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Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul    by Karen Abbott order for
Sin in the Second City
by Karen Abbott
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is definitely a case where historical truth is stranger than fiction. Karen Abbott opens Sin in the Second City (the second city being Chicago) with a mystery - the supposed accidental death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. - and continues to fill us in with a racy, riotous account of the most famous brothel in America, the elegant, ornate Everleigh Club (whose lush furnishings included a celebrated gold piano) in the early 1900s. A cast of characters is introduced at the beginning, and black and white photographs of city and mansion settings stimulate the reader's imagination throughout.

The rumor mill - possibly fed by envious enemies of the Club's owners, the aristocratic, Southern, image-savvy sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh - circulated a story that the young father of three actually died in the Everleigh Club and that the body was moved and a gun accident staged in his home to avoid scandal. This tragedy would continue to haunt the Everleigh sisters through their long career as high-class, socially advanced (they had their girls tutored in literature, regularly examined by a doctor, and fed them gourmet meals) madams, operating in a mansion in Chicago's ill-reputed Levee district. The Everleigh Club entertained literary sensations like Theodore Dreiser, sports icons like James J. Corbett, and celebrities such as John Barrymore. It was even visited by Prince Henry of Prussia, an occasion notable for establishing the trend of slipper sipping.

Aside from the Everleighs' story, Sin in the Second City tells the equally fascinating tale of the US emergence of white slavery, and the horror, hysteria, and outright panic that fed its growth into an urban legend of epic proportions - newpapers of the time 'devoted about half a million pages ... to the war on white slavery'. Though it did happen - and sadly does still today around the world - the extent was magnified and the issue promoted and exploited, by Progressive Era reformers amongst others, and led to the passing of the Mann Act in 1910. The latter was later misused to persecute black men for relationships with white women, and 'spurred the development of the FBI'. The furor eventually forced the sisters out of Chicago. They moved to New York City, where they lived quiet, refined lives as the Lesters, enlivened by occasional visits from old clients and friends.

Read Sin in the Second City to learn about the windy city (so-called for its blustery politicians rather than its weather), its criminal underworld, the brothel business, police corruption, the power of the rich, and exploits of lawyers, politicians and religious leaders. But read it mainly to find out about the lives of two unusual women - whom the author compares to both Madonna and Martha Stewart - who reinvented themselves with remarkable grace and style in the oldest profession.

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