Mann Act (1910)

views updated May 18 2018

Mann Act (1910)

David J. Langum

The White Slave Traffic Act of 1910 (36 Stat. 825), is commonly called the Mann Act because of its congressional sponsorship by Representative James R. Mann of Illinois. Many factors led to its enactment, and once it became law it was enforced in a manner probably unforseen by its authors.


From 1880 to 1910, the old order of rural, largely Protestant, male-controlled America was rapidly fading. During this period immigration increased tremendously, mostly by Jews and Roman Catholics from southern and eastern Europe. Large scale urbanization was taking place, with movement from the countryside to the cities. Urbanization, together with the invention of the typewriter, the telephone switchboard, and the growth of the department store, made it possible for single women to support themselves in cities. Women could become free, for the first time in American history, from the control of a father or brother.

During this period of changes, the nation developed an anxiety over sexuality. Women did flock to the cities, shocking the older generation with their carefree dating and flirting in dance halls. Indeed, dating in the sense of a couple going off by themselves, was born in this period. Poorer families and single women in boarding houses lacked the front parlor that had been the focal point of the earlier style of courtship, where a male suitor called on a young woman and conversed with her in her own home. Traditional moralists feared the city provided a cover and an anonymity that shielded licentious behavior.

Another problem with cities, the rural moralists thought, was their redlight districts. America had a very libertarian attitude toward prostitution in the nineteenth century. Brothels were legal and openly available within segregated vice districts, and every city of even modest size had a vice district.

In the years 1907 to 1912, a moral panic developed in America. Suddenly people accepted as truth that women were being forced into prostitution, with large scale organizations mostly controlled by foreigners moving these women around the country. Lurid stories spread of young girls arriving at city train stations, only to be lured away by "cadets" who would befriend them and then drug them. The young women would wake up the next morning and find themselves raped and prisoners in a brothel. The term "white slave" came from this scenario. Even women already secure in the cities were thought to be in danger, and in the media nonsensical accounts multiplied of girls numbed by poison darts pushed into their legs on the subway or shot at them while walking, then kidnapped and forced into brothels. Reflecting the country's general concern with business trusts, many people supposed that this enslavement of girls as prostitutes was a highly organized, almost corporate, activity. Irresponsible statements by public officials and the media fanned the hysteria.


There were two major state responses to this hysteria and one federal response. Numerous communities appointed vice commissions to investigate the extent of local prostitution, whether prostitutes participated in it willingly or were forced into it, and the degree to which it was organized by any cartel-type organizations. These commissions reported extensive prostitution, overwhelmingly locally organized without any large business structure, and willingly engaged in by the prostitutes. The second significant action at the local levels was to close the brothels and the red light districts. Brothels had always been legal nuisances and existed only by the tolerance of local officials. From 1910 to 1913, city after city withdrew this tolerance and forced the closing of their brothels. Of course, there was more to this story than the moral panic of 19071912. Opposition to openly practiced prostitution had been growing steadily throughout the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The federal response to the moral panic was the Mann Act. The legislative committee reports and the discussion on the floor of the Senate and House clearly indicate that the chief purpose of the act was to make it a crime to coerce transportation of unwilling women. Congress, however, used broader language. The statute made it a crime to "transport or cause to be transported, or aid or assist in obtaining transportation for" or to "persuade, induce, entice, or coerce" a woman to travel "in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or the District of Columbia" if the travel was "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose ... whether with or without her consent."

This language went far beyond coerced prostitution and clearly targeted those, both pimps and madams, who moved quite willing prostitutes from state to state. But what about the vague language "any other immoral purpose"? The Department of Justice had not originally intended to prosecute the noncommercial interstate travel by boyfriends and girlfriends for the purpose of "consensual sex," yet it was led to that position by public opinion in the years 1910 to 1913.


In three famous cases that were reported and decided together (Caminetti v. United States; Diggs v. United States ; and Hayes v. United States ) in 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court held that illicit fornication, whether or not for the commercial purpose of prostitution, was an "immoral purpose" under the Mann Act. Immediately after this ruling, prosecutions were undertaken against men transporting willing adult women into another state, even if the purpose was merely to continue a sexual relationship already begun. Complaints were lodged by fathers and husbands angry over their daughters or wives' departures, nosy neighbors upset over an unmarried couple living down the hallway, and even local law enforcement officials worried about a possibly unmarried couple who had just arrived in town. A morals crusade was underway in America. Interstate womanizers could expect a term in a federal prison of between one and two years.

One consequence of this interpretation of the statute was the development of a significant blackmail industry. Women would lure male conventioneers across a state line, say from New York to Atlantic City, New Jersey and then threaten to expose them to the prosecutors for violation of the Mann Act unless paid off. Another consequence of the Court's interpretation was that it limited the mobility of women. Since it was only the movement of women by men that was criminalized, a couple living in different states had to meet only by the man traveling to the woman. For a girlfriend to travel to a boyfriend risked a Mann Act prosecution. So the protected class of the statute became its chief victim, since it virtually forbade women to travel if such travel involved a male companion.


By the end of the 1920s, America had had enough of its morals crusade. Prosecutors in many federal districts reported to Washington that juries would simply not convict in noncommercial cases unless there were significant special factors. The government shifted its focus to violations of the Mann Act involving prostitutes or juveniles. Other noncommercial prosecutions were limited to select types. For Mann Act prosecutions the government now targeted its political opponents (actor Charlie Chaplin, who held radical political views, was prosecuted under the Mann Act as were many German sympathizers during World War II), black men (such as boxer Jack Johnson and singer Chuck Berry) who dared to have sexual relationships with white women, gangsters (the best known is Machine Gun McGauran, a hit man for Al Capone), and miscellaneous people who had become offensive to the federal government (such as Ku Klux Klan officials).

From 1930 to 1960, Mann Act prosecutions were primarily cases of prostitutes, juveniles, and the categories described above. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s forced the redefinition of "immoral purpose," and many activities denounced as an immoral purpose in the 1920s, such as strip dancing, cohabitation of an unmarried couple, or even casual sex, were declared by courts as not covered by the act. Congress was called on to amend the statute. It was difficult, however, for federal politicians to be seen as supporting immoral purposes by actually repealing the act. In 1978 the statute was amended to replace the vague "immoral purpose" with "prohibited sexual conduct." Congress also amended the juvenile portion of the law, which had enhanced the possible punishment when the woman was under eighteen. It made the juvenile portion "gender neutral" in response to a large increase in juvenile homosexual prostitution.


Finally, in 1986 the Mann Act was significantly amended, making the entire statute gender neutral. In other words, under the act the transportation of "any person" was prohibited, as was any purpose "to engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense." The federal government, aside from Native American reservations and military bases, has few laws making sexual activities as such a crime. The 1986 amendment essentially left it to the law of the state into which "any person" is transported to determine if a federal violation has occurred. Most states have decriminalized fornication and cohabitation; many have decriminalized adultery; and some have decriminalized sodomy. Therefore, the Mann Act is now effectively limited to interstate transportation for prostitution, forced sex (because it would be rape), homosexual couples (for travel into those states where sodomy is illegal), and adulterous couples (for travel into those states where adultery is illegal).

The Mann Act failed to put a halt to interstate immorality; such repressive legislation seldom works. The act's unintended consequences included blackmail, selective prosecution by federal officials, and the repression of female sexuality. Worst of all, under the Mann Act people's sexuality became subject to the moral opinions of the majority. Some landed in prison for harmless conduct that did not conform to the majority's values.


Connelly, Mark Thomas. The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Kneeland, George J. Commercialized Prostitution in New York City. 1913. Reprint, Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969.

Langum, David J. Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Mackey, Thomas C. Red Lights Out: A Legal History of Prostitution, Disorderly Houses, and Vice Districts, 18701917. New York: Garland, 1987.

Vice Commission of Chicago. The Social Evil in Chicago: A Study of Existing Conditions. Chicago: American Vigilance Association, 1911.

The Progressive Era

Alfred L. Brophy

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a series of reformers became increasingly concerned with the excesses of the "gilded age"the period of opulent displays of wealth and seeming disregard for the health and safety of workers and consumers. For example, muckraking journalist Upton Sin clair's book The Jungle described the unhealthy working conditions in meatpacking plants.

Reformers sought to harness the power of government to improve the lives of workers, children, women, and the poor. They used legislation at the state level to promote minimum wages, ensure safe working conditions, limit child labor, reform prisons, improve conditions at hospitals for the mentally ill and disabled, and to limit building factories near homes.

At the federal level, the major legislation of the Progressiveera included the Federal Trade Commission Act; Clayton Antitrust Act; Keating-Owen Act; Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; National Park Service Act; and the Mann Act, as well as four constitutional amendmentsthe Sixteenth, which allowed the income tax; the Seventeenth, which provided for the direct election of senators; the Eighteenth, which brought in the era of Prohibition; and the Nineteenth, which provided women the right to vote. The era ended around the beginning of the 1920s.

Mann Act

views updated Jun 11 2018


MANN ACT. Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act on 25 June 1910. Commonly known as the "Mann Act" in honor of the bill's sponsor, Illinois Representative James Robert Mann, the act was designed to eliminate "white slavery," broadly understood as forced female prostitution. The act makes it a felony to transport in interstate or foreign commerce or in the District of Columbia "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." Conviction under the original law was punishable by a "fine not exceeding five thousand dollars" and/or "imprisonment of not more than five years."

The act was inspired, and possibly drafted, by Mann's friend Edwin W. Sims, United States District Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (1906–1911), an early anti–white slavery crusader. Reform groups such as the American Purity Alliance and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union were influential in its passage, as were "purity journals" such as Vigilance and The Light. The dramatic rhetoric used to describe white slavery during the early twentieth century has led some historians to explain the law as a response to moral hysteria. The actual prevalence of white slavery in 1910 is a matter of debate.

Prostitution was traditionally considered a matter for the state and local police power; indeed, in 1910 every state had laws regulating prostitutes and "bawdy houses." Beginning in the early twentieth century, however, some crimes, like white slavery, were considered too widespread and insidious for states to handle without federal assistance. Congress passed the Mann Act under its power to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. It is one of several federal police power statutes enacted under the Commerce Clause during the Progressive Era (Pure Food and Drug Act, 1906; Harrison Narcotic Drug Act, 1914). The act met little opposition, despite some federalism objections. The Department of Justice and its newly formed investigative unit, the Bureau of Investigation (now known as the FBI), were primary enforcement agencies.

The act was passed with a narrow purpose: to allow federal prosecution of those who force women into prostitution. It has been used to punish both commercial and noncommercial sexual behavior. In the first few years after enactment, police officers and Bureau agents used the act to track prostitutes and drive brothels underground. In the late teens and 1920s noncommercial offenses, such as interstate adultery, were prosecuted with some enthusiasm. Under the leadership of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1924–1972) the law was generally used to convict racketeers involved in prostitution; on occasion, it was used to convict noncommercial offenders and/or political miscreants. Prosecution plummeted during the 1960s and 1970s. Since the 1980s, prosecutors have used an amended version of the law, among other things, to combat rape, male prostitution, pornography, child abuse, and international human trafficking.

Federal judges have been largely sympathetic to the act, upholding it against federalism and right-based challenges. The law was first validated by the Supreme Court in Hoke v. United States (1913). Caminetti v. United States (1917) has become famous (and infamous) for its application of the ejusdem generis rule of statutory construction.


Bristow, Edward J. Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery, 1870–1939. New York: Schocken, 1983.

Connelly, Mark T. The Response to Prostitution in the ProgressiveEra. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Langum, David J. Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Kimberly A.Hendrickson

See alsoPolice Power .

Mann Act

views updated May 29 2018


The Mann Act (18 U.S.C.A. § 2421 et seq.), also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, is a federal criminal statute that deals with prostitution and child pornography. Enacted in 1910 and named for its sponsor, Representative james r. mann, of Illinois, it also was used to prosecute men who took women across state lines for consensual sex.

Representative Mann introduced the act in December 1909 at the request of Chicago prosecutors who claimed that girls and women were being forced into prostitution by unscrupulous pimps and procurers. The term white slavery became popular to describe the predicament these females faced. It was alleged that men were tricking, coercing, and drugging females to get them involved in prostitution and then forcing them to stay in brothels.

The legislation was intended to stop the interstate trafficking of women. Though federal criminal statutes were rare in 1910, and seen as an attack on state police powers, the legislation encountered little opposition. The act made it a felony to transport knowingly any woman or girl in interstate commerce or foreign commerce for prostitution, debauchery, or any other immoral purpose. It also made it a felony to coerce a woman or a girl into such immoral acts. President william h. taft signed the bill in June 1910.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Mann Act in Hoke v. United States, 227 U.S. 308, 33 S. Ct. 281, 57 L. Ed. 523 (1913). The Court broadened the scope of the act in Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470, 37 S. Ct. 192, 61 L. Ed. 442 (1917), when it ruled that the act applied to noncommercial acts of immorality. In Caminetti the Court seized on the phrase "any other immoral purpose," concluding that Congress intended to prevent the use of interstate commerce to promote sexual immorality. This interpretation radically changed the scope of the act.

The Mann Act was used by the federal bureau of investigation to curtail commercialized vice. It was also often used to prosecute prominent persons who did not conform to conventional morality. Jack Johnson, a heavyweight boxing champion, was charged with and convicted of a Mann Act violation in 1912, for taking his mistress across state lines. Over the years, similar charges were leveled against the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the actor Charlie Chaplin, and the rock and roll singer Chuck Berry. Of these three, only Berry was convicted of a Mann Act violation.

Congress amended the act in 1978 to attack the problem of child pornography. The amendments made the act's provisions regarding this issue gender neutral, so that both boys and girls who were sexually exploited were now protected (Pub. L. No. 95-225, 92 Stat. 8–9). In 1986 the law was further amended. The new amendments made the entire act gender neutral as to victims of sexual exploitation. More important, all references to debauchery and any other immoral purpose were replaced by the phrase "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense" (Pub. L. No. 99-628, 100 Stat. 3511–3512.) This change took the federal government out of the business of defining immoral. Because most states have repealed criminal laws against fornication and adultery, noncommercial, consensual sexual activity no longer is subject to prosecution.

further readings

Grittner, Frederick K. 1990. White Slavery: Myth, Ideology, and American Law. New York: Garland.

Langum, David J. 1994. Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.