The White Slavers

The White Slavers

HELD AS A WHITE SLAVER

Jacob Ginsberg, aged 22 years, living at 699 Park Avenue, this borough, was held to-day in $3,000 bail by magistrate O’Connor, in the Essex Market Court, Manhattan, for the alleged abduction of Esther Perlmutter, aged 16 years, of 308 East Third street, Manhattan.

— The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1909

Herman Perlmutter lived with his wife, Celia, and their seven children in an overcrowded tenement in Manhattan’s East Village. Herman and Celia were Jewish immgrants to the United States from Hungary. Herman spoke both Yiddish and English and worked as a buttonhole maker. He was one of thousands of immigrants in turn of the century New York City who worked for low pay in the garment industry.

The problem was Esther, the Perlmutters 16-year-old daughter. A middle child of the seven, she refused to get a job in a factory as the older children in the family had done. With nine mouths to feed, the Perlmutters desperately needed the income. But for Esther, life was too short to spend 11-12 hours a day slaving away behind a sewing machine.

Instead the diminutive girl took up with a ne’re-do-well from Brooklyn named Jacob Ginsberg. Twenty-two-year-old Jacob spent his days in his brother’s poolroom at 25 Avenue B, in the red light district on the eastern edge of the lower Manhattan. Esther informed her father 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 without a job who hung out in an Alphabet City poolroom. Complete disaster hit when Herman discovered that there was no marriage — Esther and Jacob were living together in sin. Even worse, he found that Esther supported herself and her no-good partner by selling her body — Esther worked as a prostitute.

White Slaver

Illustration from Fighting the traffic in young girls; or, War on the white slave trade by Ernest Albert Bell, 1910.

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 by whites is a shameful part of the history of the United States, but what the heck was a “white slaver?”

By the end of the nineteenth century Americans had grown less tolerant of prostitution than in earlier times. Vice commissions in big cities were appointed to investigate whether women were engaged in prostitution of their own free will or whether unscrupulous men (foreigners and African-Americans were high on the suspect list) tricked or forced them into the work. Public concern was, of course, limited to white women and girls. Politicians and social reformers referred to this phenomenon as “white slavery” and the men who participated in it as “white slavers.” Men convicted of being white slavers often got hefty prison sentences.

Esther turned 17 in December 1909. This made her an adult in the eyes of the law. She and Jacob scraped together enough money to pay their bond and were released from jail. The pair got married on January 3, 1910, and rented a flat uptown on West 66th Street. The marriage got the law off the couple’s backs and the move put distance between Esther and her family. If it was Esther’s choice to work as a prostitute, Jacob couldn’t be convicted of white slavery. That’s not to say prostitution was legal, but it was a petty crime that generally resulted in only a fine in the magistrate’s court.

The Ginsbergs 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 for them as a prostitute.

Louis brought Rose Kripitzer, aged 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. What she said was true. Though workers had started to unionize and demand better wages and hours, pay was still quite low and working conditions in the factories were deplorable, particularly for women and children.

Rose and Augusta’s parents didn’t know where they were so they reported them as missing. Augusta returned home on Wednesday night. She told her parents about how Louis lured her and Rose to the flat with promises of a better job. After they got to the flat Esther promised they would make good money “receiving visitors” there.

Esther Ginsberg_back

Reverse side of Esther’s card.

The Schallers told the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children about Augusta’s experiences with the Ginsbergs and Louis. An agent from the society investigated the goings-on at the flat and arrested Esther and Jacob. Louis was arrested when he showed up in court as a witness for the couple 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.

Esther “was remanded for further investigation” by the court but there’s no evidence she was ever sent to prison. Her mugshots and measurements were taken by the police, who noted that she wore a wig. Possibly she wore it as a disguise, but it’s more likely that Esther, as a married woman from an Orthodox Jewish family, followed the tradition of wearing a Sheitel.

Esther suffered from a serious heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus — a blood vessel in her heart that should have closed shortly after she was born had instead remained open. There was no treatment for it at the time. She would have had symptoms all her life, including shortness of breath and fatigue, because her heart had to work much harder than normal. She died at age 20 of complications arising from her condition. She must have known from a young age that she wouldn’t live to be an old woman.

Jacob and Louis were impossible to trace with certainty, due to their common names, after they were sentenced to the penitentiary in 1910.

If they were alive today Esther and Jacob wouldn’t recognize their old East Village neighborhood. The gritty slums where they sought out poor, young girls to work as prostitutes have increasingly given way to high-priced apartments, trendy shops, expensive restaurants and nightclubs. Jacob’s hangout, the poolroom at 25 Avenue B, is now a “speakeasy” called the Mockingbird. Located beneath a restaurant, the club doesn’t advertise on the outside other than to suggest you “look for the silhouette on the door in the underbelly of New York’s indelible East Village.”

Featured photo: Bertillon card of Esther Ginsberg, June 1, 1910, New York Municipal Archives.