Review: Empire of Sin, a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans

book cover

Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin

One of the classes I took on my way to earning a BA in history was on the history of jazz music. I think that Dr. Berkaw would love to read Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin: a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans”. The decades of New Orleans history covered by Krist, from 1890 into the 1920’s, saw the birth of all modern music, right there in New Orleans’ Storyville district. But the book covers much more than that. Racism and lynchings that went beyond the expected American story of white on black violence.

Storyville was a social experiment, “reformers” wanted to confine activities they looked down on into one area in the city, they said this would leave the rest of the city free from “filth and degradation”. As a social experiment it worked very well. Too well for the “reformers”. Saloon keepers and madams were making enough money to take on “respectable” roles in the city. Roles that it becomes apparent the “reformers” felt should be reserved for themselves. Tom Anderson entered state politics, Josie Arlington established a family home in a “respectable” upper class neighborhood. Even worse, whites and blacks mingled together. It was not just the multi-racial houses of prostitution, that served only white customers, but the new music brought black musicians into nearly every venue. This could not be allowed in the post-Reconstruction south.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in particular the coverage of Carry Nation’s visit to Storyville. Speaking to a crowd at the St. Charles Hotel she said “Roosevelt, Busch, Schlitz, and Muerlein are the quintet which is doing America much harm” Being familiar with Cincinnati’s brewing history I was pleased to see her reference the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company even if the newspaper misspelled it. During her conversations with working girls at Emma Johnson’s House of all Nations she was told that it it was not coercion or entrapment, the “white slavery” explanation for prostitution that was popular at the time, it was simple economics. “Respectable” jobs for single woman paid pennies a day, not close to what it cost to stay alive. Of course, as is always the case with “reformers”, Miss Nation was deaf to the facts that did not support her dogma.

Krist does not rub reformers nose in their failings but he is willing to point them out. He points out that one reform politician was a ringleader in the mass lynching covered early in the book. He credits reform politicians ineptitude with their failure to get re-elected and their character assassination of “Ring” politicians as a factor allowing Huey Long to gain the governor’s office. I have to give Krist credit for sticking with the facts, even when the facts don’t follow the standard script of WASP exceptionalism. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and look forward to finding another one of his works. Learning a little about the bartender that created the Ramos Gin Fizz was an added bonus.

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Filed under Book review, Drink, History, Music, Politics, True Crime

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