Skip to content
April 15, 2009 / howardmestas


Stately CourtesanSinful Second City

A ‘Business doing Pleasure’ in Chicago

Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City is a lascivious chronicle of legalized prostitution in Chicago and nearly every other metropolitan area in the first decade of 20th Century America. If one were to turn the clock forward about 100 years you would be mindful of the recent scandals involving disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and current Louisiana Senator David Vitter.
Abbott’s story centers around two sisters who by every measure challenged the traditional job description of the oldest profession by opening a respectable brothel in the otherwise contemptible Levee district of Chicago’s lower south side. Born Minna and Ada Lester in 1870’s Virginia, the sisters used their $35,000 inheritance to open up what would become a lucrative brothel in Omaha, Nebraska. Their fortunes would be more than doubled with “adventure” seekers making their way through the town’s Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898, however, as the show left the town, so did the high paying customers.
When it was time for a move, what greater place was there to relocate than in Chicago? It was a place with many wealthy men, most of whom had gained their fortunes through less than noble means. Abbott writes that, “The newspapers printed scoreboards that tabulated murders and muggings, as if such crimes were scheduled like baseball games and horse races.” The Tribune Newspaper wrote, “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.” Chicago would be the sisters’ new town and they would rattle the customary way of operating the flesh-for-sale industry by opening a “high-class brothel,” if such words could somehow be compatible. The sisters would exploit the closing signature of a beloved grandmother who would sign her letters as, “Everly Yours,” which would be transferred to their new adopted last name “Everleigh.” The Everleigh Club would become both a noun and an action verb to describe their new enterprise and its activities. All gratifications would commence in surroundings that spared no expenses such as gourmet foods, fine champagne, and music from a $15,000 gold leafed piano.
Certainly there could be no such business without stately “courtesans” to attract big spenders to the “sporting life,” which was curious vernacular for whoredom and its seekers. As sister Ada would explain, “To get in a girl must have a pretty face and figure, must be in perfect health, must look well in evening clothes. If she is addicted to drugs or to drink, we do not want her.” Of course there would be other requirements, such as developing the ability to carry on an intelligent conversation with a wealthy whoremonger envisioning the conquest of a high society woman. If a girl could make the cut to become a “butterfly,” she could expect to earn at least $100 per-week (with tips) which was remarkable considering a factory girl brought home about $6 weekly.
Of course there were many darker sides of the story regarding the social and economic status of women in the time period. As far as the alleged sporting life was concerned, not every girl in the industry measured up to butterfly status. As Abbott writes, most worked in “gambling parlors and opium dens and brothels where inmates dangled bare breasts from windows.” Some dives had names like, “Bucket of Blood” along a street called “Bed Bug Row.” Most houses had “whippers” who would flog prostitutes for not meeting an expected quota of tricks. Under the best conditions, girls were fortunate to pocket 15-dollars a week. Disease, addiction, and short life spans were all expectations for harlots along the Levee.
Above all was the fear of “white slavery,” where young girls could be coaxed by predatory agents with promises of marriage or employment, only to be “drugged, robbed of their virtue by professional rapists, sold to Levee madams, and dead within five years.” Hull House founder Jane Addams lamented, “Never before in civilization have such numbers of young girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.” Sadly, there was little opportunity for women who were widows, orphans, immigrants, or otherwise not connected to wealthy families.
One tragic account is of a little girl who learned the trade by washing her mother’s clients and learning to prepare opium before her fifth birthday. At seven she began her career by auctioning off her virginity. Recounting her descent into the family business, she said, “I ain’t ashamed of what I did…it seems just like anything else—like a kid whose father owns a grocery store. He helps him in the store. Well my mother didn’t sell groceries.”
If prostitution is the oldest profession, then professional zealotry in the cause of “purity” would come in second. Missions full of “saints” would slum their way in protests through the Levee District, while prosecutors and attorneys would obsess about legal maneuvers intended to bring an end to the “sin” profession. Eventually the crusaders would focus on political maneuvers leading to legislation called the “Mann Act,” which was to limit the extent of white slave trafficking. In later years, the whole “white slavery” issue would prove to have been more about hysteria than about young girls being forced into debauchery. As it turned out, most girls entered the vocation through their own choice, although most certainly as a last resort in times of desperation.
The Mann Act did have one extremely positive result in that it emboldened the Illinois State Legislature to investigate the link between low wages and prostitution. The effect was that eight minimum wage bills passed through Illinois, and would serve as a model for other states to follow.



Leave a Comment
  1. Haili Faith / Jan 4 2011 8:30 pm

    i rele liked all of the stuff you put on here and i just tried to get on my blog and i think i deleted it sooooooo i’m just gonna make a new one……but i think this one maybe be about my school exchange idea

  2. Jonathan Rees / May 28 2009 3:25 am


    If all is going well, you should be reading this comment because you’ve been notified by e-mail that a comment has arrived on your blog. If you can’t see this comment on your post, go here:

    and follow the instructions in my post at the link above.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: