From Jack Johnson to Eliot Spitzer

The troubling history of the White-Slave Traffic Act.

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Charlie Chaplin, a longtime target of J. Edgar Hoover because of his left-wing political views, was prosecuted in 1944 under the Mann Act, though was later acquitted. Likewise, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, writer Elizabeth Smart, and University of Chicago sociologist William I. Thomas were charged, respectively, though each ultimately was acquitted or saw the charges dropped.

Though Wright, Smart and Thomas were each in consensual relationships, like Johnson and Chaplin, they had angered powerful people through their views or actions and the Mann Act proved a useful means of retaliation.

Unlike Johnson or Chaplin, however, Spitzer has actively worked to incarcerate people for their roles in the very crime he is now alleged to have committed. Such sanctimonious duplicity would seem especially worthy of sanction even if such prosecutions at the federal level are now rare. Sending Spitzer to jail for his “sex trafficking” would certainly teach him, and others, a lesson. Unfortunately, part of the lesson would be that the private acts of consenting adults should continue to occupy the energies of federal law enforcement. A better outcome would draw attention to the immorality of the Mann Act itself.

Omar Wasow is pursuing a Ph.D. in African and African American Studies, and an M.A. in Government at Harvard University. He was the co-founder of