Madams, Ministers, and Playboys

Allow me to transport you back in time to the early 1900’s when cities were just sprouting up around the country all vying to make a name for themselves.  And the charming Everleigh Sisters, Minna and Ada, were in search of a place to set up shop.  So begins our journey into New York Times Bestselling biography, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul.

     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.

If we’re going to be discussing a book about brothels, we’ve got to set the tone a little.  Maestro, la musique!

Due to an increase of work travel I’ve had, I picked up this historical gem at my library (who will be hosting it as part of their Chapters Book Discussion, but not until May 2012 and I couldn’t wait that long to read it).  So, I grabbed the audio copy and let the daring, and need I say, revealing story of the Everleigh sisters unfold.

Ada and Minna Everleigh

We’ll start at the beginning.  Ada, the elder sister, though she’d never say and lied for many years about the truth of her age, was the quiet and intelligent brains behind the brothel.  She was relied upon to always have just the right words to use when interviewing wishful new courtesans, making deals with the police, and escorting gentlemen out of the club when their checkbooks became sparse.  Minna dealt with promotion of the The Everleigh Club, disciplined the harlots when necessary, and mingled in the parlor with “her boys.”

What the Everleighs, also known as The Scarlett Sisters, set out to do was never before seen or heard in any levee district of its time.  They traveled to all the top brothels and spoke to the best madams.  They listened to the advice of those who had come before them, and then they shaped it into the destination of choice for all men of money, including royalty.

The Japanese Thrown Room

They chose a two-story house in the middle of the Levee District of Chicago, an already notorious town for it’s moneymakers and fine tricks.  Every room was lavishly decorated.  Rich fabrics, fresh florals, a gold piano.  Fountains of the god Dionysus, whom the sisters felt a close kinship to.

Every man who entered went through more security checks than current airport scans.  The Everleighs requested bank statements from their guests, and charged scandalous rates that offered them their dream’s desires.  They catered to big shots like Marshall Field Jr., Lionel Barrymore, and even the Prince of Prussia.

As for the girls, the Everleigh club was not one to house aging, pick-pocket queens with too much rouge and fishnet that barely concealed.  Minna and Ada made sure their courtesans wore evening gowns, ate gourmet meals, were seen by a physician, and even received an education while living in the mansion.  Minna dubbed them “the Everleigh Butterflies” as she was so fond of the creatures’ ability to transform into something beautiful.

Portrait of Minna Everleigh

Of course there were bound to be bad apples and snafus in the road to pleasure infamy.  Before the Everleighs came to town, the Levee District was run by Madam Vic Shaw, an overly-plump sourpuss who bribed “butterflies” to share information, plant evidence, or come to her club instead.  Twice Vic Shaw tried to pin murder on the Everleigh’s, and with one dead body of retail heir, Marshall Field Jr., things looked bleak.

Young Madam Vic Shaw

But Shaw wasn’t the only problem.  With the rise of human rights issues brought about by the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, reformers were now demanding change against “white slavery.”  Newspaper stories and court trials flared up speaking of kidnapped girls, sold girls, raped and forced to pay for debts that shouldn’t be their own. Women would do well not to leave their homes and families unescorted and to never partake of the drink, lest they be drugged and wake up finding themselves far from home in one perverted prison.

The Everleigh Club

But the Everleigh sisters did not run that kind of brothel.  They actually agreed with the raising of the legal age for consent from 13 to 16.  And they made sure their courtesans would want for nothing, keeping them paid well above their competitors so that these women might be able to support those that depended on them.  Minna and Ada gave explicit directions about what to eat and when to eat, keeping their butterflies looking as young and healthy as possible.

Despite their field of business, Ada and Minna were incredibly smart businesswomen.  They kept up with current events, who the competition was, and they were trendsetters.  One example that you may have heard of is sipping champagne from a shoe?  It became custom at all the noteworthy venues of Chicago’s 1900’s after one Everleigh Butterfly lost her shoe dancing on the table for the Prince of Prussia.  When one of his men picked up the shoe that had tipped his champagne glass and spilled inside it, he cracked a joke and sipped the bubbly out of the shoe, proclaiming himself most fortunate to drink from the shoe of such an exquisite dancer.  Soon every man at the party was tearing off the shoes of the nearest courtesan and pouring their champagne inside them to drink.

Karen Abbott

As for the author, Karen Abbott lives in New York and credits “sixteen years of Catholic school, a tenure that gave her a freakishly photographic memory, a tendency toward rebellion, and a finely tuned sense of guilt” to helping her write this book.  Her website is full of fascinating links to all things burlesque and history.  Her second book, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee picks up where she left off, in the roaring 20’s and looks equally titillating.  I highly recommend checking out the book’s trailer on the page I linked to.  I’m giddy with excitement.  I’m definitely adding this title to my “to read” selection.

What’s your opinion?  Do the Everleigh Sisters sound like colossal businesswomen or strumpets of the night?  Would you want a chance to go back in time and meet an Everleigh Butterfly?  Would you drink champagne from a shoe?

I love hearing from you!  What’s on your mind?

***And be sure to tune in again on Friday for the Life List Club’s First Ever Milestone Party!  All contributors are giving away some awesome prizes to commentors, sharing our progress on our goals, and we want to hear what life lessons and accomplishments you’ve achieved so far!  Be there or be square, my pretties!***

18 responses

  1. What a fascinating topic and time in history. This is another must-read on my ever growing TBR pile. I’m checking out the author’s website, now. Thanks for sharing, Jess.

    1. The author’s site is one of the best I’ve seen. Beautifully laid out, user friendly, informative, and with added links to complimentary topics. Kudos to Ms. Abbott.

  2. Great minds think alike. I blogged on a very similar topic today. LOL

    I have had this book in my TBR pile for about a year! I need to read it. This is a fascinating topic to me. I could read about it all day. Back in the days of this story, there just weren’t many options for women who could (or wouldn’t) be married. This was one way a woman could make a living.

    In modern days, I wonder if you see just as many women who are in the sex trade solely to make a living or if you’d see the whole thing more related to drug addiction.

    Great topic and well written.

    1. Very interesting topic. The book actually covers a plethora of reasons why women ended up working in brothels. As I mentioned, some were victims of abduction, which is so scary. Others were “spirited away” with promises of love/marriage that got them stuck in brothels, some did it because it paid more than teaching and secretary work (the only other options at the time), some were in it for the art-dancers, singers, performers. It takes all kinds to make up a world, and these characters were certainly colorful.

  3. What a superb post! I never knew about any of this and the details were so intriguing. I loved it. And especially enjoyed reading about Karen Abbot’s background in Catholic school! I can sure relate to THAT. I’m sure her book will reach many readers interested in a new subject.

    1. So happy you liked it, Patti! I thought Abbott did an amazing job weaving together a hidden history and close friendship, almost, of two sisters with the reader. While reading it, I thought I could the music, laughing, glasses clinking, footsteps running up and down the stairs. I loved it! Well researched and well written.

  4. Excellent post, Jess! Being a history lover, I was exploring some options on Goodreaads and came across this title. I have to read and visit the author’s site! I imagine it will help immensely with my novel research and give me ideas for new novels! I’d like to go back in time and interview the Everleighs! Great businesswomen! Want to know what happened to them.

    1. Well, I won’t tell you, cause the book does go into more detail and I don’t want to spoil “the ending.” Of course I know it’s non-fiction! 😛

      All I will say is that Abbott has you rooting for the sisters the whole way! And I really wanted to pop that Vic Shaw right in the nose! What a catty woman!

  5. It always amazes me how powerful and inventive woman were in time periods where woman were second class citizens. As i said at Cati’s blog which is also about a brothel today I’m all for legalizing prostitution. I’d rather have the woman working at a place like Everliegh club then standing on the street stung out on crack.
    Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Agreed. The uniqueness of the Everleigh Club was in its advancements in fair wages, education, self-worth, and ambitions. They set themselves apart from the bondage and slave harlots of the other clubs in the levee district. Even in their rules to their courtesans. Other brothels, the girls would drug their suitors and pick-pocket him, while the Everleigh’s forbid any use of knockout powders or substance abuse (other than liquor). If they caught a girl with such substances, she was immediately spoken to by Minna and Ada.

  6. A brothel that takes checks? How convenient! The Everleigh Sisters sound like both strumpets and businesswomen. Killer combination. I’d happily meet a butterfly, and would most definitely drink champagne from a shoe.

    1. I can see you now, sitting next to the Prince of Prussia, Mark!

  7. Trish Loye Elliott | Reply

    Wow, what an interesting post and the book looks fascinating! Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention. I love reading quirky bits of history. Great stuff.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Trish! Love your blog. This was definitely a great read full of history and intrigue.

  8. I don’t get the shoe fetish. But the rest of the story? Intriguing.

    1. So you’re saying not to serve you champagne in that awesome new pair of anne klein heels I got? Ok, fair enough. 😉

  9. Thanks for a great article. I had not heard of these two business women.

  10. […] about them and why they wrote the book.  This week I was researching Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose.  While on her site, I happened upon an interview she did. Interior of Beauty […]

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