On December 23, 1959 Chuck Berry was arrested in St Louis by the Department of Justice for violations of the Mann Act. The Mann Act, also known as the White Slavery Act, outlaws the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral” purposes. A pretty vague statute, but Chuck’s story seems a little more than immoral.
Chuck Berry met a 14 year old waitress named Janice Norine Escalanti in a bar in Juarez, Mexico while on tour. He ostensibly offered her a job in his club in St. Louis and took her out on the road for the remained of the trip back to St. Louis. After arriving in St. Louis, Janice only lasted two weeks in the club before the mercurial Berry fired her.
Janice went to the police with her version of events. She confided to the St. Louis Police that she had been working as a prostitute in Mexico and that Berry had picked her up there. She relayed the fact that they had engaged in sex multiple times in the different states they had driven through and continued their relationship back in St. Louis.
The US Attorney took interest in this case and eventually charged Berry with the federal Mann Act violation. The Mann Act was very broadly written and does not require the girl to be underage, as Janice clearly was. It also mentions that the transportation must be for the purpose of prostitution or “other immoral purpose”. So despite the fact that Chuck Berry was allegedly having sex with a disadvantaged minor from another country, the feds didn’t need to prove that.
Berry was convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison. He appealed his conviction on the grounds that the judge used racist language during the trial (which was true). He was granted a new trial and was again found guilty (which was also true). Berry spent 3 years in federal prison while at the height of his fame.
Berry had several legal issues through his life. In 1989 he was arrested for putting a hidden camera in the women’s room of his restaurant. When the police raided his home to recovered the video tape, they found sexually explicit photos of underage girls.
PHOTO BY PICKWICK RECORDS - BILLBOARD, PAGE 59, 25 NOVEMBER 1972(ORIGINAL TEXT: BILLBOARD, PAGE 59, 25 NOVEMBER 1972), PUBLIC DOMAIN, HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=57400995