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

Ever wonder where the phrase “getting laid” comes from? The answer might surprise you. Check the comments after this review for the answer.

Sin in the Second City is the story of the Everleigh Sisters, who ran the most notorious brothel in Chicago in the 1890’s/early 1900’s. This was at a time when brothels were not exactly illegal: prostitution and gambling were confined to “vice districts”, so that decent folks didn’t have to see it and only folks who went looking for vice would find it. A very pragmatic attitude. Prostitutes in the brothels were registered with the police. Madams paid for protection from police, politicians and crime bosses alike. In the midst of all that, the Everleigh Sisters created an empire.

Their house was unique in the city and perhaps in the country. In other houses, the working girls appeared in tawdry lingerie and lined up so customers could make their selection. The Everleigh girls (called “butterflies” by the sisters, Ada and Minna) appeared only in evening gowns and jewels. They recited poetry for their clients, dining with them and providing champagne in lavishly decorated parlors. The girls were instructed to never rob or “roll” their clients, on threat of expulsion from the house – a serious threat, since there was always a waiting list of women from all over the country, looking for positions at the Everleigh Club. The women received regular medical examinations, required by law, but often forged in other houses. Their patrons were politicians, athletes, writers, socialites and celebrities. They almost made prostitution glamorous.

The truly interesting thing about this book is getting a look at the way politics and vice worked together. For a long time, segregated vice districts were common in cities, and the police helped work to maintain them. As times and attitudes changed, there were increasing pressures on the police and politicians to clean up the districts. There is an interesting discussion of the changing attitudes about prostitutes – from vixen to victim to feeble-minded – that influenced the way society viewed the vice districts and the women who worked there. If you are interested in city politics in all its interactions, you’ll find this an excellent object lesson, with a dash of racy history to spice things up. I found it an enjoyable read.

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