• Axe-man

Confessed Axe-man dies in Tangipahoa Parish jail

One-hundred years ago this month, someone claiming to be the Axe-man of New Orleans, sent a letter to the Times-Picayune newspaper, saying that he would leave the city for good if everyone played or listened to jazz the following Tuesday night during the traditional Feast of St. Joseph. Shortly after the city complied, the killings stopped, leaving unsolved more than one dozen murders attributed to America’s most notorious serial killer.

A century later, historians still cannot prove the identity of the Axe-man, but one Tangipahoa Parish police officer may have taken the answer to his grave. Former Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff John A. Ballard told a newspaper editor that a man he arrested in 1920 confessed to those crimes. That man, Tickfaw Grocer Frank DiPrima, died as an inmate at the Tangipahoa Parish Prison in 1931.

Miriam C. Davis, the author of “The Axe-man of New Orleans: The True Story,” summarized the killer’s reign of terror this way: “Although the attacks began in the fall of 1910, it was not until June 1911 that one of them was fatal and Joe Davi died. Then the Axe-man (or ‘the Cleaver’ as he was known in 1910–1911) disappeared for six years. It was when he returned—beginning with his murder of the Maggios in May 1918 and culminating with his brutal attack on Charlie and Rose Cortimiglia and murder of their little daughter Mary in March of 1919—that the Axe-man had New Orleanians thoroughly terrorized.”

She described how the Axe-man grew more violent over time.

“The first Axe-man attack seemed almost tentative. The second attack was more violent, but it took the killer three tries before he managed to kill someone. Joe Davi’s murder though was certainly cruel. He beat Davi’s face with a weapon consistent with a butcher’s cleaver. His brains dripped out of his skull. The attack was so brutal that the force of the blows knocked a 15-degree angle into the mattress. When he returned after a six-year absence, the Axe-man slaughtered the Maggios in May 1918.”

According to Davis, multiple attacks came in 1918 and 1919, but the last three killings traditionally attributed to the Axe-man, she said, are more likely acts of organized crime.

“There were vendettas between different groups of Italians reluctant to talk to the police. I think the murder of Tony Sciambra and his wife, and that of Mike Pepitone, fit that category. Sometimes verifying details, especially if the newspaper accounts did not agree, is nearly impossible, but I really believe historians have misunderstood those attacks. They do not belong in the Axe-man chronology.”

I asked the author what she thought of the attack on Sarah Laumann. She said that was an unfamiliar name, but she promised to look into it before the second edition of her book went to press.

On a Sunday morning, August 3, 1919, at around 3:15 AM, 19-year-old Sarah Laumann awoke in her bedroom at 2123 Second Street in New Orleans to find a man standing over her, both arms raised over his head. He swung something that struck down hard against her pillow and gashed the side of her head just above her left ear.

Reacting to their daughter’s screams, Mr. and Mrs. John Laumann burst through the door, as Sarah’s attacker escaped through a window.

Mrs. Laumann told the New Orleans Item, “The first thing the police did was ask my husband where he kept his ax. That’s when we found out it had been taken from its place in the woodshed.”

New Orleans Police later located the Laumann ax under the St. Francis de Sales school next door to the Laumann home.

Sgt. Fred Smith of the New Orleans Police Department told a New Orleans Item reporter “the method of entry parallels the Axe-man attacks; entry made by removing a panel from the back door.”

Alleged photo of the Axe-man from 1919.

Police Superintendent Frank T. Mooney told the New Orleans States: “The person making such an attack with robbery or revenge as a motive certainly would not carry such a heavy ax and leave with it, only to drop it next door. This man, to my mind, is a sadist or pervert. The man’s mental condition is far below normal.”

The Item reported that the New Orleans Police Department had long supposed that the Axe-man was a black man, but Sarah Laumann described him differently: 5 foot 8 inches tall, weighing about 165, wearing a brown suit and white shirt with no tie and a dark cap pulled over his eyes.

She described the Axe-man of New Orleans as a white man with a dark olive complexion.

In 1920, Sheriff John A. Ballard told reporters he locked Italian-born Frank DiPrima up for his own protection. DiPrima, he said, had “lost his balance” and “ran amuck”, after discovering his Tickfaw neighbors, the
Caldorera family, bloody and unconscious at their dinner table.

Ballard said DiPrima joined the search party for Rosaria Restiva, the suspected shooter, carrying a cane knife and a straight razor.

On May 25, 1920, Rosaria Restiva appeared at the Tickfaw home of Bernard Caldorera with a shotgun and fired on the family at their dinner table. The 22-year-old Restiva had asked Caldorera for his 16-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage the week before. Caldorera had refused, citing her age, and suggesting that the rival farmers discuss the matter further at the end of strawberry season.

After the attack, Rosaria Restiva escaped via a pre-cut trail into the swamp. The sheriff’s office contracted bloodhounds from Mississippi, but Restiva vanished, never standing trial.

Frank DiPrima was Bernard Caldorera’s closest friend and one of the first neighbors to arrive after the massacre.

In an article from May 27, 1920, newly appointed Hammond Police Chief John E. Morgan described DiPrima as violent, saying the grocer lived in a “semi-demented state” for some time but police never considered him dangerous. “His actions this week, however,” said Morgan “made his incarceration imperative.”

In 1931, Louisiana Progress Editor John D. Klorer asked Ballard why DiPrima remained behind bars for so long.

“We considered sending him to the insane asylum in Pineville,” the former sheriff said, “but they couldn’t handle him. He turned violent when he found that bloody baby.”

Klorer asked if it was true that DiPrima confessed to being the infamous Axe-man of New Orleans.

“Well, yes,” the sheriff replied. “He kept saying that, but we never took him seriously.”

Sheriff Ballard apprehended Frank DiPrima on May 26, 1920. The last known Axe-man murder occurred in August of 1919—six months before Frank DiPrima opened his grocery store three miles outside Tickfaw.

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