Criminalizing Race and Sex With Conspiracy Theories: Turn of the Century New York City and the so-called White Slave Trade

The film image, in black and white, shows a woman with a hat and white dress sitting at a cafe table with a man in a suit. The woman seems to be about to faint and has her hand on her forehead. The man is watching eagerly. The implication is that her drink has been spiked with something.
Scene from 1913 film, “The Inside of the White Slave Traffic,” dir. Frank Beal. A propaganda film about (white) women being lured by (foreign) men into prostitution.

I’ve written about the importance of analyzing recent popular and fringe rhetoric about sex trafficking from a longer historical perspective, as well as from a cultural studies perspective, elsewhere. I’ve been contending here and elsewhere that the current cultural attention to organized sex trafficking,* along with the more absurd theories about Hillary Clinton’s “Pizzagate” ring, are examples of “morality” panic campaigns that are designed to corral public support for social restrictions on the rights and mobility for women, in general, and for the policing of “non-white” or “immigrant” populations in particular. Gender, sexuality, and race have long been the cultural targets for policing — its how something like “nations” can be constructed and maintained amid the rapid changes to demographics and geography in the modern globalizing age.

That’s one of my research soapboxes, you might say.

That’s why I got very excited when I saw another researcher — an historian of American legal history — writing about some of the same early 20th-century  “White Slave Trade” phenomena.

Dr. Mia Brett researches, writes about, and teaches on the legal construction of race, gender, and sexuality. In 2020, she wrote a fantastic article for The Gotham Center for New York City History about the legal and cultural effects of an early-20th-century influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European places, which were experiencing a rise in violent anti-Semitic pogroms and other oppressive policies.

The immigration surge was met with a flurry of sensationalist, paranoid press that would taint local policing and court procedures and eventually result in federal policies and legislature to limit movement and encourage public suspicion of racialized “others” such as the Mann Act of 1910 (also referred to as “The White Slave Trade Act”), and the 1924 Immigration Act, which drastically restricted immigration from specific parts of the globe and authorized deportations of demographic groups when they exceeded 2% of the U.S. population.

In her article, Brett focuses on the targeting of the Jewish population in New York City by specific journalists and public figures. These attacks stoked fear about a “White Slave Trade” that was orchestrated by Jewish and other “foreign” figures and threatened the purity of white, Christian “girls.”

The press was stoking fear and racism directed towards the Jewish community as a whole by not only suggesting that Jewish men were orchestrating large sex trafficking schemes, but also that Jewish women were more susceptible to being caught up in the “trade” because of cultural stereotypes about money and lack of “virtue.” Interestingly, there’s evidence that the disinformation campaign to smear not just Jewish men but also Jewish women as susceptible to the “white slave trade” persuaded some Jewish communities. In my own looking through media references to the white slave trade during this period, I came across this news clipping:

News clipping with title: "Polish Rabbis to Fight White Slave Traffic"

In this news clipping, we can see that the propaganda/paranoia being spread not just in New York but throughout the globe affected cultural beliefs and practices within the Jewish communities that were under cultural attack. This brief news item reports that Jewish Rabbis in Poland, for example, responded to the propaganda by warning their own community about the dangers for their “girls and women” who were said to be “easily lured by promises of marriage.” Here, the “outsiders” are those men “representing themselves as Americans.”

This clipping is an example of the circulation and impact of cultural tropes — capable of influencing a community’s own beliefs about themselves. Note that the effect here is also beneficial to the over-arching goals of patriarchy: to restrict the agency and mobility of women. One tried-and-true method for that objective is to stoke fear in “families” and especially the patriarchs of a community. When they believe that “their women” are under threat from the outside, they will adjust behavior. In this case, it is increased scrutiny over the behavior of “girls and women.”

Brett’s deep dive into the history of the “trafficked (white) woman” trope as it affected the culture and legal system in New York during the first decades of the 20th century is worth a close look at, and I’ve excerpted parts of that article below that I believe are especially relevant today amid raging U.S. political and cultural disinformation and paranoia. Read the entire article online here.

Here are things that particularly stood out to me:

“This rise in immigration created a backlash of nativism and criminalization. In particular, anti-Jewish bigotry in New York City’s criminal justice system began to take the form of large-scale stereotypical assumptions as police, judges, prosecutors, and investigators became more familiar with Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland. Jews were blamed for and associated with specific crimes such as bigamy, white slavery, and pickpocketing. As more Eastern European Yiddish-speaking Jews immigrated to the United States, societal familiarity grew, but they continued to be scapegoated for crimes to serve nativist bigotry.”

[…]

“In particular, “white slavery” served to criminalize immigrant others, especially Jews, police interracial relationships, and racialize those who engaged in certain crimes.  “White slavery” charges articulated a dichotomy of a pure, white, Christian victim and a criminal racial other, commonly a Jewish immigrant, as the supposed evil procurer. Therefore, criminal courtrooms became sites of implicit legal discrimination through a reliance on anti-Jewish stereotypes and influence from an anti-Semitic press.”

[…]

“The focus on Jewish bigamists made it easy to blame Jews for other morality crimes like white slavery and prostitution. The white slavery scare was used to fuel nativist anti-immigrant fervor, the policing of ethnic boundaries, and the criminalization of interracial relationships. In 1907, lawmakers in New York City responded by passing section 2460 of the New York Penal Code to outlaw “compulsory prostitution” (which went into effect in 1910). The language was directed at pimps or procurers by making a person guilty of a felony if they received money from a woman engaged in prostitution. The law coincided with the passage of the federal Mann Act, otherwise known as the White Slave Traffic Act. The Mann Act made it a felony to transport a woman or girl across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The federal law was often used to police ethnic and racial boundaries rather than protect women from being trafficked. It often targeted interracial relationships and consensual couples.”

[…]

“[The turn-of-the-century yellow journalist (or “muckraker”) George Kibbe] Turner wrote another article for McClure’s Magazine entitled “Daughters of the Poor,” in which he claimed to write a history of the rise in the white slavery trade in New York City. Turner’s language invoked a large-scale organization devoted to recruiting and trafficking women (a particular fear that led to the Mann Act). According to Turner, there was a “third great flush of immigration consisting of Austrian, Russian, and Hungarian Jews” coming to New York around 1885, which included a large number of criminals.”

[…]

“In 1910, a New York grand jury investigated the claim in Turner’s article that there was widespread white slavery out of New York. Turner stood by his article when he testified, where he claimed that the grand jury’s findings agreed with him. However, The New York Times reported that the grand jury found little evidence of any real organized white slavery trade and that the judge said the “City’s fair name has been slandered by muckraking writers.” The grand jury instead recommended a commission to study the claims of widespread white slavery in detail. John D. Rockefeller then formed the Bureau of Social Hygiene and it’s first report, entitled “Commercialized Prostitution in New York City,” came out in 1913. The report stated that there were around 15,000 prostitutes in New York City and that the majority of the “owners” in the business were foreign born [like most of the city’s residents?], but there was no mention of the specific nationalities of these men. Ultimately, the report did not support Turner’s claims of an organized Jewish white slavery operation.”

[…]

“The 1910 grand jury investigation also included testimony about one of the most notorious arrests under the white slavery law. Belle Moore and Harry Levinson were arrested after an undercover investigation conducted by George Miller. An important aspect of Miller’s testimony was the ethnicity not only of Moore and Levinson, but also of the prostitutes he pretended to buy. Belle Moore was a light-skinned “mulatto” woman, her partner, Alec Anderson, was black, and Harry Levinson was Jewish. Levinson eventually plead guilty, but Belle Moore went on to be tried in one of the first real trials as part of this grand jury’s white slavery investigation. Moore’s race garnered a lot of attention in the press, where she was sometimes described as the “negress.”[31] The narrative around the specter of white slavery required that the perpetrators be racialized while the victims be pure, white, Christian girls. It was particularly important to the prosecution, therefore, that Belle Moore was a mixed-race woman and that Harry Levinson was Jewish. Both press coverage of the case and testimony during the trial emphasized these facts. The white slavery laws, then, were focused on policing interracial sexual relations and sexual purity of white women. “

[…]

“The grand jury found no evidence of large scale organizations, but McClure’s continued to argue that there were two main white slavery organizations of importance, one Jewish and one French.[35] A later article, entitled “Five White Slave Trade Investigations,” went further in directly connecting the white slavery scare to the influx of immigrants and urging even more intervention from the Federal Immigration Commission. According to the article, “The importation and harboring of alien women and girls for immoral purposes and the practice of prostitution by them—the so called ‘white slave traffic’—is the most pitiful and revolting phase of the immigration question.””

[…]

“Muckrakers like George Kibber Turner wrote exposés of white slavery detailing the vulnerability of poor Jewish girls to prostitution and vice investigations sprung grand juries, but little attention or resources were actually paid to assisting women who found themselves in these situations. Instead, white slavery prosecutions of Jewish immigrants allowed the courts and the press to use concern over crime and young women to mask bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment.”

[*Note: this doesn’t mean that sexual abuse and exploitation aren’t happening on large and small scales. It means that real criminals and crimes are often obfuscated by the sensationalist rhetoric that bolsters political agendas. That’s why cultural and critical analysis are important. It’s important to ask questions like: who is making the claim, and what are the financial and/or political interests of those stakeholders? Are the accusations made in bad-faith or good-faith? Who is shaping or circulating the narrative?]

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