By Anna J. Cook
A graduate student doing research on early social work and “delinquent” girls recently reviewed a publication in our collection titled A Record of the Enforcement of the Laws Against Sexual Immorality Since December 1, 1907 as Contained in the Information relating thereto Embodied in the Reports to the Governor of Massachusetts made Annually by the Police Commissioner for the City of Boston (City of Boston: Printing Department, [1910?]). The report compiles data on police activity between 1907 and 1910 to contain “public and semipublic sexual immorality” in the city of Boston. “Total extinction” of immorality “cannot be hoped for, can hardly be imagined; but effectual restraint can be applied,” wrote Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara in his introduction to the report.
Attempts at such “restraint” are what the report documents. For example, the report offers a table showing the number of “houses of ill fame” against which charges were brought (between 1879 and 1908, the number fluctuated from a low of 19 to a high of 114 annually) and enumerates how the “keepers” of these houses were punished. Most common was a fine of $50.00; two, however, were imprisoned and seven sent to a “house of correction” for one year.
“Night walkers” (women who sold sex on the street) were similarly rounded up and fined or confined in prisons or correction facilities. Notable for historians is the data on the sex workers that the author of the report believed was relevant to include. They provided tables showing the birthplace and age of women who had been found in brothels and who had been found working on the street, as well as detailing the punishments meted out. Specifically, they seem interested in noting the number of women who are native U.S. rather than foreign-born residents. Of the 375 women and girls arrested on the street (no mention is made of male prostitutes), 266 were from the United States while the remaining 109 had been born 14 other nations, all European countries with the exception of Canada and Russia. Their age ranged from sixteen to “above 40.” In addition, the police also arrested 46 women and girls who, “though conducting themselves in an immoral manner on the streets, were in most cases hardly more than delinquent or wayward children,” most often returned to their parents or placed on probation.
The report also includes a section on public fears surrounding “white slavery,” cautioning that “the transition from a virtuous life to a life devoted wholly or in part to mercenary immorality … is rarely sudden.” Women and girls, rather than being coerced, instead found themselves lured into “mercenary immorality” for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of religious training to poverty to exposure to “flashy public entertainments and reading matter which rouse their bad instincts.” (Probably reading this report is bad for me!)
This report is an intriguing example of the intersection of law enforcement and the emerging fields of social work in the early 1900s. The report, and other early 20th century publications on similar topics, can be viewed in our library during our business hours.