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Empire of Sin: 1900s New Orleans had some SHIT going down



Empire of Sin is about New Orleans from the 1890s to the 1920s. And it's pretty great.

IN THIS BOOK, you've got the famed red-light district called Storyville, you've got the beginnings of jazz, you've got murders by the Mafia, you've got Carrie Nation smashing things up with her ax, you've got a serial killer roaming the streets -- NEW ORLEANS HAS ALWAYS BEEN INTERESTING is my point.

New Orleans was from the beginning a city of "rough, ungovernable men and women of dubious morality."



You go from the mob lynching of Italian men in 1891 at the Parish Prison, to the legal dissolve of Storyville around 1917, so it doesn't cover the ENTIRE history of New Orleans, but more the highlighted Extremely Dissolute Time (i.e. the time you want to read about).

The author, Gary Krist, switches back and forth between areas of interest like a George R.R. Martin of city histories, so you never get too bored with one subject. He's also sneaky and makes you learn about jazz. If someone had been like "Hey, I got this book about jazz history for you!" I'd say "THANKS NO BYE." But in this book, you think you're gonna be reading about turn of the century prostitutes and it TRICKS YOU into learning about jazz. And you're not even mad, because you typed Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet into Spotify and listened and the sound is so clearly one of the reasons music exists that all you can be is happy you found out about it.

'Jazz,' as one historian would later put it, represented the equivalent of 'musical miscegenation.'

PEOPLE IN NEW ORLEANS DID NOT LIKE JAZZ. I mean, some of them loved it. But there were people who loved it and people who thought this about it:

Why is the jass music, and, therefore, the jass band? [sic] As well ask why is the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut? All are manifestations of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash

Louis Armstrong thinks you should maybe take a seat, son.

Jazz didn't start in Storyville (I believe the consensus is it started in Black Storyville), but it was popularized there. Jazz musicians would play for famous madams, who would hire them to be in their parlor until the wee small hours, playing for guests so they could dance. There was Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory and aforementioned Armstrong, Bechet, and Morton, as well as a ridiculous amount of other hugely talented musicians, all espousing this new art form.

Louis Armstrong started playing when he was just a kid, and one of my favorite little stories about that time of his life was told by Kid Ory: 

He always came accompanied by Benny, the drummer. In the crowded places, Benny would handcuff Louis to himself with a handkerchief so Louis wouldn't get lost.
Benny was a giant man, and if anyone would mess with Louis or his friends, Benny would hit those people over the head with one of his mallets.

I've known about the Axeman of New Orleans for a while, mostly due to my persistent reading up on serial killers of the past and present. The Axeman terrorized New Orleans from 1918 to 1919 (they weren't going through enough with World War I and the Spanish Flu? No? Thanks, dude. Dick.) and was never caught. He was also portrayed by Danny Huston on American Horror Story: Coven!

Oh yeah, the Axeman's purportedly into jazz. TIE-INS.

I like how Krist tries to make Storyville somehow noble, when people were going there to have sex and gamble while listening to SINFUL JAZZ MUSIC:

The exchange of loveless sex for money...carries with it an ethos that no amount of velvet, Champagne, and gold leaf can make any less degrading. But Storyville was an attempt, at least, to forge a compromise between human ideals and human nature, to rationalize the inevitable and alleviate the harm of activities that realistically could not be abolished. Or so the city's progressive reforms believed, at least for a time.
Yeah, the new crop of reformers after the 1890s changed those beliefs. OUTRIGHT BANS, that's how you deal with a problem; look how it worked with Prohibi--oh that's right, you haven't found that out yet.

There is in fact a good argument for Storyville having been "an oasis of relative racial tolerance" in a New Orleans that was gradually growing more and more segregated, especially with the new "separate but equal" Supreme Court Decision. This occurred in 1896 when Homer Plessy, a New Orleans man, bought a ticket for a train heading to Covington, Louisiana, and sat in the "whites only" section. He was promptly arrested and the U.S. skirted the 14th Amendment by declaring "separate but equal" and a wave of states began instituting Jim Crow laws.

Storyville managed to avoid these and mixed its jazz musicians and racially diverse prostitutes with the city's white denizens, until about 1908 when this seemed more and more dangerous to the misguided reformers and they first segregated, then shut down Storyville.

So! Scandalous happenings, fun anecdotes, a better understanding of one of our oldest cities, told in a clear, well-written way. I am a fan of this book. You should read it.

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