A colorful account of reform efforts to eradicate sin, corruption and violence in early-20th-century New Orleans.
In this richly detailed narrative, Krist (City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago, 2012, etc.) describes a three-decade battle that pitted an Anglo-American elite against the forces of vice in a swiftly changing Crescent City. After the Civil War, New Orleans hoped to downplay its worldly reputation and attract Northern investors, but crime and immorality flourished. “The social evil is rampant in our midst,” wrote one newspaper. By the late 1890s, the “better element” wanted to drive vice out of respectable neighborhoods entirely. Enter alderman Sidney Story, who proposed the 18-block tolerated vice district soon known as Storyville, which harbored 230 brothels as well as dance halls featuring so-called “coon music,” or jazz, by Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and other musicians. Much of Krist’s story focuses on denizens of the notorious district, including businessman and Storyville “mayor” Tom Anderson, demimonde “queen” Josie Arlington, and a cast of legendary madams, dancers, gamblers, prostitutes and underworld figures. Drawing on newspaper accounts and court testimony, the author offers vivid accounts of mob violence against Italians and blacks, notably the brutal vigilante lynchings of 11 Italians after the assassination of police chief David C. Hennessy. The members of the mob were hailed as heroes of efforts to clean up the city. By 1918, Jim Crow reigned, Storyville was closed, and jazz was under attack. In the 1930s, having forced vice underground, the city found itself trying to re-create its wicked old reputation to lure tourists. Krist’s lively book is only marred by an overlong section devoted to a series of axe murders that plagued the city.
A wild, well-told tale.