August 14, 2015

Review | Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

Review | Sin in the Second City by Karen AbbottSin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott
Publisher: Random House, June 2008
Pages: 302
Format: Hardcover
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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.

Such a title. How can I resist a book that claims to tell the story of the “battle for America’s soul” right from the first page? I didn’t think that the history of two madams in 1800s Chicago would grab me, but, oh, did it. 

I immediately fell in love with the Everleigh sisters. These women epitomized the American dream. Sure, some people might not agree with this idea, but they envisioned it, planned it, and went out to get it. The psychology of two women who recreated their history to intentionally set themselves up as the most famous madams in America was intense, intriguing, and admirable. I wondered how they would do in today’s world, with the aid of technology to recreate their backgrounds. 

At first, I didn’t have the same fascinating with the reformers – I felt like they were taking away time from the most enchanting story of the two sisters. After I finished Sin in the Second City and thought over my notes, I realized that the reformers played a bigger role than I initially realized – they were the contrast, the foil, and to move into the historical, the representations of one era fighting against another. 

The same storytelling I fell in love with in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shone through in Sin in the Second City. Abbott brought the world of 1800s Chicago to life. I didn’t know the dark history of Chicago, the story of white slavery, or the history of courtesans. Each one intrigued me. Nothing stood so firm in the book as the theme of America’s transition from the Victorian era to the 20th century. I knew the basics of the story from history classes, but delving into the world, interacting with the people, brought the change to life. 

I didn’t expect to be intrigued by this particular era of American history. Typically, I find myself entranced by Civil War history or the Revolution, the Prohibition, but not Victorian era turning to the more modern world. Now, I can’t get enough. 

4 Stars

Posted August 14, 2015 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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