the sins of new orleans -- 2/02/16

Today's selection -- from Empire of Sin by Gary Krist. Though New Orleans's reputation as a center for sin and perdition had followed it since its founding in 1718, by the early 1800s New Orleans was one of the wealthiest cities in the Western hemisphere with an enormous trade in cotton and slaves, and was the cornerstone port for the greatest river transportation system on Earth. Obtained in the Louisiana Purchase and retained in the final battle of the War of 1812, it was an indispensable key to the early ascendance of the United States. It was for this reason that the Civil War armies battled so desperately at Vicksburg, and that after that battle Abraham Lincoln proclaimed so joyously that "the Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." But the rise of the railroads had diminished its indispensability, and by the late 1800s its reputation was more for sin than commerce, for brothels and the Mafia more than steamboats:

"Thanks to its unique history, in fact, New Orleans scarcely seemed American at all. Founded as a French outpost in the early 1700s, the city had come of age under Spanish rule in the latter half of the eighteenth century, giving the place a distinctive Franco-Latin character that still manifested itself in everything from its architecture to its municipal administration. And although the 1803 Louisiana Purchase had forcibly thrust the city into the rapidly growing United States, several decades as capital of the American South had done only so much to make it seem less foreign. 'I doubt if there is a city in the world,' Frederick Law Olm­sted said of New Orleans in 1856, 'where the resident population has been so divided in its origin, or where there is such a variety in the tastes, habits, manners, and moral codes of the citizens.' And this extraordi­nary multiplicity -- augmented by successive waves of immigration from Europe and the Caribbean -- had only grown more pronounced as the cen­tury progressed. 'What a mingling of peoples!' another visitor marveled in 1880: 'Americans and Brazilians; West Indians, Spanish and French; Germans, Creoles, quadroons, mulattoes, Chinese, and Negroes.'

Prostitute in New Orleans' red-light district of
Storyville -- E.J. Belloc

"The urban culture that developed around this confluence of races and ethnicities was something that the rest of the country soon came to regard with a combination of wonder, suspicion, and often abhorrence. Worldly New Orleans was emphatically unlike, say, Lutheran Minneapolis, or even the Baptist cities in the rest of the South. For one thing, New Orleans wasn't even Protestant, at least not much beyond the handful of uptown neighborhoods containing the enclaves of Anglo-American privilege; it was still a largely Latin, Catholic city, with entrenched attitudes and mores that could seem -- to anyone aspiring to conservative Protestant standards of rectitude -- distressingly exotic. As such, it was a strange and disturbing place to many -- a place where married white men attended 'Quadroon Balls' to find mixed-race concubines, where macabre voodoo rituals oc­curred in shanties and back alleys, and where even prominent politicians might meet in City Park to duel with pistols or épées at dawn. In the city's notorious tenderloin districts, brothels specialized in all manner of interra­cial mixing and arcane sexual practices, while narcotics, alcohol, and loud, degenerate kinds of music filled the saloons and dance halls, promoting deviant behavior of all kinds.

"The Crescent City was also a place cursed with a deep-rooted culture of violence and crime: colorful miscreants stalked the streets; warring vice lords shot up their rivals' saloons and gambling dens; and mysterious Ital­ians, purportedly members of the murky organization called 'the Mafia' or 'the Black Hand,' assassinated one another for obscure and sinister reasons. For visitors from other parts of the country -- and for the city's growing ranks of white Protestant elites -- the opportunities for moral contamination were legion. As one Victorian minister put it in 1868, 'It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.' ...

New Orleans Mardi Gras in the early 1890s.

"The rise of 'concert saloons' -- raucous theaters where patrons could drink while watching erotically suggestive stage performances -- had brought crime and high-profile immorality to some of the busiest shopping avenues in the city. ... And perhaps most scandalous of all, brothels and assignation houses had become impossible to avoid, cropping up in many places where decent middle-class families lived. Many felt that a man could no longer feel comfortable in his own home, never know­ing when the house next door might be sold and turned into a disorderly house, forcing his wife and children to bear witness to scenes of the utmost wickedness and depravity. ...

"The effects of this expansion of vice and crime were now plain to see throughout the city. Stories abounded of honest, job-seeking women being ruined by unscrupulous concert-saloon proprietors; of agents steer­ing underage girls to bordello keepers for a commission; and of dressmak­ers' assistants and messenger boys being seduced into the 'sporting life' while making deliveries to brothels, saloons, and gambling houses. By the late 1880s, criminality of all types in the city seemed virtually out of con­trol: 'At no time since the war ... has crime been so rampant or criminals so free as at present,' observed the Mascot in 1888."


Gary Krist


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


Broadway Books


Copyright 2014, 2015 by Gary Krist


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