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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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 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
""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:
9781588366436
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/10/2007
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
83,729
File size:
3 MB

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"

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