10 Grisliest Ax Murderers
Unhinged fury and ax murder go together like greasy, grimy gopher guts and mutilated monkey meat. The threat of being on the wrong end of an ax has seeped into the very floorboards of our language (“getting the ax” comes to mind).
Axes make for great verbal imagery because of their very nature: a powerful, imprecise tool, whose efficacy relies heavily on the strength and determination of the person wielding the handle. Put it in the hands of an adrenaline-fueled maniac and you’ve got a terrifying weapon for murderous mayhem. So this list goes out to those nut jobs who saw a tool used to split logs and thought, “Why not skulls, too?”
If you’re going to be the first woman executed by the state of North Carolina, you might as well get your money’s worth. Frances Stewart Silver hacked apart and scattered her husband so thoroughly that he wasn’t found all at once. His remains were eventually buried in three separate graves. In addition to an ax murderer, Frankie was something of a twisted fire-starter as well. She became the prime suspect in her husband’s disappearance when a snooping neighbor poked around the couple’s fireplace and found ashes oozing with fleshy oils. It didn’t help that a pool of blood “as big as a hog liver” was discovered under the floorboards of their home. The eventual discovery of what remained of Charles’s head and torso sealed the deal.
The motive is unclear, with theories ranging from jealousy to self-defense of herself and their infant daughter. Either way, 1830s society didn’t take kindly to wives dismembering their husbands. Controversy swirled around the trial, and Frankie was nearly acquitted. Despite public support shifting toward pardoning her, Frankie needed a jailbreak by her father as a last gasp at dodging the hangman’s noose. It was not to be. Following her recapture, the petite Frankie was hung from the neck until dead.
Wealthy, reclusive Arizona rancher and chicken farmer Andrew J. Mathis fired the wrong housekeeper. When former Alaskan Gold Rush cabaret singer Eva Dugan got the ax from her employer, she took an ax into her own hands, murdering Mathis. She stole everything she could carry, loaded up Mathis’s automobile (kind of a big deal in the 1920s), and hightailed it to New York with a young companion named Jack. Originally arrested for theft of Mathis’s sweet ride, Dugan was charged with and convicted of murder when a camper impaled Mathis’s buried skull with a tent peg.
Despite only circumstantial evidence linking her to the murder, Dugan’s insanity defense failed, and she was convicted and sentenced to hang. The prosecution didn’t even bring up that four of her five husbands had died suspiciously. She responded to her conviction in a manner you might expect from a roughneck frontierswoman, telling the jury: “I’ll die with my boots on, and in good health. And that’s more than most of you old coots’ll be able to boast on.” She was wisecracking right up until the end and even befriended the jailhouse guards. But her execution proved more grisly than the crime itself, as the snap of the rope severed her head from her body. Five witnesses fainted. Because of the gore, Arizona soon changed their preferred method of capital punishment from hanging to the gas chamber.
In the 1930s, you would have thought that marijuana was a demon weed intent on eating your children. The government did all it could to link marijuana use to vicious true crimes. Real-life ax murderer Victor Licata just so happened to be down with Mary Jane before it was cool. In 1933, Victor hacked apart his mom, dad, two brothers, a sister, and the family dog near Tampa, Florida. After police discovered multiple corpses and a bloody ax, they found Victor cowering in the family’s bathroom. His skin was drenched in blood underneath his crisp, clean clothes.
Victor denied killing his family. Instead, he claimed that they had attacked him with knives and sawed off his arms, replacing them with mechanical ones. He said that, as revenge, he knocked each family member unconscious with a “funny ax” he found on the porch. What made this ax so funny? It was rubbery and bendable, like something out of a cartoon. Given how convinced he was about this insane explanation, police believed that he must have had a nightmare and awoke in a delirious state, which earned him the over-the-top nickname “The Dream Slayer.” Of course, law enforcement keyed in on his admission to drinking moonshine and smoking marijuana with friends on the evening in question.
Medical professionals deemed him unfit to stand trial due to a form of psychosis that is now understood to be schizophrenia, something that ran in Victor’s family. He was given a life sentence at a mental institution. Twelve years later, he managed to briefly escape and completely freak out a cousin. But in 1950, Victor hanged himself while residing in the Florida State Hospital for the Insane. He was buried alongside his family.
7The Murderer Of Helen Jewett
Prostitution has always been a dangerous line of work, but 19th-century New York at least provided the relative security of classy brothels. That didn’t help out 23-year-old Helen Jewett—a young, successful, and sophisticated prostitute whose room, one night, was discovered full of smoke. When the madam of the brothel entered the room, Helen’s body was found with three hatchet gashes dug into her face. Her bed was smoldering. The madam then shouted “fire” in a crowded brothel, and pandemonium ensued.
When the chaos you’d expect from roomfuls of professional fornication being disrupted by cries of “fire” subsided, Helen’s nightclothes were discovered to be reduced to ash. One side of her body was charred, and her pillow was soaked through with blood. A young clerk named Richard P. Robinson—one of Helen’s regular customers, with whom she regularly exchanged florid love letters—was quickly fingered by the testimony of Helen’s fellow ladies of the night. He was arrested after he didn’t flinch when taken to view her still-warm corpse.
The evidence against Robinson was strong, including a discarded hatchet and cloak that didn’t require Sherlockian deduction to trace to him. Somehow, the brutal slaying captured the nation’s imagination. The story ran in papers throughout the country, something not all that common for 1836. In the end, Robinson was acquitted despite the considerable evidence against him, because the judge instructed the jury to disregard testimonies from many of Helen’s fellow prostitutes because they were “polluted.”
The sea can do strange things to men. In 1828, trading ship Mary Russell returned to port in Ireland with seven of its crew members brutally murdered. The ship’s paranoid captain was to blame. William Stewart, for reasons known only to his own psychotic brain, falsely believed his crew was about to mutiny. So he took the completely reasonable next step of binding the seven men in his crew from hand to foot and splitting their skulls.
To pull this off, Captain Stewart coerced three adolescents to help him. Stewart started his rampage by clocking his Chief Mate with a harpoon and ordering the other crewmen to tie him up. The Chief Mate was thrown into solitary confinement for two days. Stewart then lured the rest of the adult crew, one by one, to be bound. The brainwashed children stood guard.
From there, Captain Stewart killed seven of his crew, first using a crowbar and then moving on to an ax. During the attacks, he screamed, “The curse of God is upon you all,” because of course he did. With most of his crew dead, he could finally kick back and relax for the first time in ages, smoking and drinking happily amid the mangled corpses. Two of the crewmembers managed to survive, and when one escaped his confinement, his reappearance frightened the captain. Naturally, Stewart then threw himself overboard on three separate occasions before the ship reached shore. After being brought to trial, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
There’s nothing worse than paying for your own death. Such a crime rocked an Indiana town in 1878, when four family members were discovered hacked beyond recognition by a hired hand. Patriarch John Desire Vacelet received nine ax gashes to the dome. His wife was so brutalized by the madman’s ax that she was virtually decapitated. Their two sons died side-by-side in bed, with brain matter protruding from their broken skulls. The murders were so elaborate that both axes and knives were used.
Suspicion soon fell upon French immigrant Pierre Provost. He reported the attack to neighbors when he appeared at their doorstep before sunrise, barefoot and wearing nothing but his underwear. Eventually, he even expressed amusement about the whole ordeal. Not being the greatest judges of character, the Vacelets had set up Provost on a trundle bed in their teenage sons’ bedroom. He claimed to have narrowly escaped out of a window while a savage attack was taking place by a large group of men. The problem with his story was that the window remained fastened shut, and the presence of cobwebs proved that it hadn’t been opened in ages. A bloody barefoot print next to the Vacelet parents’ corpses did Pierre no favors either. In the wake of the murders, there was a threat of a lynch mob, but Pierre saved the townsfolk the hassle and hanged himself in his jail cell.
Sports figures are no strangers to murderous mayhem (O.J. Simpson’s ears are burning). In 2011, former South African rugby player Joseph Ntshongwana found himself carrying something much more macabre than a ball. After stalking a group of men he believed to have gang-raped his daughter and infected her with HIV, Ntshongwana went on an ax-wielding rampage of vengeance, eviscerating three of the men and severely wounding a fourth. He carried the decapitated head of one of his victims almost a mile from the site of the murderous scrum before tossing it into the trash. The problem with Ntshongwana’s revenge plan: The cops said no such rape occurred.
It has since been revealed that Ntshongwana suffers from schizoaffective disorder, and he had been extremely paranoid leading up to the slayings, even believing his sister was poisoning his food. However, he was deemed mentally fit to stand trial, given the lengths he went to in concealing evidence of his crime.
Not many crazed ax murderers and cannibals end up apologizing, but that’s just what Tyree Smith did in the courtroom, after being sentenced to 60 years in a psychiatric hospital. Smith bludgeoned a homeless man and ate his brain and eyeballs. His apology didn’t make his crimes any less heinous. Having long heard voices that told him to do things, Smith turned up on his landlord’s front step one day in 2011, rambling about Greek gods and a thirst for blood.
Unsurprisingly, the landlord kicked him out the next night, after she spotted Smith with blood stains on his clothes, toting chopsticks and a bloody ax. He also had quite the story to tell about killing and eating a man the night before, washing it all down with a bottle of sake before heading over to Subway.
While in custody, Smith explained that the voices in his head had commanded him to eat another man’s brain to help them study the ins and outs of human behavior. Also, if Smith consumed the eyes, the voices would be able to see into a spiritual plane of existence. In another warped twist, the victim’s body was discovered inside a vacant apartment building where Smith had grown up as a child. But hey, he apologized.
“The Devil made me do it” is not a very compelling defense. But blame your vicious ax murders on a tokoloshe (a dwarf-like water sprite) that sits on your shoulder and . . . well, you’ll still get executed. In mid-1950s South Africa, failed Zulu witch doctor Elifasi Msomi was convicted of 15 brutal ax murders. He was subsequently hanged, despite that seemingly airtight tokoloshe defense.
Msomi claims to have been afflicted by the malevolent entity when he sought professional assistance from another Zulu shaman. His killing spree began when he raped and murdered a young woman and collected her blood in a bottle. Msomi was quickly captured, but he managed to escape. Thereafter, he went on an 18-month ax-wielding rampage that claimed 15 victims in total, including five children.
Ultimately, he was arrested for petty theft before the police realized they had a real-life monster on their hands. Msomi helped the cops uncover many remains of his victims, including a missing skull, though he may have gained pleasure from doing so. After all, psychologists determined that he got off on inflicting pain and causing death. Still, he maintained his tokoloshe defense right until the end, claiming that he was only a conduit for the evil spirit. He even made room for his imaginary fiend to sleep next to him on his jailhouse cot. Zulu chiefs demanded to be present at his hanging, to ensure that the evil spirit would not save him from death. According to local legend, Msomi may one day return as a tokoloshe himself.
An ax-murdering serial killer who can effectively curse his executioners may be the nightmare equivalent of a telekinetic shark wearing a chainsaw necklace. Jake Bird was such a man. A drifter who made a habit of violent break-ins, Bird had one burglary go awry in 1947. He hacked apart Bertha Kludt and her teenage daughter Beverly June, and he couldn’t escape before the police arrived. The responding officers chased the barefoot Bird into an alley, where he got stabby. After gashing the cops, Bird was finally subdued by a kick to the groin.
Bird’s trial was a speedy one, given that the Kludt women’s blood and brain matter were splattered all over his clothes when he was apprehended. He put up a “surprised burglar” defense in order to avoid the death penalty but was unsuccessful. But through eerie coincidence or something more metaphysical, Bird got his revenge. When asked for any final remarks at trial, Bird said “All you guys who had anything to do with this case are going to die before I do.”
In all, six people associated with the trial dropped dead before Bird was hanged two years later, including the judge, police investigator, his defense attorney, and even the court reporter. While on death row—perhaps getting a big head in the wake of his newly unleashed “Jake Bird Hex”—Bird went on to claim responsibility for 44 murders across the country.
Josh Goller is a pacifist with a black belt and a sushi-gobbling flexitarian. When not covering music and literature for Spectrum Culture, he edits the offbeat flash fiction zine The Molotov Cocktail. He hangs his hat in Portland where he enjoys driving through fog and hipster watching.