- Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist
Gary Krist’s most recent work is popular history at its best, weaving together vice culture, the birth of jazz, Italian immigration and discrimination, and the spirit of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Progressive reform to create a portrait of New Orleans from the birth of Jim Crow to the birth of Prohibition, using infamous unsolved ax murders as a thread to tie those parts together.
New Orleans politics was controlled by a group known as The Ring, a political machine led by Mayor Martin Behrman. In an effort to bow to reformers hoping to purify the city while maintaining the economic and cultural base of saloons and prostitutes that kept visitors coming, officials decided in 1898 to cordon off vice into one district, Storyville, which they hoped would quarantine risqué behavior while still allowing it to occur. But there was also a movement to prohibit vice altogether in Louisiana, a reform effort with a harder edge that was not satisfied with the red-light district and its attendant crime.
During much of the twentieth century’s first two decades, the Storyville crowd largely won those battles, led by businessman, Ring politician, and vice lord Thomas C. Anderson. Countering him were reformers like sisters Kate and Jean Gordon, who combined a movement against vice with a push for segregation and eugenics, making the case that the interracialism of Storyville was a creature of its other sins. The combination of racism and reform ultimately had its way, and in 1917 Storyville was shuttered, pushing vice underground and cauterizing segregation in the name of good government. One of the groups most negatively affected by the change was the coterie of jazz musicians who had developed a new art form in the bordellos and bars of the district. Those musicians, who went on to fundamentally alter the national soundtrack, began their exodus from the city as anti-vice reformers eliminated their venues.
The other watchwords hovering over Storyville were immigration and crime. The influx of business in the vice district came from out of town, and the area often became violent. Krist uses the ax murders of local Italian grocers as a symbol of that violence and of the mistrust of immigrants. The grocers were not killed in Storyville, but the attacks, which were feared to be tied to the Mafia, only pushed a community already prone to anti-Italian sentiment to new heights of bigotry, all while allowing reformers to tie the violence to the city’s sex, liquor, and jazz trades.
The stories in Krist’s account will not be new to academic historians of New Orleans. The connections between prostitution and segregation are far more helpfully examined by Alecia P. Long. There is groundbreaking work on the city’s Italian immigrant culture being done by Justin A. Nystrom. Examinations of the turn-of-the-century New Orleans political machine are legion, written by Eric Arnesen, William Ivy Hair, and others. And then, of course, there are the many academic histories of early jazz and even several earnest (if less academic) true crime tales of the New Orleans ax murders. What Krist is able to do so well, however, and what makes his account valuable, is that he is able to tie these elements together to chronicle one of the city’s most fascinating rebirths (in a city with many rebirths). It is popular [End Page 705] history, but it is strong history, finding the intricate connections between race, class, and gender, between vice and cultural production, between crime and the impetus for reform.