Shelley, a character in Booker Prize Winner Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, points out to Tony, another character, that as far as he knows, she could be an “axe murderer.” It’s a curious phrase that is a common trope in culture and media (Exhibit A is the fun Mike Meyers movie “So I Married an Axe Murderer”) — we all know what the it means. But Tony and Shelley go on to question the phrase, wondering why we say “axe murderer” instead of “gun murderer” or some other phrase that relates to more common methods of murder? Great question, which I address below, but first, how common is murder by axe?
Murder by Weapon
According to FBI data, there were 14,677 murders in the US in 2021 and it keeps track of the weapon used in committing the crime. Here’s that data:
The data shows that firearms are used in the vast majority of murders — adding up handguns, firearms, rifles, other guns, and shotguns totals to 11,628 or about 80% of murders.
Murder by Axe would likely fall in the “knives or cutting instruments” which account for 1,035 murders or about 7%. You’d think, however, that most murders in this category would be by knives and not axes. I did some research on Google and Bing and found a handful of reported axe murders in 2022 and 2021. So, a small fraction of murders are by axe.
Another interesting fact in the data is that 404 of the 461 murders using “hands, fists, feet, etc.” were by Chuck Norris.
So What’s Up with the Phrase “Axe Murderer”?
If axe murders are so rare, why is this a phrase that is used? I spent some time researching this and found some answers, but then decided to ask ChatGPT. Its answer is consistent with what I found elsewhere, so here’s the (slightly edited) AI answer:
The phrase “axe murderer” likely gained popularity due to a number of high-profile cases in the past where individuals were accused of committing brutal murders using an axe or other similar bladed tools.
One of the most famous cases involving an axe murder occurred in 1912, when the entire Moore family and their two guests were bludgeoned to death with an axe in their Iowa home. The case, which remains unsolved to this day, received extensive media coverage and likely contributed to the popularization of the phrase “axe murderer.”
Additionally, the use of an axe as a murder weapon has historically been associated with crimes of passion or rage, as the use of such a blunt object suggests a crime committed in a fit of intense emotion. This dramatic element has made the allegory of the axe murderer particularly appealing to writers and filmmakers seeking to create suspenseful and frightening stories. Thus, the phrase “axe murderer” has become common in popular culture due to a combination of real-life crimes, media coverage, and its use as a dramatic element in storytelling.
Good stuff. Thanks ChatGPT.
My hometown of Springfield Illinois has a famous unsolved axe murder — The Lauterbach Cottage Hardware Store attack of 1981. A customer of the store was killed, and two owners were permanently disabled by an axe-wielding maniac who plucked the murder weapon from the store’s own inventory.
It remains unsolved to this day.
I was going to take a quick stab at this one., but I thought it might be off target.
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
This got me thinking of “sledgehammer murderers” as a related species to the one you wrote about. This is how a recent defector from the Wagner Group in the Ukraine was disposed of on his return to Russian soil–and it was on television in Russia for all to enjoy! Very gruesome, ghastly cringeworthy to think about–maybe that is the point—the mere mention of the term gets your attention in a very unpleasant way. Luv2Nap
Very unpleasant indeed … the public broadcast of things like this shifts the message from Red Square in Moscow to the airwaves. The Kremlin and other authoritarian regimes can spread their agenda across the world with the click of a button. Scary to think about!