Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sin in the Second City

I guess I've been in a historical kind of mood lately, I just finished my second book about turn of the century Chicago titled "Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul" by Karen Abbott. From the back cover:

"Step into the perfumed parlors of Chicago's Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history - and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Minna and Ada Everleigh, the two sisters who operated the Club at the dawn of the last century, were unlike other madams: The Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and were even tutored in the literature of Balzac. But not everyone appreciated the sisters' attempts to elevate the industry. Progressive Era reformers, spouting lurid tales of "white slavery," ignited a furor that shaped America's sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, even leading to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, "Hinky Dink" Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City provides a vivid snapshot of America's journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity."

This book was outstanding, but it's not surprising given my near obsession with all things Chicago lately. Basically the book is the story of the Everleigh sisters and their famed brothel in the South Levee area of Chicago at the turn of the 19th century, a subject I knew next to nothing about going in. The rise and fall of the red light district was especially interesting considering the views of all the forces against the wicked area of town and those who thought segregation of the the area was more suitable to society, better to keep vice in one area least it run amok all over Chicago. Abbott's style is easily accessible while informative, I flew through the 300 pages of the book even with all the distractions at work.

While I think the "white slavery" trade of the time was truly horrid, I had to wonder if the Mann Act didn't cause more problems in the long run instead of only stymieing the trade and transportation of women, against their will, into and throughout this country for the purpose of prostitution. I also found some interesting comparisons to today in the way that religious group decry actions and material that they deem unfit for society. Of course "white slavery" should not be tolerated but why should a whole group of people be arrested and driven out of an area because of vice, namely prostitution, drug use, and gambling? All of these forms of vice I find completely acceptable for free choosing adults. Well we've got Nevada!

A fun, interesting, and very informative look at Chicago and vice trades of the era. Highly recommended.

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