When Chicago was a good town for men of bad character.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 22, 2007


Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle

for America's Soul

By Karen Abbott

Random House. 356 pp. $25.95

Probably the most famous whorehouse in America's history -- OK, it's a dubious distinction at best, but it's a distinction all the same -- was the Everleigh Club of Chicago, which did business in that city's tenderloin, the Levee district, for the first decade of the 20th century. It was run by a couple of sisters from rural Virginia, Minna and Ada Simms, who changed their name to Everly and then to Everleigh, a double entendre (depending on how one pronounces "leigh") that was intentional, Karen Abbott reports in Sin in the Second City. Whatever the name's exact origins and intentions, "Everleigh" quickly became a synonym for high-class retail sex and remained one long after Chicago finally shut the place down in 1911.

Chicago at the turn of the last century was one hell of a tough town, as yet untouched by the famous muckraking novels of Frank Norris ( The Pit, 1903) and Upton Sinclair ( The Jungle, 1906). It had a population of 1.7 million, a significant percentage of which was engaged in criminal activity in one way or another. By 1907 the Chicago Tribune said that "Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character." According to Abbott, "newspapers printed scoreboards that tabulated murders and muggings, as if such crimes were scheduled like baseball games and horse races: a burglary every three hours, a holdup every six hours, and a suicide and murder every day." )

In such circumstances it's scarcely surprising that prostitution flourished and that city officials (even those who weren't on the take) winked at it. There was if anything a widespread feeling that law-abiding citizens were best served if prostitution was restricted to more or less officially sanctioned areas rather than permitted to spread unchecked. The Levee was the result, and the Everleighs' double rowhouse on South Dearborn Street became, as soon as it opened, the class of the neighborhood.

Minna and Ada had come to Chicago determined, so at least they always claimed, to operate not a run-of-the-mill cathouse but an elegant bagnio. Thus they "vowed never to deal with pimps, desperate parents selling off children, panders, and white slavers." Their prostitutes were well paid and received regular medical care. Customers were closely vetted and expected to behave themselves. When a couple of anti-vice ministers came to call in 1907, Minna "explained graciously, patiently, that the Everleigh Club was free from disease, that Dr. Maurice Rosenberg examined the girls regularly, that neither she nor Ada would tolerate anything approaching violence, that drugs were forbidden and drunks tossed out, that guests were never robbed nor rolled, and that there was actually a waiting list of girls, spanning the continental United States, eager to join their house."

The décor of the place, judging by the period photographs reproduced in the book, was whorehouse baroque, including "thirty boudoirs, each with a mirrored ceiling and marble inlaid brass bed, a private bathroom with a tub laced in gold detailing, imported oil paintings, and hidden buttons that rang for champagne." Wine was "sold in the parlors for $12 a bottle and in the bedrooms for $15, but beer and hard liquor weren't available at any price." Considering that this price range would be well above 10 times higher in 2007 dollars, it's obvious that the Everleigh Club was strictly for men with plenty of money, if questionable morals.

The house thrived immediately and stayed prosperous throughout its run, not least because the sisters maintained cozy relationships with influential politicians, in particular two notably corrupt aldermen, Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse John" Coughlin, whose "bailiwick, the First Ward, one of thirty-five in the city, encompassed the heart of Chicago, including the Loop -- with its City Hall, office buildings, swanky department stores, hotels, restaurants, and theaters -- and stretched south to 29th Street, claiming, too, all the Levee whorehouses, dives, and gambling dens." The two aldermen "took a portion of every dollar generated in the red-light district, through gambling or otherwise, and counted Mayor Carter Harrison II as a personal friend and political sponsor."

All of which was fine for a while, but gradually specific events and large social developments combined to put the sisters at risk. The "son of a well-known millionaire" was shot in the house's Japanese Parlor. The wound was not fatal, and news coverage was "shallow and benign," but the incident left no doubt that scandal was an ever-present threat to the operation. Then Marshall Field Jr., of the prominent and hugely influential department-store family, died after being shot in the Levee. Competing madams tried to put the blame on the Everleighs, and even though this failed, it was "the first true fracture in the sisters' empire."

The larger and more pressing issues were raised by changes in American society. The Everleighs appear to have been honest in claiming that they did not acquire prostitutes through the "white slave trade," through which "America's daughters were being tricked out of their own lives and lured into ruin." But public indignation about it was rising, and political leaders felt pressured to act, as Congress did in 1910 when it passed the Mann Act, which banned the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. Simultaneously, ministers and other guardians of civic virtue were on the march, especially a minister named Ernest Bell, who believed "he was meant to do great things," and an assistant state's attorney named Clifford Roe, who undertook a "fight against white slavers, those 'arch-enemies to society, the lowest of the lowly creatures on this earth' who 'stifle truth and trample upon innocence.' "

This was also a time when the country's ethnic makeup was changing: "They were everywhere, these so-called new immigrants, arriving daily from Eastern and Southern Europe, most of them 'undesirable' Italians, Poles, and Russians." Old-line Americans managed to convince themselves that these were the chief forces behind increases in urban crime and that they needed to be brought under control. That prejudice as well as outraged virtue was a motive behind the anti-vice campaign is obvious, as is the hypocrisy of a society that claimed to want to protect women while at the same time exploiting them in innumerable ways.

For the Everleighs, the turning point was the publication in 1911 of The Social Evil in Chicago, a report by the 30-member Chicago Vice Commission that provided a devastating account of the city's trade in prostitution and its widespread social effect. It called, unequivocally, for the "absolute annihilation" of the Levee district. Mayor Harrison was lukewarm about this, but the Everleighs gave him little choice when they published a booklet, "The Everleigh Club, Illustrated," which showed the whorehouse in all its garish glory and made its way into the hands of people who joked about Chicago's corruption. On October 24 he wrote what he called a "truly historic" note to the police: "Close the Everleigh Club."

That was that. The sisters went quietly, though Minna wrote a number of private letters describing in detail their operations and the bribes they paid, naming names and citing specific amounts. Three years later a judge said it was time to release these letters, but Karen Abbott does not pursue this matter, leaving the reader to wonder about how the city responded to the letters and what effects they had. It's a peculiar note on which to end what is, on the whole, a rather peculiar book. Abbott has done a lot of research, but she too often ascribes actions and emotions for which her notes provide no documentation: "Minna folded the paper, nervously fingering her butterfly pin," or, "Blocking out the rush hour chaos . . . he replayed yesterday's interview with Mona Marshall . . . ," or, "The train groaned into motion and pulled out of Union Station. Bell stared through the scrim of ice, watching his city's slow retreat." Perhaps there is factual evidence for all this, but without documentation, it must be read as invention. Too bad, because a story as juicy as this one doesn't need artificial flavors. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail is yardleyj@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company