Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #35 Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbot
Whoever coined the phrase “well-behaved women rarely make history” must have had the Everleigh sisters in mind. The Everleigh sisters created the most famous brothel in American history, which became one of the catalysts for the beginning of the Progressive movement in the 1910s – which was not in their business plan.
Minna and Ada Everleigh told so many lies about their origins that it’s impossible to get to the truth a hundred years later. One of the few facts that it widely regarded as at least partially true is that the sisters grew up in The South during Reconstruction (although that dates are hazy, as the sister took off at least a decade of their ages). It’s believed that their family suffered financial ruin after the Civil War. One relative claims that for money, their father sold them into prostitution. Abbott never confirms nor denies the rumor, just states it as another origin story for the sisters, but I believe this is probably the story closest to the truth. It would explain how easily they were able to create and organize their first brothel in Omaha some years later (this is when the sisters lost a decade, so a few years is more like 11 or 12). After Omaha, they decided to set up the premiere house of ill repute in America. They researched several cities, going on a cross country cat house tour across the country.
Eventually, they settled in Chicago. Chicago allowed its vice district to flourish, as long as it stayed to its confined area. Politic graft and corruption were rampant. The Levee, as the vice district was called, already had several whore houses when the Everleighs moved in, but they were determined that their house would be the toast of the town. They renovated their building, making each room luxurious and themed. They had a room of mirrors, a room with everything covered in gold leaf, a Japanese setting, etc. They had a fountain that spritzed perfume into the air. They designed their “restaurant” to resemble a Pullman car and hired gourmet chefs. They had a gold piano. Let me reiterate their baller status. They had a GOLD PIANO.
As for the inhabitants of their house, each girl was selected for her beauty. They gave the women instruction in literature and poetry. They impressed on each women that came to work for them that pleasure is the ultimate goal; their establishment wouldn’t operate on the wham-am-thank-you-ma’am principle to increase profits. Each gentleman caller had to pay $50 for a plate at the restaurant, ensuring that the sisters’ house would make a profit. Each gentleman was also carefully vetted before admittance; you had to be the upper crust to set foot inside.
For the sisters, finding willing employees was not an issue. A woman working in a factory job, with all the long hours, could only expect to take how about $6 a week. A common whore in the Levee could expect about $36. An Everleigh butterfly (as they referred to their employees) could expect at least $100 a week. At least. One of my favorite anecdotes of the book details how one the butterflies was an avid gun collector. When she casually mentioned to a wealthy customer that she always wanted a pearl handled revolver set with diamonds, a week later a gun glittering with diamonds arrived for her after the customer had it made by a gunsmith especially for her. The sisters had a waiting list of prospective employees.
Unfortunately, those moral crusaders that wanted to demolish the vice district set their sights on the Everleigh house as the symbol of the dens of iniquity the Levee contained. At the time, there was a moral panic about naive girls being coerced into “white slavery”. Not to down play the issue, but “white slavery” was an issue of the time. Young women came to the city without much street sense and were hoodwinked by pretty men giving them pretty things until they were abducted by the pretty men’s cohorts and sold into brothels at the Levee. But the Everleighs didn’t have to rely on forced workers. At $100 a week, no one was forcing anyone to do anything they didn’t want to. So instead of focusing on why women turned to prostitution (you know, with the long hours, bad working conditions and meager pay), the moral crusaders were quick to call for the end of the Everleighs.
As a feminist, I’m kind of fascinated at how other feminist see prostitution. I personally fall on the side of the Everleighs; as long as it’s consensual, what’s wrong with a woman using her femininely wiles to get paid? However, the other side makes a good point that prostitution reinforces patriarchy, that exchanging sex for money objectifies women. But making women “damsels in distress” as the Christian Progressives in Chicago did, isn’t the answer either.