Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Karen Abbott
Random House Publishers
Reviewed by Heather F.
I discovered a love of history later in my life. In high school, history was a dry, itchy, tedious waste of time that bored me to tears. An uninspired teacher, a mediocre textbook, and the cute guy who sat in front of me conspired to see me fail World History. I was more interested in the latest thriller from Christopher Pike and those hallowed halls of Sweet Valley High to see the merits of historical fiction, so history was a dead subject for me.
Then I went to college.
There I fell in love with this beautiful subject with all its passionate love stories, bloody wars, vicious scandals that would put some of today's stories to shame, and the serene peace that happens to rarely in the world's history. I even made it my minor. Now I was more interested in Antonia Fraser histories of famous monarchs, Margaret George’s novelizations of Henry VIII and Cleopatra, and even Diana Gabaldon's wild romps through Jacobean Scottish moors. And in the 7 years that have passed since I graduated this love of history has only grown.
So, when I saw a mention of Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City in a blog post I knew I had to get my hands on it. Along the way I interviewed the author and came away with a great appreciation of just what goes into such a well-researched and studious work as this.
Sin in the Second City is the story of the "Everleigh" sisters, Ada and Minna, who came to own the most scandalous brothel in early 1900s Chicago. They were business savvy ladies, taking the $35,000 they entered Chicago with and turned it into an empire. Their business model was simple; supply the elite of the world with exactly what they wanted. They provided string orchestras. Fine dining. Exotic and lavish décor. Their girls, or butterflies as they called them, were they best the city had to offer and were well provided for; gourmet meals, weekly check-ups with a real doctor, the finest clothes and even education. They were free to come and go as they pleased, which, in this time and especially place came to be very important. And they drew in some of the best; John Barrymore, Theodore Dreiser and even a Prussian prince were among visitors. No other madam in the district could claim such success. And it would eventually lead to their downfall.
For religious leaders the world over descended on Chicago, determined to clean out all the whores, gamblers, mobsters and sinners they could find. Using the voice of America to push them on, they headed to the streets to preach on the sin and cry out for the poor "white slaves" who were forced to work the streets.
In my opinion some of the best nonfiction books are the ones written about the people you never hear about in history class. Those long forgotten heroes, rapscallions, rogues, and pioneers whose stories are fascinating and exciting. Karen Abbott has taken the story of the Everleigh sisters and delivered the goods – here is a tale of sex, lies, murder, religion, politics, and more all wrapped up in a beautiful wrapper that just begs to be read.
You can visit Karen Abbott's website here.