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The Golden Age of Chicago Prostitution: A Q&A with Karen Abbott

Sin in the Second City, a new book by Karen Abbott, offers an in-depth look at the prostitution trade in turn-of-the-century Chicago. In particular, Abbott focuses on the Everleigh sisters, two madams who ran a high-class brothel on South Dearborn Street that earned them extraordinary wealth and international fame. Abbott agreed to answer our questions about her book.

Q: Could you describe the economics of the Everleigh brothel? What was the total income? Salaries for the Everleigh madams and their prostitutes? Food/decorating budget?

A: On a busy night, the Everleigh sisters could make as much as $5,000. They spent $18,000 per year in renovations alone, including the upkeep of a $15,000 gold piano and several $650 gilded spittoons. They allotted a budget of $2,000 to $5,000 a month for imported spirits. The sisters sold bottles of champagne for $12 in the parlors and $15 in the bedrooms, but never beer or liquor. They also paid about $800 a month in protection fees [to law enforcement officials].

The Everleigh Club “butterflies,” as they were called, pocketed from $100 to $400 each week-an unthinkable salary in other houses. “One $50 client is preferable to ten $5 ones,” Minna [Everleigh] advised her courtesans. “Less wear and tear.” A man had to pay $50 just to walk in the door, in an era when a three-course meal cost fifty cents. Dinner in the club’s Pullman Palace Buffet could cost another $150.

When the sisters retired, they had $1 million in cash, the equivalent of $20 million today.

Q: Tell us about the legality of prostitution. What was the stance on enforcement in the 1900s? How has it changed?

A: Prostitution was technically illegal at the turn of the last century, but it was also ubiquitous. Today’s image of the drug-addled streetwalker toiling under the menacing glare of her pimp wasn’t the norm back then. When the Everleighs were in business, every city with a population of more than 100,00 had a bustling red light district where dope fiends, pickpockets, and brawlers got their kicks next to lawyers, ministers, moguls, and, of course, politicians. Vice thrived, with municipal indulgence.

Brothels were considered a necessary evil; prostitutes kept “respectable” women safe from rape and the baser fantasies of their husbands. The Progressive-era reformers challenged this way of thinking, which led to a major culture war. The Everleighs were targeted because they were this gleaming, shining symbol of open and protected vice, known around the world.

Q: Does the Everleigh experience relate to the current scandal involving a D.C. madam? How damaging was it to one’s career or reputation to be associated with a brothel in the early 1900s? In your view, do the same rules still apply?

A: Absolutely! Prostitution and politics are inexorably linked, both literally and figuratively. The press inevitably zeroes in on the politician in the aftermath of such scandals: How sincere was his apology? Can his career survive? His marriage? The focus is rarely on the prostitute, who wields tremendous power in these situations. It’s a fitting paradox: these “fallen” and “ruined” women can easily bring the fall and ruin of others.

The Everleigh Club might be the only brothel in American history that enhanced, rather than diminished, a man’s reputation. Clients reportedly boasted, “I’m going to get Everleighed” tonight, which helped to popularize the phrase “get laid.” A man wouldn’t want to be seen at the “lower” houses, however. There’s an anecdote in the book in which Minna recruits a harlot named Suzy Poon Tang from a lesser brothel to service a special client who would only enter the Everleigh house. They truly adopted Marshall Field‘s business philosophy: give the customer what he wants.

Q: If the Everleighs existed today, would their business plan still succeed? Would their investment be better suited for, say, a web site?

A: They were incredibly inventive, maverick businesswomen, and I think they would have adapted well. Ada [Everleigh] was the brains of the operation. She maintained the books, interviewed the prospective Everleigh “butterflies,” and generally kept the operation running smoothly. Minna was the outgoing sister, a master social manipulator who attracted clients, advertised effectively, and cemented the Everleigh Club “brand,” if you will.

If they were operating today, I think they’d have a multi-pronged approach: run an elite, discreet call girl service, and also an online experience in which a man could “visit” a virtual Everleigh Club. He could explore the different parlors, listen to the three-stringed orchestras, and mingle with courtesans. After he made his choice, they’d connect via web cam. And if the sisters were arrested, I don’t think they’d squeal like the D.C. Madam [did]; it’s an unforgivable breech of madam etiquette.

Q: Were there any particularly surprising facts that you came across — revenue streams, perhaps, you wouldn’t have anticipated?

A: The most shocking statistics were in the Chicago Vice Commission report, issued in 1910 after reformers conducted exhaustive interviews with prostitutes, madams, streetwalkers, dance hall girls, and every other denizen of the Levee district. The red light district’s annual profits were calculated, “ultra” conservatively, at nearly $16 million per year ($328 million today). The report counted no fewer than 1,020 brothels in Chicago and five thousand full-time prostitutes – a number that didn’t account for the thousands of streetwalkers, part-timers, and girls who hustled on the side. One madam at a fifty-cent brothel testified before the Commission that she and just one prostitute earned $175 to $200 per week. She also claimed that she herself entertained 60 men in one night for fifty cents each. She had $7,000 in the bank.

During one particular survey, girls were asked why they entered the “sporting life.” Nine answered they were seduced; three could not earn enough to live by any other means; two were enticed into the life by other women; two were too “ignorant” to do any ordinary work; two lost their husbands by death and two by desertion; two said they were naturally bad (one said she was “born with the devil in her,” the other that she was “bad with boys before she was 15”); two said they wanted to afford fine clothing; and two claimed they were ruined by drink.

The Commission called oral sex “pervert methods,” and reported that it was on the increase in the higher-priced houses. The girls who performed “pervert methods” earned two to three times more than “regular girls.” Such methods, the reformers discovered, were practiced almost exclusively in the Everleigh Club, on the advice of the Club’s physician.

Q: Did police officers, government officials, and prosecutors receive a discount for services?

A: Minna set a policy of entertaining newspaper reporters and state legislators for free. It worked: the Everleigh sisters got press when they wanted it, and stayed out of the headlines when they didn’t. They also made necessary donations to a roster of politicians in Springfield in attempts to help thwart harmful state legislation, including one check for $3,000.

Q: How were prices set? What was the price disparity between rates for the house’s most popular woman versus the least?

A: In the Everleigh Club, every girl entertained for the same price; there wasn’t any hierarchy. If you were accepted as an Everleigh butterfly, you were going to earn more money than any prostitute in the world.

There were set prices for other services in the Levee, however. The price for stopping an indictment on a charge of pandering was $1,000. On the complaint of harboring a girl, $2,000. Massage parlors paid $25 a week for protection from prosecution; larger houses of ill fame, $50 to $100 a week, with $25 more if drinks were sold. Saloons paid $50 per month to be allowed to stay open after hours, and $25 per week for each poker or craps table. Prices were set by two crooked alderman, “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, and their lieutenants made collections every week. Over the course of a dozen years, according to Minna, Levee bosses collected $15 million in graft payments. The Everleigh Club alone kicked in more than $100,000 in cash.

Q: You mentioned a Chinese prostitute whose unique services were requested by a wealthy Chicago businessman. What other preferences did men of the era exhibit? In your view, have these preferences changed in the last century?

A: There were some other “unique” services. One of my favorites was an Everleigh Club client by the name of Uncle Ned. Once a year, around the holidays, Uncle Ned would pay enough money to rent out the entire club just for himself. He didn’t want wine, or gourmet food, or a bath, or even to climb the stairs. He requested two buckets of ice, into which he thrust his bare feet. He drank a tall glass of sarsaparilla, and then shouted, “It’s a wonderful day for an old-fashioned sleigh ride,” while the girls danced around him singing “Jingle Bells.”

Another odd bird was a guy nicknamed the “Gold Coin Kid.” He always brought a bag stuff with – you guessed it — gold coins, and requested a courtesan named Doll. She would recline on her bed and let him toss the coins between her legs. Every time he hit the bull’s-eye, he let Doll keep the gold.

There were also “strip-whip” matches at the lower houses, during which harlots would wrestle naked and whip each other bloody. When Prince Henry of Prussia visited the Club, he got off on watching the harlots rip apart a cloth bull with their teeth-a reenactment of the murder of Dionysus’ infant son. There was something for everyone in the Levee — just like today.

Q: How was race handled in the brothels? Were white and black prostitutes kept separate? Did the members of the profession flout the racial conventions of the time, or stick to the mainstream view of racial inequality?

A: The Levee district was segregated in very specific ways. There were brothels where light-skinned black women serviced only white men, and other houses where dark-skinned women catered only to black men. Girls in Japanese and Chinese houses served white men, and girls in French houses performed oral sex only, and only on white men.

Minna and Ada Everleigh had at least one Spanish prostitute over the years, and several Jewish girls, but no black women. They took pains to insist they weren’t personally prejudiced – “Even though I am a Virginian,” Minna said, “I am not intolerant” – but they knew their wealthy white clientele did not want to mix with other races. There was a famous incident in 1909 when the boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, was admitted to the Club only because his manager was a powerful player in the Levee. But the Everleigh sisters didn’t predict that their girls would find him so charismatic and charming; five women left with him, and all five were fired.

Q: You discuss at length the media’s role in shaping public opinion on turn-of-the-century prostitution, particularly the issue of “white slavery.” How has media portrayal changed towards prostitution?

A: During the “white slavery” hysteria, prostitutes were considered victims whose souls needed to be saved. They were “fallen” women who could be rescued through prayer and legislation, and returned to respectable lives.

After World War I, when the white slavery panic began to wane, this viewpoint shifted. Prostitutes were regarded as feeble-minded, maladjusted girls who were ruining America’s moral fabric. I think this latter view still holds today, particularly with regard to streetwalkers. No one in my neighborhood in midtown Atlanta cares if the prostitutes on our corner receive any kind of social assistance; they just want them out of sight. These are probably the same people who consume the most online porn. One of the major themes of the book is the cyclical nature of religious fundamentalism in this country. The old adage is true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Q: A recent study by a Canadian criminology student found that 2/3 of “off-street” prostitutes have never experienced violence in the course of their job, while more than 90% of the study participants had a college education. The results led one Canadian professor to state, “The importance of this research is that it shows that the prohibitionist argument is ideological and political. It provides a huge stumbling block and strongly favours decriminalization.” Do you agree?

A: I think the Everleighs were definitely onto something. The world’s oldest profession isn’t going to go away; why not regulate and tax it? An argument can be made that legitimizing the business would keep its practitioners safer from physical abuse and disease. It seems to work in Nevada.

I’m torn on whether or not sex work is inherently empowering or exploitive for women. I tell all of these fun anecdotes in the book, but, truth be told, a lot of the women entered the sporting life – even Everleigh Club girls – for tragic reasons. Their husbands deserted them, and they had small children to support. Their parents died, and they had younger siblings to take care of. Some were considered promiscuous and kicked out of their homes so they figured, why not get paid? Many Everleigh girls married well and went on to live “respectable” lives, and others met unhappy endings. One committed suicide, and another was found dead in an alley, her hands severed at the wrists so her killer could take her diamond rings. It’s a perennial question: if this is the only choice you have, is it really a choice at all?

Everleigh Club interior photo, Chicago History Museum; used with permission from Random House Inc.