More sin in the second city
05/17/2009 1:07 AM
Last year I read “Sin in the Second City” and I couldn’t put it down. Karen Abbott wrote an exhaustive tome about Ada and Minna Everleigh--who were famous high class madams 100 years ago with a double mansion at Dearborn and Cermak.
I knew all the places the author talked about because I live at Roosevelt and State. When Abbott came to last year’s Printers Row Book Fair, a neighbor who loved it too helped me accost her and question her for a long time. “Is the house they moved to on West Washington Street after they got run out of the Levee District still there?” “How about the brownstone they moved to in Manhattan with all their money after they left Chicago?” (No. Yes.)
I wrote a funny column for the Chicago Journal about the book, and how cool it was living in the Everleighs old stomping grounds. (See Below.)
Several weeks ago Abbott came to town and gave a bus tour for the Chicago History Museum. I took the tour with members of my book club who were reading the book. We stopped at places like the old cop shop on Harrison and at the Marshall Field, Jr. house on Prairie Avenue--where he was taken to die after allegedly being shot at the Everleigh Club so it would look like a household accident. Abbott suggested we call her from book club and she would join us via speakerphone from her home in New York. So we did--and we badgered her with questions. “Who built that home they moved to on the West Side?” “Were the prostitutes really lesbians?” (Didn’t know about the house--and neither did the history museum. And maybe some weren't altogether straight.)
Then we sent Karen a picture of us which she put on her website. She was quite impressed that we were holding our meeting at a home at 16th and Clark, a stone’s throw from the Everleighs’ old stomping grounds.
In the meantime, on Saturday I won First Place in the humor column category in a journalism contest sponsored by the Illinois Women’s Press Association, based on two columns that had run in the Chicago Journal, one of which was the one I wrote about Abbott’s book.
Here it is:
A really wicked area in a town without pity
by Bonnie McGrath
New York's ex-governor may be charged under the Mann Act by the time you read this. His crime? Transporting a woman over state lines for immoral purposes. What a guv. Makes Blago look like the Serbian Henry Horner.
But wait. Chicago, in spite of electing leaders true to their wives (perhaps a few aldermen notwithstanding) can outdo the Big Apple on this one. The Mann Act of 1910 was initiated not only by a Chicago congressman, James Mann, but by our very own South Loop.
That's right, Eliot Spitzer. If you end up in the clink for your own lascivious version of Empire State white slavery, you have only Chicago's South Loop to blame.
It's true. At the turn of the last century, the South Loop we know as the home of Bar Louie, Columbia College dorms and the latest addition to the Fitness Formula Club family was nothing but Satan's Mile. A true levee district without a levee. A raucous hotbed of white slavery. A really wicked little area in a town without pity. South Loop residents were ready to orgy at a moment's notice, drink and cuss and even shoot each other. Women were loose, everyone was tight (from booze) and the men were the biggest hypocrites on earth. They dropped their pants with women they hardly knew in whorehouses, and then went home to their wives and children.
The whole sordid tale is outlined in a recent book by Karen Abbott called "Sin in the Second City." The Mann Act was a direct result of the bawdy South Loop bums who required the never-ending recruitment of naïve, dejected ladies from around the world to fill the brothels located on nearly every street in the area. Where my house now stands at Roosevelt and State was at one time nothing but a line of whorehouses.
Some of the spots of ill repute would get you drunk and steal your wallet through a concealed hole in the wall when you were busy doing other things. And some, like the refined Everleigh Club, would wine and dine you with the very best food and liquor, sit you down on fabric imported from the finest manufacturers, entertain you with classical music or ragtime jazz and even let you expound on philosophy, history and literature if you so desired. A night in the Everleigh Club could cost as much as a brand new house in an ordinary neighborhood.
Those days are all over, but I have become enchanted with the idea that at one time such action defined the South Loop. I mean, how do you think the Pacific Garden Mission got here? That's right-it was to save the souls of those who traveled south of the Loop to carouse, and who simply got stuck.
Recently, I went on a tour of my own making, trying to breathe in the air, so rarefied, at 2131-33 S. Dearborn, where the Everleigh sisters operated their landmark mansion before getting run out. First, they went to the West Side, but soon the sisters were off to Manhattan, a stone's throw from Spitzer's Fifth Avenue digs.
The 2100 block of south Dearborn Street, of course, no longer even exists. In its place stand the Hilliard Homes, surrounded by a nice spread of grass. The memories of proud Minna and Ada, the girls at the Everleigh Club, and their customers hang in the air but are otherwise gone.
To recapture the feeling, I am currently plodding through another tome about the evil history of the South Loop called "If Christ Came to Chicago." Written in 1894 by journalist William Stead, the book ended up being used-hardly his intention-as a guide for visitors who wanted to partake in South Loop vice.
Most of the landmarks mentioned by Stead and Abbott alike are gone and forgotten. The old buildings are down, replaced by warehouses, office buildings, town homes, schools, condos and lofts.
But there may be room for another book about the human nature that pedals down the streets we live on now-stories of people trying to make it in different ways. There are tree-lined streets, playgrounds, Starbucks and Caribou, plenty of dogs being walked, kids at day care, fancy cars with drivers who are thinking about where to go for dinner, and not where to go for sex.
I'd like to write a new book, and maybe call it, "If William Stead Came to Chicago." Or better yet, "If James Mann Came to the South Loop." Either way, I think they'd both be quite impressed that their efforts paid off.