The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans
It’s summer, which means it’s time for another gloriously grisly entry in Rick Geary’s Treasury of XXth Century Murder series. The previous books covered The Lindbergh Child and director William Desmond Taylor in Famous Players. This time out, we don’t meet celebrities of the twentieth century; instead, the famous victim is one of its best-known cities: New Orleans.
The first chapter of The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans functions as travelogue and brochure of historical high points, taking us through the establishment of the city up to the story’s time period of 1918. After reading about the various cultures that created New Orleans’ unique blend, I wanted to visit. But due to the palpable atmosphere Geary creates, even with its air of menace, I wanted to visit during the 20th century jazz era, which unfortunately isn’t possible.
Then come the murders, as various immigrant grocers are dispatched after their assailant removes a door panel to gain entry. Valuables are untouched, and the bloody axe left behind. Geary, in his way usual of the series, lays out the unsolved cases with detail and flair. These books are immensely frustrating, in that way, because Geary does his research and clearly knows the facts. Yet the mysteries remain unanswered. Although in this volume, he comes closer than most to suggesting a possible answer, even though the potential solution raises even more questions.
The third chapter, illustrating the atmosphere of fear that gradually builds as uncertainty drives citizens to arm themselves and hide indoors, is familiar to anyone who’s felt paralyzed in the face of threat. The just-the-facts illustrations, with historical detail and authenticity underlying them, make the events even more horrific.
I admit, I didn’t find this case quite as interesting as some of his previous, because of the nature of the crimes. The Axe-Man case involved a serial killer (presumably), so we see a parade of victims without getting to know them as people instead of statistics. (I found myself wondering if Geary had selected this subject so that he could plan a trip to the city.) I prefer the books where we have more space to get an idea of the few key personalities.
I also found myself speculating about someone who would choose to use an axe to kill someone. It’s heavy, not particularly effective (several of the attempted victims survived, and the dead took multiple blows), un-concealable, and brutal. In this case, the assailant apparently used the victim’s own property as his weapon, which indicated either a lot of knowledge about those he was attacking, or particularly fortuitous circumstances. It’s those kind of left-behind ideas, this thread that left me pondering, that Geary is skilled at teasing out without telling you what to think.