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From the Archives

The Mann Act: Anatomy of a Law

By Lisa Riordan Seville

 

This story is part of an occasional series presenting material drawn from archives of the Lloyd Sealy Library at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to explore the insights that history might offer to crime, punishment and policy today. For an explanation of how to navigate the material, please see below.

“WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC SHOWN TO BE REAL” read the headline in the New York Times on April 30, 1910.

At the turn of the 20th century, the country was enveloped by a nationwide scare, fueled by politicians and the press, that innocent white women—so-called “white slaves”—were being sold into prostitution. 

Belle Moore, a "mulatto madam"—as the press of the day termed her—was arrested on a charge of selling two young white women into prostitution on April 27, 1910. Then-New York City District Attorney Charles S. Whitman trumpeted her case as proof that the fear was real. She was labeled “a leading white slave dealer of the west side,” sparking sensational New York Times headlines. 

Moore was found guilty, and her case became one of several ”White Slave" trials in Chicago and elsewhere, sparking in turn legislative action.

Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann proposed a law that made it illegal to transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes”—and the law, eponymously known as the Mann Act, has been on the books ever since.

Suffragettes championed the law, which was officially titled the “White Slave Traffic Act,” on the grounds that it rescued young women from forced prostitution.

‘General Hysteria’

But the Act, and the events that led up to it, also provided a glimpse of the making of federal criminal justice legislation that is still relevant today.

"It was a federal response to a more general hysteria in the early 20th century," David J. Langum, professor at Samford University in Alabama, told The Crime Report. 

"There was a huge fear that young women moving to the city for the first time were being abducted, largely by foreigners, and forced into prostitution," said Langum, author of Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act.

"It probably wasn’t a well-founded fear, but the fear was nonetheless real."

Though less used these days, the Mann Act still surfaces in cases against sex traffickers.

The law also made headlines in 2008 when federal prosecutors threatened to charge former New York State Gov. Eliot Spitzer with violating the Mann Act by traveling across state lines with a prostitute. 

Belle Moore's trial helped pave the way for the law. The transcript of the May 1910 trial was recently digitized by the Lloyd Sealy Library at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, one of dozens of transcripts that offer a look back at an earlier period of criminal justice. 

Full primary source documents are embedded throughout this story using documentcloud, a web archive and publishing tool. To access the full document, click on the documents snapshots below, or use the document archive at the bottom of this post. 

 

Alone, the trial of Belle Moore is fascinating. The details could have been the skeleton of a great noir.

Moore, the “mulatto madam,” was tried for selling two Caucasian women to an undercover investigator named George A. Miller. He was an agent for a special grand jury convened in New York City to investigate the white slave industry. Miller posed as a saloon owner from Juneau, Alaska, telling Moore that he wanted to open an upscale brothel in Seattle, and he wanted women. 

The investigator testified later in court that he approached Moore seeking two girls “good-looking, if possible, under the age of 18 years, not weighting more than 100 pounds.” Moore was, he said, happy to procure them—for $75 apiece, paid in "fives, tens, ones and twos."

According to Miller’s testimony, Moore contacted him less than two weeks later and said she had the girls in her apartment on W. 41st Street, then Manhattan’s Tenderloin district. He said she told him they were “peaches and cream.”

Moore's story was used to illustrate the need for a campaign against the white slave trade, led by District Attorney Whitman. He had already invested significant time—and taxpayers’ money—in an effort to prove that fears of trafficking were founded.

His campaign, and similar ones elsewhere in the country, led to passage of the Mann Act later that year. 

Moore was convicted of the compulsory prostitution of women, or, as the Times put it, “selling girls into lives of shame.” On May 26, 1910, a judge sentenced Moore to five years in prison, the maximum term of imprisonment allowed by the statute. Yet doubts about the case didn’t take long to surface.

After the trial, the New York Times reported that the testimony "even from the lips of the witnesses for the prosecution, did much to destroy the impression, so emphatically given when the woman was arrested, that the District Attorney's office had captured a 'leading white slave dealer of the west side.'"

Having failed in the courts, Moore's attorney, pleaded her case in a letter to the editor of the Times

“I feel with you that more than the fate of Belle More is involved," he wrote. "As was urged upon the trial, and as will be urged on appeal, it is a question whether it shall become a principal of criminal jurisprudence that is a legitimate function of the Commonwealth not only to tempt people into committing crime but to cajole and seduce them into it…”

Morality, Race and Nativism

 

From the beginning, questions lingered about the existence and scope of "white slave" trafficking.

Prosecutors in New York and Chicago painted it as a coordinated national trade; yet they provided little supporting evidence. Eventually, the panic around white slavery tapered off.

But the Mann Act remained.

The law became widely used to police all manner of "immoral" activity—morality often shaped by the fear at the time that white hegemony might be on the decline.

Racial language and innuendo laces the documents and newspaper coverage of the Moore trial, raising questions of the role that race, and a wariness of immigrants then arriving in huge numbers to the U.S., played in the fear about trafficking in women.

"Cajole and Seduce"

Soon after the passage of the Act, however, the country's mood shifted.

Widespread anti-vice squads were often successful in cracking down on prostitution, which was seen to fuel the white slave trade. This may have led to a decline of women becoming involved in prostitution, but it also shifted society’s view of them, according to Langum.

Women involved in the trade went from innocent victims to vessels of immorality and disease.

 

The use of the Mann Act also shifted. Passed in haste and worded vaguely, the Act would come to be used as much to enforce fears about miscegenation as to halt inter-state prostitution.

The most famous example is the case of African-American boxer Jack Johnson, tried under the Act for crossing state lines with a white woman. He was convicted, and after seven years on the lam from authorities, served his sentence of a year and a day.

In 1944, actor Charlie Chaplin was tried under the Mann Act after he bought his young mistress, Joan Barry, a train ticket back to New York. Some have postulated the charges had more to do with the FBI's ongoing interest in Chaplin's politics and ethnicity than any "immoral" relationship with Barry. Chaplin was acquitted.

Since the 1960s, when views on race and sex began to shift, the government has moved away from moral enforcement, and likewise made less use of the Act. 

"The law is a living, breathing thing—it responds very much to the social mores and pressures of the society that’s using it," said Langum.

"As people’s attitude change, prosecutors don’t get convictions— they just stop bringing these prosecutions."

In 1980, Congress amended the law to remove the "immoral purposes" clause, which had allowed officials to use the Mann Act against Johnson and Chaplin. This further reduced use of the Act. 

Its last high-profile appearance came in 2008 when the story broke that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had arranged to meet a Manhattan prostitute in a hotel in Washington D.C.

Rumors swirled that he could be federally charged. The rumors were never realized—a sign of how times, and attitudes, have changed. 

"Eliot Spitzer clearly violated the Mann Act," said Langum. "And he wasn’t prosecuted. He wasn’t touched because they wouldn’t have gotten a conviction."


 

Lisa Riordan Seville is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report.  We are grateful for the assistance of John Jay's Lloyd Sealy Library, which helped to make this project possible. TCR welcomes comments from readers. 



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