June 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

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

Karen Abbot’s Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul accomplishes something few historical narratives do: it manages to simultaneously titillate, entertain, and educate the reader. The crux of Sin in the Second City focuses upon the Everleigh Club (an intentional pun and adopted surname of the sisters, Minna and Ada, its proprietresses), the most notorious and celebrated of brothels in the early-20th century Chicago, and the socio-political environment in which it briefly thrived. Abbot deftly recreates the era with reportorial authoritativeness and a flair that borders on tabloid sensationalism. Cleverly interspersed throughout Sin in the Second City are photographs of the famed interior of the Everleigh Club, the denizens of the Chicago underworld, law enforcement, and politicians and newspaper clippings and illustrations from “The Great War on White Slavery.” These visuals double as evocative remnants of the early 1900s and dangled eye candy enlivening the accompanying text.

What further distinguishes Sin in the Second City is how rigorously researched it is and the academic precision Abbot adopts in her narration and analysis of the competing social mores of Progressive era reformers and the objects of their derision -- madams, brothel keepers, dance hall owners and visitors, courtesans, corrupt politicians and purveyors of “white slavery.” In Abbot’s “Author’s Note: The Girls Who Disappeared,” she writes: “I want to stress that this is a work of nonfiction; every character I describe lived and breathed, if not necessarily thrived, on the Levee’s mean streets. Anything that appears in quotation marks, dialogue or otherwise, comes from a book, archival collection, article, journal, or government report.” Abbot’s talent lies in her ability to skillfully cobble together these disparate sources into a fluid, cohesive narrative.

Religion, politics, class, and gender all animate Sin in the Second City. The Everleigh sisters -- jointly possessed of a diffuse, rumor-ridden past complete with abusive husbands -- wholly committed themselves to civilizing their “industry.” The sisters could only be described as entrepreneurs. After considering the alternatives, the Everleighs settled on Chicago as the city best suited to open an exclusive, high-end brothel. They saw an opportunity and seized it. Their courtesans were well groomed and cultivated “butterflies” tutored in Longfellow, and the Everleigh Club’s clientele included royalty, industrialists, and members of the upper echelon of Chicago society. Unlike many of their unscrupulous counterparts, Minna and Ada Everleigh vetted and recruited their courtesans from a pool of applicants. Their courtesans were not physically abused and received medical care and decent wages -- far better than they might earn as domestics.

Abbot especially delights in describing the personalities of these “Scarlet Sisters” -- the decades the two shaved from their ages and the well-hidden contempt they felt for the entire male gender. Much of Sin in the Second City also consists of portraits of the Everleighs' contemporaries. Clifford Roe, the prosecutor whose career was launched by his inquiry into “white slavery,” Ernest Bell, the sermonizing minister dead set against segregated vice districts, and Vic Shaw, an embittered rival madam bent on ruining the Everleighs, are among the individuals who appear in Sin in the Second City.

Abbot infuses factual, historical narrative with a vital immediacy; sex, money, violence and intrigue litter its pages. All of which suggests that not only is fact sometimes stranger than fiction, but when skillfully retold it may also be far more provocative.

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott
Random House
ISBN: 1400065305
370 pages