Sunday, February 10, 2008

The French Quarter: They Lynch Italians, Don't They?


I started reading this on the plane to Louisiana in preparation for Mardi Gras. By the same author who documented the early New York City underworld in The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, that Martin Scorsese based his weakest movie upon, it is an informal and lurid history of New Orleans from before it was named to the turn of the 20th century. It's an entertaining read, though he does spend a lot of time on frivolous details such as how much money such and such died with, to show that crime does not pay. In the 30's this was especially important, because the Temperance Twats rebelled against the decadent 20's and plunged us into a decade of criminality via Prohibition. Asbury does a bit of typical 30's-era finger-wagging, especially when it comes to the unique New Orleans tale of Storyville.

Storyville was the officially mandated Red Light District from 1897 through 1917. The town had always been known as a bordello haven because the Acadian and other settlers had a woman shortage in their population. From the early days, France actually shipped girls over to be married, but some of them turned to free enterprise. Afterwards its position as an important port kept an influx of sailors and traders who needed sexual relief, so the prostitution business was always lucrative. There would be waves of outrage that would force the government, even the corrupt Reconstruction-era one, to crack down on the whorehouses. They had tried before to create a mandated district for this activity, but only in 1897 did they have enough support.
A favorite quote from a man who ran a bar called the Buffalo Bill House. It was a bucket of blood dive popular with violent ruffians, and around 1869 the newspapers were clamoring for it to be shut down. The proprietor retorted by saying that was absurd, as he had purposefully built the tavern "in the only locality in the city where decent people do not live."
I bet some yuppies moved in because it was an exciting part of town and then decided it was too wild to raise children in. An early example of gentrification.

The tale of Storyville is an interesting one, and there are two reasons for the end to that Glorious Experiment. Legally, the Federal government demanded it be closed down because it had Navy and Army barracks near New Orleans, and there were laws against houses of prostitution in their proximity. Can't have the soldiers spending their meager pay on mattress dancing. Asbury ends the book by suggesting another reason for the decline of Storyville, the change in attitudes about premarital relations. When gentlemen went a-courting the prim ladies, they needed to relieve the tensions of the sexual frustrations caused by such anticlimactic amorous rituals. The loose ladies of Basin Street were the release on this dangerous pressure valve, and we should all be thankful for it.
As the madam Countess Willie V. Piazza put it, "The country club girls are ruining my business!"

If forgotten history interests you, the book has even more to offer. Before the steamboat, men had to pole flatboats up the Mississippi River. Being as difficult as it sounds, it created a race of musclebound whiskey-drinking men who shouted such memorable phrases as "I am the child of the snappin' turtle!" before plunging into booze-fueled battle. Tales of riverboat gamblers, runaway slaves, folk heroes and bayou boogeymen riddle the purple-prosed pages.

An amusing offshoot of the South's "peculiar institution" mentioned in great detail is the Quadroon Balls. Quadroon girls were the child of a biracial "mulatto" parent and a white parent, and prior to the Spanish occupation of the French territories, they were the popular showy mistresses of the gentry. They held flashy dancing balls to hook up, and they were widely regarded as some of the most people women of the period It is not known whether they were the biggest balls of them all, but they apparently were for fancy dress rather than charity. The quadroon mistress would be put up in a nice house along the river for the fellow to visit long after he was married. The "goomatta" of a more (or less) civilized age.

What's a goomatta, or goomar if you watch the Sopranos? The girl on the side. Italian-Americans aren't the only ones with strange classifications; quadroon for example, was one of many definitions for biracial people of white and black ancestry used in the South, but more commonly in Louisiana. As Show Boat contended, much of the South went by the "single drop of black blood" theory, which meant any black blood meant you were black for all intents and purposes. Or intensive porpoises. Wouldn't The Intensive Porpoises be a good name for a band? But enough of my cribbing off Dave Barry. In the old parlance, a mulatto was the child of a white and a black parent; a quadroon was the child of a mulatto and a white parent. They counted grandparents, you see. If you had one black grandparent out of four, you were a quadroon. If you were the child of a quadroon and a white parent, you became an octoroon, or 1/8th black. Some went further, but after that point if you have any more white in you, you're a macaroon, you could pass for white, or at least be mistaken for Michael Jackson post-"Bad" album. If you didn't know that those coconut-flavored treats were named after a term from slavery, you should chastise anyone who uses that term, and perhaps start an online petition. The preferred name for that cookie now is "coconut cluster."

But enough about your racist confections, back to Italian-Americans, and the title of this blog entry. One of the first crimes attributed to the Sicilian Mafia in the U.S. happened in New Orleans, the murder of police chief Hennessy. It is now believed that he was in cahoots with the Mafia, and his murder was framed on them by other local members of the demi-monde, or underworld. Apparently a rumor was passed that his dying words were "Dagoes did it!" and this led to the lynching of two Italian-Americans and the murder of 9 others acquitted in the murder trial. The WikiPedia entry spells it as "dagos" but I think "Dagoes" looks funnier.
Wikipedia exonerates the paesanos, but Asbury's book is quiet on the subject, merely saying that the lynching party killed those who were believed to be guilty without a doubt, and left three others "unmolested." He got most of his info from newspaper archives, which claimed that rampaging Sicilians trampled an American flag and hoisted it upside down under an Italian one, everything short of making stromboli from Dixie-born babies.

His sources also had this little gem:

"The little jail was crowded with Sicilians, whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature."








Makes me wonder how I was viewed during my recent visit! I've never had any problems in Louisiana, but I remember meeting a girl in chatroom back in the 90's who was from the South (Georgia, I think) who asked me if I considered myself white. Well, all I know is that all it takes is one drop of white, non-gay blood to make you dance like Goofy getting tasered in the taint, and that makes me whiter than most macaroons, or coconut clusters. Then again, I'm not Sicilian. Just check my brow.

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