Empire of Sin is a history of New Orleans during the 30-year period between 1890 and 1920. This era, beginning with the end of Reconstruction and ending with the beginning of Prohibition, was pivotal in shaping the culture and landscape that would evolve into the modern day New Orleans. It was a virtually lawless time, when sin was making a lot of people very wealthy. There is also another story here that is mostly between the lines; the tale of how racial segregation and oppression created an inequality and injustice that still hasn’t untied itself even decades after the abolishment of the Jim Crow laws that this era spawned.
The scope of this book is broad, covering the birth of jazz, the reign of organized crime, and a thriving sex trade. The central tale is the rise and fall of Storyville–a district where vices, such as soliciting and gambling, were, if not legal, decriminalized and flourishing–and it’s symbolic “mayor” Tom Anderson. Anderson and the other purveyors of sin grew rich and powerful during the heydays of Storyville, which made them targets of reformers.
The birth and evolution of jazz primarily runs parallel to the narrative of Storyville, though at times the two stories intertwine and are inseparable even when they aren’t touching. It’s clear that without the influence of Storyville and “Black Storyville” jazz may never have reached maturation.
Peppered in are accounts of the activities of the organized crime syndicates that have some impact on the overall narrative, but never really quite fit in to it all. In many ways these stories feel disparate and out of place, but are, nevertheless, intriguing and engaging.
New Orleans itself could have been more of a character. With so much focus on Storyville, the rest of the city gets left out. Other than the over-the-top antics of reformers and justice mobs, we don’t get a feel for how the rest of New Orleans operated during this time.
The level of research that has gone into this book is astonishing. The subject matter is presented in a way that is always engaging and interesting, and Krist speaks with both authority and credibility as he recounts the stories of pimps, prostitutes, and procurers with a refreshing lack of judgement and, at times, even hints of admiration.
Empire of Sin is an exciting story that should appeal to anyone who enjoys history and/or true crime.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.