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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

One of my current favorite tv shows has wound down for its second season. The last episode of The Deuce was on this past Sunday and I'm already feeling the loss. Especially since this last season has been stellar. So this was a perfect time to discover another history of an era of vice, corruption and people struggling just to make it through. Empire covers New Orleans history and culture from the 1880s to the 1930s and reading it while immersing myself in the sex-trade industry of 1970s New York made for a nicely synergistic experience. And where The Deuce covers vice and the sexual politics of the red-light district in NYC, Krist focuses on the New Orleans own 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 the effort of decades to finally bring an end to Storyville. Along the way, Jim Crow would take effect and the culture of New Orleans 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. So if like me, you're already missing the grit and grime of The Deuce, this may get you through.

November 7, 2018