Herman Perlmutter had a problem with Esther, his 16-year-old daughter. The middle child of seven, she refused to get a job in a factory like her older siblings had done. With nine mouths to feed, Herman and his wife, Celia — Jewish immigrants who came to America fleeing the pogroms in Hungary — desperately needed the income. But Esther didn’t intend to spend 11-12 hours a day slaving behind a sewing machine.
Then there was Esther’s fiancé. Jacob Ginsberg was an unemployed young man from Brooklyn who spent his days in his brother’s poolroom on Avenue B, a grungy neighborhood on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s East Village.
Esther told Herman that she lied about her age so she and Jacob could get married without his permission. She moved out of her family’s tenement and into a room on East Fourth Street with Jacob.
The Perlmutters were devastated that their daughter had married a man with no prospects who spent his days hanging out in the red-light district. Complete disaster hit when Herman found out that there was no marriage — Esther and Jacob were living together in sin.
But it got worse: Herman discovered that Esther was supporting herself and her no-good partner by working as a prostitute.
In a desperate attempt to save his child, Herman reported to the magistrate at the Essex Market Court that Jacob had abducted his daughter. The magistrate held Esther under $500 bail as “an incorrigible child.” Jacob was held under $3000 bail as a “white slaver.”
Slavery of Black people was outlawed after the Civil War. But what the heck is a “white slaver?”
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Americans became less tolerant of prostitution than in earlier times. Vice commissions in big cities were appointed to investigate whether young women were engaged in prostitution of their own free will or whether unscrupulous men tricked or forced them into it. Public concern was generally limited to white females. Foreigners and Blacks were high on the authorities’ list of suspected perpetrators. Politicians and social reformers referred to this phenomenon as “white slavery” and the men who engaged in it as “white slavers.” A man convicted of being a white slaver could get a hefty prison sentence.
When Esther turned 17, in December 1909, she became an adult in the eyes of the law. She and Jacob scraped together enough money to pay their bond. They were released from jail and got married the following month. They moved to a flat uptown on West 66th Street. The move put distance between Esther and her family, and the marriage got the law off their backs.
The newlyweds took a business partner — a 19-year-old named Louis Seidman. Seidman’s cover story was that he worked as a newsboy, but instead of selling newspapers, he and Jacob hung out on the streets of lower Manhattan in search of teenage girls. When they found a good “prospect” they took her to the uptown flat, where Esther tried to convince her to work as a prostitute.
Louis brought Rose Kripitzer, age 15, and 14-year-old Augusta Schaller to the flat on Sunday, May 22, 1910. “You’ll earn between $5 and $10 a night instead of the $3 a week you earn working at a factory,” Esther told the girls. This was true. Workers had started to unionize and demand better wages and hours, but pay was still quite low and working conditions in most factories were deplorable, especially for women and children.
Rose and Augusta’s parents didn’t know where they were and reported them missing. Augusta returned home on Wednesday night. She told her parents about how Louis lured her and Rose to the flat with promises of good jobs. She explained how Esther told her and Rose that they would make good money “receiving visitors” at the flat.
The Schallers alerted the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about their daughter’s experiences. An agent from the society investigated the goings-on at the flat. The investigation resulted in the arrests of Esther and Jacob. Louis was arrested after he showed up in court as a witness at their arraignment. All three were convicted of “impairing the morals” of Rose and Augusta. Jacob and Louis were sentenced to a year each in the penitentiary.
Suspected of running a disorderly house, Esther “was remanded for further investigation.” The police took her mugshots and measurements and made a note on her card that she “wears wig.” Possibly the wig was meant as a disguise, but more likely, as a married woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, she followed the tradition of wearing a Sheitel: a wig worn in accordance with Jewish law stipulating that a married woman must keep her hair covered.
Esther was not convicted of any crime. I cannot tell you if she and Jacob got back together after he was released from prison. What I do know from her death certificate is that she suffered from a serious heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus. A blood vessel in Esther’s heart that should have closed shortly after she was born, instead remained open. Now it can be surgically corrected, but then there was no treatment. She would have had symptoms all her life, including shortness of breath and fatigue, because her heart had to work much harder than a normal heart. She must have known from an early age that she wouldn’t live to be an old woman. Perhaps this played a role in her decision to live her life on her own terms.
Esther died at the age of 20 from complications of her heart condition.
Featured photo: Esther Ginsberg’s photo from her criminal identification card, New York Municipal Archives.