Thursday, January 12, 2012

Completed: Sin in the Second City


The Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada
Don't get all freaked out. You  know I always read fast at the beginning of the year so I can make way for my ToB reading. It helps that this book was short, under 300 pages, and a rollicking good time. Seriously, this is one of those great stories that's all the better because it's true.

If they told these kinds of stories in history class, I sure would have paid more attention. Anyways, as it turns out the early 1900s was a hotbed of prostitution, graft, and corruption. Almost every city had a red light district where regular laws simply didn't apply. In Chicago, that district was called the Levee. Minna and Ada ran a brothel in Omaha but decided they wanted something bigger. After doing some research, it was apparent that Chicago was the town most in need of a high end whorehouse. They moved to town, set up shop, and quickly became the best known "resort" in Chicago if not the whole country: The Everleigh (pronounced Ever-Lay) Club. One fascinating tidbit in the book, the phrase "getting laid" is direct reference to the club and...ahem...what happened to you when you went there.

Along with the description of the club and how the Levee district operated, there are also chapters about the escalating opposition to the club from reformers and other concerned citizens. The entire country was swept up by horrific stories of "white slavery": young girls lured to cities under false pretenses and forced to work in brothels. In the period from 1900-1910, the reformers put more and more pressure on local governments to shut down red light districts and close down the brothels, dance halls, and bars that ensnared the innocent young girls.

Abbot is a sharp writer and the city of Chicago is just as much a character as the people in the book. Here's her description of Big Jim Colosimo, a power player in the ward that contained the Levee: He went straight for a while, heading up a team of street cleaners that evolved into a labor union of sorts---a potential voting bloc that caught the notice of the city's Democratic machine. Big Jim was appointed a precinct captain, which marked the end of his time as a law-abiding citizen (57). Hah. That just cracked me up. This is definitely a town known for its crooked politics, and certainly one can see why after reading this book. Abbott details the tremendous amount of money that exchanged hands between the Everleigh sisters and the cops and politicians they were expected to bribe. And, of course, state legislators were always entertained for free. No wonder the Tribune said, "Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character" (123). Ouch!

Most of all, the book proves that today's scandals aren't all that different from those of a hundred years ago. The story felt amazingly fresh: crooked politicians railing against corruption, an obsession with the perceived sexual depravity of the time, and mass hysteria over a media-fueled social injustice campaigns. The cause might change, but the rhetoric stays the same. I can't say that I'm surprised by that, but it was amazing to see how little really has changed.

One of the most amusing anecdotes in the book is about a march through the Levee in October of 1910. The marchers were led by ministers and reformers and their goal was to protest the licentious immorality of the Levee. Thousands marched and prayed in the streets of the district that night. Eventually, the marchers dispersed and you'll be shocked--shocked, I tell you!--to learn what happened next.  The Everleigh Club and the other whorehouses reported that they had to turn patrons away it got so crowded. One Madam said, "You'da thought it was the militia coming back from the war and that was the night that we all had the biggest business we'd had in years" (203).

This is a great book. It's a tribute to Karen Abbott's talents that it reads more like a great story than a painstakingly researched work of non-fiction. And yet it's clear that she spent at least a gazillion hours doing all of the legwork required to tell the story of both the Everleigh Club and the people determined to bring it down.

A great read and good way to start the year!


  1. As predicted, your book is waaaay more interesting than mine. :)

  2. K,

    Heh. My book was super interesting! The only thing that sort of bugged me was that I wanted the author to more clearly weigh in on the reality about white slavery. The people of the time were convinced that thousands of innocent young girls were being swept into white slavery. However, I found myself really wondering at the veracity of that story. How much was hysteria and how much was truth? Based on what she does say, it seems clear that it was mostly hysteria, but I wanted a more definitive answer.

    Otherwise, good times.