The Mann Act : progressives, morality and the courts, 1910-1937

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1977

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Abstract

This study traces the development of the Mann Act passed in 1910 to prohibit the interstate transportation of women for purposes of prostitution or other immoral purposes. The origins of the act lay in attempts to control immigration and its ultimate passage represented a reaction to alleged organized traffic which forced young girls into a life of "white slavery." In particular, the study seeks to illuminate the relationship between progressive attitudes toward morality and the passage and the consequences of the Mann "White Slave Traffic" Act. To many progressives white slavery embodied elements they feared most about the complexities of modern society--the power of unregulated business, the squalor and alienation of the cities and the pressures of an immigrant influx. Although progressive reactions to these phenomena varied, the main effort focused upon national legislation to combat what appeared to be a traffic unabated by local or state controls. Thus when James Robert Mann of Illinois introduced, on December 6, 1909, a measure to regulate white slavery under the interstate commerce clause President William Howard Taft, as well as most Republicans, supported it as an effective way to limit the horrors of traffic in human souls. Opposition came from those who believed that the statute usurped the police powers of the states therefore rendering it unconstitutional. Still most members of both the House and Senate found it difficult to deny a bill designed to protect innocent girls from being drugged and debauched for monetary gain. Although Congress based its approval of the bill on its prohibition of traffic in women or girls for profit and on its prescribed punishment for the inticement or inducement of women across state lines for purposes of prostitution, application of the statute in the courts took a very different turn. Convictions occurred as a result of incidents which did not involve the transportation of women for profit, which did not involve inticement, and which sometimes did not involve direct sexual encounters. To illustrate the tendency of the courts to pervert the White Slave Traffic Act into a vehicle for social control, a section of this study carefully explores the arrest and trial of two young prominent Californians, Maury Diggs and Drew Caminetti. The case, which attracted national interest and elicited a Congressional investigation, reveals how attitudes and fears of the progressive period transformed the attempts to restrain white slavery into a campaign against a changing morality. A study of the Mann Act supports descriptions of the progressive movement as basically a conservative one, concerned with maintaining the sanctity of the family and adhering to rural values. It also reveals, however, an almost perverse interest in sexual topics. The period forecast, despite efforts to the contrary, a revolution in concepts of morality.

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Keywords

History, United States, Twentieth century, Law, United States. Mann Act of 1910, Human trafficking

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