The Colorful History Of The Anti-Debauchery Mann Act


The Mann Act, which figures in the potential prosecution of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, is a controversial 1910 law that was intended to combat forced prostitution and “debauchery.” National Public Radio reports that its official name is the White Slave Traffic Act, but it’s better known for its author, Rep. James Mann (R-IL). Last week, four people suspected of running the Emperor’s Club – the prostitution service that Spitzer allegedly frequented – were charged with violating the Mann Act, among other crimes including money laundering.

Enacted during a time of great change and “moral panic,” the Mann Act has been applied broadly over the years and, critics say, used as a tool of political persecution and even blackmail. In the past century, thousands of people have been prosecuted under it, including celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, Chuck Berry, and heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. The Supreme Court has held that prosecution under the Mann Act was constitutional. The act has never been repealed, but it has been amended. In 1978, Congress updated the definition of “transportation” in the act and added protection for minors of either sex against sexual exploitation.


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