Before my assessment of Karen Abbott’s non fiction account of the Everleigh House, Chicago’s fanciest turn of the century den of iniquity, I have to express my aw-shucks midwestern appreciation for a setting I recognized. It’s not like Chicago isn’t represented in the media or anything, but as the title itself states, not only is Chicago “The Second City” it has to fight for the title with LA. Anyway, there’s something to be said for realizing you’ve walked through an intersection being described, 100 years later. It’s a small pleasure, or maybe I just miss going to a city a couple hours from where I’m quarantined, even if the one I’m stuck in isn’t bad.
On to the Everleigh House: We meet Ada and Minna Everleigh (not their real surname) at the height of their fame, madams servicing the rich and famous, after the rumor mill puts the shotgun death of a frequent wealthy patron in their halls at the time of his injury. Their courtesans, referred to as “butterflies,” entertain only the finest clientele via the Everleigh sisters’ soliciting the best to populate the house. The house distinguishes itself from their competitors by refusing to degrade the women it employs, instructing them in poetry, giving them regular medical exams, and refusing to tolerate theft, hard drink, or drugs. All of which makes the reformers who come in to “save” the women a laughingstock to the butterflies.
I would have loved this book if it hadn’t insisted on spending as much time with the reformers as it did the Everleighs and their employees. I can guess why a man would feel the need to rescue women from sex work, but I’m far more interested in the lives of the women who would turn to sex work in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially given the lack of options for women and the state of marriage at the time. I also wanted to know more about the interior lives of the courtesans, and learning about individual butterflies was a highlight, if an infrequent one; I suppose it’s to be expected that sources for individual women living outside “acceptable society” would be limited, but the book would be much more compelling with them.