Thursday, June 19, 2008

Angels take their time in falling

The United States is occasionally beset by moralistic crusades that sweep up the guilty and the innocent. Prohibition, the satanic abuse scare and the Hollywood black list vary in their extent and their severity, but they reflect a righteous tendency that exists in America. Of course there is a countervailing trend that opposes such efforts, and our arts serve to remind (and occasionally to rub our collective faces) in our collective bent towards social zealotry.

Karen Abbott expands the discussion with her Sin in the Second City, a story which sets a pair of enlightened madams against the forces of moral certitude and reform. The madams ran the pseudonymously eponymous Everleigh Club, a club known for the most extravagant epicurean delights as well as the most lovely of women. As opposed to the competition in turn of the century Chicago's Levee District, the Everleighs treated their employees well, limited violence and substance abuse and established a business as civilized as was possible in their trade.

About the same time of the rise of the Everleighs, the nation became fixated on the white slave trade. This was the idea that young women were tricked into becoming harlots through kidnap, rape and drugging. Like their abolitionist predecessors, the anti-white slave trade advocates rallied the forces of society and government. Abbot shows how their crusade helped in the creation of new institutions like the FBI and continued to build our sex-obsessed culture.

There is much for the reader to enjoy in the book. Those seeking salacious detail will get their fill. Those who look for extensively researched period detail will not go wanting and those who just want a good political story will also be pleased. While it is not the core of the book it is about the trade in flesh for sex, one that in Chicago in the early 1900s was not a terribly safe or rewarding career choice. The stark realities occasionally rear their head, but the reader could be forgiven if they lost sight of it themselves.

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