What is the Mann Act of 1910?

Instructor: Vericia Miller

Vericia has a masters in criminal justice.

In this lesson, you will learn more about the Mann Act of 1910. You will also be given two examples of celebrities who were charged or nearly charged under this federal law.

Mann Act

The Mann Act is an old piece of federal legislation that still exists today, though seldom ever enforced. Passed in 1910, the Mann Act's purpose was to criminalize the transporting of a prostitute across state lines. So if a man drove a known, or even alleged, prostitute from California to Nevada for to engage in prostitution, sex acts, or any other immoral purpose, he could be charged and convicted. However, the problem with the term 'immoral purposes' is that it wasn't specifically defined within the law. Though the law specifically states prostitution as illegal, it does not go into great detail about what falls under immoral purposes. Consequently, the law was misused and often enforced improperly when first passed. If convicted of a Mann Act violation, one could serve up to five years in prison and be given hefty fines.

Though the law had good intentions, it also helped to further injustice and racism within the criminal justice system. Due to the vague nature of the term, 'immoral purposes,' it allowed for abuses of how the law was used against others. Also keep in mind that when this law was passed, the country was still living under segregation laws. This is what made it even easier to twist the law for malicious purposes. Women would even use the law to get women who ran away with their husbands charged under this law.

The law was initially created to address forced prostitution. Today we know forced prostitution as human or sex trafficking. In 2001, a similar federal law was passed to address this issue. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is the first piece of comprehensive federal legislation that addresses both domestic and international sex and labor trafficking. The Mann Act was not as broad as the trafficking act, but then again, prostitution wasn't known as trafficking during that time.

There are quite a few celebrities of the past who have been convicted under the Mann Act. The world famous guitarist and music artist Chuck Berry was charged under the Mann Act for allegedly crossing state lines, with a 14-year-old, for immoral purposes. And then there was the first African-American heavyweight champion in the country, Jack Johnson, who was also charged under the Mann Act. To better understand how this law was used, let's take a closer look at the cases of Jack Johnson and Eliot Spitzer.

The Cases of Jack Johnson and Eliot Spitzer

Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion. Jack Johnson was a controversial figure. Not only did he defeat a well liked and skilled white boxer to win the heavyweight championship, but he also dated white women. You have to remember that during this time, overt racism ran rampant and interracial relationships were frowned down upon. In 1913, three years after the law passed, Johnson was arrested for crossing state lines with a prostitute and was charged under the Mann Act. However, the problem with this case was that the woman he was with was his girlfriend. Johnson's girlfriend was tied to prostitution before meeting him, but there was no evidence of her connection to prostitution at the time of his arrest.

The charges were eventually dropped, but the FBI found another woman who attested to the fact that Johnson transported her across state lines as a prostitute. This was all the FBI and district attorney needed. They didn't have enough evidence or the cooperation of his girlfriend to charge him under the Mann Act before, so they went looking for others whom he may have been with to create a reason to charge him; ultimately, that is what happened. There's so much to be said about this story. This is the shortened version, but this is a great quick example of how the Mann Act was used and even twisted during the early 20th century.

Former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson

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