After Traffic in Souls made the “100 Years, 100 Films” list as our entry for 1913, it seemed fitting to dig this treasure out of the stacks. Clearly the topic of “white slavery” was much in the news shortly before Word War I. Purporting to be the results of an investigation called for by the Mayor of Chicago, “From Dance Hall to White Slavery” details, through allegedly real-life anecdotes, the snares into which unwary young women can fall in the Big City. The overall theory presented by the book is that the dance halls, which attract young people, are usually attached to drinking establishments, and that the combination of dancing and drinking leads to other vices. The biggest concern is that country girls who are unprepared for the City, or vulnerable immigrant girls, will be diverted, coerced, or kidnapped into a life of shame, i.e. prostitution, or at the very least, be forced into compromising situations with unsavory men who have one thing on their minds. While the book is heavy on innuendo, concealing the more salacious details under a layer of Victorian euphemisms, one suspects that the stories are either true or at least generalizations of the truth. After all, D.W. Griffith constructed his Musketeers of Pig Alley, a film which features an attempted seduction, out of contemporary newspaper accounts; and Traffic in Souls exploited contemporary news coverage of police breaking up prostitution rings.
The ostensible purpose of “From Dance Hall to White Slavery” is to serve as a morality lesson and a cautionary tale. But there is always, in books and movies of this ilk, a suspicion that we are witnessing instead a kind of moral pornography. Readers are being provided perverse pleasure in naughty tales thinly disguised as the opposite. This fact was not lost on the moralizers of early Hollywood, who eventually realized that people were drawn to gangster stories and other material with sordid sexual implications to satisfy less than wholesome impulses. In 1927, the Hays Code listed “white slavery” as a taboo topic for the movies, and it disappeared from the silver screen for decades. Nowadays, 90 years later, we are witnessing a resurgence of real-life human trafficking, and the movies are starting to pick it up again. What goes around, comes around.
The Dalenberg Library volume featured here is “From Dance Hall to White Slavery: The World’s Greatest Tragedy” by H. W. Lytle and John Dillon (Stanton and Van Vliet, 1912). It bears an inscription on the end-papers dated November 20, 1919. Current appraised value, based on similar editions available on abebooks.com, is $53.00.