Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January 26, 1910-White Slave Trade Act Passed

If you were a teenage, immigrant girl living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early twentieth century life could be difficult. If you were one of the fortunate ones who had the needed skills, you might find yourself working in the thriving New York garment industry.

If you worked in a factory or sweatshop such as the large Triangle Shirtwaist Factory east of Washington Square Park you would work twelve hours a day, six days a week producing the shirtwaist blouse for a demanding public.

The shirtwaist craze had started in 1890 when artist Charles Dana Gibson had created "The Gibson Girl". In the words of Sinclair Lewis, she was the "Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of her day", but she was also a very democratic figure.

Writer Robert Bridges noted "She was the ideal girl whom many expected to find some day in flesh and blood." Most pictures of the Gibson Girl showed her wearing a shirtwaist and it had started the new centuries first fashion craze.

In the competitive garment industry of 1910 factory owners seriously underpaid and overworked their young female workers. Workers would be squeezed into overcrowded, overheated lofts and paid by the piece. Factory doors were locked and the women's purses were checked upon exit at the end of the day to make sure nobody was stealing scraps of material.

Most of these girls had been in the country a short time having just arrived from Austria, Russia and Hungary to achieve a better life. Many did not speak English. What kept them going, what they looked forward to all week was a Saturday night of dancing.

When the work week would end at around 6 pm on Saturday most of these young women would head to the dance halls and "academies" of the Lower East side for some cheap excitement. It was a way that they could relax and have some fun as well as Americanize themselves and meet a nice young man.

In the 1910's the Lower East Side was, as it had been for over fifty years, under the control of Tammany Hall the corrupt political machine that not only rigged elections but used an organized crime network protect their territory. For years Tammany ward politicians had resorted to bribery and extortion of neighbourhood proprietors to raise the funds needed to fix elections. Saloons, gambling dens and brothels paid tribute in return for local officials' ignoring local regulations.
In the first part of the twentieth century you could add dance halls to that group.
The "squeeze" would be placed on the dance hall owners by a new Tammany creation "The Cadet". He would be between eighteen and twenty-five and would have previously worked for Tammany as a bagman, messenger or lookout. Now they were able to use the dancehalls as a base of power much as the early Tammany man had used the saloon.

The cadets would make a living by doing the local Tammany ward politician's bidding. The would also keep a portion of the extortion and protection money for themselves. But the big money was to be made in prostitution and the dancehall was the place to procure the young women needed to operate such an enterprise.
The Tammany gangs who were now the most powerful in the Lower East Side had all had their origins in cheap dance halls. Paul Kelly's began in the dance halls about the lower Bowery , Monk Eastman's in those of the Russian-Jewish district below Delancey Street and Harry Horowitz, the notorious Gyp the Blood, in a hall for Galician Jews in the far East Side.

So, on Saturday evenings these young girls would flock to these halls. Unsure of themselves. Unable to speak English. Looking for excitement and romance. Many were easy prey for the cadets who would begin with the offer of dance lessons and progress through to offers of marriage and a better life.

Many of these girls would end up becoming prostitutes. Some were drugged and essentially kidnapped into the lifestyle by the Cadet. Bu there is evidence to suggest that many went willingly into partnership with the Cadet in order to escape the terrible ordeal of the sweatshop.

In either case these girls would be referred to as white slaves and the hysteria that arose over their plight was quite compelling. Reformer politicians, newspaper pundits and Greenwich Village socialists all campaigned to stop the white slave trade in New York.

So loud was the cry on that on January 26, 1910, The White Slave Traffic Act was passed. The Mann Act as it would come to be known, banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes.” Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, immorality, and human trafficking.

The first person prosecuted under the act was heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, He had an affair with a white prostitute named Lucille Cameron. Johnson married Cameron so that she could not be forced to testify against him. Belle Schreiber, a prostitute who at some point left a brothel and traveled with Johnson to another state, was next in line to testify against him. Johnson was prosecuted and sentenced to the maximum penalty of a year and a day in prison.

The ambiguous wording of the law never really put an end to Tammany's exploitation of the young girls on the Lower East Side. Their plight would only begin to improve when labour laws began to protect them and all workers from exploitation. In 1910 that was still a few years off.

Tammany's political control was beginning to wane by this time. Newly elected mayor William F. Gaynor was reforming City Hall by firing corrupt Tammany office holders and refusing to toe the line set for him by bosses Big Tim Sullivan and Charlie Murphy. It would be safe to say that Tammany was now more about its' organized crime activities and less about political corruption.

Never before had it been so difficult to tell where one ended and the other began.

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