Martin's Reviews > Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott
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's review
Jan 11, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: 2008books
Read in March, 2008

In “Sin in the Second City” Karen Abbott tells us in her subtitle that the book is ultimately about “the Battle for America's Soul.” Pretty heady! I suppose that the battle still persists to this day, so I shouldn’t have expected a victor in the book itself, yet was left feeling unsatisfied at not even having a side to root for. Abbott seemingly couldn’t decide if she was writing a slice-of-life about Chicago’s vice district at the turn of the century, a profile of two successful sisters running a posh brothel, or a narrative history of the battle between reformers and vice lords. Elements of all three different books come to the fore at different times in the relatively scant 300 pages of text, with no one tack prevailing. I never felt that I had a satisfying level of detail about “the Levee” – the infamous vice district – or a real grasp of the tale of Ada and Minna Everleigh – the sister-proprietors of the infamous “Everleigh Club” – OR a clear-cut understanding of the major players and sequence of events in the battle between the reform movement and the criminal element. Ultimately, Abbott gives a muddled portrait of a bunch of people at the turn of the century who, while colorful enough, aren’t well-enough detailed to be compelling, or motivated well enough to be understandable, dropped into a sequence of events that seems dramatic but is utterly without stakes or importance.

This leads to the primary question I had with the book: who are we, the readers, supposed to root for (if anyone), and/or who does Abbott seem to prefer in this mini-epic “Battle”? I am also not so simple a reader as to require a “good guy” and a “bad guy” in the stories I read, but some person or people I could care about on more than a cursory level would have been sufficient. Seemingly, the Everleigh sisters, in trying to raise their whorehouse to a higher standard and cater to a more exclusive, monied clientele, are our heroes, as it were. But we know precious little about them, partially because they (presumably by necessity) obfuscate so much information about their lives, and partly because there are so many other outsize characters in the book that Abbott doesn’t have the time to invest them with anything other than the most limited amount of depth. The other characters in the Levee are mostly abominable: vicious pimps and madams, forcing their whores into disgusting and vile acts, while meting out healthy portions of abuse and disease. Nobody to sympathize with there… Abbott then treats the reformers of the time with disdain, portraying them as timorous moralizers, pedantic grandstanders, superficial busybodies. I suppose there is something postmodern in the idea that there are no heroes in this story, but one still gets the feeling that Abbott sides with the vice district, somehow wishing that prostitution, segregated from the mainstream of society, could entirely be elevated to the “classy” level of the Everleigh Club and allowed to continue on(?!). Certainly the reform-minded crusaders – religious and political – are not shown as heroic janitors of a social filth. Yet Chicago’s vice district IS clearly a rats’ nest of illness and misery – with the possible exception of the dubious accomplishments of the Everleigh Club in partially raising the brothel to a not-totally-disgusting-and-horrendous level.

In this book, it would seem a shame that the Everleigh Club was shuttered by an apprehensive and capricious mayor. It may be that it is meant to be a shame simply because of the changing of the times – the passing of an epoch. But I had a hard time working up a great deal of emotional nostalgia for the closing of Chicago’s fanciest whorehouse out of a pack of awful whorehouses. Is this the sort of changing of the times that we should lament? The end of the good times? (We aren’t even to the Roaring ‘20s yet!) Were these times really so good in the first place?? Abbott is at pains to downplay much of the basis for the moral fervor over “white slavery.” She seems largely to dismiss the idea advocated by the reformers: that credulous women from out of town were lured off train platforms into houses of ill repute by (moustache-twirling) villains. Instead, she indicates that many of these women chose “the life” for themselves. I both have a hard time believing this, and have a hard time accepting it as a mitigating factor in the brutal turn-of-the-century sex industry. Is it proto-feminism? A woman’s right to do with her body as she pleases? Based on some of the nasty anecdotes in the book, one would imagine it was anything but. Is she really advocating for women to be allowed to be publicly whipped in S&M-style displays for male titillation? (Such were some of the entertainments at the less-classy brothels.) Does anyone really think women were willingly and rationally choosing this for themselves? Yet Abbott’s authorial loyalties do seem to lie with her unruly, anti-heroic whores and madams. (Obviously, I just don’t get it.)

The book was interesting enough as a sketch of a wonderfully alien time and place, all taking place here in the city where I live and the streets where I walk. But beyond the curiosity factor, I did not find much of any substance – certainly nothing that would indicate this book was about the battle for America’s very soul! I would have appreciated Abbott tipping her hand more: why, aside from the vaguest modern-day resonances of religious people legislating morality, were the reformers so lame in her eyes? Conversely, Abbott would have been well served to detach herself and give us sympathetic characters on both sides of the battle: a compassionate reformer with the best interests of women and society at heart, clashing with a big-hearted madam just trying to make a living, to show the democratic conundrum between freedom and immorality. But the battle is inconsistently pitched, from an authorial perspective, and ultimately relegates the book into muddled, if interesting, purposelessness.
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