Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

( 44 )

Overview

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 twentieth 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. ...
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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

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Overview

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 twentieth 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 were 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.

With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
Sin and the Second City is assiduously researched. And it is well put together, mixing brief and longer chapters rather than striving for a more arbitrary format. But Ms. Abbott has to narrate and debunk, and her task is complicated. She had to wade through mountains of tabloid coverage about young women forced into prostitution; one such case, about a woman named Mona Marshall, whose story did not stand up to close scrutiny, generated about a half-million pages of newspaper attention. It's no small matter to sift the facts from the hyperbole.
—The New York Times
Ada Calhoun
Sin in the Second City, a delicious history by Karen Abbott, makes a case for the cultural importance of the Everleigh Club, which from 1900 to 1911 classed up the Levee district, the basest part of a town that rivaled Tammany Hall-era New York for corruption. The club played host to Theodore Dreiser, Prince Henry of Prussia and Jack Johnson, and served as a national example of decadence run amok…Abbott…describes the Levee's characters—among them Ike Bloom, Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John Coughlin (the city's self-proclaimed poet "lariat")—in such detail that it's easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction. Like Luc Sante's Low Life, Sin in the Second City is a lush love letter to the underworld.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

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)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal
An early 1900s Chicago brothel called the Everleigh Club was so high-toned (gourmet meals, discussions of Longfellow) that rival brothels plotted against it. Then Progressives made everyone afraid of "white slavery." The publisher suspects that this may be a sleeper hit. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Mining the sources of the "purity journal" Vigilanceand its predecessor, Philanthropist, as well as Chicago newspapers, government reports, and other archival sources, journalist and first-time author Abbott chronicles the history of the Everleigh Club that operated on Chicago's Near South Side from 1900 to 1911. At this renowned high-class brothel, enterprising sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh challenged the stereotype of the victimized immature woman by hiring only willing adults whose comportment, education, meals, and health they closely monitored. Paradoxically, "scarlet sisters" in the club had to abide by stated rules, such as abstaining from drugs in order to remain at a house for which there was a wait list of job seekers. Protected for a while through its patronage by politicians, sports figures, businessmen, and writers, the club finally succumbed when a moral purity campaign closed it and the other bordellos in the Windy City's red light district. Abbott's character sketches of individuals such as "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, Michael "Hinky-Dink" Kenna, and James "Big Jim" Colosino make this engaging study read like a novel. A complement to similarly focused studies of New York City, e.g., Timothy Gilfoyle's City of Erosand Elizabeth Clement's Love for Sale; recommended for the general public and social historians alike.
—Frederick J. Augustyn

Kirkus Reviews
Atlanta-based journalist Abbott debuts with a dispatch from the seething underbelly of old-time Chicago, where a pair of sisters ran the finest whorehouse in the land. The most famous madams of their day, Minna and Ada Everleigh originally came from money in the South-or so they said; their accounts of their background were laced with blarney and hokum. What is fact is that in 1899, after a short stint running a cathouse in Omaha that didn't have the high-flying clientele they wanted, the sisters found a spot with everything they were looking for: Chicago's Levee district. An iniquitous den of vice and ribaldry on the Near South Side, the Levee offered the Everleighs a wide-open red-light district in which to ply their trade and easy access to cash-flush customers looking for good times with just a touch more class. According to Abbott's highly engaging and personable account, the Everleigh Club was something to behold, especially in a neighborhood known for its 50-cent tricks and places called the Bucket of Blood or Why Not? It boasted a dining room paneled in mahogany, a fountain that sprayed perfume into the air, astronomic door fees and stunning women, cherry-picked from the city's thousands of Sister Carries. (The well-read sisters were chummy with Carrie's author, Theodore Dreiser, as well as Edgar Lee Masters.) As the Everleighs raked in money, bluenoses grew concerned about women being forced into prostitution, and local reformers pushed the (usually fictional) horrors of the supposedly widespread white slave trade, which more than one clueless do-gooder had the gall to claim was many times worse than the African slave trade. Abbott tells a reliably dramatic story, though it'sclear early on that the odds were stacked against the sisters, no matter how many powerful politicians and gangsters they befriended. A rollicking tale from a more vibrant time: history to a ragtime beat.
From the Publisher
""Sin in the Second City is a masterful history lesson, a harrowing biography, and—-best of all—-a superfun read…. I can't recommend this book loudly enough." —-Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812975994
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/10/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 337,470
  • Product dimensions: 5.24 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author


Karen Abbott is a journalist who has been a staff member of Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Weekly.

Joyce Bean is an accomplished audiobook narrator and director. In addition to being an AudioFile Earphones Award winner, she has been nominated multiple times for a prestigious Audie Award, including for Good-bye and Amen by Beth Gutcheon.

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Table of Contents


Author's Note: The Girls Who Disappeared     xi
Cast of Characters     xv
Prologue: Angels of the Line     xix
The Scarlet Sisters Everleigh
Striped Skunk and Wild Onions     2
Another Uncle Tom's Cabin     14
Getting Everleighed     17
The Demon of Lust Lies in Wait     28
Lovely Little Lies     31
The Stories Everyone Knew     47
Lords and Ladies of the Levee     51
Great in Religion, Great in Sin     64
Knowing Your Balzac     67
Invocation     83
Millionaire Playboy Shot-Accident or Murder?     88
Flesh and Bone, Body and Soul
Midnight Toil and Peril     100
Ultra Decollete and Other Evils     107
The Brilliant Entrance to Hell Itself     114
The Tragedy of Mona Marshall     119
Men and Their Baser Mischiefs     128
Dispatch from the U.S. Immigration Commission     139
More Immoral Than Heathen China     141
The Organizer     153
It Don't Never Get Good Until Three in the Morning     160
Dispatch from the U.S. Immigration Commission     175
Judgment Days     177
Have You a Girl toSpare?     184
Dispatch from the U.S. Immigration Commission     191
So Many Nice Young Men     193
Immoral Purposes, Whatever Those Are     204
Fighting for the Protection of Our Girls
Millionaire Playboy Dead-Morphine or Madam?     210
Girls Going Wrong     218
A Lost Soul     225
The Social Evil in Chicago     231
Painted, Peroxided, Bedizened     239
You Get Everything in a Lifetime     247
Dangerous Elements     259
Just How Wicked     270
Fallen Is Babylon     279
Little Lost Sister     285
Acknowledgments     299
Notes and Sources     303
Bibliography     331
Index     341
Illustration and Photograph Credits     355
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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 Abbott’s 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 you’d 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 America’s 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 can’t 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 family’s 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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 44 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 45 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 16, 2009

    A Subtle Morality, A Different Kind of Heroine

    There is a fine line that Abbott had to navigate when writing Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the fanciest and most infamous brothel in Chicago at the turn of the century.<BR/><BR/>Abbott has two heroines here: Minna and Ada Everleigh, the jewel-encrusted madams who elevated their little corner of the vice district beyond the dirty dance hall and onto a level of elegance and sophistication that attracted millionaire visitors and international attention. Minna and Ada are characters that the author clearly loves. As we follow their story from a mysterious lowly past to their glorious position as quiet, powerful queens of vice in a vicious city, we are invited to fall in love with them as well. There are pimps and madams that we can scorn, lesser characters who live down the street from the Everleighs, who run garbage dives and beat their girls, drug their customers and stick to their own floors. But the Everleighs are a different breed: smart, ethical, pure.<BR/><BR/>If the Everleighs are the heroes, then the villains must be the reformers, the demonstrators and politicians who were trying to eliminate the vice district and "save" the girls who had "fallen" there as prostitutes. Among the characters on this team are pastors and evangelists, pious ladies, and also city officials trying to look good and crack down on crime. The problem with villainizing this side of the fight is that they actually did have a point. The danger with making a madam your hero is that there actually was a lot of horrifying stuff going on in these houses, stuff you don't want to cheer for, and can't fall in love with.<BR/><BR/>So, as a writer, do you position yourself with the madams, and giggle and titter your way through the book, pretending it's all so naughty and wry, and those stuffy old reformers are just party poopers? Or do you position yourself with the reformers, and spend the book pushing out that really new and interesting concept that prostitution is bad? <BR/><BR/>Fortunately, Abbott is smart. Very smart. And her smart book can present both of these possibilities simultaneously. This is not an expose of the horrors of segregated vice in turn of the century Chicago. Nor is this a blushing homage to all those fabulous madams and the sexual excesses of the times. No one is exempt from criticism here. Abbott tells the stories of those vainglorious preachers and the hypocritical politicians, but also shines an unforgiving fluorescent light into the depths of vice: the strip-and-whip fights where girls lashed each other bloody for an audience, the girl's palm rotting from syphilis while still performing its handjob, the lies, the greed, the corruption, and all of it.<BR/><BR/>No one is exempt, that is, except the Everleighs themselves. In understanding this, I began to understand where the moral compass of the book truly points. I believe that Abbott would say that the sins of the vice district were black enough -- the sins of the white slavers and the opium dealers and the lower madams operating their 50 cent dives. The Everleighs, however, weren't doing anything very wrong, and in shutting down their clean, sophisticated, elegant club, where the men were treated fairly and the girls lined up to get a job, where the health and well being of the harlots was a priority and the customers were treated like customers, not sinners, the authorities threw the baby out with the bathwater. That is, I think, the way the book gets out of

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 25, 2014

    HIstory That Reads Like A Novel

    "Sin in the Second City" was an example of my favorite kind of non-fiction--a book that felt like it could be fiction, that made me care about the people being discussed and pulled me into the stories. Karen Abbot does a wonderful job of jumping back and forth between those on the "Madams" side of the debate and the "Ministers" side of the debate, so you never feel bored or tired of reading about one or the other.

    Abbot also has a great style of writing, adding flourishes and human emotions to what could have been a very dry exposition of the vice district and its fall in Chicago. The last few lines of the book are sweet and haunting--and the book flows so well that you'll get there before you realize it. Definitely recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2013

    Great book!

    An eye opening look at Chicago history

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2013

    Enjoyable read

    An exciting historical read about two very interesting individuals.

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  • Posted September 2, 2011

    Blah

    I dont know if it was the way it was written.. But It was boring I was expecting more. I had to force myself to finish it.

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  • Posted July 27, 2011

    Everleigh sisters

    Such an amazing book! My favorite discovery was learning that the FBI started as a small team of investigators trying to find white slavers. Oh prostitution.

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  • Posted July 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Not as good as Devil in the White City.

    This book is very well researched, but reads more like non fiction. Dev in White City has a plot. This book kind of starts out with one (the death of Marshall Field Jr) and perhaps there should have been some underlying plot throughout the book based on that. I would think twice before reading another book by this author.

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  • Posted March 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Slow at points, but overall good.

    Abbott really belabors the connecting plots at certain points, but the topic is interesting.

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  • Posted November 24, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Ok, but a little slow

    I started this book and absolutely loved it, the imagry and characters are so interesting! But about halfway through the book I had to push myself to finish it, it got to be a little slow and drew on too much. Overall it was very educational and interesting to know what was going on in the city of Chicago way back when

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2008

    Interesting history of Chicago and racier times.

    This book started off very interesting, I couldn't wait to read it and it didn't disappoint- at first. The second half was much slower, and was more reading a historical account of those fighting to get rid of the red-light district than it was the story of the sisters who ran a successful and 'reputable' house. Got a little slow, did not keep my first impressions. Obviously a lot of hard work and research went into this book. I enjoyed reading about the famous people and prominent names of the time- also the lifestyle that was accepted back then. Difficult job to change people's attitudes and the laws. Amazing where a bribe can get you! Great work, Abbott with the story, just wish it would have had a little spirit in the telling.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2008

    Above Expectations!

    Great read about the red light district and politics of the times in early Chicago. Very factual reporting on the events and people involved. I went back and forth from book to computer to learn more. Just the right amount of details. Waiting for Karen Abbott's next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2007

    Expected More!

    I watched the author on Book TV discussing her book before it was released. I was more intrigued listening to her tell the story. I have to agree with one other reader, I found it slow and a little boring. I read 2 to 3 books a week and if one really grabs me, I will finish it in a couple of nights.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2007

    A reviewer

    Ms. Abbott has produced a stunningly accurate and extraordinarily readable history of not just the storied Everleigh Club but of pre-Capone Chicago, the Reform Movement, and America's post-Victorian mores. Every quotation is sourced and her research clearly took years, which gives this book an integrity no fiction can match. Ms. Abbott, please write us another one just as good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2007

    Loved it!

    The book starts off with a bang, lots of intrigue! The writer really takes you back in time for a great ride...there is history, humor and high jinks. I especially liked Abbott's attention to detail. I could see the ornate rooms of the brothel and feel the friction between the Everleigh sisters 'that own the brothel' and the changing world around them. There is something for everyone! I loved it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2007

    Awesome and Enlightening

    This is a great read that I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning about the history of Chicago. The author does an outstanding job of making the reader feel as if they were living in that era. This book was so well written that is was hard to belive I was actually reading non-fiction!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2007

    nonfiction that reads like fiction

    Great read! I really enjoyed this account of the saucy Everleigh sisters origin of 'get laid' and their house of sin. I had no idea America had such a racy history. I especially liked Abbott's attention to detail, such as the 'dab of gasoline behind the ears' during the automobile craze and the account of Suzy Pootang.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2007

    SINfully fascinating!

    Sin in the Second City tells the true story of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history. The Club's owners, two mysterious sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, tried to improve the industry by treating their girls well. Everleigh harlots made good salaries, ate gourmet meals, and were even encouraged to study literature and poetry. But rival madams tried to frame the sisters twice for murder, and religious zealots also battled to shut the Everleighs down. This era was reponsible for the whole 'white slavery' scare and the formation of the Mann Act and the F.B.I. Some of the anecdotes are so outrageous I had to check that this wasn't fiction. If you liked The Devil in the White City, you'll like this too. A fascinating, forgotten slice of American history that really comes alive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2007

    Dull

    I got this as a gift, so I feel bad that I couldn't get through it. The author completely fails at bringing the two main characters, two sisters, to life. I feel like I'm sitting in on a bunch of anecdotes about other people's families that have no relevance to me. I was expecting more of a social history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2007

    Riveting Debut

    I've lost sleep and burned up a perfectly good pork tenderloin because I was so unable to set this book down. Sin in the Second City is meticulously researched, but never dry. The Everleigh sisters themselves are especially well realized characters, and Abbott could have written a wonderful book if she had simply focused on their extraordinary lives. But she does more, weaving their personal story with the stories of the politicians and reformers who were shaping Chicago. Abbott details the 'white slavery scare' that started in the Levee and spread across the nation,leading to the Mann Act and the formation of the FBI. This book reads like an entertaning novel, but you come away with a better understanding of a culture war that helped shaped this country. Amazing work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2007

    Sin in the Second City

    I discovered a love of history later in my life. In high school, history was a dry, itchy, tedious waste of time that bored me to tears. An uninspired teacher, a mediocre textbook, and the cute guy who sat in front of me conspired to see me fail World History. I was more interested in the latest thriller from Christopher Pike and those hallowed halls of Sweet Valley High to see the merits of historical fiction, so history was a dead subject for me. Then I went to college. There I fell in love with this beautiful subject with all its passionate love stories, bloody wars, vicious scandals that would put some of today's stories to shame, and the serene peace that happens to rarely in the world's history. I even made it my minor. Now I was more interested in Antonia Fraser histories of famous monarchs, Margaret George¿s novelizations of Henry VIII and Cleopatra, and even Diana Gabaldon's wild romps through Jacobean Scottish moors. And in the 7 years that have passed since I graduated this love of history has only grown. So, when I saw a mention of Karen Abbott¿s Sin in the Second City in a blog post I knew I had to get my hands on it. Along the way I interviewed the author and came away with a great appreciation of just what goes into such a well-researched and studious work as this. Sin in the Second City is the story of the 'Everleigh' sisters, Ada and Minna, who came to own the most scandalous brothel in early 1900s Chicago. They were business savvy ladies, taking the $35,000 they entered Chicago with and turned it into an empire. Their business model was simple supply the elite of the world with exactly what they wanted. They provided string orchestras. Fine dining. Exotic and lavish décor. Their girls, or butterflies as they called them, were they best the city had to offer and were well provided for gourmet meals, weekly check-ups with a real doctor, the finest clothes and even education. They were free to come and go as they pleased, which, in this time and especially place came to be very important. And they drew in some of the best John Barrymore, Theodore Dreiser and even a Prussian prince were among visitors. No other madam in the district could claim such success. And it would eventually lead to their downfall. For religious leaders the world over descended on Chicago, determined to clean out all the whores, gamblers, mobsters and sinners they could find. Using the voice of America to push them on, they headed to the streets to preach on the sin and cry out for the poor 'white slaves' who were forced to work the streets. In my opinion some of the best nonfiction books are the ones written about the people you never hear about in history class. Those long forgotten heroes, rapscallions, rogues, and pioneers whose stories are fascinating and exciting. Karen Abbott has taken the story of the Everleigh sisters and delivered the goods ¿ here is a tale of sex, lies, murder, religion, politics, and more all wrapped up in a beautiful wrapper that just begs to be read.

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