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Madams, morality and the mob

Cover of Empire of Sin: A Story of
A review of Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans by Gary Krist

Empire covers New Orleans history and culture from the 1880s to the 1930s and reading it while situated in a world that seems obsessed with the vice of others made for a nicely synergistic experience. Krist focuses on the New Orleans vice district, Storyville, and the far-reaching impact the it had on the city's politicians, power-brokers, mobsters and the black population who saw New Orleans fall under the worst of what the Jim Crow south had to offer.

In the late 19th century New Orleans was the wild, wild south. Vice was rampant and the city leaders were determined to get a handle on the city's dangerous reputation in order to attract business and residents. To that end they created a red-light district that became known as Storyville. Within Storyville prostitution was legal, so too drinking, gambling and just about any other vice you can think of. But if the elite hoped to get a handle on crime and the underworld, what they created instead was an empire of sin, primarily run by Tom Anderson. Brothels proliferated, drinking was unchecked, a dangerous kind of music known as jazz was being played (as it was perceived then), and perhaps most dangerous of all (at least to the moral reformers), blacks and whites were allowed to co-exist with few limits. Such lawlessness could not be allowed to stand. But it would take decades to finally bring an end to Storyville. Along the way, Jim Crow would take effect and the culture of New Orleans would be forever changed. Krist covers a lot of ground here; including mob wars, a possible serial killer on the loose, the advance of anti-black legislation, the rise of Jazz as an art form, and more. It's all fascinating, even if I did occasionally lose the main through-line of the book. This is narrative history done well and I was intrigued from first to last.

Sep 26, 2023