Empire of Sin

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

By Gary Krist

Crown. 416 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Derrick Nunnally


Was this the most sinful place in American history?

New Orleans a century ago, per the able research of Gary Krist, stood notoriously as a bustling den of gambling, racism, lust, and violence. Even righteous causes brought grotesqueness. Anger over public murders fueled lynch mobs. Efforts to pull the city away from wide-open brothel-and-gin-joint rambunctiousness were backed by Jim Crow segregationists.

Add, for good measure, the proto-Mafia extortion of the local Black Hand, an ax murderer skulking through neighborhoods, and the iron grip of the Ring machine on city and state politics.

Out of this primordial swampland of vices, Krist has woven a bumpy, hit-and-miss narrative of an era that shaped today's New Orleans. His alleyways-to-boulevards history ties together rampant corruption, the first notes of the earliest jazz bands, and the rise and fall of Storyville, where attempts to corral prostitution into one district birthed a spectacularly debauched pocket of town. High art and utter dysfunction were so ingrained that New Orleans was America's first large city with an opera house and the last to build out sewers.

Empire of Sin follows the city's giants around their dominion before changing times swept it from beneath their feet. There's Buddy Bolden, the cornet player whose raw energy roused crowds and inspired the first generation of jazz legends. Not a note survives of Bolden's music. By the time good recording technology existed, midcareer mental illness had consigned him to an asylum. And Tom Anderson, the "Mayor of Storyville" restaurateur who built the red-light district's biggest saloon, married a series of prostitutes and won a seat in the legislature, whose enterprises stood exempt by political favor from reformist purges. Until they weren't. Corruption and amorality make for an untenable dynasty.

As wild and resistant to change as New Orleans was, it could not stand as an island apart from America. More stable Southern cities, including Houston and Atlanta, proved more efficient at attracting outside investment. Ambitious New Orleans, chasing money, lured a World War I military base, but wartime law shuttered the Storyville brothels. Prohibition followed. Jazzmen scattered to larger, Northern cities, where their music was the latest new thing. Eventually, another generation of New Orleanians realized the doomed vivacity of its wild era made a uniquely sellable commodity to an America without a tourist destination like it. By then, Storyville was just a story. So a simulacrum, for hedonism that could be managed and policed, was allowed to grow in the French Quarter, where someone is drinking a potent beverage and listening to raucous music this very minute.

Derrick Nunnally is a former Inquirer reporter.