Some cities have an aura of glamour–Paris, Venice, Vienna, St Petersburg, Budapest … perhaps that disappears when you live there, but for this armchair traveler, the city of New Orleans also makes the list of glamorous cities. Of course, the images of New Orleans took a hit with Hurricane Katrina–a natural disaster which lifted the lid on some very ugly behaviour. I’ll never go to Mardi Gras, and I’ll never go to New Orleans, but I’m interested enough in the history of the city to pick up Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist.
I expected an extraordinary history of this city. I expected a lot of vice & crime, and in this, the book, although occasionally dry, did not disappoint. Author Gary Krist presents a convincing portrait of a unique city built on vice. Eventually, as the title suggests, the powers within the city split into two camps–those who wanted to clean the place up (partly for tourism, partly for business reasons, and partly for the moral crusade), and those whose vested interests lay in Vice, and who knew that at least a large portion of the tourists were there to party!
The prologue begins in 1918 with the mysterious axe-man murders (which are returned to later in the book), and then it’s back to the 1890s. A large part of the book explores the city’s history of Vice with some of the most infamous names of the day: Josephine Lobrano, one of the more successful brothel owners who’d been “driven into prostitution as an eleven-year-old orphan,” Lulu White, & entrepreneur, restaurateur and brothel owner Tom Anderson whose rise and fall mirrors the ascent and curtailing of the vice elements within the city. Josephine Lobrano seems to be one of New Orleans more colourful characters who decided to “turn over a new leaf” not by retiring but by upgrading her brothel to attract higher end clients. This was considered “going respectable” which says a lot about the place and the times.
Krist explains that this was the “era of High Victorianism” and that not even New Orleans was “impervious to the stringent ideals of the day,” and argues that “in nineteenth-century New Orleans, however, respectability was arguably more difficult to achieve and maintain than in almost any other place on the continent” as “threats to decency were everywhere, and the city’s lax cosmopolitan ethos hardly conformed to mainstream American norms of behaviour.” This seems to be the book’s main thesis–what passed as normal in New Orleans was certainly not normal elsewhere in most of America (San Francisco was pretty wild, I’d argue), and that due to the “unique history” of New Orleans, the city “scarcely seemed American at all.” Krist states that the city at the time was “largely Latin, Catholic”
a strange and disturbing place to many–a place where married white men attended ‘Quadroon Balls’ to find mixed-race concubines, where macabre voodoo rituals occurred in shanties and back alleys, and where even prominent politicians might meet in City Park to duel with pistols or épées at dawn. In the city’s notorious tenderloin districts, brothels specialized in all manner of interracial mixing and arcane sexual practices, while narcotics, alcohol, and loud degenerate kinds of music filled the salon’s and dance halls, promoting deviant behaviour of all kinds.
The city was founded as a “French outpost in the early 1700s” but by the “latter half of the eighteenth century” was under Spanish rule. There’s a brief history sketched of the city’s shifting population, and I would have liked more, but the point is well made that New Orleans was a “confluence of races and ethnicities” that was decidedly different from other protestant, Lutheran or Baptist cities in America. I recently read 10 North Frederick by John O’Hara, and The Murder of Dr. Chapman, and even though both books (one fiction, the other non-fiction) were set in different centuries, the very fundamental protestant nature of the setting (Pennsylvania) was made quite clear.
Krist argues that by the end of the nineteenth century “respectability had become [such] a burning preoccupation among the ‘better element’ in New Orleans.” And although “gambling, prostitution, street violence, and bawdy entertainment had been a prominent feature of the city’s life for its entire history” many citizens wanted things to change. Part of the problem was that post-Reconstruction, “vice areas” had spread to both residential and commercial neighbourhoods, and it was not unheard of for a family to buy a home in a ‘decent’ neighborhood, but then wake up one day to find a brothel had sprung up next door. By the “late 1880s, criminality of all types in the city seemed virtually out of control” with blacks and Italians frequently “scapegoated” for the rampant spread of crime. Crime and Vice added to a corrupt city government burdened with debt left New Orleans, with open sewers and only a few homes with running water, “hopelessly backward, at least in terms of urban development.” The election of Joseph Shakepeare voted in on promises of reform began the “equivalent of an all out civil war” for the city.
There were plenty of casualties in the war, including police chief David Hennessy who’d cracked down on the wave of crime amongst Italians. This led to the infamous Parish Prison lynching–an incredible event–not only in its execution but in its complete lack of consequences in this so-called “spontaneous uprising of the people.” This is hardly the first or the last instance of vigilante justice in American history, but it’s certainly an extraordinary tale for the sheer number of people involved and the lack of anonymity in the face of frustration with the legal system.
Another large portion of the book, and for this reader the most interesting section of the book, follows the history (and the more famous inhabitants) of Storyville–an eighteen block area in which prostitution wasn’t legalized as much as it was made illegal outside of these limits. Also covered quite extensively is the rise of Jazz. Louis Armstrong’s memories of playing music in the brothels of Storyville are wonderful. Other salient sections include the exploits of the Black Hand and the crime spree of Robert Charles.
These are wild times, and of course, we know as we read the book that the wild times had to end. The demise of Storyville was celebrated by many, but there’s still a pervasive sense of desperation when we read about the secondhand dealers who flocked to Storyville to pick up antiques and opulent furnishings from “distressed prostitutes and madams.”
Louis Armstrong was there to witness the exodus. “It sure was a sad scene to watch the law run all those people out of Storyville,” he wrote years later. “They reminded me of refugees. Some of them had spent the best part of their lives there. Others had never known any other kind of life.”