SIN IN THE SECOND CITY
by Karen Abbott
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Following the destruction of Chicago in 1871, the city spent twenty years rebuilding before hosting the World Columbian Exposition in 1892-3. This World Fair brought an influx of people to Chicago, many of whom remained. While this help boost Chicago to second city status in the United States, one of the side effects of the boom in population was the rough element of the city, which remained from Chicago's pioneering days. Karen Abbott looks at one element of this, the proliferation of brothels in the city's Levee district, and the women who tried to make prostitution respectable in her book Sin in the Second City.
In 1899, Ada and Minna Everleigh, two actresses turned madams, arrived in Chicago to set up a house of prostitution that would rise head and shoulders above the competition. They succeeded and for more than a decade, the Everleigh Club was a luxurious resort in the heart of one of Chicago's seedier districts, hosting the activities of Chicago's elite, visitors, and even princes.
Abbott approaches her material in a neutral manner. She does not attempt to impose a moral judgment on any of the figures she describes, from madams like the Everleigh sisters or Vic Shaw, to politicians like Bathouse John Coughlin or Mayor Edward Dunne, to preachers like Ernest Bell. What she does is portray a period in Chicago's history when it seemed that everyone was a little larger than life. Her quick and adept portraits of these characters helps bring them to life and adds to the mystique of the period she is describing.
If there is a weakness in Sin in the Second City, it is the depiction Abbott gives of the city as a whole. Although she clearly notes that the city fathers had a plan of segregation, keeping all of the sin in one relatively condensed area of the city, she ignores the rest of the city, showing only the underworld of the city. When she does show the rest of the city, it is when the underworld impinges on it.
Although Sin in the Second City is an history and Abbott has stated that any quotations used in it come from primary sources including letters and newspaper articles, the book has the narrative quality of a novel in many ways. The interactions between the individuals Abbott describes gives a stronger sense of the conflict between the various factions than if she just tried to describe the tactics of the various sides.
Sin in the Second City presents an interesting and lively view of a period in which vice was rampant in parts of Chicago. The characters of the first ward are all larger than life, despite their historical presence. While many authors of the time tried to depict this period, such as Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie (and Dreiser visited the Everleigh Club), Abbott's book does a better job of bringing the period, if not the horrors of prostitution, to life.
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