Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for New Orleans
By Gary Krist
Crown Publishers, NY 2014
A Book Review by Rod Haynes
Author Gary Krist describes the post-American Civil War city of New Orleans this way: “New Orleans scarcely seemed American at all. Founded as a French outpost in the early 1700’s, the city had come of age under Spanish rule in the latter half of the eighteenth century, giving the city a distinctive Franco-Latin character that still manifested itself in everything from its architecture to municipal administration . . . ‘What a co-mingling of peoples,’ another visitor marveled in 1880, ‘Americans and Brazilians, West Indians, Spanish, and French; Germans, Creoles, quadroons, mulattoes, Chinese, and Negroes.’” At the end of the nineteenth century, New Orleans offered a rich and varied mix of culture, music, food, and eccentric lifestyles. New York City teemed with immigrants arriving from all corners of Europe. Chicago had seen tremendous expansion as a cattle drive destination, becoming the major railroad hub of the Midwest. But New Orleans stood out then as a unique urban experience, unlike any other American city. It remains a distinctive part of American culture today, one reason among others why this book resonates with its readers.
The book’s title, EMPIRE OF SIN: A STORY OF SEX, JAZZ, MURDER, AND THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS accurately reflects what is found inside. Author Krist’s style and literary voice is reminiscent of celebrated American historian David McCullough, only this time readers are not riding alongside Founding Father John Adams entering Philadelphia in 1776. Instead, with author Krist as our guide we experience New Orleans’ brothels and dance halls, join riots, witness assassinations, and watch crooked politicians brazenly betray their oaths of office while promising reform to their electorate. EMPIRE OF SIN is a carefully planned, overlapping montage of prostitutes, pioneer jazz musicians, racial hatred and vigilante lynch mob justice, and alcohol-drenched partying. In 1903 there were 230 brothels employing 1500 prostitutes in New Orleans. Krist writes, “the situation had become dire indeed. The lawlessness, municipal dysfunction, flagrant sexuality, and increasing visibility of vice posed a threat not just to individual reputations but also to the reputation of the city as a whole.” In time, Anti-Saloon League operatives and other forces dedicated to cleaning up New Orleans made their presence felt among political leaders. But, predictably, positive change came to New Orleans only very slowly.
As the twentieth century loomed, a new form of music incorporating Latin, Caribbean, and early blues rhythms from the Delta region of the American South was heard in many of the seedy bars and rowdy dance halls of Storyville, New Orleans’ downtown den of inequity. Storyville was a place where anything could be had at the right price. As jazz musicians played their rudimentary instruments of old tin horns, cigar box banjoes, soap box bases, and pianos, mainstream [white] culture increasingly resisted this strange new sound. But nothing could thwart its momentum. Author Krist has a thorough understanding of the complex evolution of jazz, introducing a number of the early musicians whose work led to it becoming ingrained in New Orleans culture, people like Jelly Roll Morton, a talented Creole jazz genius. Surprisingly, local Italian immigrants also helped shape the new sound. A very young Louis Armstrong appears in the book, with the author sharing sad details about Armstrong’s early life that few of us appreciate. Perhaps that is the author’s point. EMPIRE OF SIN highlights so much of New Orleans’ cultural, social, and economic forces standard U.S. history texts ignore. Minority peoples and their contributions today remain little more than footnotes in dominant culture American storytelling.
Jazz was one major reason that New Orleans’ Jim Crow laws were passed decades after they appeared in the rest of the post-Reconstruction South. The co-mingling of races in New Orleans not found anywhere else in the South changed dramatically under Jim Crow. Race riots and lynchings targeting blacks and Italians and other immigrants are an ugly blot upon New Orleans in the early twentieth century. Honest lawmen were murdered by criminals hired by business owners seeking revenge, or by gang members fighting turf wars, or by the Mafia. Like all urban centers, murderers occasionally terrorized New Orleans. Political leaders elected to cleanse the city of rampant vice owned whore houses and bars, and routinely frequented them. The police force was paid to divulge vice raid information so establishments were ready when the raids started. New Orleans’ empire of sin proved extremely difficult to eradicate, although progress was made thanks to the persistent efforts of social reformers and political advocates.
Gary Krist’s book is an extremely readable, thoroughly researched, deeply compelling portrait of the people and culture of New Orleans during a tumultuous period in this country’s history. EMPIRE OF SIN is not great literature, but that is not its intent. The age-old struggle between good and evil successfully binds the diverse chapters of this book together. As noted earlier, many elements covered by Krist’s EMPIRE OF SIN are an integral part of New Orleans’ culture today. I highly recommend this book. It's good.