Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

  • By Gary Krist
  • Crown Publishers
  • 416 pp.

Though well-researched, this tale of Crescent City corruption is less compelling than the events it covers.

Ever since Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City in 2003, books about murder and mayhem as defining crises in the history of America's cities have sought to duplicate the tightrope dual narrative of that deservedly huge bestseller.

Unorthodox sex and brutal death set against the backdrop of an evolving urban landscape can make for an irresistible story. Just when we think that today's news cycle couldn’t get worse, such books remind us that, back in the day, it often was.

In Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, author Gary Krist sets out to tell a tale spanning three decades, from 1890 to 1920, during which the "the Sodom of the South” launched an interesting experiment in urban planning. In order to contain its notoriously libertine culture, 230 brothels, 60 "assignation houses," countless one-room cribs for five-minute quickies, and the bars and restaurants that clustered around them were limited to one neighborhood. 

Located behind the Vieux Carré, the 16-block section came to be known (to the "annoyance" of Alderman Sidney Story, who dreamed up the idea) as Storyville.

Prostitution was made illegal everywhere else in the port city, thereby concentrating the vice and all the money it generated within this circumscribed border. The "menace to the moral health of the community," as Story put it, was thus kept out of the more respectable districts — the goal of the city fathers.  

There was, predictably, a series of reactions from crusading reformers. The Progressive Era was around the corner, and even New Orleans was not immune. Carrie Nation showed up, ax in hand (axes were a motif of the times), “everlastingly on the warpath.” She visited the House of All Nations, “perhaps the most flagrantly depraved of all the Storyville brothels,” according to Krist, though he doesn’t say how, exactly.

The book flap promises "flamboyant prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all battling for primacy in a wild and wicked city unlike any other in the world."

Even allowing for the hype of the marketing department at Crown, the publisher, this sounds like an irresistible mix. 

The problem is that Krist, with such terrific material, too often fails to spin it into a compelling story. As one example, Nation’s visit to the brothel, a fascinating juxtaposition, needed more detail and quotes from the prostitutes, who told Nation they were whores by choice, not coercion.

By the time Krist gets to the serial killer — who, unlike Larson's very specifically creepy Henry H. Holmes, was (minor spoiler alert) never identified — this reader's mind was numb from the relentless litany of crimes, perpetrators, reformers, and pols.

Potentially colorful characters such as Thomas C. Anderson, the “mayor” of Storyville, state assemblyman for the Fourth Ward, and bar and brothel owner, not to mention a slew of madams with names like Lulu, Minnie, and Josie, don’t come alive enough on the page to live in the imagination. With admirable intent, Krist casts too wide a net to do justice to the many fish that swim within.

His narrative is much more focused and animated when he turns to the music, what he calls "the new sound" born “in the working-class black clubs and honky-tonks" of the Uptown neighborhood known as Black Storyville. 

At a time when one-quarter of the population of New Orleans was classified as "Negro," Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, “King” Oliver, Buddy Bolden, and others were creating the jazz that would define so much of popular culture into the 20th century and beyond.  

Krist uses wonderful quotes from musicians, taken from secondary sources and oral histories, that pop off the page: "[Bolden] had a moan in his cornet that went all through you," recalled one listener. Many of the musicians were untrained, sometimes even unskilled. It didn’t matter. “You were free,” said guitarist Danny Barker, “free to take liberties, free to express yourself from deep inside.”

The music was “like a phenomenon,” said one resident, “like the Aurora Borealis…The sound of men would be so clear, but we wouldn’t be sure where [it was] coming from. So we’d start trotting, start moving — ‘It’s this way!’ ‘It’s that way!’ Music would come on you anytime like that.”

This new music plays its way through Empire of Sin, the subversive, “licentious” sound literally pulsing through the air, undermining the bluestocking reformers who want to make New Orleans into an orderly, respectable city. 

With Prohibition, the vice went underground, only to re-emerge as the new normal in the modern Crescent City.

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