Required Reading: Sin in the Second City


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City dynamics never fail to pique my interest. The way populations can change , racial divides sharpen or blur, how buildings are raised and demolished. Hidden landmarks dot the landscape, such as the Clarke House or the site of the Haymarket Riot. Although I feel fairly knowledgable about the history of our city, what I knew entirely nothing about was the Levee, Chicago’s red-light district, developed during the Columbian Exposition and lasting for little over a quarter century thereafter. At the heart of it all was the Everleigh Club, formed by sisters Ada and Minna Everleigh. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott documents the already disheveled social landscape of the time, exposing the lives of those committed to the underworld as well as the struggle of those who eventually put a stop to it.

For anyone who has been to the former address of the Everleigh Club at 2131-3 S. Dearborn in the South Loop, it’s hard to imagine what the area used to look like. The 18-story Raymond Hillard Homes now stand there, bounded to the west by Chinatown and on the east by the historical Prairie district and modern skyscrapers. But in the early 20th century, the night-liveliness of this neighborhood would be akin to the Lincoln Park or Wicker Park neighborhoods today.

The Everleigh sisters set up shop on February 1st, 1900. Business started slow, but only because they expected a certain high-roller clientele. You see, this was not just any brothel. Their women were to be spoiled, not degraded. Providing lavish meals and luxurious housing, the women of the Everleigh Club (the “Butterflies”) came there on their own free will, were denied any form of drug use or dealing with pimps or thugs, and were culturally integrated into the works of Balzac and the Romantic poets the sisters admired.

The house quickly became well-known — locally, nationally and internationally — attracting athletes, authors and even foreign dignitaries. But of course, this house was just one of many brothels in the district (estimated at just over a thousand). The Levee had placed Chicago on the map as a sleazy cesspool rampant with crime, social disease and immoral practices. The good people of this city were being associated with these labels, and a few decided they weren’t going to put up with it anymore. With Minister Ernie Bell and State’s Attorney Clifford Roe spearheading the battle for moral and political grounds respectively, by the end of 1911 the Everleigh Club was out of business. Despite those in City Hall doing everything in their power to keep it afloat, the club was shut down, spurring wild underground parties, soapbox preaching, bombings, and the mysterious death of the son of Marshall Field.

While Abbott’s main objective is to provide a historical overview of the events, locations and judiciary proceedings of the entire affair, she also opens the door to ethical discussions still relevant today. The obvious matter is that of human trafficking, the term that has rightfully replaced the vague and non-PC ‘white slavery’ prominent at the time. Although the issue is less common today, it’s still certainly a global issue. In a 2008 document, the UN estimates “about 2.5 million people from 127 countries have been trafficked to 137 countries” with an annual revenue ranging from USD $5 billion to $9 billion. Many of the same ethical questions can be raised in the treatment of women in the adult film industry. Likewise, the book points out the xenophobic tendencies of the American public when new issues arise. It is a hypocrisy unfortunately still alive and well in our country today.

Thus, the importance of this book goes beyond the etymology of ‘getting laid’: it addresses an often untouched part of our city’s history, simultaneously disgusting and compelling to read about. For better or worse, the social crusaders had their way and the Levee and the Everleigh Sisters are no more. For their part, the sisters did set themselves aside from the rest of the neighborhood in their elegant treatment of their Butterflies and rejection of ‘white slavery.’ They weren’t happy when they were shut down, but they accepted the decision gracefully. Abbott maintains objectivity, neither condoning nor reprimanding the sisters or criminals they did business with, nor their adversaries. She represents the facts as they were, deeply researched with an in depth bibliography. At the same time, she avoids a dry recounting of the legal processes and details of the era, but manages to craft a well-written story that is near novelistic. Allow Abbott to capture your imagination and live in the Chicago Levee with this book.

(More information about Sin in the Second City can be found on Amazon)

Andrew Hertzberg

About Andrew Hertzberg

If identity is an illusion, I’m a magician in training. And although Emerson was right in pointing out that “with consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do” the one constant I don’t mind in my life is Chicago. Yes, even the boredom of her suburbs couldn’t suppress the glow of the city, my attraction as a moth to flame. The future is unwritten, the characters are ever-expanding, and the plot is a perpetual foray through rising actions, conflicts and falling actions; the setting, however, remains the same.

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