“It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans,” reads the epigraph of Gary Krist ’79’s book Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. If readers aren’t convinced of this by page one, they certainly will be by the end of the book: Krist delivers a harrowing tale of a debauched, crime-ridden city as it struggles to raise itself from moral decay.
By the late 1890s, New Orleans’ elite had had enough of the city’s violence, prostitution, drinking, and rampant crime. In an effort to curb the influence of the city’s underworld, the government founded the red-light district of Storyville. There, Tom Anderson, once a scrappy kid from a bad neighborhood, reigned as the aristocratic and wildly popular “mayor.” The streets of Anderson’s domain were populated by cosmopolitan madams, eager customers, corrupt police, and a dangerous serial killer known as “the Axman,” as well as jazz musicians Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. It was on this battleground that New Orleans would wage a war against itself, as underworld and high society fought for dominance.
Library Journal writes that Empire of Sin “proves that truth really is stranger than fiction” while Publishers Weekly applauds Krist for writing a “story more vivid and twist-filled than most crime fiction.” Krist, who also is the author of City of Scoundrels and The White Cascade, says he was drawn to this topic because of “how the social, racial, and moral issues of the times played out” in this unique setting.