SIN IN THE SECOND CITY, in case its title wasn't warning enough, is about prostitution in turn-of-the-century Chicago, specifically the Everleigh Club, which was a brothel run by two gently-bred sisters, Minna and Aida Everleigh. The saga spun these pages is too complicated to recollect completely, but the gist is that the Everleigh Club was the best place to go if you wanted to sleep with a woman who was not your wife. Also of note is a prostitute from China named Suzy Poon Tang (apparently where the slang "poon tang" comes from) who was so good at her job, that she ended up getting married to one of her clients after just a few sessions of working at the Everleigh Club. But if you like history, and if you like trashy historical romance novels, you and this book will get on like a house on fire.
So I also think you'd really have to screw up to write a bad book about Chicago history. I was expecting sordid tales about what went on in the brothels of the Levee District (at least in the Everleigh Club, which the book centres on), more concrete histories about the Everleigh sisters who owned the brothel (or at least, Abbott's opinion on what may have been their rightful biography), life histories of the more prominent harlots at the club and more detailed descriptions of services tendered. Sure, that is part of the neighbourhood's history, but we know how that story ends -- but why don't we know more about Suzy Poon Tang, the exotic courtesan from China who arrived in Chicago via Singapore (!)?
There seemed to be so many different angles to the story, and the author seemed to dab a little in all of them, without going into much depth. Abbott gave a little of everything, but kept me wanting to know more about everything, too.
...The air inside the car hung heavy and whisper-quiet, but the sisters were restless, giddy with plans: they would build upon what they had learned as madams in Omaha, Nebraska, and create the finest brothel in history." Man, who doesn't love a good old-timey hooker story? Karen Abbott's story of the Everleigh sisters' rise and fall in the vice district of early 20th-century Chicago is engrossing, well-researched, and fun. Reformers caught onto these stories and set about destroying the vice district in Chicago and ironically, they focused their attentions on the one brothel in the city that had nothing to do with the white slave trade: the Everleigh Club. We get brief little anecdotes about the prostitutes and what went on behind closed doors at the Club (like one client who enjoyed tossing gold coins at his favorite girl, the deal being that she could keep whatever she caught in her snatch), but they're few and far between as we spend too much time with the reformers.
2017 Lenten nonfiction Buddy Reading Challenge book #39
It's hard to believe that there was a time in American history where many of the major cities not only had open brothels but whole districts devoted to them. One brothel in particular, the Everleigh Club in Chicago during the turn of the century, is the fascinating subject of Karen Abbot's book, "Sin in the Second City". Started primarily by ministers, politicians, and temperance-minded housewives, this movement began as a fear-driven attempt to eradicate the "white slave trade", which many saw as an epidemic of our nation's young women being kidnapped, raped, and forced to live out the rest of their (short) lives as prostitutes.
If the data is so limited, this story could easily have been fictionalized and made really, really readable and exciting.
In Sin in the Second City Karen Abbott tells us in her subtitle that the book is ultimately about the Battle for America's Soul. Abbott seemingly couldnt decide if she was writing a slice-of-life about Chicagos vice district at the turn of the century, a profile of two successful sisters running a posh brothel, or a narrative history of the battle between reformers and vice lords. I never felt that I had a satisfying level of detail about the Levee the infamous vice district or a real grasp of the tale of Ada and Minna Everleigh the sister-proprietors of the infamous Everleigh Club OR a clear-cut understanding of the major players and sequence of events in the battle between the reform movement and the criminal element. Ultimately, Abbott gives a muddled portrait of a bunch of people at the turn of the century who, while colorful enough, arent well-enough detailed to be compelling, or motivated well enough to be understandable, dropped into a sequence of events that seems dramatic but is utterly without stakes or importance. I suppose there is something postmodern in the idea that there are no heroes in this story, but one still gets the feeling that Abbott sides with the vice district, somehow wishing that prostitution, segregated from the mainstream of society, could entirely be elevated to the classy level of the Everleigh Club and allowed to continue on(?!). Yet Chicagos vice district IS clearly a rats nest of illness and misery with the possible exception of the dubious accomplishments of the Everleigh Club in partially raising the brothel to a not-totally-disgusting-and-horrendous level. Conversely, Abbott would have been well served to detach herself and give us sympathetic characters on both sides of the battle: a compassionate reformer with the best interests of women and society at heart, clashing with a big-hearted madam just trying to make a living, to show the democratic conundrum between freedom and immorality.
I love historical books about Chicago. Although the subject matter may turn some people off, I loved learning about the history of prostitution in Chicago. The Everleigh sisters were true entrepreneurs to have created the pre-eminent brothel in the U.S. Even so, I couldn't help but be shocked by the so-called respectable men who frequented such places...from the scions of the wealthy Chicagoans like Marshall Field Jr. to politicians and even princes.
Still, I'd go back in my time capsule to check it out, and I would definitely check out the Everleigh Club while visiting because it sounded like a more upscale house of ill repute, and the pictures of the Victorian interior were so over the top it would give me pause to gamble on syphilis or worse.