Karen Abbott

The author has five appearances around town this week. See Readings & Lectures in Section 2 for details.

Karen Abbott started her first book scouring microfilm of the Chicago Tribune at the University of Georgia library. The sister of her great-grandmother had disappeared during a trip to Chicago soon after the two emigrated from Slovenia in 1905, and Abbott, an Atlanta-based journalist, was curious about the city and times that had claimed her. Her research led her to the Levee, Chicago’s red-light district, where many missing women were said to have ended up, and then to Ada and Minna Everleigh, madams of the infamous Everleigh Club. “It’s cheesy,” says Abbott, who spent three years writing Sin in the Second City, released this week by Random House, “but I came to think of them as family. I have pictures of them hanging up in my house right now.”

Little is known of the Everleighs’ background. They claimed descent from Kentucky aristocracy but are believed to have come from a Virginia family hit hard by the Civil War. Simms was their real name; Everleigh–a pun–was assumed, as were, the women insisted, their southern accents. “Just piecing together their whole background,” says Abbot, “they were ingenious in how they learned to present themselves.” After running a brothel in Omaha, the women moved to Chicago in late 1899 to establish a high-class bordello.

Ada and Minna bought a retiring madam’s mansion at 2131-2133 S. Dearborn and put out a call for women interested in work free from pimps, abuse, and indentured servitude. Madam Vic Shaw, the sisters’ greatest business rival, kept a professional whipper on staff.

The Everleighs hired women who were attractive, experienced, and drug- and alcohol-free; the minimum age was 18. Younger sister Minna instructed them in charm and culture, covering subjects ranging from literature to the art of seduction. She dressed them in couture and dubbed them the Everleigh butterflies.

House rules were strictly enforced under threat of immediate expulsion: no picking pockets, no knockout drops and robbery, and no boyfriends. The girls also had to pass monthly examinations for venereal disease. They were paid well and those dismissed were easily replaced from the Everleighs’ long waiting list of candidates.

To stay open the sisters had to placate crime lords and politicos alike. Ike Bloom, who fronted a sleazy Randolph Street dance hall, set a sum of ten grand a year for protection by the likes of Chicago Outfit founder James “Big Jim” Colosimo. “Tribute” was also paid to First Ward aldermen Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin.

Visiting the Everleigh was an experience available only to the elite. The parlors were lavishly furnished with paintings, sculptures, a perfume fountain, a gold-leaf piano, and solid gold spittoons. Clients could enjoy rare wines, string orchestras, and fireworks. The dining room served gourmet fare. “A lot of the patrons came just for the meals,” Abbott says. “The girls were almost a side attraction.”

By most accounts the sisters were high-hatted and tough as nails but had hearts as gold as their gilded parlors. The soft-spoken Ada was considered the brains of the operation–she balanced the books and was responsible for hiring; Minna socialized in the parlors with guests and was known for her sass. “I wish I could be more like her,” says Abbott. “To not care what anybody thinks ever is sort of liberating.”

Entrance was by referral letter only, and clients were expected to spend a minimum of $50 per visit or face banishment (a three-course meal could be had for 50 cents at the time). High-profile guests included Prince Henry of Prussia, who made a special stop at the Everleigh during a visit to Chicago in spring of 1902. “It was more of a gentleman’s club,” says Abbott. “The cachet of being able to go there, just because they turned down so many people. It became an exclusive badge of honor just to be admitted.”

Occasionally the house was caught up in scandal. When Marshall Field Jr., son of the store founder, was found shot at his Prairie Avenue home on November 22, 1905, rumor spread that one of the Everleigh butterflies had done it. The coroner’s report backed the official story–that he’d shot himself while cleaning his hunting weapon–but gossips insisted he’d been wounded during a visit to the club the previous night and smuggled back home by the sisters.

Unlike earlier Everleigh narratives like Charles Washburn’s Come Into My Parlor, Abbott’s account devotes a lot of space to the progressive politics of the era. The number of women who worked outside the home jumped from 3,100 to 38,000 in the 30 years between 1880 and 1910, she says: “Everybody was freaking out about women entering the workforce in such large droves, leaving their rural homestead and entering the big city.” Not all of them found legitimate work, and when women started disappearing the nation was gripped by a white slavery panic, fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment. The only way a good white Christian girl could become a whore, Americans were convinced, was if she was seduced, drugged, and sold to a brothel.

Religious reformers descended upon the Levee, preaching and pamphleteering in an attempt to shame patrons and “save” the district’s women. The Everleigh sisters referred to these late-night missionaries as “firemen” and welcomed them to the house to talk to their girls. None of the butterflies were said to have shown any interest in leaving.

Abbott says the Reverend Ernest Bell started preaching outside the brothels in 1902 after he was propositioned in front of the Chicago Theological Seminary. He admonished the district’s sinners to repent despite being bashed and gassed by Levee pimps. “If I were a novelist I wouldn’t have been able to name him Ernest,” Abbott says. “I think he really believed in what he was doing and his motives were true and good and upright. He really believed he was saving women from Satan’s clutches.”

Others reformers, like Clifford Roe, an assistant state’s attorney, jumped on board to further their own political interests. “I think Roe was a bit more Machiavellian and manipulative with the facts,” says Abbott. He developed a side business lecturing and writing books with sensational titles like Panders and Their White Slaves.

The white slavery scare was also used as an excuse to attack the non-Protestant immigrants pouring into the country. Both Bell and Roe pointed the finger at foreigners in their condemnations of theatrical agencies, dance halls, and ice cream parlors. “Shall we defend our American civilization, or lower our flag to the most despicable foreigners–French, Irish, Italians, Jews and Mongolians?” Bell wrote in his 1910 book Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls.

Chicago prosecutor Edwin Sims fought prostitution in Chicago and was the inspiration for the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act. “I am determined to break up this traffic in foreign women. It is my sworn duty, and it should be done to protect the people of the country from contamination,” he told the Tribune in 1908.

“Some of the things the federal officials were saying I had to read twice,” says Abbott. “Like ‘War on Terror,’ they had their political talking points and they used them very effectively to manipulate the public and push their own agenda forward.”

Mayor Carter Harrison II, who usually turned a blind eye to illegal goings-on in the Levee, was eventually forced to reckon with the reformers’ growing political power. In 1911, after a friend from outside Chicago showed him “The Everleigh Club, Illustrated,” a leather-bound brochure with national distribution, he ordered the brothel’s closure.

Gradually the other brothels, dives, saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors, and opium dens of the district were also shuttered. On July 24, 1933, workers tore down the building that once housed the Everleigh Club, “heedless of the fact that they were wiping out one of the most lurid chapters in Chicago history,” according to a Tribune report from the time.

Although rooted in ignorance, the white slavery panic did give women, who were still a decade from suffrage, a rallying cause. “Through the end of it they started having hearings about women’s wages, [asking] how can a girl work in a factory for six dollars a week and not be expected to supplement her income doing nefarious things?” says Abbott. “The white slavery scare was a chance for [women] to insert themselves in political discourse.”

Meanwhile books like Roe’s, which included scenes of terrified harlots escaping brothels in flimsy negligees, made sexuality an acceptable topic of conversation. “Those narratives were like porn for puritans, but it was the first time people could discuss that, in a way, and not be considered untoward,” Abbott says.

As for the Everleigh sisters, after just over a decade doing business in Chicago, they’d amassed a million dollars in savings–$20.5 million today, Abbott estimates–and even more in jewelry, art, and Oriental rugs. They changed their name to Lester and moved to New York, where they bought a brownstone on the Upper West Side and founded a poetry discussion group with local ladies who knew nothing of their past. Minna died first, on September 16, 1948, at the age of 82. Ada lived until 95, dying January 6, 1960, in Charlottesville, Virginia.