2007: 163. Sin in the Second City


“As soon as the bullet pierced Marshall Field Jr. - the only son and heir of Marshall Field, founder of the splendorous department store, the man who famously said, ‘Give the lady what she wants’ - Chicago made the story even bigger than it really was. Amplifying things, good or bad, was what Chicago did best.”

Sin in the Second City,  Karen Abbott

This is a pretty good book about a damn interesting topic - I enjoyed reading it, but wished, in the end, that I had gotten to read an excellent book about this topic instead.  Sin in the Second City tells the story of the most famous brothel in turn of the century (the last century, that is) Chicago, the Everleigh Club, run by those two famous madams, Minna and Ada Everleigh.  The Everleigh sisters were famous for their lavish building, their beautiful girls, and their high standards - no drugs, no V.D., no beatings, no poor people.  Only the best clientele, and they treated their girls right, such that they had a waiting list of prostitutes begging to come work there.  It also tells the story of the reform movement, who tried to clean up Chicago, and who ultimately brought the Everleighs down, even though they were, by far, the best of a bad bunch (since they treated their girls well, instead of like meat, but were, nonetheless, still madams!).  It is a story of sex, middle class morality, economic exploitation, dirty cops and politicians, Victorian hypocrisy, white slavers, aristocratic madams and a solid gold piano - how could that be anything but awesome?  

And there is no doubt that this an interesting book - and would make a hell of a movie, especially one that managed to capture the reform movement fighting the sex trade, but still highlighted the irony that the best madams in town were forced to shut down when so many more exploitative pimps stayed in business, while all done in gaudy gorgeous period clothes.  Damn, I hope she’s sold her movie rights to someone awesome - how great would that be??  However, I was ultimately disappointed by the book, because I wanted to know more about the subject.  Abbott is a journalist, but she is clearly not a historian.  The book lacks sufficient perspective, and a strong point of view.  She tells the interesting details (see e.g. the “Gold Coin Kid” the john who paid to lob gold coins at prostitutes),  but doesn’t tells us where this episode fits in the bigger historical picture.  

And she wants to have it both ways in terms of passing judgment on the sisters and their profession.  So we are left with not knowing whether the reformers are foolish hypocrites trying to defeat our heroines, or whether there was a real problem with the exploitation of women and the filthy sex trade. Or whether was it both, which is probably the truth.  Abbott seems to have fallen for the Everleighs, but then realizes that the sex trade can be pretty awful, and so throws some sops to the morality crowd.  Similarly, was the so called “white slave trade” real? Were women being forced into prostitution, or was it just a tool of the moral majority to foment opposition to prostitution (and a way of avoiding the real issues, the economic and moral forces that push women into the oldest profession?).  That’s my guess, but it would have been nice if the author had taken a position.  Sin in the Second City tells an almost unbelievable story of a forgotten glamorously seedy past, but doesn’t place it into the perspective that would have made the book rise above forgotten gossip to something more.

Recommended for: People who are interested in the fact that the past isn’t as golden as the nostalgia types would like us to believe, people who like salacious gossip about our ancestors, people who want to read more books about hookers with hearts of gold.

Date/Place Completed: 10/18/07; D.C.

Categories: Non-Fiction; Library Book

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017