Red-Light Reading 

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Sex, politics, history, murder and a fair shake of naughty made Karen Abbott's "Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul," an instant New York Times best seller.

The revolutionary women who come to life through her meticulous research into the Everleigh Club, Chicago's most infamous brothel, make "Second City" an anthropologist's sensual feast. Abbott's history reads like a novel as she traces the impact of the brothel on America's mixed-up sexual identity. Meet the likes of Edgar Lee Masters, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and William Taft as Protestants battle prostitutes.

We spoke with Philadelphia-born Abbott from her home in Atlanta about her journey through "Sin."

Style: What first attracted you to writing about the Everleigh Club?

Abbott: My great-grandmother's sister emigrated to the U.S. from Slovenia in 1905, took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was very curious about the circumstances that could have led to her disappearance. When I began to research, I read about thousands of girls disappearing to the alleged white slave trade.

So, did you discover any truth in this?

Every city with a large population had a red-light district. It was as organized and as visible as the car industry. There was forced coercion to a certain extent, but it was greatly exaggerated. Most of the girls who entered prostitution did so because they had tragic circumstances in their background.

Did you find it interesting that the Everleigh Club taught their "butterflies" literature and philosophy?

Minna and Ada [Everleigh, the sisters who started the club] were such maverick women. They also had a tragic history, but they hid it very well. They had given up life in the upper class, but they wanted their girls to have an education and the finest things. One of the Johns said, "Aren't you educating the wrong end of a whore?"

What makes this topic relevant to readers in the beginning of the 21st century?

At the time, America was dealing with an identity crisis, immigration and legislating morality. It's what we're still dealing with now. It's reincarnated with Focus on the Family. When you think of America's sexual culture, you think of Roe v. Wade and Alfred Kinsey, but this is the first time people were speaking about sex and venereal disease in polite company. The Everleighs' story is also the story of thousands of other women at the time. I could continue to research for another four or five years and not get bored. S

Karen Abbott will be reading and signing "Sin in the Second City" at the Fountain Bookstore Tuesday, Aug. 14, at 6:30 p.m.

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