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Elevating the World's Oldest Profession in Chicago

Jul 21, 2007 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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In early 20th century Chicago, the scandalous stories rocking popular culture could well be plucked from today's newspaper headlines.

One of the juiciest stories was in city's Levee District. There, sisters Minna and Ada Everleigh ran the country's most famous brothel, welcoming politicians, actors and foreign dignitaries, among other prominent clientele.

And they could name names if they had to.

In her new book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, author Karen Abbott lifts the curtain on the sisters' notorious club. From their double mansion, the Everleighs attempted to elevate the world's oldest profession. They made sure their 30 "girls" dined on gourmet food, were examined by honest physicians and were educated.

Clients, who were admitted by referral letter, could enjoy an elaborate bordello featuring a room of 1,000 mirrors and stringed orchestras, among other amenities. High-profile guests included Prince Henry of Prussia, who visited in 1902.

But scandal and disapproval by Victorian Era reformers gradually brought an end to the excesses of the Everleigh Club and clubs like it. When Marshall Field Jr., son of the store founder, was found shot at his home in November 1905, rumor spread that one of the Everleigh prostitutes had done it. The coroner concluded that Field had accidently discharged his hunting weapon.

Lurid tales of "white slavery" - the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels - swept the country, and eventually prompted the Mann Act, which was established to prevent it. The furor surrounding America's sexual culture also led to the creation of a branch of the Justice Department which would evolve into the F.B.I.

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