Cotton Knives Are Fair to Middling
By David L. Anthony
Although Douglas Stacy admired oddities and quality cutlery, he was first and foremost an entrepreneur. As a skilled businessman, he negotiated many deals to further his position within the community and amongst his peers. In the years from 1918 to 1930, America experienced a growth spurt, and those with the savvy to ride the wave of success were richly rewarded. Douglas certainly was not an extravagant gentleman; he continued his habit of giving a pocketknife to a child as a way of showing generosity and deep appreciation for what he liked to call the “Art of Knifemaking.” His store brimmed with antiques and rare artifacts like something out of an HG Wells movie. His love of the strange and unique may have given way to the modern-day “steampunk” movement. Toss in a vast inventory of American-made knives manufactured by some of the best English and German cutlers in the United States. He enjoyed comparing foreign-made knives to those from America, particularly when the debate involved someone who felt the overseas knives were far superior. His upbringing in the New England cutlery world certainly made him an expert on the subject.
Although his business remained lucrative, Douglas yearned for a new line of goods to add to the sales floor. While enjoying a midday lunch with employee and friend Jessie LaFontaine, the subject turned to Jessie’s childhood. He was born in the Creole County of Louisiana, and as a child, it was a very special occasion for him to visit the big city of New Orleans. The journey from his hometown of Bayou Teche in Iberia, the plantation region along the Mississippi River, to the Big Easy, allowed him to take in the sights and sounds of the cotton industry. It had been more than fifty-five years since the end of the war between the states, but cotton remained the king of the South, just under different terms than before. After the Civil War, the southern states still remained a one-crop industry. The difference; the people in the fields were now being paid. The cotton industry was severely affected by the end of the bloody conflict. Around 1892, a new menace landed in the fields; the devastating effects of the boll weevils that migrated up from Mexico. Jessie slapped his fist angrily on the table, remarking that there is still a boll weevil problem to this day. Today it is significantly reduced with the New Deal introduced by the US Government to help with this devastating pest that forced the South to diversify its crops.
He explained how the invention of the cotton gin changed the industry. Although it was in 1793 that Eli Whitney dreamt up this revolutionary machine, he remarked about how to this day, people marveled at how it increases tenfold the speed at which cotton is separated from the seed. As a result, the cotton business grew from an annual revenue of $150,000 to $8 million in the early 1800s. Cotton farms across the southern states grew and dominated the industry worldwide. Prior to this, commerce was dependent on manual labor for picking cotton and removing the seeds. This did help to bring economic growth to the southern states of America, and business was once again booming. Opportunity seemed to be knocking on Douglas’s door. As the availability of ready-to-spin cotton grew, so did the textile industry in England, which America was happy to supply.
Douglas’s interest intensified, and he asked about cotton processing. Jessie laughed and said it was as simple as two words, “hard work.” He explained how cotton went from the field to fabric as we know it. Harvesting cotton began by plucking the cotton balls from the plants, packing them into bundles, and sending them to a ginning factory. Ginning, he explained, is where most of the unnecessary plant material is removed from the cotton balls. The majority of the cotton obtained is then baled and sent to a spinning factory. Cotton is a shrubby plant that is a member of the Mallow family. The seeds are tiny and sticky, which must be separated from the wool in order to process the cotton for spinning and weaving. Finally, de-seeded cotton is cleaned, carded (fibers aligned), spun, and woven into a fabric that is also referred to as cotton.
“Wow!” exclaimed Douglas, “You really do know a lot about cotton.”
Jessie remarked “Hey, when you’re born and raised amongst it, you miss the days watching it grow and then end up in those huge bales.”
Douglas’s curiosity was in the finished product. He wanted to be able to market material to various business associates that needed cotton cloth. To get to that final product, the raw material needed to be turned into a fiber; that fiber then becomes yarn (or thread), and then yarn becomes fabric. He envisioned large bolts of this material shipped to his contacts for work clothing and, of course, “fashionable wear.” As we all know, his dapper look of a fedora and long overcoat was his signature. His choice of clothing will cause him some concern in near future. So, he needed to obtain the best quality he could afford.
He turned to Jessie and asked “Just how do you know the quality your purchasing?”
Jessie replied that you at least wanted something that was “fair to middling!”
With a look of confusion, Mr. Stacy stepped back and asked what the heck was “fair to middling?”
Jessie explained that “middling” grade cotton was considered average and used to measure other grades of cotton. It is a fleecy cotton with very small amounts of debris and is nearly white. Fair to middling cotton typically ended up being used for denim, precisely the material Douglas wanted to sell to the knife manufacturers he regularly dealt with throughout the Eastern seaboard. Denim wears very well and cleans easily, perfect for the work clothes he was going market.
Jessie suggested that they head to the New Orleans Cotton Exchange and land a deal. This grand structure was constructed in 1921. The Exchange itself was formed in 1871. The Exchange’s original building was located on the corner of Carondelet and Gravier Streets. The role of the Exchange brought order to a highly speculative and fickle cotton pricing system. It provided a centralized location where people involved in the cotton business could obtain information about market conditions and prices. Just the kind of business atmosphere Douglas was looking for in this new venture. They decided to leave the very next day.
Once they arrived, it appeared that the city was tense. He knew from past excursions that the area’s people were friendly, but for some reason, there was an air of caution amongst the city’s inhabitants. Something was amiss, and he asked a local store owner what was going on.
The story horrified him. For several years, the city remained in a frenzied panic over a roaming serial killer dubbed the “Axeman of New Orleans,” who brutally attacked store owners and particularly those of Italian bloodlines. The first victim was a grocer named Joseph Maggio and his wife Catherine as they lay sleeping in their apartment above their grocery store. Their throats were cut with a straight razor and heads bashed with an ax. Douglas lamented under his breath that he hoped it wasn’t an old Napanoch axe and that the razor was German-made. This kind of publicity could be bad for both entities.
Shortly after that, a couple succumbed to another ferocious assault. Louis Besumer, Italian grocer, and his mistress, Harriet Lowe, lived in the quarters at the back of the store. When the store failed to open in the morning, patrons discovered the couple besieged with blood. Besumer had been struck with an ax above his right temple, and Lowe suffered a laceration over the left ear. Though badly injured, both were alive. The side of Lowe’s face became partially paralyzed. The hospital performed emergency surgery in an effort to save her. Unfortunately, she passed away two days later.
The murderous spree continued as 28-year-old Mrs. Edward Schneider lay in bed, eight months pregnant. As she awoke, a dark figure stood over her and began bashing in the face repeatedly. Her husband discovered her around midnight. Her scalp cut open, and her face completely covered in blood; she survived the attack and still gave birth to a healthy baby girl two days later.
The carnage lingered when yet another grocer, a man named Joseph Ramano, became the next victim. The elderly Italian grocer lived with his two nieces, who awoke to the sound of a disturbance in the adjoining room. The girls entered Ramano’s room to find that he had taken a severe blow to his head and supposedly saw the assailant was fleeing. The grocer, though seriously injured, managed to walk to the ambulance, but he died due to severe head trauma. The girls provided a brief description of the killer, a handsome man in a fedora who wore a dark suit with a long overcoat. His attack of the victims indicated proficiency in handling a straight razor and Axe. A description that made Mr. Stacy rather uneasy in this area known for handling things “their way.”
This depiction made the townspeople a little leery of Douglas as he fit the assailant’s likeness somewhat. This would explain the offish treatment he was receiving. People began to carry loaded shotguns, and family members took turns watching over their families at night. The people were afraid, determined to protect themselves, and bordered on panic. The clerk at the hotel looked him up and down and asked if he ever used an axe and straight razor? He answered that he was a cotton speculator and owned a store in Ironton, Ohio. He thought it was best to keep his cutlery history to himself. Jessie looked at him with a wink, and they got on with the business at hand. They headed off to the cotton exchange to learn and earn.
Those rancorous acts continued just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. The Cortimiglia home became the next crime scene. They found three people attacked. Again, the common denominator continued to be Italian grocery store owners. The killer, obviously more brazen, wrote the to the local paper. The Times-Picayune newspaper received a taunting letter that promised yet another attack. It read as follows:
They have never caught me, and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman. When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody Axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it was better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don’t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.
Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will, I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.
Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.
Douglas read the article then folded the morning paper under his arm after finishing his breakfast. These ongoing acts continued to haunt him. He needed to focus on this new business venture. The two out-of-towners drew too much suspicion, and they both wanted to get a cotton deal and head back to Ironton. Before he did any deals to purchase cotton, he wanted to physically know how to decide which cotton he should buy. He asked Jessie if he knew how to determine the best cotton for the price. He responded that it was as simple as inserting a cotton knife into a bale. Here came that confused face again on Douglas. Jessie laughed at the thought of Douglas not knowing this. Stacy had been selling cotton knives for years but never really thought about their actual use.
“Gosh, Mr. Stacy, it’s a knife built on a jack frame with a long wide sheepsfoot blade.”
In fact, his store had carried the Titusville Cutlery brand of this knife for years. The cotton sampling knife got its name from cotton buyers using the sharp blade tip to cut into cotton bales and pry into the bale to check for cotton consistency.
The Exchange buzzed with the daily business of cotton buying and selling. The day before, Jessie and Douglas visited a warehouse that contained numerous bulk cotton sales. As small-time buyers, they didn’t carry much clout amongst the big money regulars. Jessie knew a grower that didn’t know the difference between low-grade and high-grade cotton. He noticed that this particular lot wasn’t receiving much attention. He jabbed in his cotton knife and examined the fibers. Yup, just as he imagined, it was fair to middling. Jessie left a bid on this lot and was successful. Douglas had made his first purchase of cotton and entered into another line of business. He had it sent off to be made into material and then clothing. He had shirts and hats made just for the skilled workers at Titusville Cutlery. They read: “Cotton Knives are Fair to Middling.”
Douglas and Jessie sat at a sidewalk café on Bourbon Street, sipping their favorite libation, Kentucky Bourbon. However, as the duo left the Big Easy, an officer of law took notice of these men leaving. He noted in his daily log that two suspicious-looking characters left the city.
Many still don’t understand the lonely cotton knife, but now its popularity has grown as a functional piece of cutlery for everyday use. Heck, someone might even consider it a weapon if they needed to defend themselves or worse yet inflict harm on another. Ironton would be frozen in fear over the mystery surrounding the “Belle in the Well” — an unknown female victim from Lawrence County, Ohio, was found dead from a wound to the stomach and her face bashed with an axe. She then was tossed down a well in an effort to hide the hideous act. The autopsy noted that the wound appeared to be from an oddly shaped knife that was inserted and twisted as it was withdrawn. In the grizzly gravesite lay the other instrument of death, a bloody Napanoch ax.
Had the Axeman from New Orleans migrated to Ohio and added a new “twist” to his modus operandi? Louise Casella, the daughter of an Italian grocer, is the only one that could positively identify him, and her death left yet another unsolved transgression. Axes, straight razors, and cotton knives remained a regularly stocked item at the Bronze Lantern. But every man who purchased one made Douglas and Jessie ponder on the whereabouts of the Axeman of New Orleans. Over time, the he was never seen or heard from in New Orleans again. His threatening letter just acted as a cover for him to move on.