Minna Everleigh was born Minna Simms in Greene County, Virginia on July 13, 1866 and died in New York, New York on September 16, 1948. Her older sister Ada (or Aida) was born Ada Simms near Greene County on February 15, 1864. She died in Charlottesville, Virginia on January 5, 1960.
The two created an alternative biography, which has long been accepted as factual, although Karen Abbott has debunked their story.
According to their story, Minna and Ada Simms were born outside of Louisville, Kentucky in 1876 to a wealthy lawyer who had fled to Kentucky from Virginia when Benedict Arnold invaded Virginia in 1781. The two sisters had been to finishing school and had proper social debuts. When Minna was seventeen, she says, she married a man whose last name was Lester who turned out to be abusive. Ada claims to have been married to Lester's brother, who also turned out to be abusive. After both marriages had failed, they became actresses. Claiming their father died in the early 1890s, they said they came into a legacy of $35,000.
According to Abbott, whose research included an interview with the sisters' great niece, Minna and Ada were born in Greene County, Virginia to Montgomery Simms, his second and third daughters. Their mother died when they were young, as did an older and younger sister. There were seven children total, although only five survived to adulthood. Although the family was wealthy at the time of her birth, they lost much of their wealth during the Civil War and the family lost their plantation when they couldn't pay their taxes. There is no proof that either sister was ever married.
Stranded by a theatre company in Omaha, Nebraska, the sisters changed their last name to "Everleigh," adapted from their grandmother's correspondence ("Everly Yours," she would sign) and opened their first brothel in Omaha in 1895. When the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was held in Omaha in 1898 they opened a second brothel in the vicinity of the event in Kountze Park and quickly doubled their investment. They then decided to close their brothels and seek out a more affluent city.
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: silk curtains, damask easy chairs, oriental rugs, mirrored ceilings, mahogany tables, gold rimmed china and silver dinnerware, and perfumed fountains in every room. The Music Room held a $15,000 gold-leafed piano (the price is the equivalent of $369,205 in 2007), the library was filled with finely bound volumes, and an art gallery featured 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."
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 brothel opened on February 1, 1900 with little fanfare, and turned away many of the clients who initially appeared because the Everleigh Sisters did not deem them suitable for the clientèle they were seeking.
Once the club was open, Ada, who was quieter and more reserved than her sister, took on the responsibility of making sure the club was kept up to standards. She oversaw cleaning and renovations. Ada was also very much taken with the gold leaf piano in the Club and once claimed she rejected a suitor because he disapproved of the piano.
The clientele of the Everleigh House included captains of industry, important politicians and European nobility and royalty. Among their clientèle were Marshall Field, Jr., Edgar Lee Masters, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, John Warne Gates, Jack Johnson, and Prince Heinrich of Prussia.
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.
On March 3, 1902, Prince Heinrich of Prussia visited the Club while in the United States to pick up a ship built for his brother, German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although the city had sponsored numerous events for Heinrich, his main interest was a visit to the club. The sisters planned a bacchanalia for the visiting prince, including dancing, dining and a recreation of the dismemberment of Zeus' son. During one of the dances, a prostitute's slipper came off and spilled champagne. When one of the prince's entourage drank the champagne, he started the trend of drinking champagne from a woman's shoe.
On November 22, 1905, Chicago scion Marshall Field, Jr. suffered a gunshot that would prove to be fatal. Although newspapers reported it was an accident and occurred at his home, there is some evidence that he was shot by a prostitute at the Everleigh Club.
Gourmet meals featured iced clam juice, caviar, pheasants, ducks, geese, artichokes, lobster, fried oysters, devilled crabs, pecans and bonbons. 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 sisters had standards for their employees:
This led to many prostitutes desiring employment with them, as the girls would have a safe environment to work in, good accommodations, and better clientele. When Everleigh House opened, admission was $10 (the equivalent of $246 in 2007), dinner was $50, a bottle of champagne $12. Private time with one of the girls was another $50. The prices only went up from there, so that it was difficult for a caller to leave without spending at least $200. A decent working wage at the time was $6 a week.
Following a 1910 Vice Commission report that noted there were nearly 600 brothels in Chicago, Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr. ordered the Everleigh Club to be closed on October 24, 1911. The sisters retired with an estimated million dollars in cash (the equivalent of almost $22,000,000 in 2007) and traveled in Europe before eventually changing their name back to Lester and settling in New York City. When their brothel business closed, Ada was 45 years old and Minna was 47 years old.
Minna, always the more outspoken of the two, responded philosophically, stating "If the Mayor says we must close, that settles it.... I'll close up shop and walk out with a smile on my face." And so they did. She later stated "If it weren't for married men, we couldn't have carried on at all, and if it weren't for cheating married women we could have made another million."
Shortly after the brothel was closed, Everleigh testified against Chicago aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and "Hinky Dink" Kenna. Although Everleigh announced she would make her testimony public, threats by "Big Jim" Colosimo to kill Minna and her sister if the testimony were made public kept her silent. Nevertheless, Chief Justice Harry Olson of Chicago's Municipal Court released her testimony which outlined the schedule of graft due to the aldermen in return for allowing operations to continue in the Levee District.
The building which housed the Everleigh Club was eventually razed in July 1933. Today, a public housing project stands on the site.