The criminal underworld is one of the most enduring aspects of American culture – from the outlaws of the Wild West to the rise of the Italian Mafia, it permeates literature and movies, perhaps reaching an apotheosis in the films of Martin Scorcese. Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York took the audience back to the early days of organized crime in the Big Apple and was based on the book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, who forged a reputation as one of the leading authorities on the American criminal underworld. With The French Quarter he does for New Orleans what he did for New York, and explores the dark underbelly of “The Big Easy”.
From the early days under the administration of French Governor the Marquis de Vaudreuil and a brief period under Spanish control, to the Louisiana Purchase, under which the French sold it to the United States, the history of New Orleans is portrayed as an unbroken sequence of corruption, crime and vice of every strain. Asbury not only captures the essence of the changing physical landscape of the city and the emergence of various districts of notoriety, with his evocation of a haphazard array of rough and tumble buildings built on uncleared swampland teeming with alligators through to the high class bordellos and gambling joints frequented by the corrupt political and business classes, he populates his portrait with all manner of thieves, vagabonds, river bullies and other unsavoury types drawn from the historical record.
This criminal underclass made up a significant part of the demographics of New Orleans from the very beginning. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers were beset by the river bullies, who ransacked and murderer with virtual impunity. These whiskey-fuelled criminals of the most depraved kind would raid the flatboats and keelboats which made the journey downstream; at night they would fight amongst themselves, often biting, gouging and stabbing their opponents in their efforts to wear the red turkey-feather of the champion in their hats.
Others established more organized criminal empires, such as Jean Lafiite, who earned himself a reputation as a legendary pirate and became embroiled in political intrigue. And political conspiracies were plentiful in New Orleans – the city became the meeting point for the filibusters, who would plan their revolutionary campaigns against the Spanish territories to the south in the numerous seedy barrel-houses and taverns found in the city. Few of these campaigns ended in success, but there was never a shortage of opportunists willing to risk their lives for the promise of cash and land should they succeed.
Asbury’s overview of New Orleans is certainly sordid – it was described by some at the time as an “epoch of degeneration” and “Hell on earth”, where murders and robberies were so frequent and often unreported that it is almost impossible to establish accurate statistics. It’s also a thoroughly compelling read, evoking a feel for the period almost literary in its articulation. Perhaps one day Martin Scorcese will turn his attention towards this chapter in American history and do for it what he has done for New York – it would be a fitting cinematic companion piece to The Gangs of New York.