everleigh sisters

The Everleigh Sisters’ Best Brothel in Chicago

The Everleigh Sisters successfully ran the best brothel Chicago had ever seen from 1900 to 1911. Why did the mayor force them to shut down?

Mark Twain described the late nineteenth and turn of the twentieth century as the “Gilded Age” of American history. It was a period of mass consumption, decadence, and the birth of the industrialized American economy. Railroads connected the coasts, corporations were born, profits boomed, and capitalism was fully embraced. Yet, beneath this “glittering” prosperity, American cities were rife with racial violence, a persistent labor movement, and political corruption.

In Chicago, two sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, opened the most lavish and popular brothel the city had ever seen. The Everleigh Club was located in Chicago’s Levee District and operated from 1900 to 1911. The club was a popular brothel frequented by politicians, princes, and other men of influence. Patrons enjoyed luxurious spreads of chocolates, pastries, wine, expensive seafood, quail, duck, and other lavish foods, and of course, endless flows of alcohol.

Ada and Minna Everleigh were born in Kentucky in 1876 and 1878 respectively. Their original surname was Lester, but they were inspired by their grandmother’s unique signature, “everly yours,” and adopted the name Everleigh as a result. Charles Washburn, the sisters’ biographer, described the Everleigh Sisters as close pals who “grew up together and remained together… Minna was the general while Ada was the aide. It was a powerful combination.” The Everleigh Sisters both tried their hands at marriage, but the husbands were considered jealous brutes. Ada and Minna divorced their spouses, inherited $35,000 from their grandmother’s estate, and relocated to Omaha, Nebraska in 1898, where they established their first brothel.

The 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition drew large crowds and bolstered business to the Everleigh Sisters’ first brothel. After two years, Ada and Minna doubled their investment and secured a sizable fortune. They sought to expand their business and scouted several cities including Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco, settling Chicago at the suggestion of D.C. madam Cleo Maitland. Cleo viewed Chicago as a, “wide open town and on the upgrade,” and connected them to Effie Hankins who had a brownstone for sale. In 1900, the Everleigh Sisters arrived in Chicago and purchased the property from Hankins for $55,000. That building became Everleigh Club, located at 2131 Dearborn Street.

The Everleigh Club opened to the public on February 1, 1900. The Everleigh Sisters lived on site alongside thirty employees. In addition to the decadent décor, the home included themed rooms such as the Persian Room, Japanese Room, and a $15,000 gold-leaf piano. Ada was responsible for hiring young women for the brothel and recruited from around the country. Prospective employees had to complete a face-to-face interview and, once hired, etiquette courses. The club attracted prominent businessmen and politicians, and patronage at the Everleigh Club was viewed as a status symbol. Patrons would pay a cover charge to enter the establishment and could spend the night with one of the workers for fifty dollars.

In 1902, the Everleigh Sisters purchased the adjacent building at 2133 Dearborn Street. Known as “The Annex,” Ada and Minna vetted each patron that visited their luxurious brothel in order to maintain elite clientele and even required letters of recommendation for some prospective patrons, but the Everleigh Sisters would soon lead to their own downfall. Ada commissioned a pamphlet advertising the Everleigh Club and its services, complete with pictures of their themed rooms and lavish décor. The pamphlet caught the attention of then-mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, Jr. who ordered the brothel’s closing as part of the response to the Chicago Vice Commission’s 1910 report. But the Everleigh Sisters were permitted to have a going-away bash on October 11, 1911. The party closed with a bang and the Everleigh Sisters retired with more than a million dollars in assets.

The Everleigh Sisters settled in New York City and resumed using the surname Lester. They embraced the expectations of Victorian femininity, participating in women’s organizations and poetry circles until their deaths, Minna in 1948 and Ada in 1960.

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…

Primary Sources

Charles Washburn, Come Into My Parlor: A Biography of the Aristocratic Everleigh Sisters of Chicago, (New York: Knickerbocker Publishing Co., 1934), 13. 

Washburn’s biography of Ada and Minna Everleigh gives a full account of their lives, the brothels, and their retirement from sex work.

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2007). Abbot’s work shares the stories of Chicago’s Levee district including the Everleigh Sisters and an entire cast of madams, sex workers, bootleggers, and more.  

Nina Renata Aron, “Meet the Sisters Who Ran ‘the Most Famous and Luxurious House of Prostitution in the Country,” Timeline, (April 19, 2017). Link to article.

 

Media

PBS, “Chicago: City of the Century,” American Experience. This American Experience documentary examines the history of Chicago and gives special attention to the Everleigh Sisters and their brothel. Link to source. 

National Public Radio (NPR), “Elevating the World’s Oldest Profession in Chicago,” Author Interview: Karen Abbot, July 27, 2007. Karen Abbot discusses her book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul, with NPR. Link to interview.