Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Mysteries of New Orleans
(Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans)
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein
Steven Rowan (translator)
John Hopkins University Press, 559 pages

Ernest James Bellocq
Mysteries of New Orleans
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein
Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein (1826-1885) was born in Marktsteft am Main, Germany, to a family of aristocrats of ancient noble lineage. The fact that he was a lackadaisical and dissolute young man, embroiled, if peripherally, in court scandals, led to his father sending him to America in 1848. After squandering what money he had, he survived by shucking oysters, watching cows for a farmer, and as a travelling bird-cage salesman. A relative in St. Louis who ran a surveying office let him learn on the job, and Ludwig finally settled in New Orleans as a civil engineer. There he married, and soon began editing a German language weekly, Alligator, and contributing to other German language newspapers, particularly the Louisiana Staats-Zeitung. His novel Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans began its serial run in the Jan. 1, 1854 issue. Criticized for its moral decadence, the novel ended its run in March 1855. Suppressed and destroyed the novel survives in a single complete copy at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Reizenstein was also a lepidopterist of some repute.
Steven Rowan
Steven Rowan is a professor of history at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. He has resurrected a number of German-American urban mysteries: he has translated Cincinnati, or The Mysteries of the West (1996) by Emil Klauprecht and edited a 19th century English translation of The Mysteries of St. Louis (1990), by Henry Boernstein.

Publisher's website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

By the 1840s, the Gothic novel with its haunted castles, innocent noble damsels in distress and nefarious villains had pretty much petered out, and authors like Charles Dickens were presenting the horror of urban poverty and squalor resulting from the Industrial Revolution. There were still the penny dreadfuls, and some Gothic latecomers like William Harrison Ainsworth, but popular sensationalist literature needed a new focus. From June 1842-October 1843, Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris was serialized in the French magazine Journal des Débats, starting a bestselling literary genre, the urban mystery. So popular was this novel that, in the words of author Théophile Gautier (Capitaine Fracasse, Le Roman de la Momie): "The sick have held off dying until The Mysteries of Paris was finished." This book told the story of Prince Rodolpho trying to save a young woman from prostitution and degradation in the seamy underbelly of 19th century Paris. Imitators were a dime a dozen: British penny dreadful author George W. Reynolds' (of Wagner the Wehr-wolf fame) The Mysteries of London (1845), Frenchman Paul Féval's (as Francis Trollop) Les Mystères de Londres (1843-44) and urban crime series Les Habits Noirs (1863-1875), American writer George Lippard's The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monks Hall (1844), amongst many many others. And the genre is still not entirely dead if one considers the popularity of the recent film Gangs of New York.

I must say that I'd never very much considered what if any German-American literature and journalism existed, at least prior to Hanns Heinz Ewers's infamous Vampir, which American authorities wished to suppress in the early 1900s. Lo and behold, there were a great number of German-American urban mysteries, of which three have been deemed worthy of English translations, those set in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and New Orleans. The latter, Baron von Reizenstein's Mysteries of New Orleans, suppressed, renounced by its author exists in only one complete copy. It took editor/translator Steven Rowan some 10-odd years to find the full text and translate it. He also present an extensive and lucid introduction detailing what is know of von Reizenstein's life and the sociopolitical context of the novel.

Was it all worth it? From a historical and cultural perspective it definitely is. The most interesting portions of the book are those of everyday life in 1850s New Orleans. An episode about street children going across town to glean stray coffee beans from a warehouse is particularly well done. Such peripheral-to-the-plot scenes, set in New Orleans, obviously drawn from personal experience, are the best moments in the book. The plotting, however, is rather a disjointed hodge-podge of narrative non-sequiturs, flashbacks, and loose ends. Not that the likes of Sue and Féval didn't have their share of these, but all and all The Mysteries of New Orleans is poorly written, even by the standards of its time. Don't get me wrong, it's plenty fun to read, has plenty of scandal, sex, murder and mayhem, dastardly villains, a superhuman 200-year old sorcerer-revolutionary, and decadence to spare, but the author was no Tieck or Hoffman.

What's it about? Partly about Hiram the Freemason, a powerful (in the occult sense) man, steeped in ancient wisdom, come to take revenge upon the South for slavery, bringing the yellow fever with him to prepare the way for a black messiah. Also in the mix, an amoral arsonist-murderer-psychopath named Lajos, the criminal underworld of New Orleans, a family of German emigrés quickly falling into poverty and despair, a pair of young women in a lesbian romance. Told in a rather matter of fact, reportorial style, this all lends a gathering sense of gloom to the proceedings. Still, the end of the novel is somewhat unsatisfactory, Lajos the brutal murderer is led off and executed fairly painlessly by the power of moonlight, courtesy of Hiram, who apparently sometime thereafter dies, leaving a black emperor to rule in Haiti. The city has forgotten all about the fever and Hiram, and the author leaves us with the warning "Ruin awaits him who does not take heed!"

Certainly I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in the pre-Civil War American South, in particular that of New Orleans, those who enjoy 19th century urban mysteries, or those of you entranced by tabloid gossip columns wishing to experience the 1850s equivalent, but for the modern horror or crime reader The Mysteries of New Orleans may be, notwithstanding its cover, a bit of a letdown after Janet Jackson.

Copyright © 2004 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide