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

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

3.7 45
by Karen Abbott

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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,

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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 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.
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
“Delicious… Abbott describes the Levee’s characters in such detail that it’s easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction.” —— New York Times Book Review

“ Described with scrupulous concern for historical accuracy…an immensely readable book.”
—— Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

“Assiduously researched… even this book’s minutiae makes for good storytelling.”
—— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Karen Abbott has pioneered sizzle history in this satisfyingly lurid tale. Change the hemlines, add 100 years, and the book could be filed under current affairs.” —— USA Today

“A rousingly racy yarn.” –Chicago Tribune
“A colorful history of old Chicago that reads like a novel… a compelling and eloquent story.” —— The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Gorgeously detailed—— New York Daily News

“At last, a history book you can bring to the beach.” —— The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Once upon a time, Chicago had a world class bordello called The Everleigh Club. Author Karen Abbott brings the opulent place and its raunchy era alive in a book that just might become this years “The Devil In the White City.” —— Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (cover story)

“As Abbott’s delicious and exhaustively researched book makes vividly clear, the Everleigh Club was the Taj Mahal of bordellos.” —— Chicago Sun Times

“The book is rich with details about a fast-and-loose Chicago of the early 20th century… Sin explores this world with gusto, throwing light on a booming city and exposing its shadows.”
—— Time Out Chicago

“[Abbott’s] research enables the kind of vivid description à la fellow journalist Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City that make what could be a dry historic account an intriguing read."
Seattle Times

“Abbott tells her story with just the right mix of relish and restraint, providing a piquant guide to a world of sexuality” —— The Atlantic

“A rollicking tale from a more vibrant time: history to a ragtime beat.”
Kirkus Reviews

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Random House Publishing Group
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What People are saying about this

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"

Meet the Author

Karen Abbott worked as a journalist on the staffs of Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Weekly, and has written for 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

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sin in the Second City 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 44 reviews.
Violet_OHara More than 1 year ago
"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.
TheHarpoonist More than 1 year ago
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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An eye opening look at Chicago history
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An exciting historical read about two very interesting individuals.
FStopFitz More than 1 year ago
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
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Tomtenor2 More than 1 year ago
It was an interesting history of brothel and brothel owners in Chicago. A bit dry, pedantic and repetitious at times but still a fascinating glimpse of what went on in the sex trade at the turn of the century. The usual bribery, corruption, and double standards of the day and still true of modern day Chicago politics.
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Amanda Duffala More than 1 year ago
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.
Vanessortia More than 1 year ago
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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