03/13/2008 12:00 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fallen Mann

The Mann Act, long relegated to the status of bawdy Frank Sinatra punch lines and literary asides -- Lolita's Humbert Humbert deplores the law as "lending itself to a dreadful pun" -- is serious news for the first time in a century. In the wake of Eliot Spitzer's resignation, he might not spared from criminal charges based on the law, passed in 1910, that forbade the interstate transportation of any woman or girl for "the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." Named for Republican Congressman James R. Mann and officially known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the law had a tortured (and torturous) history well before it loomed as a threat to Spitzer or entered mid-century pop culture lexicon.

Much has been said about Spitzer's hypocrisy in the matter: the self-proclaimed reformist governor who would scour New York State free of corruption, who has fervently prosecuted prostitution rings, who pointed out that such organizations are often linked to money laundering, drugs, and human trafficking. But Spitzer, while guilty of bad judgment and stunning arrogance, is no more disingenuous than the people and events that lead to this anachronistic law nearly a century ago.

The furor surrounding the Mann Act has been forgotten, but during the first decade of the 20th century, the "social evil," as prostitution was called, inspired daily newspaper coverage. In 1907, the federal government, concerned about the proliferation of red-light districts across the country, dispatched a team of agents to investigate conditions in several major cities. In Chicago, an ambitious young states attorney named Clifford Roe sought a face to humanize prostitution, and one night, she quite literally fell from the sky.

A teenaged girl, the story went, tossed a note from the window of a brothel reading, "I am a white slave," and it found its way to Roe's office. No one, Roe least of all, paid much attention to discrepancies in the victim's story, including a rumor that she was a prostitute by choice who'd had a momentary spat with her pimp, and was back to work as soon as the case closed.

Roe used this case to argue for stricter laws against prostitution rings, eventually securing passage of seminal legislation in twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia. His colleagues, most notably Congressman Mann and Edwin Sims, the city's U.S. district attorney, fueled the hysteria with hyperbole and outright lies, recounting lurid tales of professional rapists and a head pimp known internationally as "The Big Chief."

By December 1909, when the federal agents presented their findings on various red-light districts, America was in the throes of white slavery panic. Churches, women's groups, and reform organizations bombarded their representatives with pleas to take national action. President William Howard Taft heeded the call, declaring Mann's proposed bill "constitutional" and allocating $50,000 for the employment of special inspectors. A new branch within the U.S. Department of Justice called the Bureau of Investigation -- the "Federal" to be added later -- would be charged with tracking down Mann Act violations. The Bureau, at this point, employed only twenty-three agents, but Mann's law launched its transformation from a small office concerned with miscellaneous minor crimes to the government's most recognizable and powerful legal arm.

But federal authorities spent less time searching for the apocryphal "Big Chief" than persecuting controversial citizens, and the ambiguity of the phrase "any other immoral purpose" gave them a wide berth. Jack Johnson, boxing's first black world heavyweight champion, was arrested in 1912 and served a year in prison on the testimony of his scorned lover, a white prostitute. Frank Lloyd Wright's estranged wife alerted FBI agents when the architect crossed state lines with his girlfriend. And in 1944, J. Edgar Hoover, disturbed by Charlie Chaplin's radical politics, began monitoring the actor's sex life and had him booked on a Mann Act charge. Buyers' remorse had set in long ago -- one Progressive Era reformer called white slavery "a sort of pornography to satisfy the American sense of news" -- but the Mann Act remains on the books to this day, reinforced by a national political ethos that scares elected representatives from casting any vote that can be perceived as a strike against "values."

The architects of this century-old piece of legislation survived with their careers and reputations intact. Eliot Spitzer, a family man whose reformist agenda would have played well in Progressive Era America, is not so fortunate.

Karen Abbott is the author of the New York Times bestseller Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul.