Hulu is streaming a two-part true crime documentary about a string of unsolved murders of women in Jefferson Davis Parish, Murder in the Bayou. I have a copy of Ethan Brown’s book of the same title, released a few years ago, but haven’t read it yet (instead, it’s sits on a shelf in the mini-bookcase to the right of my desk, where I also keep other nonfiction–histories, true crime, cultural studies–about both New Orleans and Louisiana; books which I delve into periodically in order to come up with ideas for stories (novels and short stories and novellas, etc.), or background for the same. (One of the many reasons I laugh when people refer to me as ‘a New Orleans expert’ is because I am everything but an expert on the city; there are literally hundreds of volumes of reference books information about New Orleans I’ve not read and know nothing about) Mr. Brown came to the Tennessee Williams Festival a few years ago, but I didn’t get to meet him or see any of his panels, but I did pick up his book that weekend.
So, you can imagine my surprise the other night when I opened the Hulu app on my television (ten years ago that sentence would have been as unintelligible to me as Latin) and I saw it listed as a show I might be interested in. “Huh,” I thought, clicking on it, “I wonder if this is the same story as the book I’ve not read?”
Sure enough, it was.
I finished watching the show yesterday afternoon, and then of course, got the book from the bookshelf and started reading it…and didn’t stop until I was finished. I hadn’t intended to do that; I actually started writing this post after I finished watching the documentary series and simply reached over to the bookcase and pulled it out–mainly to see if there were photographs in it–many true crime books do–and since it didn’t, I started reading…and then couldn’t stop. I’ll talk some more about both the documentary and the book in another entry; I want to think about it some more, and the issues that came to mind while watching/reading–but again, as I said earlier, it was yet another example of how little I know about not just New Orleans, but Louisiana in general. As I read more New Orleans history, and get to know my city better with each read, I find myself expanding my former-tunnel vision view focusing on New Orleans only to expand out into Louisiana as well. It’s a truly fascinating state, really–as someone said in the documentary, there are three Louisianas: New Orleans; north Louisiana; which is really part of the Protestant Bible Belt and could just as easily be part of Arkansas; and south Louisiana, which is overwhelmingly French and Catholic; heavily Cajun, in all honesty. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Atchafalaya basin, too; I sort of have an idea about writing about that area. Most of my Louisiana fiction has been confined to writing about New Orleans, or places on the I-10 corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and sometimes dabbling on the North Shore. I am sure every state has just as rich and diverse and colorful a history as Louisiana/New Orleans; but I also don’t live there, and Louisiana with its strange mix of Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, and Americans, with the attendant cultures, brews up a strange and endlessly fascinating gumbo.
I realized also yesterday while going through my blog drafts that I have never published my blog entry about reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin, which was what sent me down the Louisiana/New Orleans history rabbit hole in the first place.
“The crime,” as detectives would later tell the newspapers, was “one of the most gruesome in the annals of the New Orleans police.”
At five a.m. on the sultry morning of May 23, 1918, the bodies of Joseph and Catherine Maggio, Italian immigrants who ran a small grocery store in a remote section of the city, were found sprawled across the disordered bedroom of the living quarters behind their store. Both had been savagely attacked, apparently while they slept. Joseph Maggio lay face-up on the blood-sodden bed, his skull split by a deep, jagged gash several inches long; Catherine Maggio, her own skull nearly hewn in two, was stretched out on the floor beneath him. Each victim’s throat had been slashed with a sharp instrument.
A blood-smeared ax and shaving razor–obviously the murder weapons–had been found on the floor nearby.
The book opens with an examination of the strange case of New Orleans’ most famous serial killer: the Axeman. Julie Smith wrote an entire novel based in the story called The Axeman’s Jazz; it might be the second or third Skip Langdon novel. Poppy Z. Brite wrote a short story with the same name, and of course, American Horror Story: Coven also included the Axeman in its litany of past New Orleans horrors–in the Ryan Murphy version, he stumbled into the Robicheaux School for Girls (read: witches) and they killed him; his ghost haunting the house ever since. The mystery of the Axeman’s identity, of course, has never been solved–as well as the why.
Empire of Sin, however, isn’t about the Axeman entirely; it’s really a history of the Storyville district (again, another notorious part of New Orleans history, probably best known for its appearance in the Louis Malle film Pretty Baby, which probably, with its creepy pedophilia, wouldn’t hold up too well today), and really focuses on the man known as the mayor of Storyville, Tom Anderson, who rose to great wealth, notoriety, and political power through his successful bordellos there–even going so far as to providing the district with its own police force. It’s a story of immorality, the struggle between reformers trying to turn New Orleans into a city free from sin (they won small victories but New Orleans remains New Orleans to this day) and Anderson’s struggle against those “virtuous reforms.” He eventually failed, and Storyville was shut down, but Krist tells a fascinating story, extrapolating his tale of Storyville’s struggle to stay open and functioning (the money being made there brought with it the ability to, of course, buy off the police and politicians), along with the stories of corruption, murder, prostitution, violence and racism extant in the city at the time. It’s also a story of how Storyville also, surprisingly enough, gave birth to jazz music, and provided a way for musicians of color to make a successful living playing music. Storyville was the incubator that provided sustenance to the musicians playing this new form of popular music, enabling them to make a living while developing a wholly American form of music.
Reading Empire of Sin is what sent me down the road to reading history, as I said before, and as I love history, it also made me aware of just how little about New Orleans I actually do know. Discovering little throwaway bits in the book–that there were male prostitutes who serviced men with “more exotic tastes”–reminded me of how frequently, and almost completely, queer history has been successfully erased, and that made me start thinking about, well, doing something more about it. Reading this book inspired two short stories I’ve not finished–“The Blues before Dawn” and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman”–and also inspired a potential series set during the time. It’s also what gave me the idea for my collection of noir/crime/horror stories that I want to write, Monsters of New Orleans.
I cannot recommend Empire of Sin highly enough.