The most famous brothel in the world stood at 2131 and 2133 South Dearborn Street in Chicago. Ada and Minna Everleigh purchased the adjoined buildings and created a business whose sole purpose was to provide sensual pleasure. They were very successful. Along the way they challenged the social construct of what it meant to be a business woman and a prostitute in the first decade of the 20th century. The sisters believed that all women knew how to sexually pleasure and men wanted nothing more than to be pleasured. Lucky for them, men would willingly hand over hundreds of dollars for the kind of pleasure that they were selling.
The Everleigh sisters demanded decorum from their harlots, household staff, and their clients. They were quick to remove a patron who got too drunk, did too much opium, or got violent. The sisters knew they relied upon the married men and they had to provide them with the pleasures that their wives would never dare to do in Victorian Chicago. This is the story of the most exclusive club that had men falling down to get in and women lining up to be “butterflies.”
Never Such Devoted Sisters
Lounging on one of George Pullman’s Palace Car Company sleeping cars, Minna and Ada Everleigh eagerly awaited their arrival into Chicago. The sisters had left Omaha, Nebraska following the success of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition where manufactures showed off their latest technological inventions. The pursuit of wealth and self-fulfillment spread over the nation like a plague on the eve of the 20th century. Minna and Ada were determined to offer men pleasures at prices that would make them extremely wealthy.
The sisters were born into a prominent slave-holding family in Virginia. Ada was the oldest born in February 1864 and Minna was born in July 1866. In the years following the Civil War, the family had lost their slaves and plantation and were in a reduced financial state. Both Ada and Minna married but soon divorced and left Virginia. By 1895 the sisters had settled in Omaha and managed a brothel as madams. This was the true story that they never discussed. For them, pleasure required creating a story, so the sisters sat in their train car and made up their past.
Ada and Minna spoke with admiration of their father, a lawyer that had fled Virginia when the turncoat British officer, Benedict Arnold invaded in 1781. The girls were born in 1876 and told of a wonderful childhood of finishing schools and debutante balls. When the girls were 17 they married brothers by the last name of Lester. As it turned out, they insisted, the brothers were abusive and their marriages failed. Their father died in the late 1890s and left the sisters with $35,000. Traveling with an acting troupe, the sisters were accidentally left behind in Omaha. They did not have enough money to leave, so they stayed working as prostitutes to make money to leave.
In reality, the sisters were madams at an Omaha brothel. Omaha was full of activity as men prepared the city for the 1898 World’s Fair. For Ada and Minna, Omaha was small potatoes. They wanted a larger and wealthier clientele so they decided to leave Nebraska a year before the fair opened. The sisters wanted to provide a respectable place for men to enjoy sexual pleasures without “offending the fragile sensibilities of their wives.” Over the next year, the sisters traveled to red-light districts and took notes.
They met with madams in New Orleans, San Francisco, Pittsburg, Washington DC, New York, St. Louis, Memphis, and many other cities. Each madam had her own niche that men found irresistible. The sisters jotted down their ideas, discussed them, and then worked on how they would turn their ideas into reality. During a conversation with a madam in New Orleans, they were reminded of how fast Chicago was growing. There the sisters would find the men that would make the Everleigh Sisters a household name.