Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott








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Karen Abbott presents a riveting story of the Everleigh sisters in her new novel, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul. Ada and Minna Everleigh ran a luxurious brothel in Chicago from 1900 to 1911, and thanks to Abbott, the place comes alive on the pages of Sin in the Second City. Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “The Organizer,” pp. 154-159:


I know it is repugnant to our system of government to have any kind of espionage over our citizenship, but I would keep such people under a certain surveillance.




It was time, Roe decided, to call a friend in the federal government, Edwin Sims. His fellow University of Michigan alumnus was admired for his ambition, encyclopedic memory, and pedantic attention to de­tail. Sims, he knew, would already be aware that foreign girls, with the com­plicity of Chicago’s police, were being sold into city brothels. What was considered typical Levee business was now a federal felony. The federal Im­migration Act of 1907, set into effect shortly before undercover agents began infiltrating red-light districts, forbade importing women into the country for the purposes of prostitution, and mandated the deportation of any woman or girl found prostituting herself within three years of her arrival in America.

To friends, Sims was “Ed,” but to the rest of the country he was a legal wunderkind, who at thirty-four served as assistant secretary at the 1904 Re­publican National Convention; who a year later was appointed solicitor for the Department of Commerce and Labor by President Roosevelt; and who, a year after that, became the United States district attorney in Chicago, charged with preparing the government’s antitrust case against John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

“Curiously enough,” wrote the Tribune, “the reason of the success of Mr. Sims was identically the same as the reason for the success of John D. Rockefeller. It is expressed in just one word, ‘organize.’ There were 1,903 charges against the oil company and every one of these charges had to be verified by documentary and oral evidence. . . . It was a titanic task, but Mr. Sims set about it in his own way. . . . He had his facts marshaled in due order of their importance, each with its little budget of evidence ready to step out of the ranks at the precise moment when they should be needed. His opponents ... did not know their man.”

Sims, married and the father of four, vowed to work with Roe and his Illinois Vigilance Association to rid the city of these criminals.

“I am determined to break up this traffic in foreign women,” he de­clared. “It is my sworn duty, and it should be done to protect the people of the country from contamination.”

The announcement was a welcome one to most native-born Chicagoans. Their city was turning on itself, relinquishing its identity street by street; there were whole blocks drenched in odd smells, conversations built with peculiar words, hymns sung to false gods. “I am one of those who believe not only that our public schools should have moral and religious training in them, but that this training should be Christian,” a Presbyterian minister wrote to one of Clifford Roe’s supporters. “This land is a Christian land. The United States Supreme Court and many of our state supreme courts have unequivocally decided that it is. . . . I do not believe that we need to truckle or surrender our inheritance to infidels or Jews from Europe.”

They were everywhere, these so-called new immigrants, arriving daily from Eastern and Southern Europe, most of them “undesirable” Italians, Poles, and Russians. Catholics were just as “unassimilable” as the Jews, what with their pagan customs and thirst for liquor, feeding their babies beer if the milk was delivered spoiled. Chicago’s Italian population was ap­proaching forty-five thousand—almost three times what it was in 1900. They were overrunning Halsted and Taylor streets with their “Little Italy,” devising rackets for the gambling halls, killing in the name of the Black Hand.

Mongrels, all of them, pulling America’s identity in dangerous direc­tions, leaving her misshapen and newly strange.

“We no longer draw from Northern Europe,” wrote one native-born observer in 1908. “This enormous influx hails from Russia, Austria, Hun­gary, Italy, and the southern countries about the eastern end of the Mediter­raneanmen of alien races, mixed in blood and of many tongues and often the last results of effete and decaying civilizations. . . . We no longer receive accessions from the best peoples but from the mediocre and the worst.”

Sims sent for Secret Service agents from Washington and twenty-five deputy United States marshals and unleashed them into the Levee. They discovered, in mid-June, a “syndicate of Frenchmen” operating from the Dearborn Street resort of Emma “French Em” Duval and her husband, August. The French had introduced unthinkable perversions into Ameri­can culture; even the word French was now slang for oral sex. The Duvals kept their girls in a barred breaking-in facility called the Retreat located on Blue Island, a small town sixteen miles south of the Loop, and worked in concert with another French couple, Alphonse and Eva Dufour, who ran a brothel at 2021 Armour Avenue, not far from the Shanghai.

On a Tuesday night, June 23, a squad of marshals swarmed Madam Eva’s resort. For a moment, a swath of the Levee paused, craning to see the commotion. At the nearby Paris, whose proprietor, Maurice Van Bever, was the most powerful Frenchman in the district, harlots and johns sprang from beds to peer out the windows. Three young French girls were dragged from Madam Eva’s, a weeping triumvirate in gauzy robes and tat­tered tights, and locked in cells at the 22nd Street station. Sims questioned them, deciphered their broken English.

“They show that they have been drilled remarkably well,” he said. “When I asked them separately how long they had been in the country, each said five years. Asked how they got here and into disorderly houses, they told stories of similar character. One said she came over to work in a corset factory in New York and was unable to get any more work. Another said she came over with a French family six years ago, and after the family went back to Paris she stayed in New York. The step from the Tenderloin to the Armour Avenue house in Chicago was easy.”

Federal agents seized Eva Dufour’s books and gathered enough evi­dence to arrest two thousand additional Frenchwomen in Minneapolis, St. Louis, New York City, New Orleans, and Kansas City, all of whom had been sold into brothels via the Chicago headquarters. Sims—who before entering college worked briefly as a newspaper reporter—was adept at dis­closing just enough information to maintain interest in his crusade without jeopardizing its progress. Further raids were in the works, he allowed, but he couldn’t elaborate owing to the possible presence of Levee spies in his office, eager to tip off his plans.


It was positively surreal. Only three months earlier, Roe had traveled to I Springfield to speak at the Capitol, and now that majestic domed struc­ture was overrun with militia, encampments arranged in precise rows across the lawn. The city where Lincoln made his home had erupted in race riots on Friday, August 14, 1908, after a twenty-one-year-old white woman allegedly was snatched from her bed and assaulted by a Negro. In the days since, a mob of white residents, wielding guns and ropes, torched black-owned businesses and homes. William Donegan, an elderly Negro who had been a close friend of Lincoln’s, was strung up on a tree near his home and hanged to death. After an overwhelmed Mayor Roy Reece was forced into hiding, Governor Deneen called in 4,500 National Guardsmen, and fi-. nally, on August 17, Springfield was easing into a tentative peace.

Roe, on the first day of a rare vacation, devoured the newspaper re­ports, paging through the late editions as he headed from Chicago to Elgin, a northwestern suburb. His sixty-nine-year-old mother, Henrietta, sat next to him, her body swaying with the motion of the train, suitcase bumping against her knees. She planned to spend the next two months with her daughter—Roe’s sister—who lived in Elgin with her husband, editor of the Elgin Daily News. She worried about leaving Roe home alone, but he told his mother not to worry, he’d be fine. He promised her that he would come out to Elgin every night to visit, even if just for an hour or two.

After pulling into the station, Roe helped his mother onto the platform and down the stairs. He carried her luggage in one hand and held her steady with the other. It was unbearably hot, and if her palms were sweaty she could lose her grip on the railing and fall. His sister’s house was within walking distance, and at the corner of Chicago Avenue and State Street they paused for breath. After a moment, Henrietta stepped from the curb just as Roe turned to pick up her suitcase.

Before he saw the automobile he heard its sounds, the grumble of motor vying with the shriek of brakes—uglier, almost, than the sight they accom­panied, all four wheels passing over his mother’s body, legs and torso and arms and head, missing nothing. Roe ran to where she lay, flat and flattened halfway between the curb and the middle of the street. Henrietta’s left elbow was posed unnaturally, her eyes flipped back, unseeing pearls. Blood leaked from her ears. Off to the side a strange woman, the driver of the au­tomobile, was screaming—high and low, closer and removed, the erratic cadence of church bells.

An ambulance sped Roe’s mother to nearby Sherman Hospital. Henri­etta didn’t regain consciousness during the ride, but her pulse still twitched under the thin skin of her neck, beneath her bony wrists. The doctors cir­cled and rolled her away. Roe called his sister, who arrived within mo­ments, and they sat together in the waiting room. The screaming woman appeared, too, accompanied by husband and friends. Roe comforted her, said the accident was “unavoidable.”

Doctors doubted his mother would survive. A blood vessel inside her head had ruptured, and she had suffered severe internal injuries. No sign of Henrietta’s brain rousing itself by 2:00 a.m., no improvement at all. When the end came at 6:00 p.m. on August 20, Roe was by her side. For an entire month he didn’t pursue one court case or save one girl.

He began work again in mid-September, timing his return with a lengthy feature in the Tribune that praised his war against the white slave traffic. Roe told the reporter that he enjoyed creative writing, loved his work, and still lived with his mother.


Madam Eva Dufour and her husband posted $25,000 bail in October and escaped to France, a disappointing finale to Edwin Sims’s raids throughout the summer. But he had made considerable progress in spread­ing the word about white slavery, and in establishing himself as an author­ity on the subject. At Ernest Bell’s urging, Sims submitted an article to Woman’sWorld, a general interest magazine delivered to more than 2 mil­lion homes throughout rural America.

Sims described his work in the Levee and concluded:


It is only necessary to say that the legal evidence thus far collected es­tablishes with complete moral certainty these awful facts: That the white slave traffic is a system operated by a syndicate which has its ram­ifications from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific ocean, with “clearing houses” or “distributing centers” in nearly all of the larger cities; that in this ghastly traffic the buying price of a young girl is from $15 up and that the selling price is from $200 to $600—if the girl is especially at­tractive the white slave dealer may be able to sell her for as much as $ 800 or $1,000; that it is a definite organization sending its hunters reg­ularly to scour France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Canada for vic­tims; that the man at the head of this unthinkable enterprise is known among his hunters as “The Big Chief.”


The magazine arrived at homes in Peoria and Lincoln and Macon, Georgia. Housewives browsing for tips on needlework and recipes instead read Sims’s words by the flicker of gaslight, and passed on his warning to everyone they knew.



Suzy Poon Tang lasted only one night at the Everleigh Club The sis­ters’ millionaire client was so taken with “the roses he found bloom­ing at the gateway to ecstasy,” as her courtesan tutor, Doll, later put it, that he whisked her away to his North Side mansion and married her within the week. The rest of the Everleigh butterflies, relieved to be rid of the com­petition, cornered Minna and Ada and assaulted them with kisses, thanking the madams for releasing her.

And a harlot they’d lost in unhappier circumstances was found again. Nellie, plotting, plundering Nellie, turned up in the river, her skin blanched and limbs ballooned, bumping up against the moorings along a stretch of water where the crew teams raced on Saturday afternoons. The police re­covered her purse, too, inside which she had tucked a note:

“I’ve made mistakes all my life, and the only persons to forgive me were two sisters in a sporting house. Kindly tell, for me, all the psalm-singers to go to hell and stick the clergymen in an ash-can. That goes double for all the parasites who talk a lot but don’t do a damn thing to help a girl in trou­ble. Call Calumet 412. I’m sure of a decent burial if you do.”

Minna and Ada obliged, selecting for their fallen courtesan a gleaming, silk-lined casket and dozens of vivid bouquets, and took turns consoling all the girls who had known poor Nellie. Along with liars and thieves, madams inevitably hired harlots with the saddest tendencies of all.


The close relationship of the Everleigh sisters dominates the book. A large cast of interesting characters, from crooked politicians to bible thumping ministers to the clients and women of the whorehouse, makes reading Sin in the Second City a real pleasure.


Steve Hopkins, September 25, 2007



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 in the October 2007 issue of Executive Times


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