Sin in the Second City
Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the battle for America's Soul
Karen Abbot

Random House
Hardcover/348 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6530-1
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". . . lively account of prostitution and politics in early twentieth-century Chicago . . ."

Sin in the Second City is a lively account of prostitution and politics in early twentieth-century Chicago and a kind of sequel to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. For my money it is a much better book than Larson’s schizophrenic yoking of architectural history and serial murder.

The heroines of Abbott’s book are the Everleigh sisters, two madams who ran the best brothel in Chicago. Ada and Minna Everleigh (they made up their surname along with quite a few other biographical details) were clever entrepreneurs who previously ran a successful bordello in Omaha and decided to move to Chicago after surveying the possibilities of every major city in the country. The Everleighs had a brilliant business plan and a profound understanding of marketing. It is impossible not to be fascinated by their consistent success. Their customers ranged from the rich—most of the great names of Chicago business—to the rakish. The prizefighter Jack Johnson turned up as a customer, and Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters were regular visitors.

The author’s wise decisions to treat the Everleighs as sympathetic characters and to remain neutral about the rest of the characters, most of whom come off as unsavory in a variety of ways, makes this a successful book. The “battle for America’s soul” in the book’s subtitle is the anti-prostitution reform movement that was based on a fear of widespread white slavery. Abbott wisely resists the temptation to make the reformers look good or the madams bad. However, the politicians look bad with no help from anyone. By allowing readers to make up their own minds, she frees us to enjoy the Everleigh sisters unashamedly. We are in her debt for opening a door into this juicy historical era.

Reviewer: Beth Hadas