By Karen Abbott; Random House; 356 pages
Chicago, as Mark Twain put it, “outgrows her prophecies faster than she can make them … she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time.” The city yields multiply layered histories to those who take the time to search. Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City is an assiduously researched and lively look at the Everleigh sisters, Minna and Ada, women who seemed to come from nowhere to found the famed brothel, the Everleigh Club. The sisters maintained a spectacular home and business place, offering pleasures to those who could afford the services of the women who worked for them. But they were also constantly embroiled in turf wars with other brothel owners; negotiations with corrupt police; the growing hysteria over “white slavery;” and the grandstanding of puritanical zealots who worked to shut them down.
Abbott carefully reconstructs an inside view of the lives and careers of these famed sisters. The book also reveals the social and economic changes in the city at the time, and provides glimpses of the prostitutes employed by the Everleighs. Neither hookers with hearts of gold nor scheming harlots, they understood too well the hypocrisy of their opponents. On her death, one of them is found with a note: “ … Kindly tell, for me, all the psalm-singers to go to hell and stick the clergymen in an ash-can. That goes double for all the parasites who talk a lot but don’t do a damn thing to help a girl in trouble...”