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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soulby Karen Abbott
Take one bordello. Muddle it with a bit of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Add a few characters to the mix, including the Everleigh sisters, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, and Al Capone, and you serve up quite a cocktail. This exhaustively researched and breezily styled book about sex, sin, and salvation is my pick for a rollicking good summer read.
Synopses & Reviews
Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history — and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago's notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club's proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh "butterflies" awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot's earnings and kept a "whipper" on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac.
Not everyone appreciated the sisters' attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters' most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of white slavery — the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America's sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
With a cast of characters that includes JackJohnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, "Hinky Dink" Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott's colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation's hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America's journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity.
"Freelance journalist Abbott's vibrant first book probes the titillating milieu of the posh, world-famous Everleigh Club brothel that operated from 1900 to 1911 on Chicago's Near South Side. The madams, Ada and Minna Everleigh, were sisters whose shifting identities had them as traveling actors, Edgar Allan Poe's relatives, Kentucky debutantes fleeing violent husbands and daughters of a once-wealthy Virginia lawyer crushed by the Civil War. While lesser whorehouses specialized in deflowering virgins, beatings and bondage, the Everleighs spoiled their whores with couture gowns, gourmet meals and extraordinary salaries. The bordello — which boasted three stringed orchestras and a room of 1,000 mirrors — attracted such patrons as Theodore Dreiser, John Barrymore and Prussian Prince Henry. But the successful cathouse was implicated in the 1905 shooting of department store heir Marshall Field Jr. and inevitably became the target of rivals and reformers alike. Madam Vic Shaw tried to frame the Everleighs for a millionaire playboy's drug overdose, Rev. Ernest Bell preached nightly outside the club and ambitious Chicago state's attorney Clifford Roe built his career on the promise of obliterating white slavery. With colorful characters, this is an entertaining, well-researched slice of Windy City history. Photos. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Probably the most famous whorehouse in America's history — OK, it's a dubious distinction at best, but it's a distinction all the same — was the Everleigh Club of Chicago, which did business in that city's tenderloin, the Levee district, for the first decade of the 20th century. It was run by a couple of sisters from rural Virginia, Minna and Ada Simms, who changed their name to Everly and then... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to Everleigh, a double entendre (depending on how one pronounces 'leigh') that was intentional, Karen Abbott reports in 'Sin in the Second City.' Whatever the name's exact origins and intentions, 'Everleigh' quickly became a synonym for high-class retail sex and remained one long after Chicago finally shut the place down in 1911. Chicago at the turn of the last century was one hell of a tough town, as yet untouched by the famous muckraking novels of Frank Norris ('The Pit,' 1903) and Upton Sinclair ('The Jungle,' 1906). It had a population of 1.7 million, a significant percentage of which was engaged in criminal activity in one way or another. By 1907 the Chicago Tribune said that 'Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character.' According to Abbott, 'newspapers printed scoreboards that tabulated murders and muggings, as if such crimes were scheduled like baseball games and horse races: a burglary every three hours, a holdup every six hours, and a suicide and murder every day.' ) In such circumstances it's scarcely surprising that prostitution flourished and that city officials (even those who weren't on the take) winked at it. There was if anything a widespread feeling that law-abiding citizens were best served if prostitution was restricted to more or less officially sanctioned areas rather than permitted to spread unchecked. The Levee was the result, and the Everleighs' double rowhouse on South Dearborn Street became, as soon as it opened, the class of the neighborhood. Minna and Ada had come to Chicago determined, so at least they always claimed, to operate not a run-of-the-mill cathouse but an elegant bagnio. Thus they 'vowed never to deal with pimps, desperate parents selling off children, panders, and white slavers.' Their prostitutes were well paid and received regular medical care. Customers were closely vetted and expected to behave themselves. When a couple of anti-vice ministers came to call in 1907, Minna 'explained graciously, patiently, that the Everleigh Club was free from disease, that Dr. Maurice Rosenberg examined the girls regularly, that neither she nor Ada would tolerate anything approaching violence, that drugs were forbidden and drunks tossed out, that guests were never robbed nor rolled, and that there was actually a waiting list of girls, spanning the continental United States, eager to join their house.' The decor of the place, judging by the period photographs reproduced in the book, was whorehouse baroque, including 'thirty boudoirs, each with a mirrored ceiling and marble inlaid brass bed, a private bathroom with a tub laced in gold detailing, imported oil paintings, and hidden buttons that rang for champagne.' Wine was 'sold in the parlors for $12 a bottle and in the bedrooms for $15, but beer and hard liquor weren't available at any price.' Considering that this price range would be well above 10 times higher in 2007 dollars, it's obvious that the Everleigh Club was strictly for men with plenty of money, if questionable morals. The house thrived immediately and stayed prosperous throughout its run, not least because the sisters maintained cozy relationships with influential politicians, in particular two notably corrupt aldermen, Michael 'Hinky Dink' Kenna and 'Bathhouse John' Coughlin, whose 'bailiwick, the First Ward, one of thirty-five in the city, encompassed the heart of Chicago, including the Loop — with its City Hall, office buildings, swanky department stores, hotels, restaurants, and theaters — and stretched south to 29th Street, claiming, too, all the Levee whorehouses, dives, and gambling dens.' The two aldermen 'took a portion of every dollar generated in the red-light district, through gambling or otherwise, and counted Mayor Carter Harrison II as a personal friend and political sponsor.' All of which was fine for a while, but gradually specific events and large social developments combined to put the sisters at risk. The 'son of a well-known millionaire' was shot in the house's Japanese Parlor. The wound was not fatal, and news coverage was 'shallow and benign,' but the incident left no doubt that scandal was an ever-present threat to the operation. Then Marshall Field Jr., of the prominent and hugely influential department-store family, died after being shot in the Levee. Competing madams tried to put the blame on the Everleighs, and even though this failed, it was 'the first true fracture in the sisters' empire.' The larger and more pressing issues were raised by changes in American society. The Everleighs appear to have been honest in claiming that they did not acquire prostitutes through the 'white slave trade,' through which 'America's daughters were being tricked out of their own lives and lured into ruin.' But public indignation about it was rising, and political leaders felt pressured to act, as Congress did in 1910 when it passed the Mann Act, which banned the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. Simultaneously, ministers and other guardians of civic virtue were on the march, especially a minister named Ernest Bell, who believed 'he was meant to do great things,' and an assistant state's attorney named Clifford Roe, who undertook a 'fight against white slavers, those "arch-enemies to society, the lowest of the lowly creatures on this earth" who "stifle truth and trample upon innocence."' This was also a time when the country's ethnic makeup was changing: 'They were everywhere, these so-called new immigrants, arriving daily from Eastern and Southern Europe, most of them "undesirable" Italians, Poles, and Russians.' Old-line Americans managed to convince themselves that these were the chief forces behind increases in urban crime and that they needed to be brought under control. That prejudice as well as outraged virtue was a motive behind the anti-vice campaign is obvious, as is the hypocrisy of a society that claimed to want to protect women while at the same time exploiting them in innumerable ways. For the Everleighs, the turning point was the publication in 1911 of 'The Social Evil in Chicago,' a report by the 30-member Chicago Vice Commission that provided a devastating account of the city's trade in prostitution and its widespread social effect. It called, unequivocally, for the 'absolute annihilation' of the Levee district. Mayor Harrison was lukewarm about this, but the Everleighs gave him little choice when they published a booklet, 'The Everleigh Club, Illustrated,' which showed the whorehouse in all its garish glory and made its way into the hands of people who joked about Chicago's corruption. On October 24 he wrote what he called a 'truly historic' note to the police: 'Close the Everleigh Club.' That was that. The sisters went quietly, though Minna wrote a number of private letters describing in detail their operations and the bribes they paid, naming names and citing specific amounts. Three years later a judge said it was time to release these letters, but Karen Abbott does not pursue this matter, leaving the reader to wonder about how the city responded to the letters and what effects they had. It's a peculiar note on which to end what is, on the whole, a rather peculiar book. Abbott has done a lot of research, but she too often ascribes actions and emotions for which her notes provide no documentation: 'Minna folded the paper, nervously fingering her butterfly pin,' or, 'Blocking out the rush hour chaos ... he replayed yesterday's interview with Mona Marshall ...,' or, 'The train groaned into motion and pulled out of Union Station. Bell stared through the scrim of ice, watching his city's slow retreat.' Perhaps there is factual evidence for all this, but without documentation, it must be read as invention. Too bad, because a story as juicy as this one doesn't need artificial flavors. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail is yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"With gleaming prose and authoritative knowledge Abbott elucidates one of the most colorful periods in American history, and the result reads like the very best fiction. Sex, opulence, murder — what's not to love?" Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
"A detailed and intimate portrait of the Ritz of brothels, the famed Everleigh Club of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Sisters Minna and Ada attracted the elites of the world to such glamorous chambers as the Room of 1,000 Mirrors, complete with a reflective floor. And isn't Minna's advice to her resident prostitutes worthy advice for us all: "Give, but give interestingly and with mystery." Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City
"Karen Abbott has combined bodice-ripping salaciousness with top-notch scholarship to produce a work more vivid than a Hollywood movie." Melissa Fay Greene, author of There is No Me Without You
"Sin in the Second City is a masterful history lesson, a harrowing biography, and — best of all — a superfun read. The Everleigh story closely follows the turns of American history like a little sister. I can't recommend this book loudly enough." Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng
"This is a story of debauchery and corruption, but it is also a story of sisterhood, and unerring devotion. Meticulously researched, and beautifully crafted, Sin in the Second City is an utterly captivating piece of history." Julian Rubinstein, author of Ballad of the Whiskey Robber
"Abbott's character sketches of individuals...make this engaging study read like a novel." Library Journal
About the Author
Karen Abbott worked as a journalist on the staffs of Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Weekly, and has written for Salon.com and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives with her husband in Atlanta, where she's at work on her next book. Visit her online at sininthesecondcity.com.
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