Mann Act

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Newspaper clip "Wanted 60,000 girls to take the place of 60,000 white slaves who will die this year"

The White-Slave Traffic Act, better known as the Mann Act, is a United States federal law, passed June 25, 1910 (ch. 395, 36 Stat. 825; codified as amended at 18 U.S.C. §§ 24212424).

It is named after Congressman James Robert Mann of Illinois, and in its original form made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose". Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, "immorality", and human trafficking particularly where it was trafficking for the purposes of prostitution. This is one of several acts of protective legislation aimed at moral reform during the progressive era. Its ambiguous language of "immorality" meant it could be used to criminalize consensual sexual behavior between adults.[1] It was amended by Congress in 1978 and again in 1986 to apply to transport for the purpose of prostitution or illegal sexual acts.[2] It is commonly thought that this legislation came to be due to racial bias against boxer John Arthur "Jack" Johnson.


In the 19th century, most of America's cities had a designated, legally protected area of prostitution. Increased urbanization and young women entering the workforce led to greater flexibility in courtship without supervision. It is in this changing social sphere that the panic over "white slavery" began. This term referred to women being kidnapped for the purposes of prostitution.[citation needed]

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. The second significant action at the local levels was to close the brothels and the red light districts. From 1910 to 1913, city after city withdrew this tolerance and forced the closing of their brothels. Opposition to openly practiced prostitution had been growing steadily throughout the last decades of the 19th century. The federal government's response to the moral panic was the Mann Act. The purpose of the act was to make it a crime to coerce transportation of unwilling women. The statute made it a crime to "transport or cause to be transported, or aid to assist in obtaining transportation for" or to "persuade, induce, entice or coerce" a woman to travel.[3] Many of the changes that occurred after 1900 were a result of tensions between family ideals and practical realities. Family form and functions changed in response to a complex set of circumstances which were the effects of economic class and ethnicity.[4]

According to historian Mark Thomas Connelly, "a group of books and pamphlets appeared announcing a startling claim: a pervasive and depraved conspiracy was at large in the land, brutally trapping and seducing American girls into lives of enforced prostitution, or 'white slavery.' These white slave narratives, or white-slave tracts, began to circulate around 1909."[2] Such narratives often portrayed innocent girls "victimized by a huge, secret and powerful conspiracy controlled by foreigners", as they were drugged or imprisoned and forced into prostitution.[citation needed][2]

"Ice cream parlors of the city and fruit stores combined, largely run by foreigners, are the places where scores of girls have taken their first step downward. Does her mother know the character of the place and the man she is with."

This excerpt from The War on the White Slave Trade was written by the United States District Attorney in Chicago:

One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider's web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards "white slavery" in places of this character.[2]

According to Connelly, such concerns represented a "hysterical" version of genuine and long-standing issues arising from the concentration of young women from rural backgrounds in the expanding cities of the era, many of whom were drawn into prostitution for "mundane" economic reasons. A number of Vice Commission reports had drawn attention to the issue.[2] Some contemporaries questioned the idea of abduction and foreign control of prostitution through cartels. For example, noted radical and feminist Emma Goldman asked "What is really the cause of the trade in women? Not merely white women, but yellow and black women as well. Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution. With Mrs. Warren these girls feel, 'Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, eighteen hours a day?'... Whether our reformers admit it or not, the economic and social inferiority of woman is responsible for prostitution."[5] While prostitution was widespread, contemporary studies by local vice commissions indicate that it was "overwhelmingly locally organized without any large business structure, and willingly engaged in by the prostitutes."[6]

Suffrage activists, especially Harriet Burton Laidlaw[7] and Rose Livingston, took up these concerns. They worked in New York City's Chinatown and in other cities to rescue young white and Chinese girls from forced prostitution, and helped pass the Mann Act to make interstate sex trafficking a federal crime.[3] Livingston publicly discussed her past as a prostitute and claimed to have been abducted and developed a drug problem as a sex slave in a Chinese man's home, narrowly escaped and experienced a Christian conversion narrative. Her story in several ways exemplifies the stereotypes used to pass the Mann Act- fear of foreigners, especially Jewish, Italian or Asian men, abduction and drugging in order to be raped and enslaved, a narrow escape and salvation through Christian conversion.[8][9] Other groups like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and Hull House focused on children of prostitutes and poverty in community life while trying to pass protective legislation. The American Purity Alliance also supported the Mann Act.[10]

The 1921 Convention set new goals for international efforts to stem human trafficking, primarily by giving the anti-trafficking movement further official recognition, as well as a bureaucratic apparatus to research and fight the problem. The Advisory Committee on the Traffic of Women and Children was a permanent advisory committee of the League. Its members were nine countries, and several non-governmental organizations. An important development was the implementation of a system of annual reports of member countries. Member countries formed their own centralized offices to track and report on trafficking of women and children.[3] The advisory committee also worked to expand its research and intervention program beyond the United States and Europe. In 1929, a need to expand into the Near East (Asia Minor), the Middle East and Asia was acknowledged. An international conference of central authorities in Asia was planned for 1937, but no further action was taken during the late 1930s.[11]

Legal application[edit]

Jack Johnson marries Lucille Cameron 1912

Although the law was created to stop forced sexual slavery of women, the most common use of the Mann Act was to prosecute men for having sex with under-age females.[4] The phrase "immoral purpose" in the statute allowed an extremely broad application of the law following the United States Supreme Court ruling in Caminetti v. United States (1917), which held that "illicit fornication" even when consensual constituted an "immoral purpose." The law was also frequently used to prosecute interracial and unapproved pre-marital and extra-marital relationships in addition to its stated purpose of preventing human trafficking. The penalties would be applied to men whether or not the woman involved consented and if she did the woman could be considered an accessory to the offense. There was also a strong racial bias against black men with white women such as in the case of Jack Johnson.[12] It was also used to harass others who had drawn the authorities' wrath for "immoral" or controversial behavior.[citation needed]

During the Jim Crow era, a time of racism and discrimination against African Americans, many white were furious that a black man, "Jack" Johnson, was publicly open about having interracial sex with white women. It is known that Johnson would be intimate with white women (some of whom he met at the fighting venue) after his fights and during the Jim Crow era, a period in United States history when these sort of relations were not publicly accepted. To prevent Johnson (who had a higher status than any other sports figure at that time) from the "immoral purpose" of defiling white women, whom he would pick up during his reign as World Heavyweight Champion (1908-1915) the Mann Act of 1912 was enacted and later in that very year John Arthur "Jack" Johnson would be prosecuted and convicted for "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" due to his relationship with Lucille Cameron (his caucasian wife).

For instance, the 1948 prosecution of Frank LaSalle for abducting Florence Sally Horner is believed to have been an inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov in writing his novel Lolita.[13] The Mann Act has also been used by the U.S. federal government to prosecute polygamists such as Mormon fundamentalists[6][14] because there is no federal U.S. law against polygamy.[14] All U.S. states have anti-polygamy laws, but it has only been in recent years that state authorities have used them to prosecute bigamy. Colorado City, Arizona; and Hildale, Utah; Bountiful, British Columbia; and sites in Mexico[8] are historic locations of several Mormon Fundamentalist sects.[9] Mormon fundamentalist leaders and individuals[14] have been charged under the Mann Act when "wives" are transported across the Utah–Arizona state line or the U.S.–Canadian and U.S.–Mexican borders.[10][14]

Person Year Decision Notes
Tony Alamo 2008 Convicted The former American religious leader was arrested under the Mann Act in September 2008.[15] He was subsequently convicted on 10 counts of interstate transportation of minors for illegal sexual purposes, rape, sexual assault, and contributing to the delinquency of minors.[16][17]
George Barker 1940 Charges dropped The British poet was arrested crossing a state border with his lover Canadian author Elizabeth Smart in 1940. She described the arrest in her book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
Chuck Berry 1962 Convicted In January 1962, Berry was sentenced to two years in prison for offenses under the Mann Act when he had transported a 14-year-old girl across state lines.[18][19]
Kid Cann 1959 Convicted/
Acquitted on appeal
Cann, who was an organized crime figure from Minneapolis, Minnesota, was prosecuted and convicted for transporting a prostitute from Chicago to Minnesota. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. Cann was later prosecuted and convicted of offering a $25,000 bribe to a juror at his Mann Act trial.[citation needed]
Farley Drew Caminetti 1913 Convicted He and Maury I. Diggs took their mistresses from Sacramento, California to Reno, Nevada. Their wives informed the police, and both men were arrested in Reno. Caminetti v. United States expanded Mann Act prosecutions from prostitution to non-commercial extramarital sex.[20]
Charlie Chaplin 1944 Acquitted Chaplin met Joan Barry, age 24, in 1941. He signed her to a $75-a-week contract for a film he was putting together, and she became his mistress. By the summer of 1942, Chaplin let her contract expire. To send her home, Chaplin paid her train fare to New York which led to his arrest.[19][21]
Finis Dake 1937 Convicted In 1937, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act by wilfully transporting 16-year-old Emma Barelli across the Wisconsin state line "for the purpose of debauchery and other immoral practices". The May 27, 1936, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Dake registered at hotels in Waukegan, Bloomington, and East St. Louis with the girl under the name "Christian Anderson and wife". In order to avoid a jury trial and the possibility of being sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000, Dake pled guilty. Subsequently, he served six months in the House of Corrections in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.[22]
Rex Ingram 1949 Convicted Pleading guilty to the charge of transporting a teenage girl to New York for immoral purposes, he was sentenced to eighteen months in jail. He served just ten months of his sentence, but the incident had a serious impact on his career for the next six years.[23]
Jack Johnson 1912 Convicted In October 1912, Johnson was arrested under the Mann Act. It is generally acknowledged that the arrest was racially motivated. A presidential pardon was requested in 2009.[19][24]
Charles Manson 1960 Charges dropped Manson took two prostitutes from California to New Mexico to work.[25]
William I. Thomas 1918 Acquitted Pioneering sociologist William I. Thomas's academic career at the University of Chicago was irreversibly damaged after he was arrested under the act when caught in the company of one Mrs. Granger, the wife of an army officer with the American forces in France. Thomas was acquitted at trial.[26]
Frank Lloyd Wright 1926 Charges dropped In October 1926, Wright and Olga Lazovich Hinzenburg were accused of violating the Mann Act and he was arrested in Minnetonka, Minnesota.[19]
Brian David Mitchell 2010 Convicted Former street preacher and pedophile; convicted in 2010 of interstate kidnapping and unlawful transportation of a minor across state lines in connection with the 2002 abduction of Elizabeth Smart; currently serving a life sentence in federal prison.[27]
Jack Schaap 2012 Convicted Pastor at mega-church First Baptist Church (Hammond, Indiana) and Chancellor of Hyles–Anderson College, pled guilty to transportation of a minor across state lines to have sex with a 16-year-old he was counseling.[28][29][30] He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.[31]

Notable individuals investigated under the Act[edit]

Mann Act case decisions by the United States Supreme Court[edit]

  • Hoke v. United States, 227 U.S. 308 (1913). The Court held that Congress could not regulate prostitution per se, as that was strictly the province of the states. Congress could, however, regulate interstate travel for purposes of prostitution or "immoral purposes".
  • Athanasaw v. United States, 227 U.S. 326 (1913). The Court decided that the law was not limited strictly to prostitution, but to "debauchery" as well.
  • Caminetti v. United States, 242 U.S. 470 (1917). The Court decided that the Mann Act applied not strictly to purposes of prostitution, but to other noncommercial consensual sexual liaisons. Thus consensual extramarital sex falls within the genre of "immoral sex".
  • Gebardi v. United States, 287 U.S. 112 (1932). The Court held that the statutory intent was not to punish a woman's acquiescence; therefore, consent by the woman does not expose her to liability.
  • Cleveland v. United States, 329 U.S. 14 (1946). The Court decided that a person can be prosecuted under the Mann Act even when married to the woman if the marriage is polygamous. Thus polygamous marriage was determined to be an "immoral purpose".
  • Bell v. United States, 349 U.S. 81 (1955). The Supreme Court decided that simultaneous transportation of two women across state lines constituted only one violation of the Mann Act, not two violations.

Congressional amendments to the law[edit]

In 1978, Congress updated the act's definition of "transportation" and added protections against commercial sexual exploitation for minors. It added a 1986 amendment which further protected minors and added protection for adult males. In particular, as part of a larger 1986 bill focused on criminalizing various aspects of child pornography that passed unanimously in both houses of Congress,[36] the Mann act was further amended to replace the ambiguous "debauchery" and "any other immoral purpose" with the more specific "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense" as well as to make it gender-neutral.[36]

Effects and alterations of the Mann Act[edit]

While the Mann Act was meant to combat forced prostitution, it had repercussions that extended into consensual sexual activity. Because the Mann Act lacked specificity, it criminalized many who were not participating in prostitution. It became a way to persecute many unmarried couples participating in premarital or extramarital activities, especially when it involved crossing state lines such as in the cases for Chuck Berry and Jack Johnson.[37] The Mann Act also became a form of blackmail, by wives suspicions of cheating husbands and other women alike. This was the case for both Drew Caminetti and Maury Diggs. Both men from Sacramento, California, were married and took their mistresses Lola Norris and Marsha Warrington to Reno, Nevada. The men's wives contacted the police, and they were then arrested in Reno, and found guilty under the Mann Act.[37] One author wrote:

In 1914 a woman by the name of Jessie A. Cope was arrested in Chicago for attempting to bribe an official to assist her in the blackmail of Colonel Charles Alexander of Providence Rhode Island, on a white slavery charge. The two had met two years previous in LA, Alexander had promised to divorce his wife, and marry her. When he attempted to leave her, Cope and her mother pursued him to Providence. Cope consulted lawyers in Providence and LA, then brought the charges in Chicago, where she was arrested.[38]

Upon continuous blackmail accounts, The New York Times became an advocate against the Mann Act:

In 1915 the paper published an editorial pointing out how the act led to extortion. In 1916 it labeled the Mann Act "The Blackmail Act", noting that its dangers had been clear from the start. The act made a harmless spree or simple elopement a crime, and the blackmail that resulted from the Mann Act was worse than the prostitution it sought to suppress.[38]

While the Mann Act has never been repealed, it has been amended and altered since its initial passing. The Mann Act continued essentially unchanged until 1978 and expanded coverage to issues around child pornography and exploitation. Most recently, in 1986, The Mann Act was significantly altered, making the whole Act gender neutral, making the transportation of "any person" and changed the wording to "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense" illegal.[39][37] Since sodomy was illegal until Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the law would also apply to consenting adult gay couples, although rarely enforced in this way.[6] Since 1978 most convictions have been related to child abuse and child trafficking cases.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Mann Act." Dictionary of American History. 2003. 21 October 2013
  2. ^ a b c d e Bell, Ernest Albert. The War on the White Slave Trade. Chicago: GS Ball, 1910. eBook.
  3. ^ a b c Brian K. Landsberg. Major Acts of Congress. Macmillan Reference USA: The Gale Group, 2004. 251-253. Print
  4. ^ a b Elizabeth Faue. The Emergence of Modern America (1990 to 1923). Encyclopedia of American History, 2003. 169-170.Print
  5. ^ Emma Goldman, The Traffic In Women Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches. New York: Random House, 1972. ISBN 0-394-47095-8
  6. ^ a b c Langum, David J. (1994). Crossing Oover the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46880-1
  7. ^ Laidlaw, H. B. (Harriet Burton), b. 1874, Papers, 1851–1958, A Finding Aid,
  8. ^ a b Lui, Mary Ting Yi (1 September 2009). "Saving young girls from Chinatown: white slavery and woman suffrage, 1910-1920". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 
  9. ^ a b Massotta, Jodie. Decades of Reform: Prostitutes, Feminists, and the War on White Slavery. Diss. University of Vermont, 2013. Print.
  10. ^ a b Bell, pp. 44-45.
  11. ^ Elizabeth Faue. The Emergence of Modern America(1990 to 1923). Encyclopedia of American History, 2003. pp. 169-170. Print
  12. ^ The Mann Act from Ken Burn's series "Unforgivable Blackness."
  13. ^ Alexander Dolinin. "What Happened to Sally Horner?: A Real-Life Source of Nabokov's Lolita". zembla. Art & Humanities Library of Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved March 10, 2008.  Humbert, the narrator, at one point explicitly refers to LaSalle.
  14. ^ a b c d Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches. New York: Random House, 1972. ISBN 0-394-47095-8.
  15. ^ [1]. CNN. September 26, 2008. Retrieved July 30, 2011.
  16. ^ [2]. July 24, 2009. CNN. Retrieved July 30, 2011.
  17. ^ Gambrell, John. "FBI: Evangelist Alamo arrested in child sex probe". Associated Press (via Yahoo! News). Archived from the original on October 24, 2012. Retrieved September 26, 2008. 
  18. ^ "Chuck Berry". The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. 
  19. ^ a b c d Weiner, Eric (March 11, 2008). "All Things Considered: The Long, Colorful History of the Mann Act". NPR. Retrieved July 23, 2009. 
  20. ^ "Caminetti Guilty On Only One Count. Two Jurors Hold Out for Acquittal for Three Hours, but Finally Compromise". The New York Times. September 6, 1913. Retrieved August 20, 2010. Farley Drew Caminetti, son of the Commissioner General of Immigration, was found guilty late to-day on one count of the indictment charging him with violation of the Mann White Slave act. 
  21. ^ "Mann & Woman". Time. April 3, 1944. Retrieved August 21, 2007. Auburn-haired Joan Berry, 24, who wandered from her native Detroit to New York to Hollywood in pursuit of a theatrical career, became a Chaplin protégée in the summer of 1941. ... Chaplin signed her to a $75-a-week contract, began training her for a part in a projected picture. Two weeks after the contract was signed, she became his mistress. ... By late summer of 1942, Chaplin had decided that she was unsuited for his film. Her contract ended. ... Chaplin paid her train fare both ways but did not travel with her, did not pay her hotel bills. Asserted by the defence: she went at her own request; Chaplin had no "intent" to transport her for immoral purposes and did not consummate any such purpose in New York. 
  22. ^ Chambers, Pastor Joseph (September 19, 1999). "An Open Letter to Pastor Joseph Chambers, Author of an Article Entitled 'Confused Charismatic Theology & the Dake's Bible'". Charlotte, NC: Paw Creek Ministries. Retrieved July 23, 2009. 
  23. ^ Eder, Bruce. "Rex Ingram Biography". All Movie Guide. AMC. Retrieved July 23, 2009. 
  24. ^ Murray, Chris (July 5, 2009). "Congress Looks to Pardon Boxing Great". Reno Gazette-Journal. Retrieved July 23, 2009. [dead link]
  25. ^ Bugliosi, Vincent with Gentry, Curt (1994). Helter Skelter — The True Story of the Manson Murders 25th Anniversary Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-08700-X. pp. 137–146.
  26. ^ "Thomas and Woman Freed. Evidence Sought for Prosecution under the Mann Act". The New York Times. April 20, 1918. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  27. ^ Enos, Robin (May 25, 2011), "Kidnapper Brian David Mitchell Sentenced to Life.
  28. ^ "Jack Schaap Confesses To Sexual Relationship With Teen After Firing From Megachurch". The Huffington Post. August 2, 2012. Retrieved December 24, 2012. 
  29. ^ "Jack Schaap Pleads Guilty in Teen Sex Case, Denies Knowing Act Was Crime". Christian Post. 2012-08-27. Retrieved December 24, 2012. 
  30. ^ "Oh, Mann! Pastor says he was unaware of curious law". Chicago Tribune. August 27, 2012. Retrieved December 24, 2012. 
  31. ^ "Judge Rejects Reduced Sentence In Former Pastor's Sex Case". CBS Chicago. January 5, 2013. Retrieved April 8, 2015. 
  32. ^ Rhee, Joseph; Mark Schone (November 30, 2009). "How Anwar Awlaki Got Away". The Blotter from Brian Ross; Fort Hood Investigation (ABC News). Retrieved December 1, 2009. 
  33. ^ Gentry, Curt (2001). J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 272. ISBN 0-393-32128-2. 
  34. ^ Hakim, Danny; Rashbaum, William K. (March 10, 2008). "Spitzer Is Linked to Prostitution Ring". The New York Times. Retrieved August 22, 2010. Federal prosecutors rarely charge clients in prostitution cases, which are generally seen as state crimes. But the Mann Act, passed by Congress in 1910 to address prostitution, human trafficking and what was viewed at the time as immorality in general, makes it a crime to transport someone between states for the purpose of prostitution. The four defendants charged in the case unsealed last week were all charged with that crime, along with several others. 
  35. ^ Anthony, Paul (January 28, 2009). "FLDS leader invokes 5th in deposition: He pleads it more than 250 times, court transcript says". San Angelo Standard-Times. Retrieved 24 July 24, 2009.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  36. ^ a b "Reagan Signs Tough Bill In Crackdown on Child Porn". United Press International (via the San Francisco Chronicle) November 8, 1986. "President Reagan signed a bill yesterday strengthening provisions of existing child pornography laws. The new measure, passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, would make it a crime to advertise to buy or sell child pornography, to seek children for the production of pornography or to participate with children in the production of it. [...] On another subject, the bill rewrites the Mann Act, a relic of the early part of the century, which makes it a crime to transport a woman across state lines for 'immoral' purposes. The new provision makes the statute gender-neutral and eliminates archaic language."
  37. ^ a b c "Unforgivable Blackness, Knockout." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2013.
  38. ^ a b McLaren, Angus. "Entrapping the Jazz-Age American Male." Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. 87. Print.
  39. ^ Langum, David J. "Mann Act (1910)." Major Acts of Congress. 2004. 14 Nov. 2013 <>

Suggested reading[edit]

  • Langum, David J. (1994). Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-46880-1.