A reader asked what my interest in Sin in the Second City — the history of the Everleigh brothel in Chicago — was. The short answer is that I’m interested in the demimonde. We do work with certain types of. . .unsavory. . .individuals in our books and stories. Audrey Breckstone, for instance, runs a whorehouse in Boss Conrad’s territory on Surebleak, so reading about Chicago May and the Everleigh sisters could be annointed as “research.” But, yanno, everything’s research when you write fiction — see “grist for the mill.”
What also interested me about the Everleigh’s story was the fabric of Chicago at the turn of the century (frequent auditors of this journal will recall that I’m also guilty of reading The Devil in the White City), of which the club, and the Levee and the First Ward were all vibrant strands, the larger fabric of the nation at the time, and the. . .ease with which sexual hysteria gave birth to what became the FBI.
I must say that Sin in the Second City is miles above The Story of Chicago May in terms of author competence and, therefore, this reader’s enjoyment. Nuala O’Faolain seemed, at best, baffled by her subject, frustrated with actions that made no sense to a memoirist trying to get into another woman’s head. Ultimately, her attempt left me unsatisfied, and a little annoyed at her whispered conclusion that such women as May, really, don’t deserve the scrutiny of history.
Karen Abbott, on the other hand, is a reporter. She writes a clean hand, and brings a firm, largely non-judgmental voice to her narrative. Her book was a pleasure to read, and I came away from it with a nice headful of thoughts and ideas. Ms. Abbott learned that very valuable lesson — News (and History) is People.
Granted, part of the difference in the richness of the narration is the available records. May left a book, written after she was “reformed” and apparently none too factual. There were some police and prison records, a few newspaper reports. She was a part of the scenery of her time, only briefly elevated to newswothiness by her membership in a particularly inept criminal enterprise.
The Everleigh sisters, on the other hand, strove to be seen, to make a mark, to be favorably reviewed. Their club was patronized by Chicago’s wealthiest and best-placed men. They were firm pillars of the First Ward, if only for the staggering amount of protection money they paid.
They were also interesting to me because of their enlightened business model. They ran a whorehouse in Chicago in the early 1900s. At a time when their nearest competitor was charging $10 (in 1900-bucks, now) a trick, the Everleigh “butterflies” charged a whopping $50 per client. The girls were seen by a real doctor retained by the house, who, among other benefits, advised them to adopt what the Chicago Vice Commission some years later characterized as “perversion” in order to avoid disease and “other problems.” An Everleigh harlot could expect to earn (“take-home pay,” if you will) between $50 and $400 a week (in 1900-bucks). The “butterflies” were the healthiest, best-paid sex workers in the city of Chicago. It was a business model that succeeded brilliantly, and by its success ought to have inspired others to take up their methods.
Politics and people being what they are, of course that didn’t happen.
. . .This is all aside the “morality” of the business, of course, “morality” being a slippery stair at best. And certainly even high-class whores were subject to the various environmental dangers of living in the Levee, the quintessential Bad Neighborhood.
. . .which reminds me — notice the Writer Brain at work — of an article I read not too long ago about the uranium mines in. . .Colorado? There was “proved” a connection between working the mines to a high incidence of cancers among the mine workers, and so the mines were shut. No other business came to replace it, which is, if Maine is any measure, About Par, leaving the people out of pocket and wanting to work.
Every single person the reporter investigating this place spoke to bemoaned the loss of the “good jobs.” Yes, lots of people in town died of cancer, but the jobs in the mines were “good jobs” they were glad to have them, and they would return to the mine in a heartbeat if it were opened again. Life, the interviewees said, though not in so many words, is dangerous; people die here. It’s how we live and provide for our families that’s important.
. . .and — last diversion, I promise — a few years ago, I was reading histories of Indian abductions. At that time, a reader asked me why on earth I was reading that stuff. And I answered that I supposed the back-brain wanted it for something, and I had learned not to inquire too closely into these matters.
Years later, I now know why the back-brain wanted abduction stories, so — research. It’s all around you.