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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul Paperback – June 10, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At the dawn of the 20th century, there was no more famous-or notorious-brothel in America than the Everleigh Club in Chicago. Run by two sisters with an all-American talent for self-invention, the club set new standards for opulence as well as harlots' rights. Abbott's scintillating tale of prostitution and scandal, however, is not well-served by this plodding audio rendition. Bean emerges as a narrator with a curious double standard: for the madams, aldermen and other colorful characters who populated the Levee red light district a century ago, she creates unique voices full of dialect, humor and pathos. For the reformers who sought to shut down the whorehouses, though, her vocal creativity falls flat; the same schoolmarmish voice is used for every religious or legal reformer in Chicago. It's a shame that the audio book couldn't utilize the more than three dozen sumptuous photographs and illustrations that grace the print edition, showing the club in all its gaudy Victorian splendor and providing mugs of the Levee's many legendary figures. Simultaneous release with the Random House hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 16).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

From Booklist

Chicago, the saying goes, ain't ready for reform. It certainly wasn't in 1899, when sisters Ada and Minna "Everleigh" (real name: Simms) opened their brothel. As Abbott's jaunty history relates, their whorehouse was not a tawdry bang barn for johns with a nickel but a glitzy palace of paid pleasure for plutocrats. Ada and Minna's Everleigh Club prospered, protected by payoffs to Chicago's legendary political crooks "Bathhouse" Coughlin and "Hinky Dink" Kenna, but the bordello's brazenness mobilized moralists alarmed by vice, so-called white slavery in particular. An entertaining read, by turns bawdy and sad, as when a courtesan ends up dead, Abbott's account extends beyond local history because the campaign against Ada and Minna had lasting national effects: the closure of urban red-light districts and the passage of the federal Mann Act concerning prostitution. Abbott adroitly evokes the cathouse atmosphere, but it is the rapier-sharp character sketches of the cast that best show off her authorial skills and will keep readers continually bemused as they learn about the lives and times of two madams. Taylor, Gilbert --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812975995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812975994
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (226 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Karen Abbott's forthcoming book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a true story of four daring (and not entirely scrupulous) Civil War spies who risked everything for their cause. The new book will be published by HarperCollins on September 2, 2014. Abbott's previous books, Sin in the Second City and American Rose, were both New York Times bestsellers. Abbott is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine's history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for Disunion, the New York Times series about the Civil War. A native of Philadelphia, where she worked as a journalist, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 76 people found the following review helpful By Bluestalking Reader VINE VOICE on July 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I've been completely side-swiped for days by Karen Abbott's riveting true story of the infamous Everleigh Club brothel that operated in Chicago from 1900 to 1911. Sin in the Second City reads like a novel. I had to keep reminding myself it's absolutely true. It's just so absorbing, it's easy to forget you're not reading fiction.

Sisters Ada and Minna "Everleigh" (a name they assumed) were raised in privilege in a wealthy southern family. They were very highly educated women, intellectuals in an age that wasn't prized in the female sex. The story of how they went from high society to becoming madams is incredible, reflecting on their innate intelligence and economic and marketing savvy. But equally remarkable is the difference between their establishment and others that existed around the same time. Rather than demeaning their girls, Ada and Minna lavished money and benefits such as expensive clothing on their whores. These were girls who were tutored in the arts, making them more like geishas than common prostitutes.

The Everleigh Club was an elite bordello, drawing the likes of literary great Theodore Dreiser, the actor John Barrymore, and even a Prussian prince. This was no common whorehouse. Though the girls did provide sexual services, the Everleigh was a much more refined establishment featuring string orchestras, lavish decor, and a class of girls that were a cut above those in lesser houses.

The history presented here illustrates the high level of research Abbott conducted. To say it's thorough is a vast understatement. Not only do we get all the known history on the Everleigh, but the rest of Chicago history is likewise splayed out before us, including all that was going on politically, socially and in the literary world.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Rose Keefe VINE VOICE on July 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
When I picked up a copy of "Sin in the Second City" during a recent visit to Chicago, my initial thought was "Finally! Someone has seen the Everleigh Sisters for the roguish and riveting characters that they were and given their lives a book-length treatment." After finishing the book in less than two days, I have to conclude that no one could have done a better job than Karen Abbott did.

Minna and Ada Simms were two Virginia-born debutantes who took their beauty, business smarts, love of refinement, and lack of subservience to men, and realized a fortune. Their palatial brothel in Chicago's raucous Levee district made them a cause celebre for the eleven years they remained in business. They catered to the millionaire element, becoming the Nordstrom's of the flesh trade, and injected class and humor into a profession that easily destroyed the bodies and souls of the unwary. Competitors like Madam Vic Shaw and the Weiss brothers hated them for setting gilded standards that the $2 dives like the Bucket of Blood and the Sappho could never hope to match. Religious crusaders and purity leagues blasted them as flagships for the dreaded white slave trade, conveniently forgetting that the Everleigh Club was so renowned for its generous treatment of the inmates that there was a waiting list to join the ranks of Everleigh 'butterflies', as Minna called them. But as the saying goes, "A narrow mind and a wide mouth usually go together."

Although the Everleigh Club's irreverent opulence caused its downfall and ultimately the closure of the old Levee, Minna and Ada had the last laugh. They took their millions, toured Europe, and lived out the last of their days in New York.

Through free use of anecdotes that make this nonfiction book read like the best-crafted fiction, Ms.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By J. Winn on July 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Sin in the Second City is my favorite kind of non-fiction---a meticulously researched and multi-layered sliver of history that reads like a fast-paced and exciting novel. My favorite thing about the book is the balanced coverage given to all the sides in this complicated culture war. Abbott turns a discerning eye on the reformers and their separate motivations---some driven by faith, some by ego, and some by ambition, and mirrors those motivations in the layered characters of the madams and politicos.

The writing is stellar, the time period fascinating, the details are sumptuous---I couldn't put this book down, and I know I will be rereading it. I can't recommend this book strongly enough.
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36 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Melissa N. VINE VOICE on July 18, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"Sin in the Second City" is a detailed journey into a part of Chicago history that some people would prefer to forget about. No, this isn't another book about a serial killer at the World's Fair: it's the story of Chicago's Levee district, the brothel-infested underworld based on the city's South side in the 1900's. Specifically, this book tells the story of the Everleigh Club, which was possibly the most famous house of ill repute in all of history. Located on Dearborn Street, the high-class club was run by two madams, Minna and Ada Everleigh, a pair of sisters that claimed to be "the only madams in history who had started out as debutantes."

The Everleigh Club was very different from the other brothels in the Levee. Minna and Ada put a great deal of effort into bringing some "dignity" to the prostitution business. Harlots (yes, that's how prostitutes are referred to in the book) needed to be put on a waiting list to get into the Everleigh Club because the place was unlike any other brothel in the country: hundreds of women wanted to work there. The club was grandly decorated in expensive gold fineries and only admitted wealthy and well-behaved male clientele. While other brothels would obtain harlots through methods of white slavery, the Everleigh sisters only hired courtesans who sincerely wanted to work for them. Everleigh "butterflies" were the most beautiful and sought-after girls in the business, and within days of its grand opening, the club became the most prestigious brothel in the country and retained its status for many years.

Unfortunately for Minna and Ada, their success didn't last forever. Chicago became known primarily for two things: the Union Stock Yards and the Everleigh Club.
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