If you’re going to Bouchercon in New Orleans, I’m afraid you won’t have any luck finding the King in Yellow or Lost Carcosa. But you can still have a lot of fun exploring a state known for its criminal history. Louisiana was the perfect setting for the first season of True Detective because you can believe corruption is so expected that Rust Cohle’s nihilism and misanthropy feel like the only normal reaction.
I’ve loved Louisiana and its culture ever since I drove down after college to see the places I read about in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels—and after dinner at Mulate’s and wandering down Bourbon Street I was hooked. I worked down at the port there a while, visiting local haunts like Charley’s Steakhouse—featured in my story “Gumbo Weather,” which is in the Bouchercon 2016 anthology Blood on the Bayou, available for order at Down & Out Books or at the convention. My wife is from Baton Rouge, and we met in Manhattan by pure chance. But maybe her sassy ways appealed to me because of Mr. Burke and my visits to the state.
So, if you find yourself in New Orleans, here are my suggestions for a tour of the state for the criminally minded:
You can drive up north to see the memorial stone where Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down in ambush; I wrote an article about visiting it for Criminal Element a few years ago. Huey Long was shot on the steps of the state capitol building in Baton Rouge, that’s about an hour drive from New Orleans. You can still see the chips in the stone where the bullets hit. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the Desire projects, the only part of True Detective set in New Orleans, because it’s peoples’ home and not a tourist attraction. But the city has plenty to offer that makes the show look a lot less scary.
The LaLaurie Mansion, 1140 Royal Street
Marie Delphine LaLaurie was a member of Creole high society, and also a shockingly cruel murderer and torturer. Her crimes were discovered when her mansion on Royal Street caught fire and rescuers found her slaves bound and tortured—some flayed, emaciated, and wearing spiked collars. The few who escaped said that many were taken to the attic never to return, and the bodies were buried on the grounds. Townsfolk sacked and destroyed her house after the discovery, but LaLaurie escaped to France. The mansion is said to be haunted by the spirits of her victims.
The Axeman of New Orleans
No, he wasn’t a famous jazz guitarist, but a serial killer who claimed twelve heads between 1918 and 1919. He liked to kick the back door in and chop, chop, chop with a hatchet or slice with a straight razor. He taunted police with a letter addressed to “Esteemed Mortal,” and was never caught. Below is a map of his exploits:
The Axeman’s victims were often Italian-Americans—a group still maligned in the city after the 1891 lynching of eleven of their kind—in retaliation for the assassination of the New Orleans police chief by a Black Hand hit man. This was the largest mass lynching in American history. It nearly sparked a war with Italy, spurred calls or stopped immigration, and brought the secretive underworld of the Mafia into the light for the first time. The suspects were lynched outside the Orleans Parish Prison, which was in Treme at the time. The current one at 591 Broad Street in Mid City is ranked as one of the worst in the nation for inmates.
The Trunk Murders, 715 Ursuline Street
In 1927, jealous husband Henry Moity pulled a Lizzy Borden on his wife, her sister, and their children. Except he actually did it!
A butcher by trade, he killed his family in a jealous rage over his wife’s infidelity and stuffed them all in a trunk to be found by their servants. Henry was caught after running into the swamp and sentenced to life in prison, where he became a painter. He briefly escaped Angola prison but was recaptured, and he was buried at Folsom in California. His legacy remains in a portrait of Governor Huey Long that he painted while in prison, that hangs in the Governor’s mansion.
The UpStairs Lounge massacre, 141 Chartres Street
Until this year’s Orlando nightclub shooting, this was the deadliest attack on a gay nightclub in history. In 1973, at the end of pride weekend, someone set fire to the second floor nightclub. The fire raged for sixteen minutes, killing twenty-eight people as they struggled to escape down narrow stairwells and through barred windows. At least one victim fell to his death after squeezing between security bars while on fire. Fire engines were stymied by traffic but quickly doused the fire.
The main suspect was Roger Dale Nunez, a patron who had been kicked out for fighting earlier that day. He was never charged; jokes were made of the slaughter in the media. Nunez killed himself a year later. This article recalls the lounge and the massacre. The building still stands in the quarter. Photos exist of the dead, but this is from a happier time in its history:
If that’s not morbid enough for you, there’s also the Museum of Death on 227 Dauphine. I haven’t visited this one, but did stop by the Hollywood one when it opened twenty years ago. It’s educational, but not as much fun as the now-shuttered Conti Wax Museum that portrayed sordid New Orleans history with wax figures you’d never find at Madame Tussaud’s.
There’s a lot more than murder in this town; drop into Faulkner House books for treasured old editions and new greats; it’s where I bought my copy of Tom Cooper’s The Marauders, a great bayou crime tale that’s being made into a TV series. Outside the quarter is Octavia Books, another great local; they’ll be in the book room, as well.
Fans of Robert Crais can walk around Jackson Square, where Elvis Cole and Pike chatted with killers while a friendly sniper covered them from the bell tower. And fans of James Lee Burke’s will know where to go. Drop by Mulate’s for crawfish étoufée or a catfish po’boy, some gumbo and red beans and rice, and dance the Cajun two-step.
Laissez les bon temps rouler, noble mons and jolie blons….
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at www.thomaspluck.com and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.