At the turn of the 20th century, the United States experienced a revolution in morals and customs. Concentrated areas of nightclubs, saloons, gambling halls, brothels, dance halls, bars, cheap hotels, and opium dens arose in the country’s booming cities. Their visibility — amplified by an increasingly sensationalist press — is causing moral panic, especially among those who fear a rejection of religion and good morals.
Prostitution was a particular concern. Most white Americans subscribed to the idea that white women were inherently sexually chaste. In contrast, they viewed recent immigrants, African Americans, and other people of color as inferior, making women more likely to enter prostitution. Given these beliefs, the increased visibility of American-born white women in urban prostitution in the early 20th century created an urgent moral panic among white Americans.
Since they believed in the inherent purity and sexual passivity of white women, they saw only one explanation for this behavior: innocent young women had been lured by the lies of malefactors (often portrayed in the press and political rhetoric as immigrants), then victimized by brute force to become sex slaves for hire. This panic of white slaves reached its climax between 1908 and 1913.
Rep. James Robert Mann (R-Ill.) championed paternalistic government protection of white American womanhood as a solution. In 1910, Congress passed the White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, in recognition of its sponsor. The Mann Act made it a crime for “any person” to “knowingly convey…in interstate or foreign commerce…any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Even congressional opponents of the Mann Act have not opposed police morality efforts, nor have they questioned the scope of the problem. Instead, they denied that the federal government has the constitutional authority to pass such a law and preferred to let the states act. Southern officials — aware of the risks of Jim Crow segregation if the federal government grew too powerful — accused the law of violating states’ rights by giving the federal government unlimited power to “regulate the morals and health of a sovereign state”.
Despite the fear campaigns, the police never uncovered the International White Slave Syndicate which Mann and others say was flourishing. Instead, the Mann Act became a tool to persecute men who flouted societal norms, like African-American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who eventually served time for dating a white prostitute.
One of the Mann Act’s most famous early prosecutions exposed the law’s staggering ramifications. Maury I. Diggs and Farley Drew Caminetti were married dads who dated single women Marsha Warrington and Lola Norris. All four were from prominent Sacramento families, and for months the public antics of the two illicit couples shocked the Californian capital. They headed to Reno hoping to let the gossip die down. But instead, police jailed Diggs and Caminetti on various charges, including violating the Mann Act. Their real crime, however, was having affairs.
Mann himself saw the case as a test not only for his legislation, but also for the very soul of the nation. Prosecutors and the press too. The case made national headlines.
Diggs was first tried before an all-male jury – although California granted women the right to vote in 1911, their right to jury service was not officially enacted until 1917. When the defense began to argue that the two young women were voluntarily going to Reno, Judge William Van Fleet intervened to say that the motives and character of Warrington and Norris had no bearing on the case. The consent and wishes of the women were irrelevant.
The jury found Diggs guilty of transporting Warrington and Norris to Reno for immoral purposes.
During jury selection for Caminetti’s trial, Van Fleet again clarified that the White-Slave Traffic Act was designed to criminalize immoral behavior: “There is no personal freedom to commit a crime, and more the sooner people see this fact, the better. will be for society. Caminetti was also found guilty.
Then, as now, many were convinced that the justice system could remedy what they saw as a society gone morally insane. Others, including Warrington, saw a gross violation of individual liberty, bodily autonomy, and women’s right to sexual agency. After Diggs’ wife divorced, Warrington and Diggs married in 1915 (a union that lasted until Diggs’ death in 1953). The ‘Mann Act-protected’ woman proclaimed the lawsuit shattered them ‘in fortune and reputation, in family, in spirit’. She clearly stated that her husband had been “punished for a crime he did not commit. He is not now, and he never was, a white slaver. We were adults and we went there for non-immoral reasons. There was no constraint. His protests went unheeded because the convictions served a much larger agenda.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the punishment of men “will be a magnificent thing for the moral atmosphere of California. She will put the fear of the law, if not of God, in the hearts of the poor who make the seduction of young girls their main pastime. The Bee concluded that each state should enact intrastate versions of the Mann Act, which could be used to declare all-out war against lax morality.
In 1916, the Supreme Court heard the appeals of Diggs and Caminetti. Their attorney, former Sen. Joseph W. Bailey (D-Tex.) railed, “Our humanity revolts at the idea of punishing moral failure as a crime, and no law that does so can be properly enforced.
The court ruled, however, that since the wording of the law included “any other immoral purpose,” the Diggs and Caminetti verdicts should stand. While the majority asserted that Congress could not legislate morality within individual states, they also clarified that Congress could making any extramarital sex that involves crossing state borders illegal. In dissent, Justice Joseph McKenna shared the concern that the words “any other immoral purpose” formed such a broad expression that it covered “any form of vice, any form of conduct contrary to good order”.
The decision brought relief to Americans who had been disturbed by a changing society that challenged traditional conceptions of gender and family. They saw the case (and the Mann Act) as bulwarks against new ideas about acceptable behavior between men and women, and in particular white women’s right to sexual agency.
As legal scholar Lawrence Friedman notes, the Mann Act allowed “busy people, resentful people, outraged husbands, wives, parents, and others” to allege violations of the law in a discriminatory way that ruined lives. The FBI opened nearly 50,000 investigations between 1921 and 1936 alone. Some convictions, such as those in the Caminetti-Diggs case, involved consensual extramarital sex. African-American men who pursued women outside of their race were targeted, including actor Rex Ingram (1949) and musician Chuck Berry (1962). The law has also proven to be an extremely effective means of punishing famous white men for their center-left politics or disregard for social norms. Authorities filed Mann Act charges against sociologist William I. Thomas (1918), architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1926), British poet George Baker (1940), and film legend Charlie Chaplin (1944).
This abuse of the law only changed when amendments to the Mann Act in 1978 and 1986 transformed it into an important tool in the fight against sex trafficking.
As the history of the Mann Act shows, the Dobbs This decision opens the door for lawmakers to pass laws that, far from protecting morality, will instead trample on women’s sexual agency and create and perpetuate new injustices.