Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"White Slavery," Hysteria, and the Mann Act

Sexuality, Moral Panic, and the White Slave Traffic Act (the "Mann Act")

The White Slave Traffic Act, better known as the "Mann Act," after its Congressional author, Representative James R. Mann, an Illinois Republican, was one of the Progressive era's attempts at moral reform. The act was signed into law by President William Howard Taft on 25 June 1910, but given its association with the Progressive movement, I decided to use the occasion of Theodore Roosevelt's birthday (27 October) for this post.

An image from Ernest A. Bell's
War on the White Slave Trade
The act was aimed at eliminating the scourge of "white slavery"--forced prostitution that, it was believed, trapped innocent young white women into sexual slavery in underground networks controlled by gangs of immigrants.

I can't remember the exact date when I first heard about the "white slave trade," but I do remember that summer--we had recently moved to Lancaster, California, and were living just one tract house away from a Mojave Desert that, at least from my perspective as a nine- or ten-year-old, seemed to stretch endlessly.

It was one of the brief times that my mother wasn't working--she held a string of minimum-wage jobs, many of them when my dad was out of work, but for some reason that I don't know now, she was home (maybe because he was then working).

That summer my mom and a couple of the other neighborhood moms were having a contest to see who could get the darkest sun tan. I know, I know--but it was the summer of 1960 or 1961, and nobody was worrying about skin cancer or sun screen.

Each day, the women pulled their chaise lounge chairs into the driveway of one of their houses and settled in for an afternoon of tanning, enhanced by copious slatherings of Johnson's baby oil and fueled by endless glasses of iced tea. Now, looking back, I wonder if there were some shots of bourbon in those never-empty glasses.

In any case, it was one of those summer afternoons when I overheard the phrase--"white slave trade." I don't recall whether there was anything more that I overheard or whether it was the muted tones of their voices or just my own over-active imagination, but I remember being absolutely terrified, although I never knew about what--and as I think about it now, I am considering that the phrase may have been used while they were just joking around. On most afternoons, they laughed themselves hoarse.

Over the years of my childhood and adolescence, I must have heard the phrase again because I do remember asking about my mom about it (as usual, she was dismissive, deciding not to to provide the kind of answer that would assuage my fears) and then, not having an answer, worrying about it. The white slave trade!!! I can only remember the fear--I can't remember when or how I got a bit more information . . .

The Mann Act was the result of what has been called the "moral panic" that took hold in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. Scores of movies, plays, novels, and "white slavery narratives" offered eager consumers a range of salacious tales of young women--"innocent" and white women, it should be said--kidnapped off the streets of their communities, drugged, forced into lives of prostitution, and trafficked around the world.

Several factors seem to have coalesced to produce the hysteria: increased urbanization, immigration, the influx of women, especially single women, into the labor market, and changing social relationships--the emergence of the modern idea of dating, for instance. Social reformers responded to such radical social change--and the resulting "decline" in morality--with outrage and hysteria. 

In a 1907 article published in McClure's Magazine, muckraking journalist George Kibbe Turner sounded the alarm: 
About twenty-five years ago the third great flush of immigration, consisting of Austrian, Russian, and Hungarian Jews, began to come into New York. Among these immigrants were a large number of criminals, who soon found that they could develop an extremely profitable business in the sale of women in New York. . . . 
The supplies of girls for use in the enterprises of the political procurers did not at first come entirely from the families of their constituents. The earlier Jewish immigration contained a great preponderance of men, and comparatively few young girls. The men in the business made trips into the industrial towns of New England and Pennsylvania, where they obtained supplies from the large number of poorly paid young mill girls, one especially ingenious New Yorker being credited with gaining their acquaintance in the garb of a priest. But, gradually, as the population grew and the number of men engaged in the business increased, the girls were taken more and more from the tenement districts of the East Side.
As business grew, according to Turner, the traffickers began exporting their white slaves--to "the Buenos Aires market," to the "mining districts" of South Africa, and then throughout the world:  
Once acquainted with the advantages of the foreign trade, the New York dealer immediately entered into competition with the French and Polish traders across the world. There are no boundaries to this business; its travelers go constantly to and fro upon the earth, peering into the new places, especially into spots where men congregate on the golden frontiers; and the news comes back from them to Paris and Lemberg and New York. After South Africa, the New York dealers went by hundreds into the East--to Shanghai and to Australia; they followed the Russian army through the Russo-Japanese war; they went into Alaska with the gold rush, and into Nevada; and they have camped in scores and hundreds on the banks of the new Panama Canal.
However, and more ominously, "the foreign trade was not large compared with the trade with the cities of the United States, which was to develop later." (For the complete text of Turner's story revealing the horrors of the white slave trade, click here.)

Estimates of the scale of the trade varied. In 1909, the evangelical E. Norine Law, who was also hymnist, claimed in her Shame of a Great Nation that "some 65,000 daughters of American homes and 15,000 alien girls are prey each year of the procurers in this traffic.” New York City police chief Theodore Bingham estimated in The Girl that Disappeared some 2,000 foreign women were brought into the United States and enslaved in brothels. In 1909, the New York Times reported, in "Traffic in 'White Slaves,'" that "scores of thousands of women" had been forced into serving "immoral purposes."

In the mean time, Ernest A. Bell published his enormously influential War on the White Slave Trade in 1910. Bell was a Methodist minister, missionary, and anti-vice activist; according to the biographical note posted by the Chicago Historical Society, in his "struggle" against "vice," Bell "found a field of activity in which he could labor free of institutional constraints, satisfy his desire to preach the Gospel openly in the streets, and involve others in a mission of his own choosing and direction." In 1908 he helped to found the Illinois Vigilance Association; he also met with President Taft, urging passage of the Mann Act.

Included in Bell's War on the White Slave Trade was an essay by Edwin W. Sims, the United States District Attorney in Chicago. Sims claimed to have proof of the slave trade:
The legal evidence thus far collected establishes with complete moral certainty these awful facts: that the white slave traffic is a system operated by a syndicate which has its ramifications from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean, with "clearinghouses" or "distribution centers" in nearly all of the larger cities; that in this ghastly traffic the buying price of a young girl is from $15 up and that the selling price is from $200 to $600. . . . This syndicate is a definite organization sending its hunters regularly to scour France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Canada for victims. The man at the head of this unthinkable enterprise is known among his hunters as "the Big Chief."
Although Sims was unable to produce his evidence, his political friend, James R. Mann, who was chair of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, drafted the bill that would eventually become the White Slave Traffic Act. For Mann, the "white-slave traffic," “while not so extensive, is much more horrible than any black-slave traffic ever was.”

As passed by the Sixty-First Congress on 25 June 1910, the Act read:
That any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported, or aid or assist in obtaining transportation for, or in transporting, in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or in the District of Columbia, any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl to become a prostitute or to give herself up to debauchery, or to engage in any other immoral practice; or who shall knowingly procure or obtain, or cause to be procured or obtained, or aid or assist in procuring or obtaining, any ticket or tickets, or any form of transportation or evidence of the right thereto, to be used by any woman or girl in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia, in going to any place for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent or purpose on the part of such person to induce, entice, or compel her to give herself up to the practice of prostitution, or to give herself up to the practice of debauchery, or any other immoral practice, whereby any such woman or girl shall be transported in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia, shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment of not more than five years, or by both such fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.
It was the phrase, "or for any other immoral purpose," that would cause so many later problems. Unable to find any evidence at all of the vast network of the white slave trade, prosecutors begin using the Mann Act to pursue other kinds of "sexual misconduct."*

In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that the act applied to the case of John Bitty, who had brought his English mistress into the United States, ruling that bringing her into the country "as his concubine" was equivalent to bringing her into the country for the purposes of prostitution. 

Young women need to be careful
in ice cream parlors,
where they will be preyed on
by white slave traders!
Two years later, in 1913, the court ruled again: Drew Caminetti and  Maury Diggs, both married men, traveled by train from Sacramento to Reno accompanied by the adult women with whom they were having consensual sex. Police arrested both men, who were tried and convicted. On appeal, Caminetti's lawyer argued that the intent of Congress was to target only "commercialized vice," and that while his client's behavior may have been immoral, it was "free from commercialism and coercion." Citing Bitty, the court upheld their convictions, criminalizing any and all premarital or extramarital sex that involved interstate travel.  

The dangerous result of the Mann Act was its use as a weapon of persecution and politics. Perhaps the most famous case prosecuted under the Mann Act is that of the African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was convicted, ostensibly, for having traveled with a white "prostitute" from Pittsburgh to Chicago--the woman was his girlfriend.

Also notable was the 1944 prosecution of Charlie Chaplin, a prosecution stemming from a case involving a paternity suit, motivated by his politics (and initiated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in pursuit of Hollywood "communists").

In 1959, Chuck Berry, an African American singer, was convicted of violating the Mann Act for transporting across state lines an underage Native American girl for "immoral purposes." Berry's defense argued that he had offered the girl, whom he had met in Juarez, a job in his St. Louis nightclub, but he was convicted by a jury (all white) and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. Because the judge in his case had used racist language, Berry was able to get his conviction vacated. He was convicted a second time in 1961 and served nearly two years in prison. 

Although the Mann Act has been repeatedly amended, it has never been repealed. In 1978, the act was expanded to add minors of either sex to its definition of sexual exploitation, and in 1986, in an effort to remove its original intent of legislating "morality," the act replaced its language about "debauchery" and "immoral purpose" with language referring to "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." 

Perhaps the most insightful comment about "white slavery," moral hysteria, and the Mann remains that of Emma Goldman, as relevant today as in 1917 when she wrote: 
Only when human sorrows are turned into a toy with glaring colours will baby people become interested--for a while at least. The people are very fickle babies that must have new toys every day. The “righteous” cry against the white slave traffic is such a toy. It serves to amuse the people for a little while, and it will help to create a few more fat political jobs--parasites who stalk about the world as inspectors, investigators, detectives, and so forth. What is really the cause of the trade in women? Exploitation, of course…
Right now, though, I am still left wondering what spurred my mother and our neighbors to that conversation under the hot desert sun in 1960s California . . .

*For a discussion of the Mann Act, Supreme Court cases and decisions relating to the Mann Act, and amendments to the Mann Act, you can see the West's Encyclopedia of American Law entry by clicking here

Update, 19 April 2021: I just listened to "Traffickers on Trial: The Sensational Case of Lydia Harvey," a recent episode broadcast on the BBC History Extra podcast. Researcher and writer Julia Laite begins her story of Lydia Harvey with an insightful discussion of the "moral panic" of white slavery. To listen, click here.

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