city lived in an atmospheric fog of worry and suspicion.
Davis starts with the dubious accounts of Robert Tallant, and dives into the details of the period for herself, drawing on newspaper accounts, which were much more detailed in that period, Davis said, as well as coroner’s reports and other public records.
Along the way, the policemen investigating the case over time emerge as characters, as much as the victims themselves.
Davis connects the first so-called Axeman killing in 1918, of the Maggio family, to earlier murders in 1910, committed by “The Cleaver.” Davis’s theory is that the killer changed weapons, choosing one that would always be available (used to chop fuel for woodburning stoves), rather than one he would have to carry with him and dispose of later.
At the heart of the Axeman’s enduring mystery is a letter that was published in The New Orleans Times-Picayune in March 1919, ostensibly from the criminal himself, posed from “Hell,” threatening to “pass over the city” on St. Joseph’s night, but to spare people in any houses where he heard the sound of jazz.
Davis examines this letter in detail, concluding that it was not written by the killer himself, largely due to its elevated language, but was rather a prank.
Then, in her dry way, she writes, “Pity the poor schoolboy piano or banjo player forced to jazz it up in improvised bands through the night to protect their families from the music-loving demon.”
This book had its origin in a conversation Davis had with her brother about serial murder, when he pointed her in the direction of axe murders of Jewish bakers in New Orleans. He got some things wrong, or course, but he set his sister on the path to writing this book.
“When I wrote the book about the female archeologist, people would occasionally write and ask me questions about where she dug and so forth,” Davis said. “And that was OK. But my husband said he was a little worried about the kind of people who might read this book and try to get in touch with me.”