Friday, June 13, 2008

Review: Sin in the Second City

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

Minna and Ada Everleigh owned the preeminent brothel in turn-of-the century Chicago and entertained prize-fighters and princes during the decade plus tenure as proprietors of the eponymous Everleigh Club. World famous, the establishment catered to well-monied men of expensive tastes—a conscious decision on the part of the sisters—and engendered jealousy (from competitors) and anger (from reformers) as well as revenue (for the sisters and the politicians they bribed). Oh, and they have been credited with helping to proliferate a certain term for coitus, based upon a pun on their name.

Abbott exposes their invented backstory for what it was, though there is still plenty of murkiness about their past. What is known is that the ladies set up shop in Chicago and found instant success. But they didn’t do so blindly. They weren’t your average prospective madams; they knew the importance of market research and selected Chicago after a nationwide canvassing of various cities. It was a good choice and they prospered so long as they bribed the right politicians and deflected attention away when various incidences could have caused them trouble.

Yet, they also went into business at the same time that a nascent Progressive movement was growing, encompassing everything from banning cigarettes and alcohol to advocating against prostitution. Obvoiusly the Everleighs were concerned mostly with the last and Abbott intersperses her story about the business of running the Everleigh Club with snippets regarding the growing movement against white slavery, which quickly became a proxy for the fight against prostitution.

As the years went by, the reformers became more aggressive and even resorted to exaggeration or outright lies in an effort to shut down red light districts across the nation. The Everleighs avoided trouble and continued to reap the rewards for supplying their vice. Eventually, however, the wrong Mayor got elected and the wrong review committee suggested that Chicago clamp down on prostitution. And what better target than the high-profile Everleigh Club to set the example? The end was quick, and despite initially thinking they could re-establish themselves, the Everleigh’s eventually retired in anonymity to New York City, living out their days amongst the remnants of their wealth.

To be sure, Abbot’s sympathies are clearly with the sinners rather than the saints in this story. This leads to a tendency to gloss over—or leave unmentioned—some of the consequences of the Everleigh sisters actions. There can be little doubt that their support for local politicians via bribes helped to seed and strengthen organized crime. And regardless of whether or not they ran a high class establishment, the sisters contributed to the corruption of many a person. Abbott does try to be fair to the reformers, but they are clearly the antagonists in this tale.

Sin in the Second City is a hybrid work. Abbott combines her knowledge of the historical record--backed by extensive research--with her interpretation of the words and psychology of the several “characters” who make up her story. This is not historical fiction, but Abbot offers up a substantive amount of speculation—from quotes, to divining motivation or thoughts, to describing impossible to know physical actions—to dissuade one from calling this a work of straight history. But her research shows in the attention to detail and the overall result is a highly readable and interesting story that allows the reader to appreciate one version of this interesting era.

No comments: