“TWO SAVED FROM WHITE SLAVERY,” reported a headline on March 19, 1910, in the Bangor Daily News.
The story’s lead summed up the shocking situation. “The Boston police have detained Edith Marshman and Ruth Dowling, two Bangor girls about 15 years old who are believed to have been lured to Boston for immoral purposes by a woman on Tuesday.”
White slavery was the popular expression used for sex trafficking a century ago. It was believed by many that young women were being lured or seduced or enticed — whichever fuzzy word you preferred — to big cities where they were forced to live as prostitutes.
A federal law called the Mann Act had been passed in 1910 making it a crime to take women across state lines for immoral purposes. Maine even passed its own version of the law. The problem with such laws then was that their ambiguous language led to the prosecution (or persecution) of people who had been involved in legal, consensual sex.
Mrs. Marshman had received a letter from Edith the day before the headline appeared. The girl told her mother she needed the $6 train fare back to Bangor. She had been “coaxed away” by “a woman and girl” who promised her and Ruth Dowling jobs and then abandoned them when she refused to “go into a house” — apparently a house of ill repute.
“If I don’t hear from you by Monday I am going to kill myself,” wrote Edith. It was a very convincing letter. “WHITE SLAVERY?” the newspaper asked in a subhead.
By Monday, a very different headline appeared in the Bangor Daily News, reflecting the newspaper’s wrath at having been duped. “MISS EDITH IS A GAY ROMANCER: Bangor’s White Slavery Tragedy Peters Out to a Shabby Little Farce,” declared the headline. Miss Edith was not only a “gifted romancer,” but she was also a “baby adventuress.”
The Bangor paper had apparently relied a bit too hastily on a story in a Boston newspaper that had sensationalized Edith’s story in an effort to discredit Boston’s police commissioner.
Once back in the Queen City of the East, Edith and Ruth were given the third degree by Inspector Knaide of the Bangor Police Department. “From all that could be learned from the girls, as well as from other quarters, the ‘white slave’ yarn is a dream, intended for Boston political effect. The girls simply went on a risky excursion without proper arrangements financially or otherwise,” concluded the newspaper. No temptress existed; “Miss Marshman has an active imagination.”
One could add that the newspaper had been a little too eager to find an example of white slavery in its midst.
During this period a number of stories ended this way. Young women disappeared. There was speculation that they had been lured into sexual servitude or worse. Then, they reappeared, apparently having run away in search of a new life that quickly grew stale and impractical. In an era when women’s lives were socially constrained far more than today, one could expect nothing less.
The Bangor Daily News addressed the issue on Feb. 3, 1914, in an editorial labeled “OUR LATEST PANIC.” It said, “A year of ‘white slavery’ excitement in print and on the stage has done its work. A large section of the public has passed from interest to apprehension to panic. Every disappearance of a young woman, however temporary and however well accounted for in the end, becomes one more item in a great catalogue of wrong and dread.”
According to one report, girls were being drugged by kidnappers with “poisoned needles” in darkened theaters. Girls were being urged to carry identification cards and to cry out in public if attacked by “needlemen.” Reports of such attacks had been found to be “baseless,” said the newspaper.
It was cruel to cry “white slavery” every time a young lady ran off with her lover or headed for the city looking for excitement. The editorial predicted the “tidal wave of white slavery excitement would soon recede.”
Then, just three days later, another white slavery story broke in the newspaper’s backyard. Ruth Gordon and Herbert Reed of Massachusetts were found living in Dover, Maine, disguised as a married couple.
Gordon had been missing for about six months, along with Reed, who was married and had three children. After living in a woods camp for some time, Gordon had moved into a home expecting to deliver a baby.
Reed was jailed and charged with violating the Mann Act. After her parents arrived, Gordon, a 19-year-old student nurse who was said to be “refined” and well educated, denounced Reed, saying she never wanted to see him again because he had “failed to buy her any new clothes or other necessities since they reached Maine last June and her parents found her in a destitute position.”
This would be the second prosecution under the Mann Act in Maine, said the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 10 under a bold headline that declared “REED HELD AS WHITE SLAVER.”
“There was only one bed in the camp. Reed admitted his relations with the girl,” revealed the newspaper in the vaguest language possible. The girl had told her parents when they arrived, “He made me do it.”
The Bangor Daily News produced another white slavery editorial on Feb. 14, which took the issue more seriously than the earlier one. Four “distinct alleged cases of white slavery” had occurred in central and eastern Maine, it declared without specifying a time period.
The only one it mentioned besides the Gordon case was that of a Fairfield teacher whose story of being drugged and taken to Boston in an automobile where she was “put through the ‘Third Degree’ of white slavery” was discredited after an investigation by a U.S. district attorney.
Ruth Gordon might be “a poor, sick and misguided girl,” but if half the stories she told were true, the newspaper declared, there was “a clear white slavery case against her recreant scoundrel of a former admirer.”
Meanwhile, the Bijou Theater was planning to fan the flames of the white slavery debate further with a sensational “photoplay” called “Traffic in Souls.” It was billed as “a big, gripping, wholesome, red blood drama in six parts” that portrayed the “System” of white slavery laying “its cunning plans” to trap victims, “the successful abduction and imprisoning of young women … the brutal business side of the traffic,” and so on.
Two months later, Herbert Reed was released from jail by a U.S. District Court judge in Portland after he “appeared to be very penitent” and promised to support his family in Massachusetts.
“Judge Hale warned the respondent that the case was merely held in abeyance during his future good conduct. … The case was then continued upon the recognizance of the respondent to the amount of $500,” reported the Bangor Daily News on April 11. Any guilt that Miss Gordon may have borne went unreported.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. A new book of his columns, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at email@example.com.