The air was hot and humid, especially for March and even though it was midnight. Residents of New Orleans flooded into dance halls, where jazz music played loudly, or to parties where jazz bands were in full swing. Even those who stayed home had jazz playing.
After all, it was what the Axeman ordered, and, as he put it: anyone who didn’t have jazz playing would “get the axe.”
The Axeman of New Orleans was on the hunt. Residents obeyed his demand, hoping to be spared. The Axeman had already claimed five lives and injured four others; mostly Italian grocers and their families.
Because the attacks were on Italians, people had attributed them to the Mafia, vendettas, or Black Hand. It soon became apparent a madman was stalking the streets of New Orleans.
Italians had long been present in New Orleans, though it was mostly northern Italians. After the abolition of slavery, plantation owners had a need for cheap labor. The job opportunities brought Sicilian immigrants into the state, and into New Orleans.
Sicilians, unaware of the racial hierarchy in the American South, had no qualms about working alongside African-Americans in the fields. Though Italians were commonly employed on plantations, they never entirely replaced African-American laborers.
Italians were seen as lesser than the native Caucasians in the region for their willingness to work alongside African-Americans. The dark-complexioned Sicilians were not seen as white at all. Treating Italians with a sense of familiarity they wouldn’t use with other Caucasians.
Italians were frequently stereotyped and looked down upon as filthy, degraded, and criminal. It may have served to uphold Louisianans’ prejudice that Sicilians brought vendetta with them; a system of justice which lasted into the 20th century in Sicily.
There were enough knife fights and shootings on Decatur Street that it was dubbed “Vendetta Alley”. In the 1890s, a great fear came about regarding Italian criminal gangs; mostly what the media commonly referred to as “the Mafia.” One type of crime prevalent in Italian communities across the United States at the time was Black Hand, a type of extortion.
Italians did have challenges in Louisiana, as well as opportunities. There were occasional threats of lynch mobs against Italians, but one of the most mysterious threats of all came in the form of the Axeman; a vicious serial killer seemingly targeting Italians.
The killer was never captured, never identified.
The Axeman used a chisel to remove the lower panel of his victims’ back door and crept into their bedroom, where he would attack. The Axeman never brought his own weapon to kill with; he typically used the victims’ axe or whatever else may have been lying around. He seemed to kill for sadistic pleasure, as nothing was ever stolen from the homes; leaving behind the bloody axe.
It all began in the early morning hours of May 22, 1918, though some believe an earlier string of murders was the beginning. The modest home on the corner of Upperline and Magnolia Streets was a nightmarish scene. Joseph Maggio ran a grocery store and barroom near his home. He lived with his wife and two brothers until that fateful morning. The Maggio’s were Italian, and they’d likely come to Louisiana with dreams of a prosperous life; however, it was cut short.
Joseph’s brother, Jake, woke in the early morning hours to hear groaning coming from the bedroom of his brother and sister-in-law. Jake’s other brother, Andrew, was asleep beside him. Andrew had been out drinking the night before, celebrating his deployment to World War I.
Jake, growing concerned, roused Andrew awake. The two went outside and approached Joseph’s back door. They noticed the lower wooden panel had been removed. It was now on the ground, a chisel on top of it.
The two men entered the house and made their way to their brother and sister-in-law’s bedroom. Nothing prepared them for their horrific discovery. Joseph and his wife, Catherine, were in bed, Catherine already dead and Joseph barely clinging to life, both surrounded by a pool of blood. The couple’s throats had been slit.
Catherine’s wound so deep it had nearly severed her head. Later, it would be determined she died by asphyxiating on her own blood. The two also had severe head wounds, caused by an axe. A few minutes after his brothers found him, Joseph died.
Police arrived at the home and, upon searching the house, found a pile of blood-stained men’s clothing in the bathroom and an axe, belonging to Joseph, in the bathtub. It appeared a rushed attempt to wash the axe had been made, but blood still clung to the blade.
Reports vary on where exactly the straight razor used to slit the couple’s throats was found; some say on the neighboring lawn, and some say in the bedroom. Police realized robbery was not the motive; no money or valuables missing. Shocking as this scene was, it was one the police would see repeated over the next seventeen months.
A block away from the scene of the crime, police discovered a note written in chalk on the sidewalk, in child-like handwriting. It read, “Mrs. Maggio will sit up tonight just like Mrs. Toney.”
Investigators may not have drawn the connection right away but this note would cause a connection between the Maggio murders and a murder six years prior. May 16, 1912, the Schiambra family, a man and his wife, Tony, were shot by an intruder in their home.
It had been the last in a series of murders of Italian families beginning in 1911. The Schiambras ran a grocery store, and Mrs. Schiambra was known as “Mrs. Tony” by customers.
When the razor was discovered, suspicions were cast on Andrew Maggio, a barber; the razor belonged to him. An employee at his barbershop reported that Andrew had taken the razor home to get a nick in the blade repaired. He was arrested but maintained his innocence, stating he had been too drunk and in too deep a sleep.
He told reporters from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “It’s a terrible thing to be charged with the murder of your own brother when your heart is already broken by his death. When I’m about to go to war, too. I had been drinking heavily. I was too drunk even to have heard any noise next door.”
Police, however, could not disprove his alibi, nor could they prove eyewitness reports of a strange man lurking around 4901 Magnolia Street around the time of the murder. Despite fingerprinting existing in 1918, it was allegedly not standard procedure yet, and subsequently neither Andrew nor the axe were fingerprinted. Andrew was released, and the case went cold.
Over a month later, on June 27, the killer struck again. It was 7:00 that morning when John Zanca, a baker making deliveries, stopped at the grocery on the corner of Dorgenois and Laharpe Streets. He went to the door but found it to be locked. This was highly unusual, seeing as the grocer, a Polish-American named Louis Besumer, usually opened the store by that time. What he found when he entered the home in the back of the store, was likely just as shocking to him as the first scene had been to the Maggio brothers.
This time, the victims were still alive. The bottom panel of the door, once more, had been removed, which probably added to John’s concern. Inside, he discovered Louis Besumer and a woman, who would be presumed to be Besumer’s wife, lying in pools of blood. There was a small axe, which Besumer would later state belonged to him, left in the bathroom, soaked in blood.
When police arrived, they took note of the panel having been chiseled out of the door and the axe found in the bathroom. The female victim had been hit with the axe over her left ear. She was rushed to the hospital. Besumer had been struck over his left temple and would later tell police that he’d been attacked in his sleep.
Police had little explanation for the attacks, outside of robbery, which didn’t prove to be a solid motive, since no valuables or money were stolen. The police had one suspect, a 41-year-old African-American man named Lewis Oubicon, who they quickly arrested. Oubicon was employed at Besumer’s grocery, and the only evidence against him was that he offered conflicting accounts of his whereabouts that morning.
The female victim regained consciousness at the hospital, and it was discovered that she was not Besumer’s wife, but his mistress, Anna Harriet Lowe. She was interviewed by police and as she drifted in and out of consciousness, Lowe stated it was “a mulatto” that had attacked them, then added it had been Besumer himself. Law enforcement decided to discount anything she stated.
Lowe and Besumer were soon caught up in a media frenzy for their scandalous affair.
The police began to look into Besumer as a suspect. During a search of his house, they found letters written in Yiddish, German, and Russian, as well as opiates. Newspapers reported that “German spy papers” had been found in Besumer’s home. Police began to suspect that Besumer was either a part of a German spy ring or a spymaster for the Kaiser.
During this time, Anna Lowe made shocking, usually false, statements against Besumer’s character to newspaper reporters. After the news came out about the discoveries made during the search of Besumer’s home, a neighbor interviewed for the newspaper stated that Besumer and Lowe were “crazed drug addicts.”
To make matters worse for Besumer, his wife arrived from Cincinnati in the middle of the chaos. Besumer began to act strangely, asking police if he could investigate the case on his own.
Anna Lowe continued to make statements against Besumer’s character, eventually claiming he was a German spy.
Suspicions law enforcement had were backed up by these claims, and soon the federal government was called in and Louis Besumer arrested; though he was released shortly thereafter.
The left side of Anna Lowe’s face had been paralyzed from her injuries and on August 5th, a facial reconstructive surgery was performed on her. The surgery was botched. She died two days later due to complications. As she lay dying, she told law enforcement it was Louis Besumer that attacked her that night.
Besumer was charged with murder. He spent nine months in jail and at his trial, it was stated it would have taken a much stronger man to cause himself injuries such as the ones Besumer sustained. Besumer was acquitted after ten-minute jury deliberation.
On August 5, 1918, the same day Anna Lowe died, Anna Schneider was attacked. Reports vary as to who found her, but each report makes it clear she was unconscious when discovered. Some reports state her husband found her shortly after he arrived home from work around midnight; others state her screams alerted neighbors, who rushed over and broke down the door, knowing she was home alone.
Schneider was twenty-eight and pregnant and regardless of who found her, it was certainly a gruesome scene. Her head had been busted open with an axe and some of her teeth were knocked out. A few days after her attack, Schneider gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She recovered from her injuries.
Schneider would later state she woke up to see a dark figure standing over her and was attacked with the axe. Though an axe was missing from their shed, Schneider’s husband, Edward, reported nothing had been stolen except six or seven dollars from his wallet.
Police arrested James Gleason, an ex-convict, but only because he ran from them. He was released shortly after, due to a lack of evidence. He later stated he ran from the police because he had been arrested so many times; it was instinct.
After this attack, police began to publicly speculate the three attacks were connected; committed by the same person.
Five days later, on August 10, Pauline and Mary Bruno were woken by sounds of a struggle coming from their 80-year-old uncle’s room. Their uncle, Joseph Romano, was an Italian barber; it appeared the killer had returned to targeting Italians.
Once more, accounts vary on where the sisters encountered their uncle’s attacker. Some state they ran into the bedroom, where they found a man attacking their uncle, while some state the Axeman was standing at the foot of their bed. Regardless of where they encountered him, they got a good enough look at him to describe him as, “dark-skinned, heavyset, wearing a dark suit, and a slouch hat.” Pauline would later recount, “He was awfully light on his feet.”
Though injured, Joseph Romano was able to walk to the ambulance on his own; he would die two days later from the head trauma he sustained. Joseph’s room had been ransacked, unlike the other crime scenes, but nothing was stolen. A bloody axe was found in the backyard, and the bottom panel of the back door had been chiseled away.
This latest attack caused an extreme sense of chaos and panic among the residents of New Orleans. Reports of sightings of the Axeman flooded in, as well as people claiming to have found axes in their backyards, and some claiming to have found chisels outside their doors. Newspapers played off the publics fears, with one headline giving the mysterious killer a name. It asked the question, “Is an Axeman at large in New Orleans?”
Law enforcement were at a loss as to how to find the perpetrator. Fingerprints were not found at the crime scenes. Retired detective John Dantonio made the assumption the same man who committed these attacks was responsible for the attacks in 1911 and 1912. During an interview for a newspaper, he also stated the individual responsible was, “Someone with a Jekyll and Hyde personality; someone who was able to kill with no apparent motive, then return to his day-to-day life as if nothing had happened. We now know that this sociopathic personality is a common trait among serial killers. Students of crime have established that a criminal of the dual personality type may be a respectable, law-abiding citizen. Then suddenly the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.” He went on to state he was not convinced these were Black Hand attacks, since Black Hand attacks usually left no survivors.
New Orleans Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney believed the killer was a “murderous degenerate… who gloats over blood.”
The killings stopped for a few months, and law enforcement and civilians breathed a sigh of relief, hoping the threat was gone for good.
The killer returned. This time taking the life of a little girl as she lay in her mother’s arms.
It was March 10, 1919 in the immigrant town of Gretna, just across the river from uptown New Orleans. Sixty-nine-year-old Iorlando Jordano heard screams coming from his neighbors’ house at the corner of Jefferson and Second Streets.
When he rushed into the home, he found Rosie Cortimiglia clutching the lifeless body of her two-year-old daughter, Mary, and her husband, Charles, lying in a pool of blood. Mary had been killed by a single blow to the head with an axe as she was held in her mother’s arms. Rosie had also been attacked with the axe, as had Charles. The couple were rushed to the hospital where they were treated for their skull fractures. Both survived.
Upon inspection of the crime scene, police found the lower panel of the door had been chiseled away and the Cortimiglia’s axe, now soaked in blood, was found in the backyard. Once more, no fingerprints were found at the scene and nothing was stolen.
Rosie told investigators she awoke to see her husband struggling with a large man, who had an axe in his hand. Her husband fell to the floor, then the intruder turned his axe on Rosie and her little girl, attacking them as Rosie clutched her daughter close and pleaded for their lives.
The Gretna authorities didn’t believe this attack was connected to those in New Orleans. They set their sights on Iorlando Jordano and his 18-year-old son, Frank, as prime suspects.
The Jordanos and Cortimiglias were both grocers, and business competition, with the Cortimiglias having even taken the Jordanos to court over a business dispute shortly before the attack. There was no evidence against the Jordanos, and Iorlando was too frail to have committed the crime himself. This didn’t matter to the authorities; they sought evidence by questioning Rosie Cortimiglia repeatedly as to who did this. “It was Frank, wasn’t it?” they’d persist. Rosie’s doctor stated Rosie would always reply she didn’t know who attacked her family.
Once Rosie was released from the hospital, she was arrested and held as a material witness and only released once she signed an affidavit stating it was the Jordanos who attacked her. At trial, Iorlando Jordano was found to be too frail to have participated in the attack and given life in prison, and Frank was sentenced to death.
The false testimony Rosie had been pressured to give weighed heavily on her conscience, especially considering young Frank received a death sentence. Nine months later, Rosie went into the Times-Picayune newspaper office and retracted her statement. She stated Saint Joseph had come to her in a dream and told her she had to tell the truth. She signed another affidavit, indicating she had not seen her attacker and had been pressured to identify the Jordanos as the attacker.
However, it would prove difficult to get justice for the Jordanos. Rosie was threatened by the prosecution with perjury charges if she changed her story in any way.
Eventually, in December 1920, the Jordanos were released.
On March 13, 1919, the killer sent a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, making a deal with the citizens of New Orleans.
“Hell, March 13, 1919
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 demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it was better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night [March 19, 1919}, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little 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 just 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 your 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 it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, 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 fancy.
Citizens of New Orleans were desperate to obey the Axeman’s demands. The town seemed to be swept back into the panic they experienced after the murder of Joseph Romano. A piece of jazz sheet music, called, The Mysterious Axman’s (sic) Jazz (Don’t Scare Me Papa) was written by Joseph John Davilla and circulated for the occasion. The cover depicted a frightened-looking family frantically playing jazz. That following Tuesday at midnight, the dance halls of New Orleans were filled to capacity. Professional jazz bands were hired to play at parties across the town, and every home blared jazz music loud enough to be heard in the streets.
The Axeman did as promised; nobody was killed that night.
There had been no more attacks by the Axeman – at least none attributed to him – since the March letter had been sent.
This few months of peace were broken on August 10, 1919, with the attack on Steve Boca, a grocer. Boca was attacked as he slept. Waking up during the attack, he saw a dark figure looming over his bed. When he regained consciousness, he rushed out of his house and into the street, where he realized his head had been busted open. He ran to his neighbor, Frank Benusa’s, house, and collapsed in the doorway. The lower panel of his door had also been chiseled out. He survived.
Again, the peace was shattered on September 3, 1919, when 19-year-old Sarah Laumann was attacked. Neighbors discovered her when they went to check on her, knowing she was alone. When she did not answer the door, they grew concerned and broke it down, finding her in bed with visible injuries to her head. This time, the Axeman entered through an open window. A blood-covered axe was found outside the apartment. Laumann survived, though she never remembered the attack.
The last known attack by the Axeman occurred October 27, 1919, with the murder of Mike Pepitone. His wife heard a commotion coming from his bedroom in the early morning hours, and rushed to the room, almost bumping into a man fleeing. She could not describe any details of his appearance. When she entered the room, she found her husband lying in a pool of his own blood.
Blood spatter covered the walls, even gruesomely covering a painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall. Mrs. Pepitone stood over her husband as the police arrived and stated, “It looks like the Axeman was here and murdered Mike.”
Mike Pepitone was still clinging onto life, though he died of his injuries after being rushed to the hospital. Police described Mrs. Pepitone’s behavior as odd. A panel had been removed from the door and an axe was found on the ground behind the back porch.
Later, a story surfaced about Mrs. Pepitone that made her seem even stranger. Reportedly, Mrs. Pepitone shot a man named Joseph Momfre (spellings vary) in Los Angeles. Momfre died instantly, while Mrs. Pepitone calmly waited at the scene for police to arrive. She willingly gave herself up, telling police she recognized him as the man who killed her husband.
As the story goes, Mrs. Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano) was supposedly arrested and ended up receiving ten years in prison for his murder but disappeared after only three years. This man, Joseph Momfre, had been in and out of prison for most of his life and during lapses in the Axeman’s attacks, he was incarcerated (most notably between 1912 and 1918).
During the time of the killings, Momfre had apparently been free. And once he was killed, the murders stopped. However, the police were unable to find any evidence against Momfre.
It is unclear whether this story has any basis in reality or was simply fabricated, or at the least, enhanced upon. The crime writer who reported this never provided any evidence to back it up and another true crime writer, Michael Newton, searched public records in both New Orleans and Los Angeles for a man named Joseph Momfre, as well as all variations of it, and found nothing.
Additionally, he searched to see if a man by this name or any variation of it was killed or even assaulted in Los Angeles, but once more found nothing. There was no record that Mike Pepitone’s widow was ever arrested, tried, or convicted of any such crime.
Momfre (etc.) was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time, and supposedly there was a man named Joseph Momfre/Mumfre, who was a member of the Mafia, but records from the time aren’t extensive enough to confirm this definitively.
According to newspaper reports from the time, the prime suspect in the 1912 murder of Tony Schiambra was a doctor named Frank “Doc” Mumphrey, who used the alias Leon Joseph Monfre/Manfre. Perhaps, if the story about Mrs. Pepitone was indeed fabricated, the inventor of it took inspiration from this named suspect in one of the earliest murders linked to the Axeman.
There are many theories surrounding the Axeman. It has been speculated he only killed or attacked men when they got in the way of him killing or attacking women; perhaps he, like many serial killers, was a sadistic sexual killer.
There is also the popular explanation, from the time of the killings, that they were all vendettas or Black Hand killings, which has been rejected by experts on Italian crimes and criminal gangs.
Most who research the Axeman go along with the story that Joseph Momfre was the killer.
Another popular theory is that the Axeman was Jack the Ripper. However, these murders occurred thirty years after the Jack the Ripper slayings. The killer would have been getting older, and less physically able.
An interesting theory is that the killer was the self-proclaimed leader of a voodoo cult, Clementine Barnabet, or, at least, some of her followers, who we will be discussing in a later chapter. It’s not entirely impossible; Barnabet, too, committed her crimes with an axe and attacked families in their homes. Perhaps one of the strangest theories is that the Axeman murders were committed for the purpose of promoting jazz music.
Recently, on the website Reddit, a photo surfaced, supposedly found by the daughter of the photographer, which is allegedly of the Axeman of New Orleans. The photo shows a man, his facial features partially blurred from the motion of his body, walking into a house; the house of Mike Pepitone.
This French photographer, Édouard Martel, traveled across the United States, testing out his new invention, a camera with a timer attached to a shutter mechanism and automatic exposure settings. He would often set it up somewhat obscured to capture candid shots of unsuspecting passersby. According to the story, his invention was not a success and he died unknown for his work as well as poor.
There was an Édouard-Alfred Martel. He was a renowned cave explorer, not a photographer.
If the Martel from the story did die in obscurity, perhaps he was real, and simply does not appear in public records. Or, the photograph, as well as the story, may be another internet hoax.
The Axeman of New Orleans, like Jack the Ripper before him, become a thing of popular legend and myth. The question as to his identity may always remain unknown, but it appears that only adds to the intrigue.
Villisca Axe Murderers
That Sunday morning in June began just like any other in the sleepy, quaint town of Villisca, Iowa. However, before noon, eight bodies would be found, or, as the town marshal has been quoted as saying, “one killed in every bed.”
By the end of the day, a coroner’s inquest would be held. However, the killer would never be officially caught, though confessions carried on until the 1930s.
The family killed was beloved in their community. The town was torn apart not knowing who was responsible for the brutal slayings. To this day, the Villisca axe murders remain a mystery.
On Saturday, June 9th, 1912, the Moore family went to the end-of-the-year Sunday School program at their local Presbyterian church. The family was made up of father, Josiah, mother, Sarah, and their four young children — Herman, 11, Katharine, 10, Boyd, 7, and Paul, 5.
Sarah helped organize the services, called Children’s Day. Her children and their Sunday School classmates recited speeches. Katharine’s friends, Lena and Ina Stillinger, twelve and eight respectively, attended with them and had their parents’ permission to spend the night afterwards.
Josiah was a prominent businessman in their town of Villisca. He ran Moore Implement Company, a franchise of the John Deere Company. He had many competitors for business, but those in his community liked and respected him and Sarah. The attractive couple were described as friendly and helpful by their neighbors and were very active in their church community, further proved by Sarah helping to coordinate the Children’s Day services.
The service and the social gathering afterwards lasted until around 9:30 that evening, after which the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters walked the short distance to the Moore home. The group had milk and cookies as a treat to wrap up the evening before bed.
At 7:30 the next morning, an elderly neighbor of the Moore’s, Mary Peckham, grew concerned at how deserted and quiet the house appeared. Usually, the Moore family would have begun their chores by this time in the morning. Mary knocked on the front door. When no response came, tried opening it, but it was locked, so she called Josiah’s brother, Ross, who arrived at the house half an hour later to have a look around.
He tried to look in a bedroom window, but the blinds and curtains were drawn. Then, he knocked at the front door and shouted in hopes of waking someone, but no answer came. Concerned, he pulled out his key and unlocked the front door and went inside. As he looked around the downstairs, he saw two people in bed in the back bedroom, covered with a sheet, and blood on the sheet. He went no further in the house, instead rushing out and telling Mary to call the police.
Nothing could have prepared the small-town law enforcement for what they would see. In each bedroom, the bodies of the family and their young guests lay in beds, bludgeoned twenty to thirty times each in the head with Josiah’s own axe. Their heads were covered with the bedding after they had been killed, although Ina’s head was covered with a gray coat. All the curtains in the house had been drawn, except for two windows, which had no curtains.
A pan of bloodied water and a plate of uneaten food were found on the kitchen table. And the axe, bloodied but with an apparent attempt to wipe it off, was found in the room with the Stillinger sisters, with a two-pound slab of bacon beside it.
Two kerosene lamps were found — one at the foot of Josiah and Sarah’s bed, and one at the foot of the Stillinger sisters’ bed — with the chimneys off and the wicks turned back. The doors had all been locked and the upstairs ceiling showed gouge marks from the upswing of the axe. A part of a keychain was found in the downstairs bedroom.
Investigating the crime scene, doctors believed that Lena and Ina, in the downstairs bedroom, were killed last, which is probably why the axe was left there.
Inspecting Lena’s body, they noticed she was the only one with an apparent defensive wound, on her arm. They also questioned if she’d been sexually assaulted, but the only evidence was her nightgown pushed up to her waist, and no undergarments. Doctors assumed she had been awake when attacked, and moved around, but that doesn’t entirely rule out being molested post-mortem.
Doctors also formed an opinion as to the timeline of the murders. They believed Josiah and Sarah were attacked first, then the children in the upstairs bedrooms. After this, Josiah and Sarah were attacked again, and lastly Lena and Ina were attacked. Josiah sustained more blows than the others and his face was disfigured beyond recognition. He was also hit with the blade of the axe, while the others were bludgeoned with the blunt end. It seemed the killer had it out for Josiah. Doctors estimated the time of the deaths to be sometime after midnight.
The coroner who inspected the bodies, Dr. Linquist, called a coroner’s jury together late that afternoon, though they did not actually enter the house and view the bodies until several hours later. It was after 10:00 pm when Linquist gave the undertaker permission to remove the bodies, and 2:00 in the morning by the time all eight bodies had been transported. The fire station was used as a temporary morgue.
The coroner’s jury assembled together on June 11th. Fourteen witnesses testified, the first of which was Mary Peckham. Mary explained she had not seen the Moore family and Stillinger sisters arrive home on the night of their murder; she’d already been in bed, having retired at 8:00. She heard no noises during the night that would have roused her suspicion.
She told of how she hung her laundry between 5:00 and 6:00 the next morning and the Moore house was quiet and still by 7:00, which concerned her, because they would usually be doing their chores by then. She went over to the house and attempted to wake the Moore family, then let their chickens out for them. She checked on the rest of the livestock and found they were all still tied up. She then called Ross Moore’s house and spoke with his wife to find out if perhaps the Moore family had gone out of town.
After she spoke with Ross’ wife, Mary saw one of Josiah Moore’s employees, Ed Selley, tending to the livestock. Ross arrived shortly after the phone call with a key, and Mary stayed on the porch while Ross looked around inside the home. Ross came out before long and told her to call the police. Mary also testified that the doors had all been locked with a key when she’d arrived at the house, but no key was left in the door.
Ed Selley was next to testify. He stated that he opened Josiah’s store on the morning of June 10th and later received a phone call from Ross Moore asking him if he knew where Josiah was. Ed called Josiah’s parents’ house to ask if he’d visited his father, but Josiah’s mother explained he was not there. Ed next received a call from Mary Peckham, who asked him if Josiah was at the store, and told him the livestock needed tending. Ed then went to Josiah Moore’s house, fed the horses, and returned to the store, where shortly after, he received a call asking him to bring the town’s marshal back to the Moore house.
He returned with the marshal, and the group planned to go in together, though Peckham and Moore had already been inside, according to Ed. The group entered and as soon as Ed saw the blood on the bed, he went outside. When the marshal came out of the home, he declared they had all been killed: “killed in every bed,” then left to call the coroner. Ed returned to the store to call the John Deere company to report the news.
Ed additionally testified, upon being asked if Josiah had any enemies, that he had one brother-in-law that “don’t like [him]. Said he would get even with [him] some time.” That brother-in-law was Sam Moyer. Ed stated he had no more information about anyone who may want to kill the Moore family and was excused.
Next to testify was the first physician to inspect the home and the bodies, Dr. J. Clark Cooper. Dr. Cooper accompanied Horton to the house, where Horton retrieved the keys, and he, Cooper, along with another doctor (Dr. Hough), and the Presbyterian minister (Mr. Ewing) all entered the house. Cooper first entered the downstairs bedroom where Lena and Ina’s bodies were. “All we could see was a [sic] arm of some one [sic] sticking from under the edge of the cover with the blood on the pillows, and I went over and lifted the covers, and saw what I supposed was a body — some entire stranger, and a mere child at the back of the bed, I did not recognize them at all, neither did any of the people, the others then that were with me, and we merely saw that they were dead, and that there were only two in the bed and then we stepped out into the parlor.”
He then spoke of the condition of the bodies, which he admitted he personally did not touch. He stated that the bedding, stiff around the victims’ heads, was caked with blood and brain matter which had turned into a “perfect jelly.” He estimated the bodies had all been dead around 5-6 hours. He said he smelled no unusual odor in the house and the victims’ faces must have been covered after their deaths. “I saw no clothes sticking into any of the wounds, in my superfacial [sic] examinations, neither did I see any clothing that had any holes in it, I mean any of the sheets or pillows, nothing had a hole in it.”
Jesse Moore, Ross’ wife, testified next and told her story of Mary Peckham calling her. Later that day, a neighbor came to her and told her the news of the murders. She went to the house herself to retrieve family photographs for the press. She, like Ed, had no information of anyone who might cause harm to the family.
Next came the doctor who truly examined the bodies, Dr. F. S. Williams. He stated he was stopped on the street by Ed Selley, who told him a doctor was wanted at the Moore house. As he arrived, Dr. Cooper and someone he believed was Marshal Horton were stepping onto the front porch. Dr. Williams testified he smelled no odor of anesthetic in the house, nothing was noticeably out of place, and the faces of the victims were all still covered.
When asked to describe the positions of the bodies. He stated that Josiah and Sarah’s bed was facing the east, with their heads at the west end. Josiah lay on the left side, on his back, with a hand on his chest and Sarah lay beside him. He stated that their faces were beaten in. In the bedroom to the south, there were three beds. In the one on the east side of the room lay a little boy, the top of his head beaten in. A gauze undershirt was laid over his head, soaked in blood, and Dr. Williams raised it to see which child it was. In the southeast corner of the room was another bed with a little girl, her head bashed in. “[O]n the top of her bed was a little dress and it was all blood spattered, and I think it was partly curled up over her head and covers pulled up over her face…” In the southwest corner of the room was another small bed, this one with two little boys in it. Both their heads were also smashed, and “blood spattered on everything, and blood over the pillows.”
Williams entered the downstairs bedroom and found Lena and Ina. He described Lena by stating, “[S]he had evidently moved after having been struck, or had been moved, the blood was all scattered over the pillows, apparently she had been struck on the head, squirmed down in the bed, perhaps one-third of the way, and left hand was thrown back, was sticking up below the pillow, and her head was all beaten in…” The back of Ina’s head was beaten in, too. “I did not recognize either one of them little girls. Little girl in front of the bed [Lena], I thought looked familiar, but she was so mutilated that I wasn’t able to identify her at that time, and I think over the girl to the back of the bed [Ina] was a little boys grey coat, and it had been thrown over her head, and there was clothing, some clothing on the floor, some underwear, and [I] noticed some under the bed and also the dresses hanging up, laying or hanging up on the wall, or the foot of the bed, I forget which, there was no blood on it.” He did not see any evidence of rape in any of the bodies. He also testified he found no footprints at the crime scene.
Another witness, staying at his mother’s house near the Moore house, Edward Landers, testified he had gone to bed just before 9:00 on Sunday evening and, shortly before he fell asleep, he heard a strange noise. He described this noise as being like, “one boy hooting for another on the outside somewhere.” He stated the sound occurred at regular intervals, but he did not think much of it and fell asleep. Upon hearing of the murders the next morning, he questioned whether or not it may have been a girl moaning. He testified the noise occurred approximately around 11:00 that night. The only strangers he’d seen in the area were paper cleaners that stopped by his mother’s house around 10:15 on the Saturday evening.
Ross Moore testified as well, and he, too, could not name anyone who may wish to cause harm to the family. One of Josiah Moore’s brothers, Fenwick Moore, testified that he didn’t know much about Josiah’s business affairs and knew of no one who wanted him dead. Marshal Horton testified, as did another of Josiah’s brothers, Harry Moore, testified. He was questioned about Sam Moyer and the elder Van Gilder, but he knew nothing about Josiah’s business or personal affairs.
The Stillinger family testified they found nothing out of the ordinary about the Moore’s request for Lena and Ina to attend church service with the Moore family, or to spend the night. The family also stated they tried to call the family on three separate occasions Sunday morning, but nobody answered. That did not draw their suspicion.
Another of Josiah’s brothers, Charles, testified last. He could not positively identify the axe found at the crime scene as being Josiah’s but did state Josiah kept an axe in the coal shed. He also testified he thought it was habit for Josiah to lock the house before bed. He explained that when he visited the house in the morning in the past, the door was always locked, and he had to wait for someone to unlock it from the inside. Judging by this, it’s understandable why it is speculated the killer had to lie in wait within the house for the family to come home.
One notable thing about the Villisca case is that, though it remains unsolved, there has never been a shortage of suspects, even at the time of the murders and the years that followed. There have been numerous confessions and even more suspects ranging from suspicious hobos to prominent officials in the state to serial killers. Despite the mass amount of leads, none of the leads officially panned out.
On Sunday, June 10th, before the coroner’s jury had even gathered, Reverend George Kelley left Villisca, Iowa, by train. His leaving, coupled with his strange behavior after the crime, has caused countless people to believe he committed the crime. He was tried twice for the crime, though he was never convicted.
Reverend Kelly was a travelling minister who, the evening before the murders, was preaching at the Children’s Day exercises in Villisca, coordinated with the help of Sarah Moore. He was mentally disturbed, having been troubled as an adolescent and even more so as an adult, reportedly a peeping tom who asked women and girls to pose nude for him. He also wrote letters to police and the victims’ families asking about the murders.
He had been on investigators’ radar since he displayed such interest in the murders, but once he was admitted to a mental hospital in 1914, their interest in him peaked. In 1917, he was arrested, and he confessed, although it was after many hours of interrogation; amid rumors he was tortured into confessing. He later recanted his confession and ultimately tried twice for the murders. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, and the second ended in acquittal.
In the days after the murder, the citizens of Villisca began to suspect any stranger in their town, namely vagrants and transients. One vagrant suspected of the crime was Andy Sawyer, whose name appeared in many Grand Jury testimonies and who many people still look at with suspicion to this day. Sawyer’s employer was the one who initially reported him to the police, suspecting him of being the murderer. The employer was Thomas Dyer, a bridge foreman and pile driver for the Burlington Railroad, in Burlington, Iowa.
Dyer reported that Sawyer had originally approached his crew in Creston at around 6:00 in the morning on the day the bodies would be discovered, freshly shaven, though his boots were caked with mud and his pants wet up to his knees. Sawyer asked for a job, and Dyer, in need of another man, hired him on the spot. However, that evening, when the crew entered Fontenelle, Iowa, Sawyer bought a newspaper and went off to read it. The front page touted the grisly details of the mass murder in Villisca, and Sawyer was, as Dyers described, “much interested in it.”
Dyer’s crew quickly began to complain to him about how Sawyer slept with his clothes on, holding an axe, and was nervous to be alone as well as frequently talking about the murders in Villisca, asking whether or not the culprit had been apprehended. Dyers had grown suspicious of him and called the police. Before the police arrived, Dyers walked up behind Sawyer and observed him rubbing his head with both hands before suddenly jumping up and saying to himself, “I will cut your goddamn heads off!” While swinging his axe, then hitting the piles in front of him.
Dyer’s son, J.R., testified that, as the crew drove through Villisca, Sawyer told him he would show him where the killer made his escape. “He said the man that did the job jumped over a manure box which he pointed out about 1½ blocks away and then showed where he crossed the railroad track and there were footprints in the soggy ground north of the embankment. He then said for me to look on the other side of the car and he would show me an old tree where he said the murderer stepped into the creek.”
When J.R. looked, he saw the tree about four blocks away, south of the track. In a turn of events that makes Sawyer’s actions stranger, it was revealed during the investigation into his whereabouts that night he was in Osceola, Iowa. He had been arrested for vagrancy and the sheriff recalled putting him on a train to leave town around 11:00 pm. However, it is unclear whether or not he would have been able to make it to Villisca around the time the murders occurred, a full 71 miles from Osceola. It may well be possible he did commit the crime.
On June 15, 1912, a man named Joe Ricks was detained in Monmouth, Illinois, after stepping off a train with shoes covered in blood. A witness who had seen a strange man asking for directions to the Moore house before the murder was brought in to view Ricks as the same man. The witness was Fay Van Gilder, the 16-year-old niece of Joe and Sarah, who told Sarah about the strange man. Sarah was aware that a man matching the description had been hanging around their house. Upon seeing Ricks, Fay said he was not the same man she had seen.
A newspaper wrote, “Ricks has given a fairly good account of himself to the authorities. He said that the bloodstained shoes he was wearing when arrested he had obtained in a trade from a tramp.”
Detective James Wilkerson of the Burns Detective Agency would sleuth out his own culprits, and motives, for the murders. He believed a man named Frank Jones had hired William Mansfield to kill Josiah Moore and his family. Frank Jones was a reputable resident of Villisca, as well as an Iowa state senator. Josiah Moore had worked at Jones’ store for many years, but eventually left and began his own store. When he left, he took along a very profitable John Deere deal with him, and his store drew business away from Jones; which upset Jones. It was also rumored that Moore was carrying on an affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law, Dona. Both Jones and his son profusely denied any relation to the crime.
The man accused of actually committing the murders was also known as George Worley and Jack Turnbaugh. This man, Mansfield, Wilkerson alleged, was a cocaine addict and serial killer. Wilkerson believed Mansfield was responsible for axe murders committed in Paola, Kansas, four days before the Villisca murders, of Jennie Peterson and Jennie Miller in Aurora, Colorado, and even the murder of his own wife, infant child, father-in-law, and mother-in-law in 1914.
These murders, according to Wilkerson, were all committed in the same manner, which he believed proved the same man committed all of them. He also asserted that he could place Mansfield in all the areas on the dates of all the crimes. He stated that in every case, the victims were killed with an axe, every mirror in the house covered (though no evidence that truly occurred at the Villisca scene), and a lamp with the chimney off left at the foot of a bed.
Additionally, in each case, there was a basin in which the killer washed himself off after the murder, and no fingerprints were found at any of the scenes. Wilkerson professed that the lack of fingerprints was the strongest evidence that Mansfield was the killer; according to him, Mansfield had worn gloves because his fingerprints were on file at the federal military prison at Leavenworth.
Wilkerson, with his claims of what appeared to be strong evidence, convinced a Grand Jury to open an investigation into Mansfield in 1916. Mansfield was arrested. However, payroll records showed he was in Illinois at the time of the murders in Villisca. He was later released due to a lack of evidence and eventually filed a lawsuit against Wilkerson and was awarded $2,225. Wilkerson, meanwhile, was convinced that Jones had pressured investigators to release Mansfield and arrest Reverend Kelly instead.
A federal officer assigned to the Villisca case stated, in May 1913, he had solved it, as well as 22 others that had occurred in the Midwest around the same time period. He stated Henry Lee Moore was responsible for all the crimes, thus making him the second serial killer suspect.
Moore (no relation to the deceased) had been convicted of killing his mother and grandmother just months after the Villisca murders. The crime was committed in Missouri, and the weapon used was an axe, and the murder was committed with the same level of brutality as those in Villisca.
Henry Moore lived in Iowa in 1900, at age 26, working as a farm hand. He was rumored to have had a child with the farmer’s daughter. He was arrested on a forgery charge and sent to Kansas State Reformatory and eventually released on April 11, 1911. After his release, during the winter of 1911 and the summer of 1912, he lived with his mother and grandmother. His father had passed away sometime before 1910. He would later leave to take a job working for the railroad, which may have enabled him to travel and kill all over the Midwest.
During the Villisca investigation, other axe murders in the surrounding areas were brought to the attention of investigators. Just nine months before the crime, two families were bludgeoned to death with an axe in Colorado Springs. A month later, in October 1911, a family was axed in Illinois, and a week after, five members of a family were killed in Kansas. A week before the Villisca slaying, a man and his wife were killed in another Kansas town — Paola. Which was, ironically, where one murder William Mansfield was accused of, was committed. The murder Mansfield was accused of may have been committed by Moore, as it occurred four days before the Villisca murder.
The federal officer on the Villisca case, M.W. McClaughry, heard of Moore’s conviction from his father, the warden of the Leavenworth Kansas Federal Penitentiary. McClaughry was convinced Moore had committed all 22 murders, including the one in Villisca. However, his statement accusing Moore went largely overlooked and unheard.
Moore was never charged with any additional murders. He was paroled by the governor of Missouri on December 2, 1949, after serving 36 years of his life sentence.
On July 30, 1956, when Moore was 82, the governor commuted his sentence.
On March 19, 1917, a newspaper declared, “The Rev. J.J. Burris, of Terrillton, Okla., has arrived in Red Oak with a subpoena from the Montgomery county grand jury, which, for the past ten days has been investigating the Villisca murder mystery.” The minister stated that a man “whose name he was unable to recall” had confessed to him on his deathbed he had committed the murders in Villisca. The confession was made in a hotel in Montana in July 1913, just a little over a year after the murder. The reverend was quoted as saying, “When I arrived at the bedside I saw at a glance he was at death’s door. He was in torment and lived only a short time after I arrived. Death was said to have been due to delirium tremens [….]. He said he had been guilty of many wrongs and wanted to make a clean breast before he died. He seemed to know that he had but a short while to live. His life was passing rapidly, and it was with great difficulty that he spoke. He was physically unable to dwell much on details. The man sank back among the pillows. A great load seemed to have been lifted from his mind. In a few minutes he breathed his last.”
The man, according to Reverend Burris, had been in the blacksmith business in Villisca, and still had relatives in the town. The reverend said the man was about twenty-five years old when he died. The newspaper stated, “Mr. Burris said he did not remember ever having seen the man before he was called to the bedside. He said the man claimed to have known him when he lived in Iowa years ago. Asked if he had ever heard the story told by Mr. Burris, Albert Jones, who with his father, F.F. Jones, of Villisca, are being investigated in connection with the ax (sic) murder Saturday, declared that he had and that he did not attach much importance to it.” Detective Wilkerson, who was seeking indictments against several citizens of Villisca, said the story did not stand up.
A newspaper in Detroit in 1931, told of another confession: “George Meyers, 48, prisoner in county jail here awaiting sentence for burglary, has confessed to the axe murder of six persons (sic) — a man, his wife and their four children — in Villisca, Iowa, 18 years ago, it was learned here tonight. Meyers’ alleged confession came after five hours of grilling by detectives Max Richman and Earl Anderson who had received an anonymous tip by letter to check up on the prisoner. Fingerprints of Meyers, sent to the sheriff of Montgomery County, Iowa, are said to have checked with fingerprints found at the scene of the crime.”
Meyers, true name Leroy Robinson, stated in his confession that a businessman he didn’t know hired him for $5,000 to kill the Moore family, who he also did not know. The offer came through an underworld acquaintance he’d met in Kansas City. This acquaintance took him to Villisca, where they met the businessman who placed the hit. The confession stated, “I never knew what the man’s name was. He pointed out the house of this family he wanted wiped out. I demanded part of my money from him before I did the job. He gave me $2,000 and said he would give me the rest afterwards. I got an axe and entered the house about midnight. I killed them all, the man his wife and their four children. They were all asleep. A little while after, I again met this man who had hired me and told him the job was done. I wanted the rest of my money. He said I’d have to wait.” Once the businessman told Meyers he would not pay him until he was certain the family was dead, Meyers panicked, thinking police might catch him, and left town.
Meyers denied killing the Stillinger sisters. A newspaper published a report: “Leroy Robinson, alias George Meyers, who Saturday confessed the slaying of six persons in Iowa in 1912, and who yesterday was said to have headed a plot of 10 prisoners to break out of the county jail, was sentenced to from 14½ to 15 years in the Michigan state prison at Jackson today. Robinson’s confession that he killed six persons at Villisca, Indiana, does not tally with the record of the crime, officers said. Eight persons were killed, Robinson’s confession accounted for only six.”
It is still possible that Meyers committed the crime. Perhaps he felt especially guilty about killing two children that he was not supposed to, per the agreement to kill the Moore family. Considering some of the evidence, it may very well have been a young, inexperienced criminal who had never taken a hit job before and did not truly want to.
The covering up of the victims’ faces indicates that the killer may have actually known them, or, alternatively, that he felt remorse for his crimes. Who could this be? Reverend George Kelly had been preaching at the services; perhaps he was familiar enough with them to feel guilty for killing them, but there appears to be no motive for him to kill the family.
It is unlikely that Andy Sawyer would have had the motive to cover the victims’ faces, since they were total strangers to him. It’s also unlikely that Henry Moore, who did not know the victims and was likely a remorseless serial killer, would have covered their faces, as well.
Frank Jones may have hired someone to kill Josiah Moore, but it seems unlikely that it was William Mansfield, who appears not to have the motive to cover the victims. A likely suspect may be George Meyers; it seems that, according to his confession, he felt uneasy about the crime and felt even more uneasy afterwards. Perhaps he is the one who would have had the motive to cover his victims’ faces.
It is said the little house on the quiet street, once the site of a crime that shocked the Midwest, is haunted by the spirits of the children killed there. Tours of the house go on today, and children’s voices being heard as well as objects moving often cut the tours short. Paranormal investigators flock to the home, and even try to ask the spirits who killed them. One such paranormal investigator, perhaps psyched out by the investigation, critically stabbed himself in the home in 2014. It seems this land may not be able to get enough bloodshed.
Regardless of if the home is truly haunted by lost souls, the story of that fateful night in June has become, like many of these cases, the stuff of legend. A century has passed, and still no closer to discovering who committed the heinous mass murder. Like many time-worn cases, it seems everyone has a theory, but none of those theories fully pan out or stand up under scrutiny.
The town changed immensely that night; people suspected each other. At this point, it is unlikely we will ever conclusively know who killed the beloved family and their two young guests. Witnesses and suspects have since died, though the shadow over the town has not. The memory of the mass axe murder and its victims lives on to this very day.
Law enforcement had been interrogating the teenaged girl for weeks now, and she hadn’t spoken a word except to proclaim her innocence. Now, however, she surprised them by openly confessing to seventeen murders, sparing none of the gruesome, gory details about how she hacked to pieces both adults and young children alike with an axe.
This was entirely unexpected, though law enforcement had their suspicions even before her arrest, even before the dress covered in blood and brain matter was found in her closet. Clementine was seventeen with a petite and pretty face; a picture of her shows the sweet-looking face decorated with an impish smirk. She was biracial, though newspapers and police officers would usually state she was black, and it would be reported she was taller than every member of her all-male jury once she went on trial.
Despite her sweet face, Clementine Barnabet confessed to brutal serial murders inspired by hoodoo and her necrophiliac habits with corpses. Reporters would later theorize she was the leader of a murdering voodoo cult, along the lines of the Manson Family.
Then Clementine would vanish without a trace.
Upon interviewing Clementine, she would allege she had committed 35 murders. In actuality, the murders of roughly ten families and one attempted murder occurred, six of which are believed to be tied to the Human Five; which was thought to be linked to Clementine Barnabet.
Clementine confessed to the seventeen murders by her own hand, all of which she committed before she even turned eighteen.
Some assert the first murder in the chain of killings was that of Edna Opelousas and her three children, decapitated and dismembered in Rayne, Louisiana, in November 1909. The first murder Clementine confessed to seems to be the Opelousas family murder. Clementine would have been fourteen or fifteen at this time. If she truly did kill the Opelousas family, she began her murderous career at an early age.
She stated in her confession she had moved with her father to Lafayette in that very year. Yet, after her first murder, she went back to her sister’s house, then took a train to Lafayette. If her sister’s house was in Clementine’s birthplace of St. Martinville, that was 35 miles from Rayne, where the murders took place, which means she could have easily made the trip.
Just over a year later and just a little under eight miles away from the first crime scene, on February 11, 1911, Walter Byers, his wife, and son were slain in their home at 605 Western Avenue in West Crowley, Louisiana. The first police officer to arrive, Officer Ballew, found the family in their beds, the sheets saturated with blood.
All three had their skulls split wide open with an axe, which stood in the corner near the head of the bed beside a bucket full of blood. Bloody footprints covered the floor and the scene was a sickening one. Though crime wasn’t uncommon in this poor section of town, it was certainly not common to have any this shocking and gruesome. An entire family slain by an intruder or intruders who, quite apparently, entered through the window: “Brained them with an axe,” as the newspapers would later put it, then filled a bucket with their blood and left, not stealing a thing from the house. Apparently, the assailant came only to kill.
On February 24th, the killer struck again, this time slaughtering the Andrus family in nearby Lafayette. At 7:00 am, Nina Martin sat at her kitchen table when her son, Lezimie Felix, rushed in and told her that her sister and brother-in-law had been murdered. Nina went to her sister’s house and found the Andrus family dead.
The crime scene was ritualistic, the bodies posed in a ghastly manner. The husband and wife were propped up, knelt at the bedside, with the woman’s arms about her husband’s neck, as if they were praying. The two children, a baby and a toddler, were on the bed. Blood soaked the bed and brain matter was caked on the bedding. Once more, the family had been brutally murdered with an axe. Nothing was stolen from the home, and it seemed the killer entered through the kitchen door. Suspects and leads surfaced, but none of them panned out.
On March 22nd, when the Casaway family was murdered in Beaumont, a change appeared in the victims the killer targeted. In the previous two cases, the families had been black, however, Louis Casaway’s wife was white, and their children biracial. This caused law enforcement to suspect the unknown killer had targeted them because they were a mixed-race family.
Police zeroed in on known criminal Raymond Barnabet, a sharecropper living in Lafayette, also a petty criminal, as their suspect for the Byers and Andrus murders, and considered him as possibly having something to do with the Casaway murders. Raymond’s common-law wife had grown suspicious of him; after a confrontation with him, she told a friend she suspected he might have something to do with the murders. Lafayette Parish Sheriff Louis LaCoste, who had been investigating the murders, arrested Raymond, but lacked the evidence to hold him, and subsequently had to release him. After investigating further, Sheriff LaCoste re-arrested Raymond, placing him in the Lafayette Parish jail.
At Raymond’s trial in mid-October, his common-law wife, Nina Porter, his son Zepherin, and 17-year-old daughter Clementine, testified against him, which opened up a new avenue of leads for law enforcement. All three told different accounts of what had happened on the night of the Andrus family’s murder. Nina Porter testified that Raymond had left their house at around 7:00 pm that night, saying he had to go to nearby Broussard. He would jump a train heading that way. He, according to Nina, wore “a blue shirt or jumper.” He arrived home at 2:00 am and became angry that Nina had not saved him any dinner. He was also angry that he had lost his pipe, which he always smoked on the train. Though fuming, Barnabet simply went to sleep.
Clementine, however, offered a far more horrific account. In her testimony, Raymond had come home around sunrise, wearing the blue shirt Nina had described, though it was covered in blood and brain matter. Raymond walked around in the house, smoking his pipe, though in his wife’s testimony, he had lost his pipe. Clementine stated she later washed the blood out of his clothes. She testified that Raymond declared he had just killed an entire family, and threatened to do the same to Nina, Clementine, and Zepherin if they snitched to anyone.
Meanwhile, Zepherin told the court his father had come into the house that night wearing only an undershirt and trousers, which were covered with blood and brain matter. Raymond’s hands and face were also covered in blood. Zepherin said Raymond then proceeded to shout at him to bring him his pipe, after which he announced that he’d just “killed the whole damn Andrus family.” Zepherin ended his statement by begging the court to keep his father behind bars, due to his threatening and violent manner, which had gone on even before the murder.
The authorities viewed the Barnabet family, particularly Clementine and Zepherin, as having “very bad reputations” and being “filthy, shifty, degenerate examples of the lowest African type.” Authorities also believed both siblings knew more about the murders than they portrayed.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, filed motions for a new trial. There were three bases for the motions: the first being that Raymond had been drunk during the trial and was not fully capable of having testified in his own defense, the second being that the jury had failed to follow the judge’s instructions during deliberations, and the third being that the prosecution had failed to provide a motive for the murders. The court ruled, on the basis that the prosecution’s evidence was inconsistent, that Raymond be granted a new trial.
But, while Raymond was in jail, another brutal axe murder was committed. On November 27, 1911, the Randall family was murdered: Norbert Randall, his wife Azema, and four of their children, Albert Sise, 8, Renee, 6, Norbert Jr., 5, and Agnes, 2. The family were all in bed, in two beds in the same room, and were mutilated. All had been struck behind the ear with the reverse of the axe blade. Norbert had also been shot in the head. The axe stood at the head of the bed, washed clean of blood. The mangled bodies were discovered by the surviving Randall child, a ten-year-old girl, who had spent the night at her uncle’s house.
Law enforcement began to draw the conclusion that the murders had been committed by multiple people, working together at one scene. Sheriff LaCoste arrested Clementine Barnabet on the day after the Randall murders. A women’s suit coated with blood and brain matter had been found in her closet. Police also arrested Zepherin, thinking it impossible for young Clementine to have carried the children’s bodies by herself. Also arrested were two other men, Edwin Charles and Gregory Porter. Law enforcement began to work on connecting each suspect to each murder.
Clementine was interrogated about the bloody clothes found in her room, to which she merely laughed and stated she had nothing to do with the crime. Zepherin produced an alibi for the night of the murders, but until that was confirmed, he was kept in the local jail, along with Porter and Charles. Clementine was also in jail, held until more evidence was uncovered.
The bloody clothes found in Clementine’s closet were sent to New Orleans for chemical analysis. During this time, Clementine maintained her innocence, though she never attempted to explain away the bloody suit. Several people came forward on Clementine’s defense, stating she had been “running the streets” the night of the Randall murders, and couldn’t be responsible.
Meanwhile, police began to come up with a theory about what had happened on the night of the murders. Clementine had gone to the Randall residence, grabbing an axe on her way in. She killed Norbert Randall first, then his wife, then went to the children’s bedroom and murdered them one by one. According to the coroner, Norbert’s head wound occurred post-mortem, though police were unable to find the pistol used on him.
They still clung to the theory that Clementine would have been unable to commit this crime, nor the others, without accomplices to assist her. Clementine’s background continued to be investigated by law enforcement, which consequently revealed a motive for the crimes, as well as proving that a group of people were responsible for the murders. Zepherin and the other two men were released, due to authorities being unable to prove they had participated in the crimes.
During Sheriff LaCoste’s investigation into to Clementine Barnabet, he uncovered a cult which some of the victims belonged to called, the “Church of Sacrifice.” Taking inspiration from Reverend King Harris’s preaching, members were “intensely moved and impressed by the teaching of the testament sacrificial ideas and ceremonies that they [were] incited to commit heinous crimes.” (The Daily Picayune, January 12, 1912.)
Though Clementine was in jail, more families were slain.
On January 18, 1912, around noon in Crowley, Louisiana, Harriet Crane asked a neighbor if he had seen her daughter across the street, due to the fact that the house looked empty. Harriet’s daughter, Marie Warner, lived there with her three children, Pearl, 9, Garey, 7, and Harriet, 2. Her husband had recently moved to Beaumont, leaving her to care for the children on her own. The neighbor had not seen Marie, so he accompanied Harriet across the street and found the back door ajar. The two, now frightened, got a young man to go inside the house. There, he found the marred bodies of the family of four piled on a bed in the front room.
When police arrived, they found a bloody axe in the room, as well as two sets of footprints in the mud outside the backdoor.
Three days later, January 21st, at 10:00 am, in nearby Lake Charles, Louisiana, police found the bodies of Felix Broussard, his wife, and their three children, all of whom were under the age of eight. The children’s bodies, with their skulls crushed and disfigured by an axe, were all piled onto one bed. The axe was found underneath their parents’ bed.
The killer(s) entered the house through the kitchen window. A Bible verse, written on the front door (some sources say in blood, though others state it was in pencil) read, “When he maketh the inquisition for blood, he forgetteth not the cry of the humble.” Above the door was written, “Human Five.”
The killer or killers had placed a bucket under the children’s heads to catch the blood coming from their injuries. Each finger on each victim’s hand was held splayed apart, with wooden pins and rolled up pieces of paper. The connection between the five victims, the five fingers splayed apart, and the words “Human Five” were too strong to be overlooked by law enforcement.
Sheriff LaCoste decided to investigate this cult and subsequently Reverend Harris, who he arrested just after the Broussard murders, partially for the reverend’s protection and partially to question him about the Church of Sacrifice. Reverend Harris stated that the Church of Sacrifice was an unofficial sect of the Christ Sanctified Holy Church in Lake Charles, Louisiana, but, as far as he knew, the sect did not condone or advocate the senseless killing of innocent men, women, or children. He told authorities, they hoped for people to “follow in the footsteps of Christ, believing in the Holy Ghost and [in] fire and not immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.” Reverend Harris further stated that nothing in the teachings of his church excused the recent string of murders.
African Americans in the communities affected beseeched law enforcement to provide answers as to whether or not they identified the murderers, or, if not, how close they were. The killings continued despite two suspects being behind bars, and this greatly worried the community.
In Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a small farming community, the whole African-American community began sleeping with weapons and taking turns keeping watch at night. People began to grow suspicious of one another. On Sunday, February 11, 1912, 150 African-Americans from the areas in which the crimes occurred gathered at the Good Hope Baptist Church in Lafayette.
The African-American citizens of Lafayette assured them they would “render all assistance” to the law enforcement of their city to help bring the perpetrators to justice, and they would supply any information that may help law enforcement capture the murderers. They even promised to act as agents of law enforcement to put a stop to the brutality. They ended by acknowledging the white citizens of Lafayette for their “instruction and advice.”
On Tuesday, February 20, 1912, in Beaumont, Texas, another murder occurred, this time of Hatie Dove, 26, Ethel Dove, 16, Ernest Dove, 14, and Jamie Quirk, 13. An axe was found at the crime scene, having been stolen from a yard two blocks away. It had been wiped clean of blood, with the bloodied towel lying nearby. Law enforcement speculated that whoever committed this crime committed those in Louisiana. They believed that, with Clementine and Raymond Barnabet still in jail, the two (or even just Clementine) were dictating to followers who and where to murder next.
A letter arrived to Sheriff LaCoste, from New Orleans. He didn’t know whether or not it was reliable information, but one sentence in particular stuck in his, and other law enforcements, mind; “There is a leader who goes from town to town selecting victims.”
Two weeks after the Dove murders, Clementine finally began to talk. Though she had denied any involvement in the crimes and remained silent thus far, she now gave a full confession.
Clementine began by telling how she was born and raised near St. Martinville, Louisiana, and moved to Lafayette in 1909, at which time her life became one of “degradation.” She then told how, during a visit to the New Iberia area, she and her friends, two men and two women, encountered an old black woman who introduced them to hoodoo. It was then that Clementine bought “candja” bags from a supposed hoodoo conjurer. The old woman informed the group that these bags would protect them from being caught by police should they commit a crime. It was then that Clementine decided to test out these candja bags.
In the dark of night, Clementine dressed herself as a man and stole an axe to commit her first murder. She stated she saw the mother on the bed and decided she would enter the cabin and “there begin the work which we had planned.” She entered the house and struck the woman on the right temple, killing her instantly. It was then that one of the children woke up, from the noise of his mother being slain. “Before the child could raise his head from the pillow,” Clementine said, “I struck a blow somewhere near the left ear, then I struck the other two.”
This was likely the Opelousas murder. After she was finished, Clementine left the men’s clothing and changed into her own clothing and went back to her sister’s house. From there, she took a night train to Lafayette, arriving home around midnight. Once more, it makes one wonder why she went back to her sister’s house, which may have been 35 miles away from the crime scene, only to go on home to Lafayette.
Clementine added she only used a gun once; in the murder of Norbert Randall. She told the police about every murder she had committed, sparing not one gruesome detail. She also admitted to her necrophilic habit of fondling the bodies once she killed them, in which case, “the sex of the dead object of her caresses did not matter.”
She told police she killed the children because she did not want them to be “orphans in the world.” It was Zepherin, she alleged, who insisted she testify against her father. Though Clementine maintained that it was she, alone, who committed the murders in Lafayette, police believed that Clementine, Zepherin, and Raymond led others to kill.
The district attorney for the Lafayette Parish reasoned that the string of murders in Texas were copycat killings, unrelated to those in Louisiana. In his opinion, Clementine was, “a moral pervert” and he gave her “little credit for her attempts to involve [an]other and probably mythical person.”
Despite his beliefs, the investigation into those who were believed to be doing Clementine’s bidding continued. The public could not believe, upon reading Clementine’s confession in the paper, that this teenage girl possessed the ability and desire to kill so brutally.
Though law enforcement of the area began to lose their belief that Clementine actually led a murderous cult, charges were finally filed against her, though only for one of the murders.
The district attorney filed these charges against Clementine Barnabet on April 4, 1912, stating, “On the 27th day of November A.D. 1911, [Clementine Barnabet] did unlawfully, willingly, feloniously, and of her malice aforethought kill and murder the Randall family.”
Newspapers latched on to the cult theory immediately and reported the frightening details of Clementine’s confession and her statements of cult involvement. Clementine had reportedly eagerly told her story to any newspaper that would listen, and newspapers, in turn, went on to attribute 35 deaths to her and her supposed cult. The Valley Sentinel reported on April 5th that Clementine, “cleared the mystery that has surrounded the murderers of seventeen negroes in western Louisiana and has given clues which are suspected to fix the guilt for eighteen others in this state and Texas, which have been charged to the mysterious ‘axe man.’”
From her tale, it appears she led a mysterious negro cult, the members of which preformed the rites of ‘human sacrifice.’ She declared she killed seventeen of the victims with her own hands, according to police. Also said by the Valley Sentinel was that the cult held the belief that “by life sacrifice alone may a person gain immortality” and that Clementine “told her tale of wholesale slaughter with no apparent appreciation that the taking of human life was a crime.”
Two days before the Valley Sentinel had reported on the “Human Five” cult murders, as they would come to be known, the San Francisco Call reported, “[Clementine] gave the police the names of two women who, she said, participated in the sacrifices, but would not identify the two men who, she alleged (sic), assisted. Tonight the authorities of this part of the state are seeking corroborative evidence. The grand jury is in session but is not expected to return indictments until confirmation of the story is obtained.”
Police were able to verify both Clementine’s meeting with Reverend King Harris on the night of the Randall murders and her whereabouts at the time of the murders in Crowley and Rayne. Sheriff LaCoste arrested the alleged hoodoo conjurer who gave Clementine and her friends the candja bags, Joseph Thibodaux. When brought to Clementine’s cell, she identified him as the same man. As it happened, Thibodaux wasn’t a hoodoo conjurer; he was merely someone who dabbled in root-based medicine, and one newspaper assured its readers that Thibodaux was actually quite “peaceful” and “harmless” and was “noted for the practice of conjuring warts away.” Meanwhile, Sheriff Fontenot, from Crowley, Louisiana, stated that Clementine’s confession was too inconsistent to be reliable. He doubted Clementine was responsible for any murders.
During this time, in San Antonio, yet another axe murder was committed. On April 12, 1912, authorities found the bodies of William Barton, his wife, their two children, and his brother-in-law, Leon Avers, all gruesomely mutilated like the others. Once more, law enforcement suspected that the killer or killers who committed the murders were probably the same who had murdered the families in Louisiana.
On April 21, 1912, Zepherin Barnabet confessed that he and his father, Raymond, had killed the Andrus family, though Clementine, another black woman, and a man named Ute Thomas and his son Darman had acted as accessories to the murder. Thomas and his son were subsequently arrested, and Raymond was re-arrested.
Clementine would only be tried for the Randall murder until investigators were able to find more proof she was responsible for the other murders. So they could not devise lies together, the Barnabet family and their accomplices were separated and kept in different jails around the parish. Law enforcement continued to hope that, eventually, the killer or killers would be identified, the cases would be solved, and the murders would cease.
On August 20, 1912, another axe attack occurred in San Antonio, Texas, though this time, the victims were not killed. James Dashliel and his family were not only targeted in this instance but had been targeted by an unknown attacker three months earlier. The attacker returned this time, entering through an open window, and made their way to the bedroom of James and his wife.
The would-be-murderer attacked Mrs. Dashliel first, bringing his axe down onto what he thought was her head, but Mrs. Dashliel had her arm across the top of her head, which took the blow. Mrs. Dashliel screamed and began to kick at her assailant, who was attempting to deliver a second blow, but as she kicked, his axe landed on her right foot. Mr. Dashliel awoke during this commotion and shot at the attacker. Though he missed, the attacker still fled.
Again, the similarities between this attack and those in Louisiana caused authorities to draw the conclusion that a group of murderers were prowling the area, continuing the work they had done in Louisiana. Pistol sales increased as African-Americans in both states began to fear even more for their lives. Though the murders had not stopped, the community was slightly relieved that proceedings against Clementine Barnabet were beginning.
Around October 16, 1912, defense attorneys for Clementine filed motions to have her examined by psychiatrists, to determine whether or not she was sane. Her attorneys said, “they have reason to believe that said defendant is insane, and she should not be brought to trial herein until the question of her mental condition, and her consequent moral and legal accountability or non-accountability for her acts and her statements is inquired into by a commission of experts in the diagnosis of mental diseases.”
Three psychiatrists were summoned to examine Clementine and testified as to their findings on October 21, 1912, saying, “We found the subject to be morally depraved, unusually ignorant, and of a low-grade mentality, but not deficient in such a manner to constitute her imbecile or idiotic.” They determined that she did not have “acquired insanity.” Being judged sane, Clementine’s trial began that same day.
At the end of the trial, on October 25, 1912, the jury gave a verdict of guilty to Clementine Barnabet. She was sentenced to life in prison in the State Penitentiary at Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
At the time, people truly believed this murderess and possible cult leader would definitely receive the death sentence. Authorities hoped that, after the verdict, Clementine’s followers would cease their rampage.
However, on November 22, 1912, another similar axe murder occurred in a third state. Law enforcement in Philadelphia, Mississippi, discovered the bodies of William Walmsley, his wife, and their four-year-old child, murdered with an axe. This murder, too, was attributed to the “sacrifice sect” that had once been led by Clementine Barnabet.
As 1913 dawned, the murders ceased. Leads as to who the perpetrators were went cold, and the cases themselves appeared to go cold as well. It seemed as if, with Clementine behind bars and time going by, her influence over her supposed followers had waned. What happened to her purported accomplices, Ute and Darman Thomas, is unknown; it has been lost to history. Zepherin Barnabet was released from jail but arrested for a separate incident around November 5th. After this date, there is no record of him, or Raymond Barnabet, either.
Clementine was brought to Angola State Penitentiary October 29, 1912. She attempted an escape July 31, 1913, but captured the same day. In 1918, she was assigned as a cane cutter.
On August 28, 1923, Clementine Barnabet walked out the prison gates and vanished without a trace. She was never officially identified or captured.
In 1902, the Louisiana legislature passed an act that allowed for commutation or diminution of life sentences if the prisoner requesting it had abided by the rules of the prison system and deserved clemency. Clementine reportedly had become a model prisoner, with only the one incident of her escape attempt to tarnish her record.
A story appeared online ninety years later claiming to reveal what had happened to Clementine Barnabet. A woman, identified only as “voodoogal11,” told a story of visiting her great grandmother in 1985 to celebrate her 103rd birthday. During the woman’s visit, her great-grandmother told stories of a serial killer going on a murderous rampage in southeast Louisiana in 1911, and described Clementine Barnabet as, “a black woman so beautiful with alabaster skin and eyes so piercing she would look at you and turn you to stone.” She also told how Clementine’s gaze was so alluring and sensual that no man could resist her. She said Clementine would then whip her suitors to demonstrate her brutality.
Voodoogal11 asked her great-grandmother if the story was true, or if she’d just invented it. “She just sipped her iced tea and continued rocking in her chair,” said voodoogal11. Later that year, her great-grandmother died. Voodoogal11 had never seen a picture of her great-grandmother when she was young, so, while in town for the funeral, she asked her grandmother to show her a picture of the woman when she was young. She started trembling. Her great-grandmother was Clementine Barnabet.
It will forever remain unknown what happened to Clementine Barnabet, and so will the motive behind her crimes. It is still unclear if she led a bloodthirsty cult, or if her four friends who had also been gifted candja bags decided to continue her grisly work for her.
Perhaps, the murders were really committed by Zepherin and Raymond Barnabet, and Clementine merely covered for them. However, this would not explain how the murders continued while the family were all imprisoned in 1912, unless the murders in Texas were copycat crimes.
It has been proposed that the Axeman of New Orleans killings were connected to the copycat killings, which occurred after Clementine was arrested. Since Clementine was imprisoned in 1918 and 1919, it seems unlikely she committed the crimes.
Although, there is one facet of the Axeman case that is reminiscent of Clementine’s murders; the men’s clothes abandoned at the Maggio home.
The six-year period between Clementine’s confession and the Axeman murders would have been plenty of time to begin spreading her cult beliefs through prison and to the outside world, until her preaching eventually reached the Voodoo capital of the United States: New Orleans.
What caused Clementine to snap and begin her murderous rampage? Was it truly the temptation of the candja bags? If so, why did she kill to test them out instead of merely thieving? Without a doubt, she was poor; stealing would have brought instantaneous reward to her. Some have speculated that, due to her societal placement as impoverished and due to her race in the definitely racially-biased deep south, Clementine felt powerless and hopeless. A sense of injustice dominated her existence, in psychologists’ mindsets, and she felt outraged. Instead of retaliating against her oppressors, she retaliated by murdering her peers.
It is possible, also, that her father truly was violent and abusive to her and her family, and perhaps that only added to her feeling desolate, unwanted, wronged, and helpless. She likely had a lot of resentment and anger building up inside, and she must have needed to release it, although she chose an appalling way to do so. When she received those candja bags, she may have thought that it was finally her chance to get revenge on a society that had wronged her and made her feel unwanted. She did not have a happy family, so why not kill other families?
Clementine certainly got her revenge. She not only terrorized a community herself, but someone or some people inspired by her, whether directly or indirectly, terrorized two entire states, and seemed to start attempting to terrorize a third.
Clementine left her mark on the world, a horrible dark mark, which has not been forgotten, even now, over one hundred years later.
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