In June, writer-artist Rick Geary returns to the scene of the crime for the thirdvolume in his "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series with "The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans," an original graphic novel from NBM Publishing. The current series of "Treasury" books, which debuted with "The Lindbergh Child" and continued last year with "Famous Players," follows on from Geary's previous "Treasury of Victorian Murder" books. Geary has also published comic biographies of significant historical figures, including J. Edgar Hoover and, recently, Leon Trotsky. CBR News spoke with Geary about "The Terrible Axe-Man" and the criminal culture of New Orleans of the time.
"The Axe-Man murders terrified the city of New Orleans during the years 1918 and 1919. Six people were killed, and six more injured, in their homes, in the dead of night, by an axe-wielding intruder who got away without a trace," Geary told CBR. "To add to the puzzle, the victims were mostly Italian grocers and their families. This fact let many to believe that the killings were some sort of Mafia vendetta, but no evidence for this was found. After more than a year, the killings stopped as suddenly as they started."
Despite the seemingly high-profile crimes and the intriguing circumstances surrounding them, the Axe-Man murders have not received as much popular attention as many of the true-crime stories Geary has illustrated. In an interview last year with Robot 6's Chris Mautner, Geary mentioned that no comprehensive book has been written on this crime. "The only reason I can figure for the story's neglect is simply that there is very little information out there. Even the newspapers, those that survive, did not cover the murders in any continuing detail. I patched my narrative together from shorter accounts published in various anthologies of New Orleans history and crime, along with articles from local newspaper archives. But any overview remained elusive. As many writers observed, the case has largely passed into the realm of folklore."
As to what led him, then, to examine the Axe-Man crimes in his latest "Treasury" book, Geary said, "I'm always drawn to unsolved mysteries, and this one seemed to have a perfect combination of elements: the gruesomeness of the killings, the strange choice of victims, the mysteriousness as to motive and the utter lack of evidence pointing to any person or persons."
Much like his other books, Geary spends the first several pages of "The Terrible Axe-Man" establishing setting, in this case New Orleans, from its founding until 1918, when the story takes place. "I think the cultural background and location of any crime or series of crimes is important to understanding them, and with New Orleans, I tried to give a little of its history as a unique American city, with special attention to its position as a music capital," the artist said. "Jazz figures into the story at various points, with the killer famously announcing that he will spare any home that has music playing on a certain night."
Part of this scene-setting involves a brief look at other notable criminals of the period, including men who jumped out of trees to scare women and another who clipped schoolgirls' hair on crowded streetcars. "In my research, I came across descriptions of the various eccentric street criminals that operated in New Orleans concurrently with the Axe-Man," Geary said. "These people were prankish and mostly harmless, but they give a colorful background to the city's state of mind."
Immersed in a different sort of history for the Trotsky bio comic, CBR asked Geary whether there's a different sort of process or research involved between the two non-fiction genres. "The biographies I've done of Trotsky and J. Edgar Hoover differ little, as far as research is concerned, from my true crime stories. I do as much reading on the subject as possible, and then try to shape it all into a kind of narrative," the artist said. "I always try to pay special attention to those controversies and questions and mysteries surrounding the subject, and give an objective rundown of the different theories and opinions in circulation."
For his next "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" case, Geary is tackling Sacco & Vanzetti. "They were the two Italian anarchists who were put on trial in Massachusetts for a murder and robbery committed in 1920," Geary explained. "Though they were convicted and put to death, controversy over their guilt, and whether they received a fair trial, remains lively to this day."