This fall, Maryland author Gary Krist will take readers into a little-known chapter of New Orleans history with his new book Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Krist brings to light the social and political struggles that New Orleans faced at the turn of the 20th century. Focusing on events from 1890 through 1920, Krist tells a tale of vice, politics, economic development, crime, jazz, racism and murder. The most shocking thing about this story is that it’s all true! This engrossing book is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
Krist recently answered some questions about Empire of Sin for Between the Covers. Read on to learn more about the city’s politics, its remarkable residents and the Axman, a serial murderer who terrorized New Orleans for 18 months.
Between the Covers: Why New Orleans? Was it the story or the city that first captured your interest?
Gary Krist: It’s hard to separate story from city, but I’d say it was a desire to write about New Orleans that first attracted me. For an urban historian, New Orleans is a particularly attractive subject, primarily because of its unique history. As a place with French and Catholic roots, it has a culture very different from that of other American cities. (My favorite observation about New Orleans is that it was the first major American metropolis to build an opera house but the last to install a sewer system.) So it was fascinating for me to see how this unique place weathered the great transition to modernity in this era.
BTC: I suspect that many of our readers don’t know a lot about this chapter in New Orleans history. Will you describe the social and political climate of the city at the turn of the 20th century?
GK: The last decades of the 19th century were difficult for New Orleans. The city’s prosperous antebellum days were long past; years of civil war and reconstruction had been hard on the local economy, and the city had become hopelessly backward in terms of urban development (hence that much-delayed sewer system). Northern capital investment was desperately needed to modernize the city’s infrastructure, but Northern capitalists were reluctant to invest in a place with such a bad reputation for vice and crime. So the city’s “better half” decided that it was time to clean up New Orleans, which meant doing battle with the city’s long-entrenched underworlds of vice and crime. Basically, they wanted to make New Orleans “respectable”—and that was going to be quite a job.
BTC: During this time, a red-light district called Storyville was created in New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about its development.
GK: Interestingly, Storyville began as part of this clean-up campaign. Reformers knew that abolishing prostitution entirely would not be feasible in a city like New Orleans, so they tried instead to isolate and regulate the trade. An alderman named Sidney Story identified a particular 18-block neighborhood and wrote an ordinance making prostitution illegal everywhere EXCEPT in this one, out-of-the-way area. Reformers figured that this would be a good way of lowering the profile of vice in the city. But the plan backfired, and Storyville (as the district came to be called, much to Alderman Story’s annoyance) soon was making New Orleans world-famous as a virtual supermarket of sin. And when reformers decided that they needed to close the district after all, it turned out that Storyville was a lot harder to kill than it had been to create.
BTC: Another notable thread of the story is the Axman murders, a series of grisly murders that took place from 1918-1919 and remain unsolved. What impact did these events have on the city?
GK: The Axman appeared at a critical time, just when the champions of respectability thought they had won their battle for New Orleans. Storyville had finally been closed in 1917, and the city’s crime problem seemed to be under control at last. But then an anonymous murderer dramatically upended this sense of victory with a series of bloody nighttime ax attacks that terrorized the city for 18 months. With each succeeding murder, panicked New Orleanians became increasingly paranoid and irrational. Then an open letter—purportedly from the Axman himself—appeared in The Times-Picayune, claiming that the murderer was a devil from hell with a liking for the new jazz music. He threatened to kill again on St. Joseph’s Night, promising only to spare any household in which jazz was being played. And, well, I don’t want to reveal too much, but you can just imagine what a night of music and dancing took place in New Orleans that night.
BTC: Empire of Sin is filled with unbelievable characters, and the most amazing thing is that they were all real people. Do you have a favorite? Which person in this book will stick with the reader the longest?
GK: Oh, I could probably name a dozen—like Josie Arlington, the wealthy brothel madam who for decades kept her sinful life a secret from her beloved niece; or Buddy Bolden, the almost-legendary cornetist who is credited with being the inventor of jazz music; or Tom Anderson, the poor kid from the rough Irish Channel neighborhood who rose to become one of the most powerful (and strangely likeable) vice lords in the country. But my favorite character is probably Louis Armstrong, who grew up in the hardest and most degrading circumstances imaginable, but whose unfailing good-heartedness and matchless musical gift allowed him to rise above his harsh childhood to become one of the great artists of the century.
BTC: What is the most shocking thing that you learned in your research?
GK: Some of the beliefs of the so-called reformers shocked me. For instance, one of the leaders of the anti-Storyville campaign was a woman named Jean Gordon. She was firmly convinced that she was on the side of virtue, but as with many self-styled moral champions, her idea of “virtue” was often distorted by class and racial prejudice. So while she fought hard for female suffrage and child labor regulation, she also lent her support to the rise of Jim Crow discrimination and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Even worse, she held some astounding beliefs about eugenics, advocating for the forced sterilization of children who showed signs of a future in crime, prostitution or alcoholism. “Took Lucille Decoux to the Women’s Dispensary July 17 [for an appendectomy],” Jean once wrote in her diary. “This was an excellent opportunity to have her sterilized…and thus end any feeble-minded progeny coming from Lucille.”
BTC: What are you working on next?
GK: My fascination with cities in the early 20th century hasn’t gone away, so I’m working on a book about Los Angeles in roughly this same time period. The book will center on the Hollywood of the silent-film era and weave in a few other elements. But the idea is still taking shape in my mind, so it’s probably too early to talk about it.
September 13-14 marks the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Author Marc Leepson takes us deeper into Key’s life and world in What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. As Leepson explains, “Virtually every American knows the name Francis Scott Key. But they know just one thing about him. There was a lot more to the man than just that he wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' under dramatic circumstances." Leepson shares more about Key’s life, his family and his relatively unknown influence on our country’s history. Watch a video of Leepson’s recent talk at the National Archives on BCPL’s Tumblr.
Marc Ferris’ Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem takes a different approach, following the history of the song itself. When it was first published as a broadside, the song was actually titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key’s words were intended to match the already well-known tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song that Ferris refers to as “a bawdy, boozy ballad.” It was instantly popular in Baltimore. Later, when Congress named it our national anthem in 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was one of several contenders for the honor. It was selected over other popular choices like “America the Beautiful,” “Yankee Doodle” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” This rich history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a fascinating read.
Baltimore will be celebrating this important anniversary with a host of exciting events September 10-16. The full schedule of events is available here.
On August 9, 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned his office following a speech to the nation the previous evening. The exposure of White House involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate scandal was at the root of his resignation, and three new books take readers back to this tumultuous time in American history and examine the events, the people and the lasting impact.
Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter’s The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 carefully examines the final tapes which were released last August. Nichter and Brinkley share the information gleaned in a readable narrative offering readers a better understanding of one of the most controversial presidencies in history. From the burgeoning relationship with China, to the SALT I agreement with Russia along with glimpses of the encroaching shadow of Watergate, Nixon’s complex portrait as a political genius marred by hubris and paranoia is well-drawn.
Former White House Counsel John Dean was in the middle of these events, and in The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It he uses personal transcripts from meetings and conversations along with documents from the National Archives and the Nixon Library to track the extent of Nixon’s knowledge and the timeline. Dean provides portraits of key players and highlights critical mistakes which led to the scandal. Dean’s first-person insight is compelling, and he also answers questions surrounding those 18 ½ minutes of missing tape.
Rick Perlstein sheds light on the lasting impact of the Nixon White House in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The United States was in the midst of turbulent political, economic and social upheaval during the 1970s and, following Nixon’s resignation, appeared on a path toward a more centrist global view. But when Ronald Reagan almost snared the Republican nomination for president from incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976, pundits were stunned. Perlstein’s carefully researched and impeccably written account is an engaging chronicle of the times and their political aftermath.
Check out BCPL’s Tumblr for the Richard Nixon Library’s playlist of online Watergate tapes, videos, photos and documents relating to the resignation.
When the name Abigail Adams is mentioned it generally conjures up an image of an iconic American figure, primarily known as the wife of President John Adams and mother of President John Quincy Adams. However, before she assumed either of these roles, she was a daughter and sister in a very extraordinary family. In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters, Diane Jacobs introduces the reader to the woman who became the icon and the family relationships that shaped her.
Born the middle of three daughters to William and Elizabeth Quincy Smith of Braintree, Massachusetts, Abigail and her sisters Mary and Elizabeth were clever girls who managed to supplement their limited formal home education by reading any book they could get their hands on. Often using excerpts from the lifelong correspondence between the three sisters, Jacobs has meticulously pieced together the lives of these women in great detail. In an era where women had few legal rights and very few career options outside of wife and mother, Abigail, Mary and Elizabeth aspired to make their voices heard outside their family circle. While Abigail seems to have achieved the most success, her sisters were able to make their marks during the Revolutionary War era and beyond.
For those who either think they know the story of Abigail Adams or have enjoyed such books as David McCullough’s biography John Adams or are interested in early American history, this book is a must read. Jacobs is not only a thorough scholar but she has a delightful and engaging narrative style.
Local author and news commentator Michael Olesker knows his Baltimore as well as anyone. For a quarter-century, the former News American and Baltimore Sun columnist has captured the changing pulse of the flawed hometown he loves, illuminating countless important issues along the way. Olesker's latest book, Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age, is a nostalgic-yet-edgy look back at a time of relative innocence for Baltimore and the country. Join him as he discusses this latest work on Tuesday, August 5 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, the third in the “Dundalk Dialogs” author speaker series, will include a book talk, signing and light refreshments. Recently, the author answered questions for Between the Covers about his new book.
Between the Covers: You have been a longtime chronicler of Baltimore’s history. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Michael Olesker: I’ve always felt that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a real dividing line in American politics and culture, as well as the real dividing line between the 1950s and ’60s. We recall the ’50s as an innocent time. We recall the ’60s as a time of social chaos: assassinations, wars, riots, terrific upheaval, some good, some bad, much of it quite difficult. But a lot of the ’60s changes were bubbling just beneath the surface in the ’50s. Several years ago, with the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaching, it occurred to me that quite a few Baltimoreans had a profound effect on the nation’s history, and they’d come of age here in the ’50s. Having grown up here in that era, I’ve always felt a real connection to that time.
BTC: You tell the stories of many of Charm City’s personalities, including Nancy Pelosi, Thurgood Marshall and Barry Levinson, coming of age before the complicated 1960s changed the way people looked at themselves and their country. Why were these stories important to share?
MO: As a product of the Baltimore City public school system, I always felt we were taught the Great Man theory of history. That is, presidents and prime ministers and kings change the world. But I think a lot of great change comes from the ground up. Nancy Pelosi’s father was mayor, but her mother ran an army of political women in a time when women were still political non-entities. That was a profound lesson. Thurgood Marshall was the product of a segregated school system and couldn’t get into the University of Maryland Law School because of his skin color. That was a profound motivator as he went on to change the nation’s schools. Barry Levinson was a kid soaking up movie and TV culture and knew that it didn’t reflect the world as he knew it. That was a great motivator for him.
BTC: What made you begin and end with the Kennedy assassination?
MO: My previous book, The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the Fifties, was a 50th anniversary look back at the legendary 1958 Colts who won pro football’s “greatest game ever played.” The response to it was so overwhelmingly heartfelt that the Hopkins Press folks suggested the 50th anniversary of Dallas was another real emotional hook for many people. I wanted to profile not only those people who went on to change the country but the Baltimore of that era — the working class town, the sixth biggest city in the country, the city of neighborhoods and people sitting on front stoops to catch up on the world — but a town on the verge of so many profound changes.
BTC: Why did you decide to write in the present tense?
MO: In my mind, the past never entirely goes away — it still flutters around us, still moves the world in ways we don’t always notice. I felt, from the very first sentence I wrote, that the ’50s were still alive and that, by writing in the present tense, I’d give my narrative a greater sense of immediacy.
BTC: You write that, for newspapers, the Kennedy assassination signaled the “opening moment of long decades of coughing and wheezing their way out of existence.” You have lived through a lot of changes. Where do you see the news gathering business in 10 or 20 years?
MO: We’re currently in a shaking-out period where even the brightest people haven’t figured out where journalism is heading. What’s become clear to me — from years at newspapers, from years on nightly TV news and from years teaching at one of our local colleges — is that a lot of people don’t have the attention span they once had, nor the patience for long-form reading. They want instant gratification, easily digestible bites of information, and then they move on to the next amusement. Millions of us now live moment-to-moment lifestyles but don’t know the history of the last 10 minutes, much less 10 years. I hope my book is a chance for people to see, in an entertaining way, how we began to get where we are.
BTC: Do you think there is any charm left in Charm City?
MO: Absolutely. I think the city’s best years are still ahead of it. Are we losing some of our inimitable “Bawlamer” uniqueness? Sure. But change is always inevitable. What’s shocked all of us is the speed of all this change.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the moment that set the history of the rest of the 20th century in motion. Believed at first to be a war that would take weeks or months to settle, the war dragged on for four long, tragic years until the armistice was signed in 1918. Many new titles have been written that bring a better understanding of this period and the catastrophe of the war.
R.G. Grant’s World War I: the Definitive Visual History, from Sarajevo to Versailles is a terrific introduction to many facets of the conflict. DK Publishing, partnering with the Smithsonian, brings manageable text and countless period photographs here to best explain the personalities, weapons and cultural artifacts of the time period. In The Long Shadow: The Legacy of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, David Reynolds discusses the ramifications of the war, and rethinks some of the theses that have become too-easy explanations for its causes and results. He also looks at its decades-long impact on the art and literary world and how it brought about Modernism. Howard Blum’s Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Tale in America is a fascinating tale of espionage and intrigue is. New York City and other American cities were targeted by German spies to discourage munitions and other supplies from going across the Atlantic to the Allied forces, long before United States troops became officially embroiled in the conflict itself.
Novels set in the time period are perennially popular, such as the Maisie Dobbs mysteries. Now, that series’ author, Jacqueline Winspear, returns with the elegiac and stunning The Care and Management of Lies. Two very different young women come together in the backdrop of the war that has taken away the men in their lives. And Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters is fiction rooted in the heroic tales of the famous African-American 369th Infantry Regiment who fought for France due to antiquated, racially-motivated rules within the American Expeditionary Forces.
In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda, the reader learns a lot about Lee’s life and the events that would lead to him becoming the leader of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Born into Virginia aristocracy that included direct links to George Washington, Lee was destined for a distinguished life from birth. Still, Lee had some major obstacles on his path to military fame, including a less than idyllic family life. His father, ‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee, fought alongside Washington in the American Revolution, but sank into a life of dissipation fueled by alcohol. Eventually, he abandoned the family. Thanks to his mother’s guiding determination, young Robert was able to succeed both scholastically and socially, and achieved prominent positions in both the United States and Confederate States armies.
Lee attended West Point and graduated second in his class without ever receiving a single demerit – not an easy feat in those days when moral rectitude and scholastic discipline were equally valued. As Korda notes, Lee held himself to a very strict code of moral conduct, perhaps due in part to his father’s poor example. Yet, Lee did not exactly impose his strictness to either his family or the soldiers he led. Although he could be a disciplinarian, he preferred to lead by example. He felt that his subordinates should know instinctively the correct choices. According to Korda, Lee’s inability to effectively communicate his wishes to his troops was a major factor in determining the outcome of the Civil War.
Whether you view Lee as a hero, villain or somewhere in between, Korda does offer some interesting perspectives on a very complicated man. While Clouds of Glory may not change your mind about Robert E. Lee, it does illustrate what a complex and sometimes contradictory character he was.
To commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I this summer, many new books have been and will continue to be released. They range from new analyses of battles, biographies of personalities of the era and wide-ranging assessments of how the ‘War to End All Wars’ set the history of the 20th and 21st century and its continuing conflicts in motion. A furry character study for young readers comes in Ann Bausum’s Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog. As the United States was at last pulled into the war in 1917, a stray, brindle-colored Boston Bull Terrier wandered onto a soldiers’ training ground at Yale University. The soldiers all took a liking to this sweet, short-tailed dog, but none more than enlisted man James Conroy.
Training complete (for both men and dog), the soldiers were sent to sea, and Conroy smuggled the pup onto the ship bound for France. Now considered a mascot, Stubby had been taught to stand on his rear legs and lift his right paw to salute high-ranking officers. This endeared Stubby to all he met, including women of the French resistance, who sewed him a natty uniform. The dog turned out to be a valiant and useful addition to the men in the trenches, as he aided with rat removal, alerted the men to enemies approaching and was even temporarily wounded in action while helping to discover landmines. Bausum illustrates the history of the four-legged hero with plenty of period photographs from the Conroy family collection and other ephemera of the WWI era. Her impeccable research is outlined in endnotes and an extensive bibliography. She also tells of this famous dog in Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation, written for adult readers. This title covers even more of Stubby’s exploits during and after the war. Both books are published by National Geographic, and are excellent avenues into this period. They will be enjoyed by dog lovers as well as by history buffs.
Maryland folklorist Elaine Eff is a champion of local culture and traditions. In her new book, she sets her sights on a much-loved Baltimore icon: the painted window screen and the artists who created them. Eff will discuss her latest work, The Painted Screens of Baltimore: an Urban Folk Art Revealed, on Tuesday, July 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The program, which is part of the branch’s “Dundalk Dialogs” local author speaker series, will include a book talk and signing. Eff recently answered questions for Between the Covers about her new book.
Between the Covers: How did you become interested in the history of Baltimore’s painted screens?
Elaine Eff: Serendipity. Two coincidences that changed the course of my life: As a Baltimore girl, I was expected to be an authority on our local folk art – which I was not. In fact, I knew nothing on the subject. When I arrived at graduate school, I found a 19thcentury – not Baltimore, but New York State – painted screen in our museum’s collection, and that started my journey. I needed to learn what history, if any, the two might share.
BTC: Can you share how you conducted your research for this project?
EF: Face-to-face, person-by-person. Visiting artists, walking the streets of East Baltimore, talking to strangers, traveling to libraries, museums and archives nationwide, international research and casting the net wider and deeper as the subject became richer and more fascinating.
BTC: What do you want readers, who may not have any knowledge of this Baltimore tradition, to take away from your book?
EF: Painted screens are a response to a community’s need for privacy. Row houses demand them, and they had the extra bonus of being downright beautiful. “You see out. No one sees in,” and “They used to be everywhere” is what you hear all the time. The book is as much about Baltimore and neighborhood building. It has something for everyone and can be appreciated on many levels: as a whole, in small bites or tastes here and there. Appreciate what an incredible city of resourceful people can make happen.
BTC: Among the painters you researched were there any who were as colorful as the art they created?
EF: Every single one. That is why I first made the film The Screen Painters. Every painter is a movie in him or herself. They needed to tell their own story and did. They are an incredible group of creative individuals who changed the face of a city. Not bad for a bunch of local untrained artists! The book gives you a glimpse into that wonderful era when the sidewalks told a very different – an incredibly colorful —story, in many ways.
BTC: What were some of the favorite images seen around town?
EF: The Red Bungalow was it. Everyone wanted to have the red cottage with a winding path, a pond and swans. Ninety percent of the windows had that scene as interpreted by hundreds of different hands. Today things are very different — strangely, now we see a lot of local landmarks, like the [Patterson Park] Pagoda. One house in Highlandtown even has Formstone painted on the window screen! Big difference is it used to be EVERY window and door — front and back. Now we see the front window and little more. Times and tastes have changed. And that is wonderful.
Readers who would like to learn more can also visit The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore website.
“Oh God, he stabbed me! Help me!” was the cry eventually heard around the world. In Kew Gardens, Queens, on Friday, March 13, 1964, this shout for help was heard by 38 bystanders, all of whom watched a young woman being killed and did nothing. Or so The New York Times reported. In Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, award-winning author Kevin Cook brings fresh perspective to a case and story which grew and has remained in the public mind as a cautionary tale of urban decline and apathy.
Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bartender who lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood, was coming home from a shift that fateful early Friday morning when she was stabbed by an assailant who ran off but then came back and attacked her a second time. As the legend which grew around the crime reports, 38 residents in nearby apartment buildings all watched the attack, more than half an hour long, and did nothing to help. This crime prompted sociological research about when individuals were most likely to help, leading to a theory known as the “bystander effect.” It also encouraged the establishment of a national 911 number so people could more efficiently report crimes.
As Cook reveals, the story, which has been countlessly retold, is not the full story of what happened that morning. There were several individuals who police did consider to be true villains for their apathetic response. However, others saw only a glimpse of what had happened and were unaware that a crime had occurred. Other concerned individuals did phone the police. Covering more than just the crime, Cook explores the vibrant life of the young victim, the cold-blooded calculation of the killer Winston Mosley and the restlessness and explosive nature of the city and country in the ’60s. Alternately dramatic and sobering, this book is a must-read for anyone who remembers this story from the newspapers or a social psychology textbook. Ultimately, in a city that appeared on the brink of social crisis, there were still individuals who did good.