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.

Wayward Girls

Wayward Girls
Hazel Raymond_back_marked

Reverse side of criminal I.D. card of “Hazel Raymond.”

She was down on her luck when she was arrested and photographed in San Francisco, in April 1913, on a charge of grand larceny. She looks world-weary in her mugshots. And it was no wonder, given all she’d been through. Despite the listing on her identification card, her name wasn’t Hazel Raymond. She was either Grace or Zola Swenson. The Swenson girls were twin sisters from Salt Lake City.

The previous year she’d tried to commit suicide after she was arrested in her Seattle hotel room for indecent conduct. Claiming to prefer death to disgrace, she picked up a bottle of toothache medicine and swallowed all of it. Fortunately the arresting officers got her to the hospital in time and she was revived.

Her father, Otto, was born in Sweden and her mother, Charlotte, hailed from France. She was born and grew up in Salt Lake City, where her family joined the Mormon Church and her father became a missionary. She and her twin sister were the youngest of their large family and her dad, who sometimes traveled for work, was away from home for periods of time.

Their parents moved to Washington State and their older siblings got married and moved away from Utah. The twins stayed on in Salt Lake City, where one worked as a waitress and the other was employed as a clerk.

The twins decided they could earn better money as prostitutes. They worked, along with several other white women, at a place in Plum Alley, Salt Lake City’s Chinatown. It didn’t last long. After several police officers were dismissed for taking bribes to look the other way, police raided the house on March 5, 1910, and arrested the inhabitants.

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Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, circa 1907.

On March 17, 1911, the twins, using the names Hazel and Pearl Raymond, along with another woman, identified as Irene Raymond, were taken into custody after a raid on a “negro club” in Salt Lake City. Federal authorities believed the women had been brought from Wyoming and forced to work as prostitutes at the establishment. This was a violation of the 1910 Mann Act, sometimes called the White-Slave Traffic Act.

The Mann Act made it a felony to take females across state lines for immoral purposes. Though the law was supposed to combat human-trafficking and forced prostitution, primarily of white women, the act was ambiguous and led to arrests of people engaging in consensual sexual activity. By 1916 it was known as the “The Blackmail Act.”

The owner of the club was an African-American attorney and newspaper editor named Lawrence Marsh. Marsh, Utah’s first minority attorney, was not popular with the white community in Salt Lake City. He’d lobbied for and succeeded in getting an equal rights bill for minorities into the state senate. The bill would have made it illegal for businesses to refuse to serve people based on their race.

Federal authorities declared that a white man in cahoots with Marsh lured the women, who claimed they’d worked as a vaudeville team, away from their theatrical troupe, and took them to Marsh’s rooms, or maybe it was his club — reports varied. Newspaper reports claimed that Marsh pulled a gun on the women, plied them with strong drink, made them smoke opium, and invited his friends to join him in subjecting the women to unspecified “abuses” while holding them against their will.

Supposedly the women escaped out a window, with the aid of a messenger boy, after a three-day ordeal.

Initially the women played along with the story of abduction and abuse. But when it came to testifying against Marsh in court, “Hazel” refused, saying she feared she would incriminate herself. The other women followed suit.

The case fell apart, however the taint of it caused Marsh to be disbarred and his senate bill went nowhere. On April 8, 1911, the women were released from jail where they’d been held during the trial.

Hazel_Raymond_parent__039_s_letter

The day after their release The Salt Lake City Tribune published a “pathetic letter” from Mr. and Mrs. O. J. Swenson of Aberdeen, Washington. According to the letter, Hazel and Pearl Raymond were actually the Swenson’s twin daughters, Grace and Zola Swenson. They had not been brought from out-of-state to Salt Lake City but were native daughters. The letter begged the “wayward girls” to go to their parents in Washington. The girls promised to comply.

At least one of the twins headed north to Washington State. In Seattle, again using the alias, Hazel Raymond, she tried to end her life after she was arrested for indecent conduct. Next came her 1913 arrest for grand larceny.

The story has a good ending. Grace ended up in El Paso, Texas, living with a man ten years her junior named Oliver Rice. Oliver was the breadwinner — he worked as an auto mechanic. He and Grace got married in 1926. For many years Zola, who never officially married, lived with her sister and Oliver in El Paso.

When Zola died of a stroke on January 10, 1943, the name listed on her death certificate was not “Zola Swenson, but “Zola Rice.” Of course it might have been an error, but it’s just as possible that after the wayward Swenson girls settled down, they took their Mormon faith to heart and shared a husband.

Featured photo: Police identification card mugshots of “Hazel Raymond,” whose real name was either Grace or Zola Swenson. Collection of the author.