This Day in American History — Oct. 20

On October 20, 1856, Representative James Robert Mann was born in McLean County, Illinois. Mann, a long-time member of Congress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is best known for being the author of the White Slavery Traffic Act or, as it came to be known, the Mann Act. The Mann Act criminalized the transportation of women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Based on Congress’s constitutional power to regulate interstate commerce, the Act became a tool for prosecuting not only those engaged in actual criminal acts, but for those whose intentions were legitimate but objectionable to certain Progressive-era sensibilities.

The first person prosecuted under the Mann Act was heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold that title. Johnson had a proclivity for prostitutes, both black and white, and he wasn’t shy about being seen publicly with white women. Indeed, Johnson married three white women during his lifetime. Johnson was prosecuted under the Mann Act in 1912; while technically guilty of transporting prostitutes across state lines, it was commonly understood that Johnson’s prosecution was motivated by revulsion at his romantic relationships with white women—intolerable for an African American of Johnson’s status and visibility. It was said that Johnson had committed a “crime against nature” by having sexual relations with a white woman. Johnson was convicted in June 1913, sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison. He immediately skipped bail, fled the country with his (white) wife Lucille Cameron, and did not return to the U.S. until 1920, when he was sent to Leavenworth to serve his time.

Congress has recently passed a resolution urging President Obama to issue a posthumous pardon of Johnson; it is currently awaiting Obama’s action.

Other prominent Americans prosecuted or investigated under the Mann Act include Chuck Berry (convicted in 1961), Charlie Chaplin (acquitted), and Frank Lloyd Wright (investigated but never charged).

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