Thursday, November 17, 2016

Everleigh Club, Chicago, Illinois - The Most Famous Brothel in USA History.

Sisters Minna and Ada Simms Everleigh (Lester) became madams of the most famous brothel in America. The Everleigh Club was located in Chicago's notorious Levee district at a double brownstone at 2131-33 South Dearborn. Erected in 1890, the house was originally designed to accommodate the many male visitors to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
The Brothel opened February 1, 1900. Their phone number was: CALUMET 412.

Sisters Minna (1866-1948) and Ada (1864-1960) Everleigh ran the “club.” They hosted senators, foreign dignitaries, literary icons, actors, business moguls, and on and on. Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, John Warne Gates, Jack Johnson, Diamond Jim Brady, Prince Henry of Prussia and Marshall Field Jr. (who was shot there) went to the Everleigh Club. 

The Everleigh “butterflies” as the girls were called, pocketed from $100 to $400 each week, an unthinkable salary in other houses. They were expected to be well read and were even tutored in Balzac [1]. Other requirements were:
  • look good in an evening gown
  • be polite
  • be there of their own free will (they wanted nothing to do with parents selling their children, white slavers, etc.)
  • be at least 18 years old
  • visit their doctor (that they kept on retainer) at least once a month
  • no drugs or alcohol use
Butterflies included the legendary Suzy Poon Tang, one of the club’s most popular girls and a big draw. Hailing from China, Poon Tang was infamously good at satisfying the clientele, so much so that her name would later become synonymous with the now sullied term of “poontang.” 

The Everleigh Club might be the only brothel in American history that enhanced, rather than diminished, a man’s reputation. Clients reportedly said, “Want to get Ever-laid?" which helped to popularize the phrase “get laid.” A man wouldn’t want to be seen at the “lower” houses, however.

The early history of the sisters is wrapped up in the War Between the States. The fortune of their family reflected what was happening financially to families all across the south.

Harold Woodward wrote, “a grim reality of poverty & decay … Once fertile fields were covered with scrub oaks and stunted pines, the landscape dotted with decayed fences, half-starved cattle, ramshackle houses and the remnants of crumbling mansions.”

The sisters’ grandparents died. Their dad had to stop practicing law and farm the land. Agricultural prices were low. Taxes & interest were high. Income was scarce. Their father’s brother had stolen most of the family money secretly and moved to Missouri.

Their mother and little sister died when Ada was 12 and Minna was 10. Baby brother George was given to an aunt to raise. The sisters began to detach themselves from life. The family moved to Madison County (VA) where their neighbors were former Virginia governor & confederate general (with 5 children). Visits to his mansion reminded them of everything they lost.

Lula, another sister, died and the family moved from Virginia to Warrensburg, Missouri, where their father had relatives. They grew up believing daddy was the only man that mattered … why marry?

Minna & Ada did marry, but needed to flee for their lives because of physical abuse. The sisters concluded from their experiences that men were greedy, brutal, spend thrifts, and not to be trusted. A niece, Evelyn Diment, would later write to Irving Wallace in 1989 about her great aunts; “They were struggling because they were at the end of the Civil War and there were very few ways to make money. Their plantation was lost because they couldn’t pay taxes. They began as prostitutes and they became madams. They inherited approximately $35,000 from their father. Then these women made a marvelous success out of what they knew best. Southern families have a way of keeping things very quiet. And if anyone knew anything, they kept their mouth shut.”

The sisters provided for their family in the only way they knew how. They changed their last name. Their grandmother signed all correspondence with “Everly Yours” and the name of their new club was established, "Everleigh."

Their creation was nothing less than luxurious with its spectacular furnishings and upscale requirements. They provided only the best for their customers making the Everleigh Club an extravagant attraction for its time. Prior to relocating to Chicago, the Everleigh sisters toured brothels in many cities trying to find a location which had "plenty of wealthy men but no superior houses." They were directed to Chicago by Cleo Maitland, a madam in Washington, D.C., who suggested they contact Effie Hankins in Chicago.

After buying Hankins's brothel at 2131-2133 South Dearborn Street, they fired all the women and completely redecorated the entire building with the most luxurious appointments available. Prior to the opening of the Everleigh Club, Ada was responsible for recruiting talent for the club. She started by contacting her former employees in Omaha and spreading the word through brothels across the country. She conducted face-to-face interviews with all the applicants.

The two buildings provided 50 rooms, including 12 soundproof reception parlors where three orchestras played, 30 bedrooms, a library, an art gallery, a dining room, and a Turkish ballroom complete with a huge fountain and a parquet floor.

Silk curtains, oriental rugs, mahogany and walnut paneling, tapestries, oriental rugs, statuary, mahogany tables, gold rimmed china and silver dinner ware, and perfumed fountains in every room. A $15,000 gold leafed piano ($420,165.00 in today's dollars) stood in the Music Room, mirrored ceilings, a library filled with finely bound volumes, an art gallery featuring nudes in gold frames. No expense was spared. 

While the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson thought the $57 gold spittoons in his café were worth boasting about, the patrons of the Everleigh Club were obliged to expectorate in $650 gold cuspidors. The Everleigh Club was described by Chicago's Vice Commission as "the most famous and luxurious house of prostitution in the country."

On the other hand, not many women who participated in this sort business had it that easy. Prostitution during the early 1900's in Chicago was a very rough experience for most women. While the Everleigh Club charged men fifty dollars for secluded time, most prostitutes were only paid about twenty-five cents for their work. Many of these young women were beaten and taken advantage of by the men who worked for the brothels. Being sold to other brothels was very common. Even though a few women were lucky enough to partake in the glamour that the Everleigh Club had to offer, the majority of prostitutes in used this business as a way to be self-supportive, to get by during hard times, or escape family or spouses. 

At a time when the average wage per week was $6, those visiting the Everleigh Club found they were spending anywhere from $200-$1500 per visit. If a patron only spent $50, they were asked not to return. The business management skills and acumen of the sisters is undebatable.

The sisters' annual operating expenses were $50,000-$75,000. These included $6,000 for rent, $20,00 for servants, plus the salaries for 15 to 25 cooks, three orchestras, the official piano player (nicknamed the "professor"), and the dancers for the circuses. Still, the annual profit was approximately $150,000 ($4,201,640.68 in today's dollars). 

Clad in a silk gown, bedecked in jewels, including a diamond collar, half a dozen diamond bracelets and a ring on each finger, Minna greeted the gentlemen customers at one of the two hallway entrances.

The 12 parlors were orientated on the first floor. Each parlor consisted of a certain theme: Gold Room, Silver, Copper, Moorish, Green, Rose, Red, Blue, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Oriental, all of which appealed to the varying groups of clientele the club received. The upstairs of the Everleigh Club held the private bedrooms where the clientele would experience a more personal encounter with the women of his choosing alongside luxurious divans, damask easy chairs, gilt bathtubs, fresh-cut roses, warbling canaries, and push-buttons to ring for champagne. 

The dining room's design emulated a private Pullman car with the corresponding ornate gold and mahogany trimmings. The menu featured only the finest entrees such as: duck, caviar, lobster, deviled crab, fried oysters, goose capton, and an excellent selection of wine and champagne. No other liquors were permitted. The club employed 15 to 25 cooks and maids.
  • Everleigh Club Admission: $50
  • Bottle of Champagne in the parlors cost $12 and $15 per bottle in the private rooms upstairs.
  • Dinner: $50
  • Dinner in the club’s Pullman Palace Buffet: $150.
There were three orchestras, and musicians played constantly, usually on the piano accompanied by strings. Publishing houses would publicize new songs by having them played at the Everleigh Club. The house was heated with steam in the winter and cooled with electric fans in the summer.
     
The Everleigh quickly gained a reputation as an upscale gentleman's club, so much so that the Everleigh sisters were forced to turn away prospective clients even on opening day on February 1, 1900. The club's extensive popularity afforded Minna and Ada the opportunity to select their clientele. Only those men deemed suitable by Minna and Ada gained admittance into the Everleigh Club. 

The Everleigh sisters deemed a prospective client "worthy" to be admitted into the club if: the prospective client provided a letter of recommendation from an existing member, an engraved card, or through a formal introduction by Minna or Ada. These standards made the club extremely exclusive, indulging the desires of only wealthy and influential men. The distinction of being let in, just because they turned down so many people, became an exclusive badge of honor just be to admitted.

By 1902, the club expanded and the sisters were making donations to the First Ward Aldermen, "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky-Dink" Kenna, to ensure their continued leeway. After the club was closed, Minna Everleigh claimed in testimony that she "always entertained state legislators free in the club."   
One of the notorious scandals that surrounded the Everleigh Club concerned the questionable death of Marshall Field, Jr. On November 22, 1905, Field experienced a fatal gunshot wound. Different theories arose as to how Field received the gunshot wound. It was reported that he shot himself accidentally while cleaning his gun before a hunting trip. However, rumors alleged that Field was actually at the Everleigh Club when he was shot and murdered by an Everleigh butterfly. The actual events that led to the cause of his death still arise suspicion among people.

The murder of Marshall Field Jr caused competitor madames to try and frame the Everleigh sisters for this high profile crime in order to destroy the Everleigh's dominating business. 
   
The beginning of the end for the Everleigh Club started in 1910 with the appointment of a special vice commission by Mayor Fred A. Busse. Dean Walter T. Sumner, of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, was appointed chairman, and the commission included such other Chicago notables as Julius Rosenwald. Dr. W. A. Evans, and various judges and civic leaders. The City Council allocated $10,000, and the commission began its work. In all, it conducted 98 meetings and interviewed people from all levels of vice in Chicago. Because it was not a prosecuting body, and by its pledge of withholding many names and keeping them only in code, the commission was able to reach many people and obtain reliable data.
    
 The report was presented in April, 1911. Entitled "The Social Evil in Chicago - A Study of Existing Conditions with Recommendations by the Vice Commission of Chicago," the report, with appendices, ran almost 400 pages and was very thorough. It recommended the "constant and persistent repression of prostitution" and an ultimate goal of "absolute annihilation." 
    
The commission s report fueled the fires for a general crackdown on vice, but the references to the Everleigh Club were particularly bothersome to many Chicago reformers. Apart from the references in the commission s report, because the club catered to many reporters. it was often referred to in newspaper stories. The final straw was the advertising brochure it published in 1911. Filled with 30 photographs, the brochure was entitled "The Everleigh Club Illustrated 2131-33 Dearborn Street Chicago" and had a picture of the exterior on the cover. 

While the photos did not depict any girls and, in a strict sense, but the rooms were all photographed, and many of the photos displayed the famous brass beds. Given the common knowledge about the club, many people found it extremely offensive. Most important of all, while on an out-of-town trip, Mayor Carter H. Harrison Jr., who had recently come into office replacing Mayor Busse, was shown the brochure by an inquisitive host. The closing of the Everleigh Club was now inevitable. 

Although Mayor Harrison had good working relations with many of the corrupt elements, and especially Bath- house John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna. the embarrassment of this brochure was more than the mayor could tolerate. On Oct. 24, 1911, at approximately noon, the mayor issued general orders that the club be closed immediately. Despite the fact that the order was issued early in the afternoon, however, the club's members were not to be deprived of one last night. 

The orders for closing were received by Ed McWeeny. general superintendent of police, and the news spread to the club and many of its patrons immediately. No action was taken on the order, however, until 2:45 a.m. on Oct. 25. During the last night, many of the old regulars and, especially reporters. flocked to the club. Attempts were made to contact Mayor Harrison, but he could not be reached: he was supposedly asleep. While many of the people were sad and melancholy, the sisters, clad in the many diamonds, refused to be morbid. Minna reputedly said, "If the ship sinks, we're going down with a cheer and a good drink under our belts anyway." By 1 a.m., cabs were lined up, and gentlemen in silk hats marched out. None of the patrons nor the girls were arrested. At 2:45 a.m., the club was officially closed. 

Within 24 hours, once all the girls understood that the club apparently would not reopen, each girl reportedly had offers of jobs from respectable clubs all around the country. The sisters, meanwhile, gathered their resources and decided to evaluate the future by touring Europe. The club was never to open again.

Realizing they could not attain anonymity in Chicago, they retired permanently and moved to New York, living under the name of Lester. Reputedly, at retirement. Ada and Minna had $1 million in cash. $200,000 in jewelry, $250,000 in l.O.U.'s that were never collected, and $150,000 in furnishings, including the gold piano.
  
The 43 year old building at 2131-33 S. Dearborn St. was razed in 1933. 

Compiled and edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), French author. 

4 comments:

  1. Wow something I never knew about our city..

    ReplyDelete
  2. I would highly suggest reading the book 'Sin in the Second City' as a follow up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. it's a shame they razed the building. I would have loved to have done a drive by.

    ReplyDelete

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