History: South Side Levee

The South Side “Levee,” bordered by 18th and 22nd Streets, State and Armour (Federal) in Chicago, Illinois, was one of the nation’s most infamous red-light district or sex districts. Located near the intersection of Cermak Road and Michigan Avenue in the city’s Near South Side. It was formed in 1893, during the World’s Columbian Exposition, but by 1930 the district had largely been demolished.

Chicago at the turn of the last century was one hell of a tough town, as yet untouched by the famous muckraking novels of Frank Norris (The Pit, 1903) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906). It had a population of 1.7 million, a significant percentage of which was engaged in criminal activity in one way or another. By 1907 the Chicago Tribune said that “Chicago has come to be known over the country as a bad town for men of good character and a good town for men of bad character.” According to Karen Abbott, author to the bestselling book about the South Side Levee, Sin in the Second City.

The Levee, with its “sporting clubs” of all sorts, was the city’s most notorious vice district. Many of the businesses suggested the unapologetic allure that scandalized and outraged “proper”  Chicagoans.  According to the author and reformer W.T. Snead, in his book, “If Christ Came To Chicago”, there were nearly forty bordellos, an equal number of saloons and a robust number of gambling houses and at least one opium den.  Resorts ranging from the most extravagant brothels to small and unadorned houses of prostitution located in boardinghouses and the back rooms of saloons. Some resorts provided male prostitutes for interested clients.

Levee Influence

Chicago was a wide open town, especially for anybody who understood the still practiced Chicago tradition of “pay to play”.  The city’s wards had two aldermen each then.  The First Ward incumbents were a pair of colorful characters, Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky-Dink Kenna.  Their domain took in the Loop and the Near South Side down to 26thStreet.  That included the red-light district known as the Levee.  Coughlin & Kenna had held their first fundraiser ball in an armory in 1896.  Word on the street was that anyone who wanted a favor from the aldermen should buy a ticket–or better still, a book of fifty tickets.  The denizens of the Levee turned out in full force, and the sponsors cleared $25,000.  There was also Big Jim Colosimo, a prominent First Ward henchman and brothel keeper, “Big Jim” was a close friend of the Everleigh sisters despite the fact that he ran an interstate white slavery ring.  Ike Bloom, a clownish yet menacing owner of the notorious Freiberg’s Dance Hall, he organized graft payments on behalf of the aldermen and was a frequent visitor to the Everleigh Club.

Vic Shaw was the established queen of the Levee until the Everleighs’ arrival.  Zoe Millard and Georgie Spencer, two other prominent madams in Vic Shaw’s league who shared her dislike for the Everleigh sisters.  They all resented the sisters’ success and did everything in their power to ruin them.  Minna and Ada Everleigh were madams: They ran the nationally famous Everleigh Club in Chicago’s Levee District. (The club stood at 2131–33 South Dearborn Avenue, now the location of the Bertrand Goldberg–designed Hillard Homes.) The two oversaw a bordello where the women were well cared for and compensated generously, and the clientele was rumored to include just about every man of money who came through town.  The Everleigh Club held itself above the fray—a job there paid more than most any other available to a woman. And the Everleigh sisters were such characters, they make for sympathetic pimps. Both were allegedly abused before striking out on their own, and they crafted new identities—they shaved years off their ages, claimed to be married to two brothers and practiced a convincing good cop/bad cop routine. 

Levee Closing

So flagrant was Levee trade that Mayor Carter Harrison II appointed a commission to investigate vice conditions throughout the city. The 1911 publication of The Social Evil in Chicago prompted a flurry of reforms, including the closing of the Levee’s most famous brothel, the exclusive Everleigh Club. Soon after, the U.S. state’s attorney launched an attack on the Levee that quieted the once-thriving landscape of concentrated prostitution. The closing of the Levee in 1912 initiated important changes in the geography and institutions of sexual commerce in the city.

The closing of the Levee in 1912 did not mean that there was no more commercialized prostitution in Chicago, but the operation of brothels in an open, accessible public area, such as those in the Levee district, was not continued in the flagrant manner in which it had existed previously.

Open Items and To Dos:

  • PDNA to replace images and review/revise text as needed. Can either be linked to external images or uploaded to the media library. Where necessary, attributions to photo sources should be included. Note that the initial image from the current site seems to have disappeared and will need to be found again.
  • Should include a note indicating source(s) for info.