Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sin in the Second City - Karen Abbott

Sin in the Second City: madams, ministers, playboys, and the battle for America's soul

Wordy title. This is another in my feminist experiment reading only books by women. The book is an accounting of the intersection of immigration, white slavery, politics, and the sex trades in Chicago between approximately 1895 and 1915. The book centers around the Everleigh sisters, two infamous madames with the most notorious brothel in the country, possibly in the world - The Everleigh Club. Other main characters include a zealous minister who for years held midnight services in front of the Club and the aldermen, mayors and prosecutors that served during the sisters' reign.

I found the book really interesting, the sisters are clearly modeled as heroines, early feminists defending sex workers. The Everleigh Club is pretty much the most luxurious brothel ever and fantastically profitable. Abbott clearly did an incredible amount of research, every detail is substantiated and conflicting accounts are often presented. There's also a surprising amount of dialog, taken from personal accounts, letters and news stories.

The Club operated during and after a population boom in Chicago, following the World's Fair. Most of the new residents were immigrants and young women in search of work were coming into the city alone. Stories of white slavery started a moral uprising in England and preachers in the States saw to it that the U.S. followed suit. Eventually, this led to the formation of the FBI, stronger laws against pimps and prostitutes and against kidnappers and white slavers. It also shines a light on the racism, classism and xenophobia of Americans at that time.

I think the most fascinating dynamic for me (other than the sisters' ostentatious and largely fictional life stories) was the virgin/whore perspective of reformers and lawmakers. A woman snatched from the train depot was an innocent daughter in need of protection until she was raped and forced into prostitution at which point the young woman was seen as a corrupter and temptress. These women, too ashamed to return to their families after being raped (or gang raped) were arrested and prosecuted with the same zeal as their kidnappers. Although sex workers today are not held with equal social standing as teachers or accountants or plumbers, we've clearly come a long way in the last hundred years. Not far enough, but far enough to (mostly) know the difference between a victim and a criminal.

All in all a great read for anyone interested in political corruption, vice, Chicago or stories of moral outrage. The style is narrative and the author does an excellent job showing her perspective without inserting herself into the story (I'm looking at you Ben Mezrich.)

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