By M. Swift
Between late 1919 and into the early 1920s, Birmingham, AL, was the apparent hunting ground of either a group of murders using an axe or a solo murderer. The generally accepted theory is that it was group murdering people—mostly shopkeepers from Birmingham’s immigrant communities and on a few occasions interracial couples.
Birmingham at the time was a city nearing 178,800+ people while also being at one of the highest periods of crime it experienced.
The first victim was shopkeeper G.T Airy in November 1919 following a robbery. Christmas eve of that same year saw another shopkeeper, John Besler, meet a similar fate, only he survived. The thing about these two early murders is that they were bashings and not what you would normally associate with an axe attack.
While the back of your usual wood chopping axe or hatchet could’ve been used, it should also be noted that shovels were used in the second. Accounts of the first attack don’t specify what weapon was used.
1921 ATTACKS CREDITED TO THE AXE SYNDICATE
In March two shopkeepers were attacked on Walker Street and on 8th Avenue—between a 12-14 minute walk from each other. Neither could accurately describe the attackers, but in the first attack on C.C. Pipkins, customers who ran the attackers off pinned them as Black men.
The summer of saw another attack as the grocery family the Baldones were hit on July 13. Couple Charles and Mary Baldone and their daughter Virginia all survived but didn’t assist the police. Law enforcement chalked it up as the family being targeted rather a robbery attempt. The Baldone’s 3-year-old son said he saw a Black man in the attack. Days later H.L Dorsky was hit at his store but survived the attack.
In August, Sophia Zipin said a Black man attacked her at the 16th Street shop. Her shop was actually on the same street as Dorksy’s. She wouldn’t pin a specific person until some time later after that person was brought up on another attack on shopkeepers.
The following month on 17th Street, the Zidermans were attacked in their store. The wife identified two Black men as their attackers. October saw the first actual murder on the scene as Gaspera Lonzo was killed in his shop. The brothers Mack and Sylvester Brown were arrested. Mack got 15 years in a prison mine while Sylvester was given 10 years.
At the end of 1921, there were three murders with one not fitting in with the usual motive. The Mantiones were killed and their shop set on fire with an axe. Fortunately, the couple’s 10-month-old was saved. Also that night, Mose Parker was killed in his backyard and robbed of some clothing. The killer was eventually found, but no one came forward.
This was the year that some developments were made in the case. January 11, the Crawfords were killed in their store and their 3-year-old spared. A few weeks later on the 25th, the Lorinos survived an attack after Tony Lorino ran the attackers off with his guns. In this case, a detective agency was brought in to find the attackers and several people were brought in with one man, Thomas Lee Gardner sentenced to life.
At this point, it was the witnesses pointing to Black people as the attackers that resulted in the Birmingham PD looking into any Black person with a criminal record as a suspect.
It was also at this time that the local press began taking a hard look at the murders and came up with the Henry the Hacker character, a Black man wielding a hatchet to stand in for the unidentified murderers. The press and the police also started leaning towards the Axe Syndicate theory.
March to September saw a few attacks where the victims—all shopkeepers—survived and were largely unable to identify their attackers. October saw Julius Silverburg and Louise Carter murdered in an alley by axe attacks.
What stands out about this case is the police department’s theory that it was the work of a Black organization against interracial relationships or miscellaneous “intermingling.” Perhaps realizing how ludicrous that sounded, the PD eventually added these murders to the Axe Syndicate pile.
Ending 1922 was an attack on the Levine family where Abraham Levine eventually died of his wounds, but his wife survived. Apparently, the Levines were lured from the store to check out some property and attacked. Emma Levine was in charge of the shop when an attacker returned. When another customer showed up, the attacker just purchased some eggs and left.
Another interracial couple was attacked in early January with Robert John Turner being killed and Lillie Belle being knocked out. In this case, someone gave information that she was part of a group that targeted interracial couples to rob. Pearl Jackson, her husband, Odell, and one Peyton Johnson were all reeled in for the murder.
January also saw Joseph Klein was murdered earlier in the month while the owners of shop owners Vitellaros were both slain towards the end of the month. Pearl Jackson confessed to this murder.
May and October saw three more murders in shops. One of those, the May slaying of Charlie Graffeo was said to have ties with bootlegging. October 66-year-old Elizabeth Romero and her daughter murdered in the family’s store.
Returning to “interracial couple hit squad” theory, W.T. Conway and Jane Jackson were attacked in an alley in November. The end of the year saw another attack as a suspect attacked a couple, killing Edwin Sparks and attempting to force the wife to kiss him. He ran off when she managed to wrest his gun from him.
A Fred Glover would be pinned for this attack and for the attack on shopkeeper Sophia Zipin in 1921. At this time, the Birmingham Police Department were married to the idea of a ring of Black axe murderers/robbers terrorizing the city.
While not an “Axe Syndicate” murder it was linked to it as the son of Elizabeth Romero, killed in October 1923, shot and killed a Black man in front of the family’s store in March. The police chalked it up to Romero being on edge about the murder months earlier. Also in March Clem Williams, a Black man, was killed while sitting at his kitchen table. Williams was miner and a newspaper delivery man.
May 24 saw an attacker still at the scene and on the run from capture. Earlier, Frank Owens attacked two men and said his goal was to mimic the attacks of the Axe Syndicate. He was eventually arrested but attempted to escape by jumping out of a window shortly after. He broke his leg and was sentenced to hang.
The attack was three days later with a night watchman being killed with an ax blow and robbed of his sidearm and cash.
Part two will look at the aftermath, suspects targeted and various different elements of the Axe Syndicate case.
M. Swift writes on Black history for Your Black World and Black Then. He also writes on wrestling, comics, gaming, and Black sci-fi and fantasy.