72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
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. Really a fascinating portrait of an age and a city, Sin in the Second City is a thrilling read I'd recommend to anyone, whether interested in Chicago history in particular or not. It's a slice of an era, and a invaluable historical record of how the nation stood at the beginning of the 20th century. It's as engaging as any novel I've ever read. I can smell the awards now.
33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
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. Abbott has told a riveting story of two women who became successful and wealthy on their own terms. By going for the gold ring instead of the brass one, they went down in a blaze of glory... pun intended.
25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2007
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.
36 of 41 people found the following review helpful
"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. Such notoriety did not please city officials, who desired a more respectable reputation for Chicago. Religious activists and community leaders eventually became more and more determined to put an end to white slavery and dismantle the Levee district altogether. In the end, the Everleigh Club disappeared along with the other Chicago brothels, but it left a lasting impression on the city for a very long time.
When I first picked up this book, I figured that author Karen Abbott was trying to capitalize on the success of Erik Larson's bestseller, "The Devil in the White City." Indeed, the general concept of corruption in Chicago at the turn of the century is present in this book, and Abbott's writing style is somewhat similar to Larson's. However, Abbott's book surpasses Larson's in several ways. First of all, "Sin" is much better written than "Devil." There aren't any dry chapters and Abbott doesn't bombard the reader with a ridiculous amount of unnecessary detail. Also, Abbott's book doesn't drag on forever the way Larson's does, and even though the narration of "Sin" shifts perspective as it does in "Devil," one point of view isn't any less interesting than the others. Finally, although Abbott does make some general assumptions in this book (you have to, I think, if you're writing this kind of story), she doesn't go over-the-top the way Larson tends to do, making "Sin" a more credible piece of non-fiction than "Devil."
"Sin in the Second City" is meticulously researched, and it forces readers to question their perceptions on what is generally a very taboo topic. Although the Levee district hasn't existed in Chicago for years, prostitution is still very active around the world. The Everleigh sisters firmly believed that their business was a good and necessary one, and that the way they ran their club distinguished them from sleazier houses where girls were lured to disease-infested brothels, beaten and raped, and then forced to turn tricks or face the penalty of death.
Ultimately, the best thing about this book is that it delves into a huge part of Chicago history that's pretty much been buried for decades. I've lived in the Chicago area my entire life, and although I knew there used to be a Levee district here, I'd never even heard of the Everleigh Club before, which is a shame. This may be a slightly embarrassing part of the city's history, but it's history nonetheless, and I really enjoyed reading about it.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 5, 2007
Karen Abbott has written a lively rendition about the infamous Levee district of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Minna and Ada Everleigh left Omaha, Nebraska, looking for another city in which to set up a den of inequity. After scouting several possibilities they settled on the notorious Levee district in Chicago, Illinois. At the time of their arrival the Lords of the Levee were an odd couple of aldermen named Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin. Kenna was known for his quote, "Chicago ain't no sissy town", and Coughlin for his loud wardrobe of a bright green coat, lavender trousers, and silk pink gloves. Sisters Ada and Minna went by the name of Everly while in Omaha and then changed it to Everleigh which turned into a play on words when men would brag that they "were getting Everleighed tonight." This term was understood by only a few and ultimately the term was shortened. It's interesting that people use the term with no understanding where it originated. The book has numerous photos of the inside of the Club on south Dearborn Street as well as the outside of the building. This was the same area that Big Jim Colosimo had his nightclub which was patronized by Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, and nother notables while in Chicago and Al Capone ran The Four Duces. Big Jim, of course, met his demise on May 11,1920, most likely by Frankie Yale who was brought from New York to consumate the hit. The Everleigh Club's operation went from 1900 until 1911 when it was forced to close down. The author does a magnificant job in bringing back the flavor of what Chicago was like during this time period in addition to describing the inside of the Club and what the requirements for her girls were in her "classy" establishment. This is infamous history, but there is more to history than wars, treaties, and presidents.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 11, 2012
Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City is something of a hodge-podge without clear focus or subject matter. On one hand, it's the story of what Abbott claims is Chicago's most famous bordello, the Everleigh Club, and the sisters who created and ran it and the politicians who protected them. It is on the other hand, the story of the reformers who tried to close it and the Levee District - Chicago's red light district - down and who succeeded in getting the Mann Act passed in 1910. She talks in some detail about the corruption in Chicago's politics and police force and how the politicians - notably Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John McCoughlin -- aldermen for the First Ward - aided and abetted the various houses of sin in the Levee District, collecting protection money for permitting them to stay in business. Abbott attempts to provide a chronological narrative of the Levee District from the time the sisters purchased the existing bordello at 2131 and 2133 South Dearborn Street in 1899 and who, with remarkable business sense and marketing skills, created a bordello which appealed to their clients' fantasies as much as their sexual urges until the the Everleigh Club was closed down by order of the mayor on October 25, 1911 (the Levee District was closed down completely in 1914).
Too much happens in those eleven years for the book to be a coherent history of the district, the sisters, or any of the forces swirling in Chicago and throughout the country or even of the conflict between the Everleigh sisters and the reformers. Although Abbott touches on many interesting issues in a fascinating period of history: the Progressive Era, political corruption, the Mann Act, "white slavery," suffrage, prohibition, anti-tobacco refomers, segregation of vice into its own district, prostitution, reform movements targeting prostitution and white slavery, career choices for woman, the "best" way to run a bordello, to name just a few, she leaves a lot of loose ends. Because there are so many things going on, she skips around a great deal, making the early portion of the book hard to follow and somewhat superficial. While it is obvious that Abbott has an admiration for the Everleigh sisters and their imaginative approach to running a bordello,bringing acting and prostitution together in a fantasy world, and keeping the clientele exclusive, the book is not really about them nor is it really about the reformers who camped at their doors for years. In my opinion Abbott never justifies the editor's grandiose subtitle, "The Battle for America's Soul." If there was a battle for America's soul, sin won. When the Levee District was closed down, sin in Chicago just dispersed; "white slavery" and corrupt politics just continued. A much tighter focus would have improved the book considerably. Although it is moderately interesting at times, it's too superficial.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2007
This is a great read and very historic. I became interested in the history of Chicago when I bought a condo in the center of Printer's Row and home to Dearborn Station. This is just south of the Financial District in downtown Chicago. This neighborhood at the turn of the century was quite the place to be if you were a madam, a hoodlam, a politician and anyone lookin for trouble. The book has many facets from the famous Everleigh Club, to Chicago politics, to White Slavery from the Law to the Outlaws...An interesting take on 1900's Chicago!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Prostitution was rampant in urban America at the turn of the 20th Century with the influx of immigrants from foreign countries and rural areas, poor wages for young working women, and a repressive standard of sexual morality. Many cities had laws declaring prostitution illegal, but in fact they tried to control the spread of the "social evil" by establishing "segregated" areas where the practice was allowed to flourish. Chicago was well-known for its openness to prostitution, and its most notorious segregated area was called the "Levee" on the city's near south side. The Levee was a large, diverse area which included block upon block of "resorts", ranging from small 25 cent "cribs" to posh establishments that catered to the city's elite.
In her recent book "Sin in the Second City", Karen Abbott, a former journalist, tells the fascinating story of the Levee with a focus on its most glamorous resort, the Everleigh Club and its Madams, the Everleigh sisters, Minna and Ada. The Everleigh sisters were born Minna and Ada Simms in upper-class Virginia. After failed marriages, the sisters opened a brothel in Omaha, Nebraska and then, after investigating the market, opened what rapidly became the leading and most expensive brothel in the Levee, the Everleigh (named for "ever-lay) Club.
Abott tells the story of the Everleighs with verve and affection. They maintained a posh resort replete with a gold piano, works of art, heavy carpeted waiting rooms, elegant dinners and beautiful women who were known as "Butterflies". The Everleigh's prided themselves on the way in which they treated their butterflies. The Everleighs disdained the "white slave" traffic and carefully interviewed the young women wishing to work in their resort. The butterflies were free to leave their employment, received regular medical examinations, excellent food, and even some education. They were not whipped or brutalized, as was the case in many other brothels. The butterflies were allowed to see their boyfriends one evening per week if they wished and were encouraged to see themselves and their chosen career with respect. Part of the reason the Everleigh Club was able to succeed on this basis was because it was upscale and expensive, catering only to the wealthiest individuals.
Abbott's book describes the interaction of the Everleigh Club and the sisters with the other inhabitants of the Levee. The Levee depended for its existence on graft and corruption within the Police Department and the political leaders of Chicago's first ward. The Everleigh sisters participated fully in keeping their area safe from the law. Many of the other madams and proprietors of resorts in the Levee were jealous of the success of the Everleigh Club and tried to ruin its business. The lives of the sisters were threatened and on one occassion, a rival madam tried to frame the sisters for murder.
The Levee and the segregated districts attracted the attention of the reformers. A group called the "Purity League" was tireless in its attacks on the Red Light District and a minister named Ernest Bell in 1904 opened a "Midnight Mission" in the Levee. Beginning in 1904, he and his congregation held nightly vigils in front of the Everleigh Club. There was also political pressure that ultimately spelled the doom of the Levee. City and State attorneys became concerned about White Slave Traffic -- the forceful induction of young women into prostitution -- and through their efforts won a series of sensational cases against white slavers. Ultimately their efforts led to the passage of the Mann Act and to the closure of the Everleigh Club and the Levee. Abott concludes, consistently with most people who have studied the matter, that the extent of "white slavery" was greatly overstated and that the Mann Act, with its loose and vague proscriptions, led to a curtailment of civil liberties far beyond the evil it was designed to correct.
Abbott's book is less a work of historical scholarship than a book which brings a place and an era alive. In its opening chapters, before it gets bogged down with the varied attacks of the Levee, Abbott offers a compelling portrait of a place and an era with all its blemishes and excitments. She introduces, for example, the reader to "Big Matilda" who advertised herself as "Three hundred pounds of black passion: Rates 50c: Three for One Dollar." Abbott shows life in the Levee, including its local newspaper, the annual first ward Ball, the dance halls, and the payoffs. The lively individual scenes include a retelling of the visit of famous African American heavyweight boxer to the Everleigh Club and its unhappy consequences. In a passage late in the book, Minna Everleigh rushes into another brothel to try to rescue a former butterfly from a brutal beating at the hands of another madam. Abbot describes the life of a prostitute named Suzie, who came to the Everleigh Club from another resort and after one day left to marry her customer. For all the interest of many individual moments and the flowing character of some of the writing, the book seemed to me disjointed and hard to follow in places.
The closing of the Levee in 1914 obviously did not mark the end of vice in Chicago. A young and rising Al Capone makes a cameo appearance in Abbott's book. The work of the ministers and the politicians did not end the social evil but merely moved it. Abbott's book is not a detailed study of prostitution, and it is tinged with her reserved but obvious admiration for the Everleigh sisters. The book seems to suggest a return to a carefully limited "segregated" area -- which some cities continue to use -- as a plausible means of controlling prostitution, and its apparent necessity to its customers and practitioners.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2007
With an irresistible cast of characters set against the rich backdrop of Chicago during the early 1900s, Karen Abbott's SIN IN THE SECOND CITY never fails to captivate her readers, page after page. Anyone who enjoyed THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY will love Abbott's debut. No wonder this book is flying off the bookshelves. Can't recommend this one highly enough.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Who might imagine that a book about Chicago's bordellos at the turn of the century (late 1890s and early 1900s) could be so fascinating! This book, in the first instance, is an interesting portrayal of how two madams, Minna and Ada "Everleigh" (their last name made up for the occasion) ran a bordello that was much higher class than the other sordid businesses surrounding them in the "Levee," a section of the First Ward in Chicago.
It is also a story of the politics, economics, and culture of Chicago at century's turn. The Chicago machine was humming along nicely, with the politics of favoritism and the politics of corruption working together. In the First Ward, two political leaders, Hinky Dink Kenna and John Coughlin were the powers that be. And key players for making sure that bordellos operated without crass interference from the police!
These houses of ill repute often hosted major figures in Chicago. Marshall Fields' son died after an incident in the Levee. People like Theodore Dreiser haunted the district.
And the Everleigh Club attracted many of the "higher order" guests to the district. The "girls" who worked there were treated well (in comparison to other harlots in the district), were taught to speak about literature, dressed exquisitely, were regularly inspected by doctors to make sure that they were in good shape physically, and so on.
This book is a story of the Levee's operation, the Everleigh Sisters efforts to run a class bordello, the efforts by honest judicial officials and reformers to shut down the bordellos, and the intricate web among players--from Congressman Mann to the Mayor of Chicago to the Police to. . . . This web is well described by author Karen Abbott.
This is an historical effort that reads like a novel. And the Sisters had, in many senses, the last laugh. They left their business behind when it became reasonably clear that the end of the Levee as then known was coming to an end. They took their fortune and spent the remainder of their lives in New York--after a lengthy round-the-world trip.
A fascinating glimpse of Chicago's history.