BirminghamWatch

Reading Birmingham: For Halloween, Birmingham Murder Story That’s ‘Grisly,’ ‘Hard-Boiled’

“The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders: Prohibition Gangsters and Vigilante Justice” (History Press, 2018) by Jeremy W. Gray

By Jeremy W. Gray

In his book “The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders,” journalist Jeremy Gray has a hell of a story to tell. From 1919 to 1924, as many as 18 people were killed and 16 injured in a series of brutal attacks. A number of the victims were Italian grocers killed when their stores were robbed.

The killings were not the work of a single killer or group of killers, and not all the victims were attacked with axes (one victim was beaten to death with a shovel, another with a metal pipe) but the spree of murders panicked Birmingham and stirred the nasty specters of race, class and religious bigotry.

The police and the newspapers focused on African-American suspects and, because several of the victims were Italian, the Mafia. The Birmingham Age-Herald offered readers a completely made up serial killer, publishing a racist cartoon of an axe-wielding black man dubbed “Henry the Hacker.” With the approval of the police, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through African-American neighborhoods at night hoping to intimidate potential black criminals.

The first axe victim to die was Southside grocer G. T. Ary in November 1919. The next seven victims, including two women and a father and his 14-year-old daughter, survived. In most cases robbery was the motive, although some attacks apparently involved disputes over money. In one especially horrible attack, grocer Tony Lorino was struck when he leaned over to fetch an item for a customer. Still conscious, Lorino pulled a pistol from his shirt and fired at his attacker, but not before the man struck Lorino’s wife Rose as she held the couple’s baby in her arms. Both Lorinos survived the attack.

Other attacks were equally violent and bloody. Joseph Klein, a Russian immigrant, was killed in January 1923. Luig Vitellaro and his wife, Josephine, were murdered that same month at their store. Police found a bloody axe and knife, and the suspects were white. In May, grocer Charlie Graffeo was killed with an axe, likely in a dispute over Graffeo’s bootlegging activities. In October of the same year, Elizabeth Romeo and her adult daughter were killed with a meat cleaver at their store on 21st Street South. Romeo was killed while sleeping beside her 3-year-old granddaughter. The killer spared the little girl.

Police urged grocers to close their stores before dark (something they could not afford to do) and increased patrols around the city. There were arrests and convictions, but no real resolution.

“The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders” adds another layer to the story of Birmingham’s violent and racist past. And the book can be appreciated as good local history. But, like the best scary movies, the book also frightens and entertains. History, like fiction, can sometimes be good simply because it tells a good story. So, if you like your murders grisly and your prose a little hard-boiled (and who doesn’t?), then you can settle in and enjoy Jeremy Gray’s book as a welcome Halloween treat.

About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, director of the Department of Archives and Manuscripts at Birmingham Public Library, reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state. Since 1970, 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama have been researched with help from the department that Baggett heads. Baggett speaks and writes frequently about history and has served as president of the Society of Alabama Archivists and chair of the Jefferson County Historical Commission. He has lectured and presented conference papers throughout the U.S. and in Europe and has been featured on Alabama Public Television, Alabama Public Radio, National Public Radio and CSPAN. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history.