Karen Abbott, the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, will be reading from her latest book: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War on Monday, September 14th at Women & Children First Bookstore (5233 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60640). The special reading and signing will…
Sinfully Ours: We try to maintain an inventory of books about the history of our host cities. Recently, in a thrift store, we found this copy of Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott. We were quite surprised to discover that it is actually signed by the author. Our friend Mr. Crowley laughed loudly when he read the inscription (“Sinfully yours, Karen Abbott”), and has asked if he might borrow the book “since it pertains to a subject that is clearly well-known to me.” Thus, we have loaned the book to Mr. Crowley, and as he is not very diligent about returning borrowed goods, it is sadly unlikely that you will find it on our shelves anytime soon.
Sin in the Second CIty chronicles the lives of the Everleigh sisters, Minna and Ada, and their infamous gentleman’s club The Everleigh Club. The brothel captivated many famous people of the day with its lush and gaudy decorating, its lavish entertainment productions, and its attempts to elevate the profession of the courtesan. Famously the Everleigh Club entertained Prince Henry of Prussia with an enactment of a mythological celebration centered around Dionyses, a performance which featured the Everleigh Butterflies (as the Everleigh workers were called) tearing apart a bull made of cloth and then tearing into raw sirloin strips for further effect - much to the acclaim of their Prussian audience. However, the madams were not only concerned with their guests; the Everleigh sisters insisted on physicians to attend to the health of their workers, literary education, gourmet food, and would not allow clients to harm the workers.
Threats to the club’s success and existence, however, come in the way of Progressive Era reformers who want to end all vice and who target the sinful Levee District of Chicago as the home of the City’s sin.
Karen Abbot’s Sin in the Second City is a work of historical non-fiction that reads like a story. The primary focus of the history is the end of the Victorian era through the first half of the Edwardian era. The cast of historical figures are larger than life and the taboo subject is sure to keep most readers deeply engaged in this surprising history out of Chicago, Illinois.
What do you do when you’re drawn to a book like this because it literally lists a bunch of things you are super interested in historically AND it all takes place in your favorite city in the world? You read it.
What do you do when it’s just the biggest disappointment you probably have ever had in non-fiction? I can’t figure that out yet.
This book sets itself up to be about Minna & Ada Everleigh, the proprietors of the Everleigh Club in Chicago in the early 1900s. Infamous for being one of the nicest, most expensive, and most extravagant brothels of it’s time, the subject matter seems like it should be teeming with intrigue. Somehow, Abbott has digested all of her research and sort of vomited it out onto 300-odd pages of what I found to be nearly unreadable drivel.
There is no story here. Abbott writes chronologically, but she introduces dozens of characters and we never really see anyone’s story from start to finish. The entire book reads like tiny anecdotes about brothel owners and patrons, politicians, and men of god who were sort of all in the Levee district at about the same time. Their stories are connected in a way, but not enough to be weaved together into a larger coherent story.
Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Abbott’s work is her characterizations. She “directly quotes” things people said to each other, privately, in 1900…?? She also often describes things like “she tilted her head questioningly” or the look on someone’s face as if either 1) she herself was present or 2) this is all bunch of bullshit/fiction. This is playing hard and fast with the idea of “history” and as a historian it made me INCREDIBLY uncomfortable.
Minna and Ada and their club is the most interesting thing you’ll find in this book, unfortunately their “story” only makes up about 15% of the pages.
Karen Abbott - Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul
A vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to 20th-century modernity. 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 at the dawn of the 20th century, the Club welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons into a stately double mansion, and the Everleigh sisters treated their girls far better than most madams. But not everyone appreciated their attempts to elevate the industry. Their most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the 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 FBI.
A servant wheeled a bull made entirely of cloth into the room. The girls raced toward the structure, punching its head and biting its hide, spitting white flurries of cotton. Minna watched, nodding with approval. It was perfect, she thought. This was exactly how the infant Dionysus-Zagreus had been killed. For sound effects, a male butler bellowed each time a mouth clamped down on the bull. Then Minna pointed a finger, and servants fetched platters piled with uncooked sirloin. For ten minutes, the harlots tore into the raw strips, ripping the meat with feral bites, their faces stained with pink slashes of animal blood. The Germans loved it.
Prince Henry of Prussia is entertained at the Everleigh Club, Chicago in 1902. From Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.
It was time for the Gold Room, Minna’s and Ada’s favorite, to be entirely redone in gold leaf. A team of laborers replaced the gilt on everything from the goldfish bowls to the spittoons. It looked stunning, Minna thought, the whole room glittering from corner to corner, but that night a guest accidentally smeared a panel. The metal was still soft, and the man left a clear imprint. This wouldn’t do, and Minna couldn’t wait until next year’s renovation to have it fixed. She called in a dauber right away.
“Come, I’ll show you where a man put his hand last night,” she said, leading the handyman upstairs.
He hesitated and seemed nervous. It occurred to Minna what he was thinking, but she didn’t rush to clarify. Why ruin what was sure to be a perfectly good punch line?
“If it’s all the same to you,” he replied after a moment, “I’d rather have a glass of beer.”
Everleigh Club, Chicago c. 1911; hallway to entrance (one of two) at 2133 South Dearborn Street from Minna Everleigh’s 1911 The Everleigh Club, Illustrated. Reproduced in Abbott, Karen (2008), Sin in the Second City; New York: Random House, p. 114.
I just finished Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott. The book is about the most famous brothel in the nation at the turn-of-the-century. It was located in the Chicago Levee District, an area renowned for vice, mischief, corruption and debauchery. This brothel, the Everleigh Club, however, was the classiest joint in town. Unlike other clubs in the area where girls were treated like disposable property and their Johns likewise, the Everleigh sisters treated their “harlots” with dignity and respect ensuring excellent medical care, an exceptional wage, and a working environment renowned for it’s elegance and class. Their customers, or “boys” were the height of Chicago Society.
This book also tells the story of the darker side of the sex industry in the United States in the early 1900s. Abbott delves into the political corruption, the brutal mistreatment of working girls, and the white slavery rings that promised respectable work to young girls and instead sold them to madams after robbing and raping them. The contrast between the Everleigh Club and it’s business model and the broader landscape of the sex trade is stark and the Everleigh sisters were an exception.
Abbott also examines the social crusade to end the illegal prostitution and brothel industry in America and it’s focus on Chicago as a site of sin and vice. In the end, I found myself rooting for the Everleigh sisters. They were consummate business women who set out to both change the way the industry and it’s women were perceived and to make a lot of money. They definitely succeeded at both. Abbott captures the excitement, intrigue, and sassy attitude making this book a really fun read.
Your mind is seriously awesome. Do you have any book recs?
I have book recs for MILES. But it really depends on what you’re looking for? I read a lot of horror, a lot of historical fiction, a lot of historical NON-fiction, uhhh, osteology field manuals…
Some of my favourite books, off the top of my head, are as follows -
Alchemy of Bones - this one has it all. Chicago history! Crime! Bones! A well-written account detailing the Luetgert Sausage Murder case of 1897. It is a little on the dry side, but well worth it to examine one of the first forensic anthropology cases in the US.
Sin in the Second City- More Chicago history! No bones, just boners. The incredible tale of Minna and Ada Everleigh, two women who founded the most notorious - and most progressive - upscale brothel in Chicago, and, it could be argued, the entire US. We shall never see its like again. [wipes away tear] My household is named in honour of these two fine ladies.
The Lovely Bones- Do yourself a favour and never, ever, ever watch the movie version. If for some reason you have somehow watched the movie and never read the book, please scrub it from your mind and read the book instead. In the book, Mark Wahlberg isn’t ruining any of Alice Sebold’s gorgeous, heartrending prose on the nature of grief, death, and living through tragedy.
American Gods - I have gone through three copies of this book. It is well-loved. Mythos and road trips and hidden pantheons, the old gods and the new. I’ve been to every last (real) place in the book so it’s especially evocative for me. Starz is making this into a TV show, supposedly. I have all my fingers and toes crossed in fervent prayer that they won’t screw it up.
NOS4A2 - So, I don’t even know how to begin to describe this one. It’s got one foot in reality and the other foot in the most fucked-up fantasyland ever. You may remember Joe Hill from such films as “Locke and Key” and “being Stephen King’s son” and no matter which way you cut it this book is creepy-awesome. I’ve read it like 4 times. It never stops being good.
Sex With Kings/Sex With The Queen - so one of my little-known niche areas of knowledge is royal scandals of the European courts from about 1400-1900, specifically, royal mistresses. These books are nonfiction, but don’t be afraid -they’re insanely engaging, well-researched, and delightfully well-written. Perfect for reading along with a glass of wine in the tub whilst your lady’s maids wash your hair and feed you the finest French truffles.
I have like - thousands more book recs depending on what you like to read, so if you’re looking for something specific, feel free to ask!
Ten years ago, in the days after Hurricane Katrina, the world watched televised images of a sea of dark-skinned people sweltering and dying in the streets of New Orleans. Soon after, PEN’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee began to talk about race in our meetings, and we committed both dollars and our presence to the Martin Luther King Jr. School in the Lower Ninth Ward, a part of the country America had largely ignored.
Before Katrina, overwhelmingly poor and identifiably black people had been living in deteriorating urban settings in Orleans Parish. The city had widely abandoned public service for political patronage—given up on public education, disdained the poor, and criminalized the clueless. In this way, our city’s sins replicated America’s.
In this second of two blog posts commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Fatima Shaik, co-chair of PEN’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee, reflects on the committee’s work in New Orleans, gentrification, and the state of education and free expression in the city post-Katrina.
A fellow blogger wrote in her recent post that one of her favorite things of being a virtual reality interior designer is that it allowed her to travel to all corners of the globe without leaving her home.