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The Long, Colorful History of the Mann Act

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The Long, Colorful History of the Mann Act

Law

The Long, Colorful History of the Mann Act

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And federal prosecutors consider bringing charges against Governor Spitzer, one law they may be studying is the Mann Act. The relatively obscure and controversial law dates back to 1910. It was originally intended to combat forced prostitution and debauchery.

NPR's Eric Weiner reports.

ERIC WEINER: All laws are products of their time, and that is certainly true of the Mann Act or, as it's officially known, the White Slave Traffic Act. At the turn of the century, new technologies such as the typewriter allowed women to support themselves for the first time, and many flocked to the cities. Suddenly, there were concerns about the country's moral underpinning.

By 1907, there were rumors taken as truth that women were being forced into prostitution and shuttled around the country by vast networks controlled by immigrants. It was into this charged environment that the Mann Act was born. Signed into law by President Taft in 1910, the act made it a crime to transport women across state lines quote, "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose."

Heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson was among the first to be charged under the new law. In 1913, he was accused and convicted of transporting a prostitute from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Many believed that Johnson's case was racially motivated. He was black while his mistress was white.

In 1944, Charlie Chaplin was prosecuted under the Mann Act for his involvement with the actress Joan Berry. Chaplin was acquitted, but his public image in the U.S. never fully recovered.

In 1959, singer Chuck Berry was convicted under the Mann Act of transporting across state lines an underage girl who, weeks later, was arrested on a prostitution charge.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Mann Act is constitutional. But Congress has substantially amended the law. A 1986 amendment protects minors and replaces the terms debauchery and any other immoral purpose with any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense. That allowed the government to get out of the business of legislating morality while retaining the essence of the Mann Act as a weapon in the fight against human trafficking.

Eric Weiner, NPR News, Washington.

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