The Mann Act Becomes Law


Vague law soon exceeds its intended purpose.

On June 25, 1910, the US Congress passed the Mann Act.  Also known as the white slavery act, this law was designed to stop prostitution and the human trafficking of sex workers.  This law became one of the more controversial criminal statutes as its intent became obfuscated by the expanding use of the code. 

The law was not well worded.  It stated that it was 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”.  The congress intended the law to apply to prostitution, but overzealous or sometimes racist prosecutors and agents used the law for ulterior purposes. 

The concern in early 1900s America of growing interstate prostitution rings was one of the impetuses for the creation of the FBI.  As the Mann Act was working its way through the legislative process, the Department of Justice knew they did not have the infrastructure to investigate these crimes or arrest its violators. 

The DOJ turned to the newly created Bureau of Investigation to visit houses of prostitution to find violations of the Mann Act.  It was the first specific task to be assigned to the Bureau. 

The intent of the law quickly changed and was used to prosecute individuals who were having sex with underage women.  A noble gesture, but the amorphous nature of the law would continue to be exploited.  Soon married men who were taking their girlfriends over state lines for vacations were being nabbed by the feds for violations of the Mann Act.  Once suspicious wives got wind of this trend, an ever-increasing number of wayward husbands found themselves in the dock for violations of the Mann Act.  

The law was also used for racist purposes.  Famous black Americans such as boxer Jack Johnson was arrested for violations of the Mann Act when they brought white women over state lines for romantic liaisons.  Johnson was arrested twice including for transporting Lucile Cameron, the woman who would become his wife. 

Violators of the Mann Act included such notable figures as architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Charlie Chaplin, and Chuck Berry.  More recently the updated law was used to prosecute singer R Kelly and Jeffry Epstein associate Ghislaine Maxwell.

The Mann Act was updated several times to define the violation better. It eliminated the undefined “immoral purposes” language and expanded the victims to men and children.  It is still on the books and used regularly. 

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