A Moral Quarantine: The FBI’s White Slave Division, 1910–17

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Plaza Ballroom A (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Jessica R. Pliley, Texas State University
Responding to international and domestic moral reformers, the U.S. Congress passed the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act (Mann Act), outlawing the taking of women over state lines for “any immoral purpose.” Enforcement of this expansive anti-sex trafficking law fell to the young Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Drawing upon turn-of-the-century military experiments to monitor prostitutes at the edges of the U.S. empire—in the Philippians, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone—the FBI established a voluntary corps of local white slave officers in cities throughout the country to supervise the mobility of over 30,000 female sex workers. The successful implementation of the White Slave Division transformed the FBI into a truly national agency, policing national crime while upholding “morality” by establishing what one U.S. attorney called a moral quarantine. This paper considers the activities of the FBI’s White Slave Division against a longer history of colonial regulation of prostitution, while at the same time attending to the spatial rational of the FBI’s moral quarantine by considering the connections between brothels, vice districts, and the prostitutes who worked in these spaces. The Mann Act was premised on a policing of territoriality and violation of this statute only occurred when borders and boundaries were trespassed for an “immoral purpose;” essentially the law established what one man who was prosecuted under the law in 1913 called “territorial morality.” Consequently, the FBI’s regulatory regime was premised on the sustained existence of vice districts; the very same districts moral reformers and their medico-legal allies sought to eradicate. Thus, state actors operated with their own rationales and agendas that ran at cross currents with reformers occupying other social arenas. This paper maps out the emerging conflict between the federal criminal justice state that sought to contain prostitutes and the civil society actors who sought to eliminate them.