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. ...

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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

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: 9781400104666
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/17/2007
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 10 CDs, 11 hrs. 30 min.
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 1.09 (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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 44 )
Rating Distribution

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(18)

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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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