- The Villisca Axe Murder House still sits at the end of the street, open to tourists who are passing through Iowa.
- Hans Schmidt remains the only Roman Catholic priest to receive the death penalty in the United States.
- In total, the Axeman of New Orleans attacked twelve people, seven of whom died.
It is remarkable what kind of technology law enforcement has at their disposal these days—and it is only getting more impressive! But over a hundred years ago, back during the 1910s, murderers prowled the streets before the Federal Bureau of Investigation even had its own forensics crime laboratory.
This article is the first of a new series produced by World Atlas chronicling true crime stories throughout the century. Read about history’s most notorious serial killers and discover lesser-known ones whose deeds are equally as shocking.
Below are three accounts from the 1910s. It was an extremely violent decade, one with crazed axemen and killer priests. But be warned: some of these stories are gruesome.
Villisca Axe Murders (1912)
The Moore family would not live to see another day after they went to bed on the night of June 9, 1912. Joe and Sarah Moore were asleep upstairs with their four children, while the Stillinger sisters—friends of the eldest daughter over for a sleepover—were dozing in the downstairs guest room. Shortly after midnight, a stranger entered the unlocked house and went from room to room, an oil lamp in one hand and an ax in the other.
The following morning, due to the uncommon quiet coming from the little house, Joe’s brother went to investigate and discovered a bloody massacre. Police were immediately called. The faces of all eight victims had been bashed beyond recognition; Joe alone had been hit with the ax at least thirty times. A bowl of bloody water was found, undoubtedly where the perpetrator washed their hands before leaving.
The police had very few leads. Even the bloodhounds could not pick up any trail. To make matters worse, once the police left, the townspeople entered the house and messed up the crime scene. Rumor has it; one man even took a fragment of Joe’s skull as a sick souvenir.
There were only ever two suspects: Frank Jones and Reverend Lyn George Jacklin Kelly. Jones was a local businessman who was in direct competition with Joe Moore’s farming equipment business, but there was no concrete evidence to convict him. Kelly, on the other hand, was left-handed just like the killer and had dropped off bloody clothing at the dry cleaners just a few days after the murders. The reverend even confessed, but later recanted claiming police brutality. The jury refused to indict him.
The police investigated the murders for years. Similar killings popped up across the United States, but there was never any proof to make actual connections. The case remains unsolved to this day.
The house was boarded up and left unsold. It still sits at the end of the street, open to tourists who are passing through Villisca, Iowa. A small sign outside marks it as the mysterious Villisca Axe Murder House.
Hans Schmidt (1913)
Hans Schmidt was born in the German town of Aschaffenburg in 1881. Even as a child, he had an affinity for bloodshed, a thirst he quenched by watching animals die at the local slaughterhouse.
He became ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1904 and immigrated to the United States four years later. He was initially assigned to a parish in Louisville, Kentucky, but transferred to St. Boniface Church in midtown Manhattan after arguing with the minister. It was in New York where he met Anna Aumüller, an emigrant from Austria who was working as a housekeeper at the rectory. The two became romantically involved, prompting Schmidt to transfer to a church in West Harlem as a means of keeping the affair quiet. They eventually married in a secret ceremony, which Schmidt performed himself.
The German priest would eventually confide in his wife that God was demanding he sacrifice her. Shortly after, Anna revealed to him that she was pregnant. Afraid that their secret might be exposed, he slashed her throat with a butcher knife, dismembered her body, and dumped the remains in the Hudson River.
Three days later, the police got involved when two kids discovered the upper torso of a woman on the New Jersey side of the Hudson. Schmidt was quickly arrested. The murder made a considerable splash, adorning the front page of almost every newspaper in New York.
But the bloodshed did not stop there. The body of a missing nine-year-old girl was found in the basement of the Louisville parish Schmidt first worked for when he immigrated to the United States. German police also wanted to talk to him about a murdered girl in his old hometown. Although he was never charged for these murders, they certainly did not help his case. It was later proven, however, that Schmidt had a second apartment where he printed counterfeit $10 bills.
His insanity plea resulted in a hung jury, but he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison on February 18, 1916. Schmidt remains the only Roman Catholic priest to receive the death penalty in the United States.
The Axeman of New Orleans (1918 – 1919)
For over a year, the people of New Orleans lived among a notorious serial killer. This mysterious murderer would go down in history as the Axeman of New Orleans.
True to his moniker, he bludgeoned his victims with an ax, but often, he would use other weapons like razor blades. In almost every case, the killer carved a small hole in his victims’ front doors with a chisel to gain entrance to their homes.
His first recognized murder occurred on May 22, 1918, when he killed Joseph and Catherine Maggio. Joseph’s brothers eventually discovered their corpses. Catherine’s head was almost completely detached from her body. Andrew Maggio, one of the brothers, was arrested, but subsequently released due to a lack of evidence.
Most of the axeman’s victims were women, but he did not hesitate to murder their husbands if they got in the way. It quickly became apparent, however, that he was targeting Italian Americans. At the time, New Orleans was a boiling pot of xenophobia and racial tension. Living in crowded slums that lacked proper law enforcement, Italian Americans faced constant discrimination and violence. Many people suspected that the attacks were mafia-related, but this was determined unlikely.
The situation grew more severe in March 1919 when the local newspaper printed a letter that had been mysteriously dropped off the previous day. The letter was addressed from Hell. In it, the killer declared himself a fan of jazz and claimed that any household that was not playing music on the upcoming Tuesday night would fall prey to his ax. On March 19, the city was alive with the sound of jazz. There were no attacks that evening.
The axeman’s last reported murder occurred in October 1919. After that, the killings simply stopped. In total, twelve people were attacked, seven of whom died. To this day, no one knows the murderer’s true identity.