The Two Good Sisters
by Dan Kelly
Friends! Gather about this wretched sinner and hear a tale of unbridled lust, debauchery, and raw meat. Not long ago, a pair of whorehouse madams wickedly seized young Karen Abbott's attention, reducing her to that most lowly and scarlet of professions, journalism. Abbott was a willing prisoner, spending three years at work on her book [i]Sin and the Second City[i] (releases July 10, Random House), a review of 1900s Chicago's red light district and the women who staffed its bordellos—in particular Ada and Minna Everleigh, mistresses of Chicago's most chichi house of ill repute, the Everleigh Club.
Interviewed in the equally storied and gaudy confines of the Chicago Cultural Center, Ms. Abbott explained how inspiration struck as she searched for information about a female ancestor who immigrated from Slovenia to America in 1905. Making the trip with Abbott's great grandmother, the family settled in Pittsburgh. But one day the young miss travelled to Chicago—only for the weekend, she said—never to return. Her disappearance became a bit of secret family lore; something Abbott's great grandmother remained tight-lipped about her entire life. Already a staff writer for [i]Philadelphia[i] magazine and [i]Philadelphia Weekly[i], covering politics, media, and crime, Abbott's journalistic instincts activated, and she threw herself into the search for her mysterious ancestor.
The path led elsewhere as Abbott discovered her great aunt's woeful tale wasn't unique. Multiple vanished girls turned up, as did the history of the early 1900's white slavery panic and its accompanying reform movement. Abbott also made the acquaintance of Ada and Minna Everleigh through the works of writer Charles Washburn, a friend and patron of the sisters, and [i]Gangs of New York[i] author Herbert Asbury. Absorbed and intrigued, Abbott mounted a search for further information about the ladies and their club. As the facts and fables piled up, Abbott fell in love with the sisters' moxie.
"It's cheesy, but I came to think of them as family. I have pictures of them hanging up in my house right now," says Abbott. The Everleigh's current status as a misplaced historical footnote surprised her. "These women ran Chicago, and hardly anyone has ever heard of them." Abbott sought to rectify that omission with [i]Sin in the Second City[i].
Few heroes appear in the Everleigh Club story, but criminality and villainy are relative terms. The Everleighs come off well, both in Abbott's book and communal memory. In a city history reeking of blood and corruption, a posh brothel and its scampish madams make for a nice olfactory break.
Like any good whores, the sisters tangled up their true past with glorious confabulations. Their last name wasn't Everleigh—a pun requiring only a moment to decode—but rather Simms. Purporting a background story of descent from Kentucky aristocracy, the women actually came from a Virginian family hit hard by both the Civil War and disease. Whatever happened between that time and the girls' move to Omaha years later is sketchy. They told Washburn they married a pair of brutish brothers, abusive louts who drove them to run off and join a traveling acting troupe. In time, the sisters found themselves stuck in Omaha, where, as they told it, the snooty aloofness of the local ladies inspired them to open a bawdy house. If the wives didn't want to accept two actresses into their circles, then perhaps their husbands might.
Cute story, but likely bunk. Truth was beside the point for these working girls since fiction sold better than fact. In her research, Abbott discovered a letter in the papers of Irving Wallace—who wrote his own account of the club, [i]The Golden Room[i], after interviewing the sisters—from their great niece Evelyn E. Diment. Diment called it all poppycock, suggesting the sisters went into the business from a young age when the family was in dire straits, and most likely with their father's approval. A little creative editing of their past was necessary for their future plans.
"Just piecing together their whole background; they were ingenious in how they learned to present themselves," says Abbott.
The sisters arrived in Chicago in late 1899 after a stint as madams in Omaha, NE. Like so many entrepreneurs of the time they came to Chicago with a better business idea. In the down-at-heels red light district at 22nd and State—better known as the Levee—they wanted to create a genteel seraglio for the wealthy gentleman, which the centrally located and bustling city provided in abundance.
As a first step they bought and rehabbed retiring Madam Effie Hankins' historically torrid manse at 2131-2133 S. Dearborn Avenue. Minna and Ada declined to rehire Allen's shopworn girls, contacted many of their former Omaha employees, and put out a call for others interested in performing service at an upscale house, free from the threat of pimps, whippings, or indentured servitude. In this way, unlike the rat-trap cribs and dollar houses of the Levee, the Everleigh was unique.
While the city was ready for the Everleighs, they still needed to step lightly. When Al Capone was still just a segment of DNA, aldermanic fief lords and old-fashioned crime bosses were lining their pockets in the city, by methods both illicit and foul. According to Abbott's research, it feels like the Everleighs were the only ones honestly earning a dishonest buck.
Established, the sisters ran up against the underworld's powers that were. Ike Bloom was one. A sleazy Randolph Avenue dance hall owner upfront, he coordinated protection payments in the district, charging the Everleighs 10 grand a year—a standard rate for a regal brothel like theirs. "Big Jim" Colosimo was another "protector" and Chicago Outfit founder on whose good side they had to stay. Both men appreciated the touch of class the sisters' house brought to the Levee. The feeling wasn't mutual, and the sisters were less impressed by Colosimo's connection to local panderer Maurice Van Bever, with whom he ran a prostitution ring. Enticing young women to the city with promises of employment, the girls ended up either working in one of Big Jim's dives or being sold to another house.
While powerful, Colosimo and Bloom lacked the real, semi-respectable clout of First Ward Aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse John" Coughlin. Colosimo and Bloom got where they were by nefarious means, but Hinky Dink and the Bath paid for their votes fair and square through free beer and lunches, "tributes" collected from Levee gambling dens and brothels, and the sale of tickets for the annual First Ward Ball, an event patronized by the Ward's pimps, whores, thieves, and other malcontents. Truly, it was a golden age of bastardy. In such mixed company it's easy to crush on the Everleighs, if only for the way they tried to elevate their profession.
"To survive, they had to play the game," mentions Abbott. "They learned how to play the game, but they also improved on the rules..."
Contemporary accounts tint the painted ladies as high-hatted and a wee bit racist, but otherwise straight out of central casting—ladylike yet tough as nails madams with hearts golden as their gilded parlor. Minna had the dominant personality and a mouth full of southern sass, while Ada, oppositely, remained the silent partner—though this supposed shrinking violet was as much a steel magnolia as her sister. Asked to pick a favorite Everleigh, Abbott favors Minna. "I wish I could be more like her. To not care what anybody thinks ever is sort of liberating." Alderman Kenna, no chatterbox himself, considered the laconic Ada to be the real power broker, quoted in Ada's obituary as calling her the "brains of the pair."
As opening day approached, the women lined up, but were hired only if they were at least 18, attractive, healthy, drug- and alcohol-free, and experienced. Ada theorized that young widows and greenhorns would jump through the escape hatch offered by the first marriage proposal extended by a rich dandy. Largely, the ladies were of working class stock, with basic educations at best. To appeal to their soignée clientele, Minna conducted lessons in charm and culture, introducing the ladies to literature and teaching them that building anticipation in a John guaranteed better business than simply dropping trou. Proper couture was demanded, and silk gowns were commissioned from a French designer. By way of advertisement, Ada and Minna made weekly carriage trips to their downtown bank, always accompanied by a pretty young thing who stayed outside, promoting the house with coy adjustments of her make-up and hair and semi-scandalously exposing an ankle or even a calf at the right time. Their reputation as fluttery feminine objects of perfect beauty was neatly sealed when Minna dubbed them the Everleigh butterflies.
Being a butterfly was considered a privilege and position of high esteem—insofar as whoredom was concerned—and the house rules were strictly enforced: no pick-pocketing, no knock-out drops in the drinks in order to roll an unconscious customer, nothing harder than wine and champagne would be served and no drugs taken, regular VD inspections by a doctor were required, and no pimps or similar ne'erdowells were allowed in the house under threat of immediate expulsion. Ada and Minna weren't the ones who would suffer after firing a girl; they had a long waiting list of candidates. The pay was good and unlike other high grade houses—such as their neighbor/nemesis Madam Vic Shaw's, who had a professional whipper on staff—punishments were strict only in that if you broke the rules, you were out.
Unlike the houses of ill repute surrounding it, the Everleigh could accurately be called by one contemporary euphemism for whorehouses: resort. If a gent wanted a quick roll and tumble, he went to the dollar houses. If he wanted an Epicurean experience, and had a thick wallet, he went to the Everleigh Club. While the rest of the Levee teemed with low-rent dives and back-room cribs, inhabited and habituated by the alcoholic, addicted, thieving, and syphilitic, the Everleighs conducted their business with clean hands. Well, as much as they possibly could, considering the pre-penicillin time period.
The club had a Disneyesque quality, in design, entertainment, and business sense. Like the sisters, fact and facade mixed for the sons of Chicago's upper crust and moneyed visitors to the city. Lavishly furnished, the mansion was decorated with naughty oil paintings and classical sculptures, a fountain that sprayed perfume into the air, a gold-leaf piano and solid gold spittoons, and, of course, the Everleigh butterflies—the prettiest, most literate strumpets on the Levee. As for what drew men to a place where they could easily drop a thousand bucks in a night—it wasn't just for something they couldn't get back at home without pleading, it was because the Everleigh was trés. trés exclusive, my dear. Oh, mais oui.
"It was more of a gentleman's club," says Abbot. "The cachet of being able to go there, just because they turned down so many people... It became an exclusive badge of honor just to be admitted."
Ever-flowing alcohol, string quartets, fireworks, and, of course, sex sex sex could be had only by the city's financial elite. The Everleigh had no open door policy, and after screening the first night's patrons, admittance was thenceforth by referral letter from a previous patron. A gentleman was also expected to spend a minimum of $50 or face banishment. For the pre-income tax swells who frequented the club, this was no problem, as they had both the opportunity and means. A night at the club involved $12 bottles of wine and cornucopian offerings of fruits, nuts, sweets, cigars, and liqueurs in the parlor. The dining room, designed like a mahogany Pullman dining car, served meals of pheasant, goose, lobster, and more starting at $50 a plate. Dinner in the Pullman Room was a huge draw according to another book Abbott turned up—[i]The Bordello Cookbook[i]. "It was dedicated to the Everleigh Club," she says. "It talks about the bordellos of the era and how a lot of the patrons came just for the meals—the girls were almost a side attraction. They [had] some of the finest chefs in the country, and an excellent selection of wines."
The entertainment was equally high caliber, albeit bizarre. On March 3, 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia came to the city, making a special stop at the Everleigh. The usual niceties were observed—dinner in the Pullman Room, followed by drinks and a parlor show. "Spectacle" might be a better word. Dressed as wild women, barefooted and unencumbered by undergarment, the butterflies howled and danced about like savages. Reenacting the Bacchae of ancient myth, they tore into a cloth bull in the room's center, pummeling and shredding its "flesh." Afterwards, Abbott reports, the girls were served plates of raw meat, which they viciously ripped into like ravenous wolves. When the show was over, the butterflies cleaned up and returned to civilization. By all reports, the Prussian prince and his compatriots were impressed. Remember, these were pre-television days.
Scandal attached itself to the house now and again, the most notorious event being the supposed murder of Marshall Fields, Jr., son of the store founder, in its plush confines. Per the official story, on November 22, 1905, young Fields was cleaning a gun in his study at his Prairie Avenue home in preparation for a hunting trip, when it accidentally went off. He died a few days later, and local wags, yellow journalists, and the bitter competition of both the Everleighs and Fields, Sr., however, whispered that Fields, Jr., was actually at the club that night, whooping it up before being shot by a butterfly. Rumor further had it that, not wanting the taint of violence on the house—which experienced an earlier shooting two years before—the sisters had young Fields packed up and smuggled back home.
What was the truth? Abbott explores all the possibilities, among them an attempt by Vic Shaw to frame Minna for ventilating young Fields, and a young burlesque performer named Vera Scott who insisted she was the shooter. A coroner's jury and the day's press stuck by the gun cleaning story and the Fields name was heretofore tainted only by Fields [i]pere's[i] push for the execution of the Haymarket anarchists and the store's eventual sale to an alien invader.
Like most accounts, Abbott's book trumpets the club's tony nature. "Anything anybody said so far was usually concentrating on the glitz and glamor and gold spittoons," says an amused Abbott about previous Everleigh Club histories. As a political writer, she didn't want to leave it at that. While the book seems perfect for conversion into a [i]Best Little Whorehouse in Chicago[i] movie script, Abbott was just as interested in covering the progressive politics of the time, and the day's debates about a woman's place in society.
"3,100 women were working in 1880, and then you had 38,000, 30 years later," says Abbott. "Everybody was just freaking out about women entering the workforce in such large droves, leaving their rural homestead and entering the big city," and by extension this sinister town's evil-drenched nickelodeons, dance halls, and pleasure palaces.
As one might assume, not every woman who came to Chicago found legitimate work, and those who did rarely made enough to support themselves and their families. Some women came to the Life willingly, others not, and some had no choice as a body's demand to be sheltered and fed made morality seem like a luxury. Among the sheltered religious reformers of the day, however, there was but one way any white Christian woman could ever reach such a lowly state: coercion into "white slavery."
Throughout the early 1900s, religious reformers descended upon the Levee with the idea of cleaning it up through late night prayer meetings, sidewalk preaching, pamphleteering, and loading up and firing their shame-throwing fingers at Levee patrons. The Everleighs began referring to the midnight missionaries who tried to "save" their girls as "firemen." Unlike other local reformers like Upton Sinclair and Jane Addams, the firemen were less concerned with social equality, equal pay, or safe working conditions than with the souls of the ladies of the evening (though, to their credit, they were also concerned with rescuing truly captive women and stemming the spread of syphilis). Somewhat unfairly though, several reformers made closing the comparatively progressive Everleigh Club their pet project. Yet, while obviously smitten with her book's stars, Abbott doesn't give their pious nemeses short shrift. These folks weren't stereotypical sticks in the mud. They were a powerful political force.
"It was important to me to take the reformers seriously," says Abbott. "If I didn't take them seriously, then no one would take them seriously as a threat to the Everleigh Sisters. They embodied the politics of their time."
Some of the reformers were sincere but blinkered nativists, like the Rev. Ernest Bell, a clergyman in the early stages of his career. Bell's original life goal was to build a "Christian university" in India. That didn't pan out. Then in 1897 a late night proposition from a scarlet woman, right outside the Chicago Theological Seminary in Hyde Park, redirected his energies. He decided there was plenty of trouble, right here in the Windy City. Bell was an active force for purity, getting knocked about and gassed by pimps and Levee patrons who didn't appreciate his admonitions to repent. While typically blue-nosed and racially insensitive as many white Americans of his time, Abbott sensed that Bell truly cared about the ladies of the Levee.
"If I were a novelist I wouldn't have been able to name him 'Ernest,'" says Abbott. "I think he really believed in what he was doing and his motives were true and good and upright. He really believed he was saving women from Satan's clutches."
Clifford Roe, an assistant state's attorney with literary pretensions was another matter. Abbott believes that Roe had a mild interest in rescuing the little ladies, but was even more preoccupied with furthering his political career.
"I think Roe was a bit more Machiavellian and manipulative with the facts. That's not to say he didn't, at some level, believe he was doing good for Chicago, number one, and for women, number two. But mostly [it was] for himself. He was really ambitious." Ambitious enough to have a side business of lecturing and writing slightly exploitative books with titles like [i]Panders and Their White Slaves[i] and [i]The Great War on White Slavery; or, Fighting for the Protection of Our Girls[i].
On the nasty side, the white slavery scare was used as an excuse to criticize the sudden tidal wave of non-Protestant immigrants pouring into the country. "Some of the things the federal officials were saying I had to read twice," says Abbott. "Like the War on Terror, they had their political talking points, and they used them very effectively to manipulate the public and push their own agenda forward."
Men like Edwin Sims, United States district attorney in Chicago, crafter of the anti-prostitution Mann Act of 1910, and a fellow U of M alum of Roe's, made gobsmacking statements like, "I am determined to break up this traffic in foreign women. It is my sworn duty, and it should be done to protect the people of the country from contamination." Roe and Rev. Bell weren't above racial demagoguery either. Their books made specific mention of the greasy playground slides that shuttled decent white girls straight to Hell: theatrical agencies, dance halls, and ice cream parlors ("largely run by foreigners!" per one of Bell's books). Also, per Bell: "Unless we make energetic and successful war upon the red light districts and all that pertains to them, we shall have Oriental brothel slavery thrust upon us from China and Japan, and Parisian white slavery, with all its unnatural and abominable practices, established among us by the French traders. Jew traders, too, will people our "levees" with Polish Jewesses and any others who will make money for them.
Shall we defend our American civilization, or lower our flag to the most despicable foreigners—French, Irish, Italians, Jews and Mongolians?" quoth the saintly Rev. Bell.
Through it all, the reformers took a special dislike to the Everleigh Club. Perhaps it was the Everleighs' effrontery, trying to put a respectable face on vice, or the obvious silent approval of the town's politicos and rich men. Gallingly, Ada and Minna always welcomed reformers to the house, willing to hear them out and let them talk to the girls, though unlikely to close shop and drop to their knees begging God's forgiveness at the presentation of a religious tract.
Then the axe fell. Mayor Carter Harrison II, who usually turned a blind eye to the Levee's going-ons recognized the growing political power of the reformers. Moreover, he was concerned that the madams and pimps were beginning to stray past the district's segregated borders. The tipping point arrived when a friend from another city showed him, with the requisite nudge and wink, [I]The Everleigh Club, Illustrated[i], a leather-bound, photo-filled sales brochure the Everleighs printed up and mailed out to 200 potential patrons nationwide. This aggression would not stand, and on October 24, 1911, Harrison ordered the Everleigh's doors shut. "A resort of that sort has no place in a civilized city," said Da 1911 Mare, in apparent reference to this toddlin' town. The sisters made overtures to Colosimo, Hinky Dink, and the Bath, and while "tributes" totaling as much as $40 grand were suggested, the mayor held firm and the house was closed by the busybody forces of good.
Despite being a major fun killer, did any good come of the reform movement? Abbott thinks so. "Through the end of it they started having hearings about women's wages, [asking] how can a girl work in factory for $6 a week and not be expected to supplement her income doing nefarious things?"
The white slavery panic also gave women in general, still a decade away from suffrage, a cause they could sink their teeth into. "Women stepped in because women couldn't vote, women weren't allowed in saloons, women weren't discussing politics in any formal recognized way," notes Abbott. "The white slavery scare was a chance for them to insert themselves in political discourse." The ladies, after all, knew what was best for "their girls."
The sexual revolution arrived too. Roe's books inspired others, which salaciously clucked about the woeful state of degradation the little slatterns were forced into, spiced up with illustrated scenes of seduction or terrified harlots escaping the brothel, sprightly striding through the snow in flimsy negligees. More seriously, the white slavery panic gave the okay to writing about sexuality in the mainstream press. Abbott views it all as a front door method of making sex a permissible subject in the parlor.
"This was the first time people were talking about venereal disease... it made sex acceptable in polite society," she says. "Those narratives were like porn for puritans, but it was the first time people could discuss that, in a way, and not be considered untoward."
And what of the supposed source and target of all this grief, lust, and holy rage—those two incorrigible women at 2131-33 South Dearborn?
While it's unknown what fates most of the Everleigh butterflies came to, the sisters did not end up down and out. When they retired they had $1 million banked away ($20.5 million in today's dollars—Abbott did the math) and even more in jewelry, art, and Oriental rugs. Buying an Upper West Side brownstone at 20 W. 71st Street in New York, they introduced themselves to the neighbors as Ada and Minna Lester, starting up a poetry discussion group with none-the-wiser local ladies. Like many others they lost money during the stock market crash of 1929, but endured. Minna was the first to pass on September 16, 1948, at the age of 82. Ada lasted a while longer, until January 6, 1960, when she died in Charlottesville, VA, at 95.
The Levee lacked their steely constitutions. One by one, the dives, cribs, saloons, dance halls, gambling parlors, and opium dens were shut down, and today the area is known as Chinatown. On July 24, 1933, only two decades after closing, workers finally tore down the infamous old resort, "heedless of the fact that they were wiping out one of the most lurid chapters in Chicago history," according to the unnamed [i]Tribune[i] reporter covering the event. Sic transit gloria mundi, though part of Charles Baudelaire's poem, "The Two Good Sisters" also comes to mind.
[i]The bier and the alcove, fertile in blasphemies
Like two good sisters, offer to us in turn
Terrible pleasures and frightful sweetness.[i]
He was actually talking about debauchery and death, but hey, same neighborhood.