The "White Slavery" Panic

Published: December 10, 2013

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“The White Slave Hell” or “With Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago” (Frederick Martin Lehman, 1910. This and other images courtesy of archive.org)

At the beginning of the 20th century, red-light districts flourished as entrepreneurs profited from the sins of their patrons. As these businesses grew, American reformers turned to conspiracy theory to explain how it could be that so many young, white women would engage in such unseemly work.

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A vast “criminal conspiracy” must be to blame – one populated by some of the usual suspects, like pimps, madams and dive-keepers. More alarming though, was that this “Vice-Trust” included politicians and owners of more reputable businesses that benefited from “White Slavery,” or so outraged moral reformers claimed.

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In this piece, 20th Century Guy Brian Balogh and historian Mara Keire discuss white slavery and how conspiracy theory was used to galvanize support for social reforms.

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