Most of New Orleans stands on the east bank of the Mississippi River. Today, the opposite side – a collection of suburbs – is known as the West Bank. However, for a long time it had the reputation as a lawless area, sheltering a collection of fisherman and farmers as well as outlaws looking to escape justice. For a good part of the 20th Century, the Italian Mafia controlled the area. It has also been home to political strongmen who controlled money and power through systems of patronage and property. The last great West Bank strongman was Sheriff Harry Lee. Before him there was Judge Leander Perez, and before both of them, there was Louis H. Marrero, a Confederate veteran who’s career ended when he confronted a grisly crime.
Marrero was born in Mississippi, but his family roots were in Louisiana, where they had settled in 1778 after leaving the Canary Islands. His father, Bastian, was a successful businessman turned cotton planter. Marrero studied at Centenary College of Louisiana at Jackson. In 1862, he joined Company C of the 25th Louisiana, which was raised in Concordia Parish. Only fifteen when he enlisted, Marrero missed Shiloh because the regiment waited on a shipment of muskets, but he did fight at Farmington, Perryville, Murfreesboro (where Marrero was wounded), and Chickamauga. Marrero was captured at Chattanooga and was not released until March 1865, arriving in Richmond and then walking back to Louisiana.
Though his father shunned politics, Marrero decided on a public life. In Jefferson Parish, he received an appointment as a member of the police jury and soon afterward became president of the board. He supported John McEnery for governor instead of Francis T. Nicholls, who was reform minded and removed Marrero. Eventually, he reconciled with Nicholls. Again made president of the jury, he served as a member of the board of commissioners of the Lafourche Basin Levee district, postmaster of Amesville, and a state senator. In 1896, he became sheriff of Jefferson Parish, and held the office for over twenty years. At the same time, Marrero worked as president of the Jefferson Commercial & Savings Bank of Gretna and president of the Marrero Land & Improvement Association. By 1910, he was easily the most powerful man on the West Bank; his Son, Louis Jr., continued the legacy, serving as district attorney before his death in 1916.
An active role in veteran affairs came with the political scene, and Marrero did his part. Although no former Confederate ever became president and only a few served in the cabinet, they controlled much of the South’s state and local political leadership until the early 20th century. Marrero, because of his age, became the last of a dying breed of Southern politicians who drew strength from a war record. He rarely missed a veterans march or meeting.
After the Civil War, New Orleans became the main port of Italian immigration until the race riot of 1891. Even after, Italians still streamed into the city, and racial grudges persisted. As recently as the 1990s, Italian-Americans were kept out of some of New Orleans’ most exclusive social clubs. Many Italians moved to the West Bank to avoid persecution, becoming farmers and grocers. The emerging Mafia followed suit, and Marrero fought back. Joseph Mumfre – one of the Italian criminals who came over – tried to intimidate voters on behalf of the euphemistically named Good Government League. Marrero had him arrested and charged with carrying obscene pictures.
Marrero’s ultimate test came in the midst of New Orleans’ panic over the Axeman. This killer broke into a person’s home, found an axe or hatchet, and murder the inhabitants. Since the Axeman was never caught his identity is still debated. New Orleans Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney suspected that the Axeman was a “murderous degenerate … who gloats over blood.” Some believed he was merely part of a Mafia revenge killing spree. Since most of his victims were Italian grocers, it could have been racially motivated. Some more fanciful theories placed him as a Jazz musician. Even the identities of the victims were debated. It is likely that Louis Besumer murdered his wife and made it look like an Axeman attack.
At Second and Jefferson Streets in Gretna, the second oldest town on the West Bank, Charles and Rosie Cortimiglia owned a store and took care of their two-year-old daughter, Mary. On March 9, 1919, the family was attacked. The Axeman spared no one, killing Mary and wounding Rosie and Charles, who were rushed to Charity Hospital across the Mississippi River.
Unlike Mooney, Marrero did not think it was a case of serial murder, but an Italian vendetta killing. Marrero suspected the culprits were Iorlando and Frank Jordano. Iorlando was elderly, and Frank was seventeen. The two families were once business partners but were now rivals. Charles did not suspect either of them; in fact, when asked if he was a Frenchman he said yes. Instead, a delirious Rosie accused both men. Marrero certainly pressured Rosie, at one point even arresting her.
New Orleans detective John Dantonio, a nationally known expert on the Mafia, rejected Marrero’s idea. Mooney agreed with Dantonio, and said the Axeman was a “fiend” and “a Jekyll and Hyde personality, like Jack the Ripper” who when “the impulse to kill comes upon him and he must obey it.” To be fair to Marrero, the idea of the serial killer was novel. Not so novel was Sicilian immigrants and their vendetta culture. Whether Marrero did it due to racism, desperation, or just simple miscalculation is unknown, but his culprits were innocent, implicated only by Rosie’s compromised testimony.
Marrero’s district attorney, L. Robert Rivarde, was a member of Marrero’s political machine and tried the case. The fierce court battle ended with both Iorlando and Frank Jordano found guilty, Frank sentenced to death, and Iorlando to life in prison. Marrero showed the men some mercy when they were allowed to attend a family marriage. Soon after, Rosie ran to New Orleans and told the newspapers she had been pressured by Marrero. Both men were cleared.
The Axeman fiasco ruined Marrero. He was swept out of office in 1920 and his machine collapsed. With his son dead, no one could carry on his political legacy. Rosie, who feared for her life, did not return until Marrero was out of office. Charles though never forgave her, and they divorced.
Marrero died on Saturday, February 26, 1921, of heart failure at his home on Barataria Boulevard. He was buried in Metairie Cemetery in the family tomb, and surprisingly not in the Army of Tennessee Tumulus, which housed many of his comrades from his Confederate days. After his death, the West Bank became the center of the Louisiana Mafia, culminating in the long and powerful reign of Carlos Marcello.
As for the Axeman, Marrero’s failure is one reason he escaped. Indeed, recent evidence suggests he left New Orleans and killed people in western Louisiana, as similar murder cases popped up after Axeman attacks in New Orleans ended in the summer of 1919. After 1921, the Axeman then disappeared from history. Coincidentally, Joseph Mumfre was among the suspected killers, but recent evidence has discounted that possibility.
The Axeman helped bring down Marrero’s empire. Yet, Marrero retains some honors, including a street, park, and town named after him in Jefferson Parish. The Marrero Road was built along his old once vast holdings on the West Bank. More importantly, Marrero’s path to power has been replicated many times in Louisiana since his fall.