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.)
"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
"[D]elicious and exhaustively researched." Chicago Sun-Times
"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.
Reading Group Guide
1. The Everleigh sisters were technically criminals, yet they genuinely believed they were helping the girls in the Club. What do you think about the Everleigh sisters business practices? Why were they so successful?
2. How are Minna and Ada alike, and how are they different? Who was the stronger sister, in your opinion? How were they able to perpetuate so many lies for so long?
3. In what ways does Abbotts portrait of turn-of-the-century America mirror the present day?
4. At the time the Everleighs ruled Chicago, what other choices did women have? Do you judge the women who became “sporting girls”? Do you judge the madams? What path do you think you would have chosen if youd been alive and facing similar circumstances during the turn of the century?
5. On the surface it seems that there are only two sides in Sin in the Second City—the reformers and the sisters—but there are actually a few more: the politicians, the Levee gangsters, and the rival madams. Are there heroes in Sin in the Second City, and are there villains? Who did you sympathize with? Did you find your loyalties shifting at any point along the way?
6. Do you think the reformers exaggerated or accurately represented the “white slavery” situation?
7. At one point, the African American boxing champion Jack Johnson shows up at the Club, and his presence causes quite a commotion. What does his visit tell you in terms of race and America at the turn of the century?
8. How did Americas sexual culture change during the Everleighs reign? Who was primarily responsible for these changes, the reformers or the underworld?
9. Chicago is as much a character in Sin in the Second City as the gangsters and the madams. Why do you think the Everleigh sisters chose to settle in Chicago? Would they have been as successful in another city, or was Chicago particularly conducive to their success?
10. Many reformers cited strong religious convictions as a reason for fighting the red-light districts. How do you think the religious tenor of the times compares to that of today?
11. What was your favorite Everleigh Club anecdote?
12. What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like Sin in the Second City that cant be from novels? In what ways is the book like a novel?
13. Abbott stumbled upon the story of the Everleigh sisters while researching a long-lost relative. How much do you know about your own familys history and ancestry? Do you know where they were and what they were doing from 1900 to 1911, when the Everleigh Club was in business?