Century-old law tied to Spitzer scandal

March 16, 2008 6:48:22 PM PDT
Among the charges Gov. Eliot Spitzer could face in the call-girl scandal that has cost him his job is one that has been brought against a slew of other prominent men in the past century. In court papers, Client 9, identified by law enforcement officials as Spitzer, paid for a prostitute to take a train in February from New York to Washington and have sex with him at an upscale hotel.

Spitzer has not been charged with a crime, but four people accused of running the prostitution operation that authorities say he used have been charged with violating the Mann Act, a federal law that bans carrying women or girls across state lines for "prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose."

The 1910 act has been amended and used for purposes ranging from the political to the racist, said David Langum, author of "Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act." The act also thrust vice crimes, once the domain of states, under the purview of federal authorities.

Entertainer Charlie Chaplin, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, musician Chuck Berry and heavyweight champ Jack Johnson all were accused of violating the act; Berry and Johnson, a bareknuckle fighter who held the title from 1908 to 1915, served prison time over it.

Johnson, a black man who often faced racial hostility because of resentment over his dominance of white opponents and flamboyant relationships with white women, was accused of transporting a prostitute from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

"He really was charged because he was a black guy who married white women," said Langum, a research professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

Afterward, a prosecutor said Johnson's conviction was the "foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks," Langum said.

"It was very racial," the professor said.

In recent years, the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson - which includes Ken Burns, who made the documentary "Unforgivable Blackness" about Johnson, and former New York Mayor David Dinkins - was established.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was said to have instigated the charge against Chaplin because of the entertainer's left-leaning political views. Rock'n'roll pioneer Berry, who's also black, was convicted of transporting an underage girl across state lines. The charge against Wright concerned a child-custody dispute.

The act, named for Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann, grew out of hysteria during the turn of the last century over fears that immigrant men were abducting white women and girls who were leaving rural farm areas to work in cities, and forcing them into prostitution, historians said.

There were government vice commissions and reports. Novels about "white slavery," or sexual slavery, appeared.

Langum wrote in his book that the act was "laden with presumptuous moralism."

Officially known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, it was amended in 1986. The words "debauchery" and "any other immoral purpose" were replaced with "any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense."

Conviction carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

But legal precedent is on Spitzer's side when it comes to the Mann act: It hasn't been used to prosecute individual customers of prostitutes for years, Langum and other experts said.

Spitzer, a moral crusader who humbly announced his resignation days ago, effective Monday, could face other charges too, including soliciting and paying for sex, and illegally arranging cash transactions to conceal their purpose.

"If he's prosecuted under the Mann Act, it's because of who he is rather than what he did," Langum said. "Because he's the governor of New York and because he was a hard-liner on crime."