“White slavery” was a term quite familiar to audiences of the 1910s, but for the benefit of everyone else, let me explain. It was first used by Christian Evangelical magazines in the early 19th century in reference to European women being abducted by Muslims and forced to serve in the Sultan’s harem as concubines. Whether that ever actually happened didn’t matter much, the concept captured the public’s attention either way. By the 20th century, a few details had changed – Chinese brothels had largely supplanted Muslim harems and working-class Americans and recent immigrants had taken the place of European beauties – but the practice of white slavery was still rampant as far as most were concerned. It was the talk of all the moral crusaders and it led to several new laws being passed. Chief of those new laws was the Mann Act (1910), which was intended to curtail interstate transport of women for the purpose of prostitution, but was mostly used to harass mixed-race couples. White slavery as the crusaders knew it turned out to be nothing more than a moral panic. White slavery in reality was just a mix of racism and xenophobia.
In addition to the flood of books, pamphlets, and articles on the subject, several films about white slavery were released in the 1910s. The most successful of these was Traffic in Souls (1913), a pseudo-documentary chronicling a naïve Swedish immigrant being whisked away by white slavers and the efforts of her sister to rescue her. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913), released a scant month after Traffic in Souls, is clearly trying to ride on its coattails.
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic was made with the assistance of a bevy of sociologists and lawmakers, including former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Henry J. Dannenbaun. It proclaims that it’s a genuine “pictorial report” of white slavery presented “without any exaggeration or fictional indulgence”.
Of the four reels that made up the original release, the middle two are lost and the others show evidence of scissor-happy censors. It makes for a disjointed viewing, but since the film doesn’t show a single plot but rather several “episodes” in white slavery, some stories are more complete than others.
The most intact story follows Annie (Virginia Mann?), a good girl who lives with her parents and works at a textile factory. After her shift is over, she accepts a date with George Fisher. Fisher slips something into Annie’s drink and she passes-out. When she comes-to hours later, she’s in Fisher’s apartment and looks disheveled. She runs home, but her father, who subscribes to “the ‘out of my house’ policy”, throws her out after learning what happened.
Fisher promises to marry her and they visit a preacher, but the ceremony is a “shaker” – a sham. The film likes to use “authentic” trafficker slang and throws-up a glossary whenever it does to translate. After a couple weeks, Fisher tells Annie that he has to travel out of town to find work and leaves her in the care of his friend, Felix Keefer (Edwin Carewe?). Fisher sends a letter saying that he has no intention of ever coming back and that Annie is on her own. Keefer tells Annie that he can take her to New Orleans, where she can get an easy divorce. Distraught, she agrees.
Once in New Orleans, Keefer tells Annie the score – that she’s to be a prostitute now and had better get used to it. Annie makes a “break” (runs away) from the “schmeiser” (trafficker). Wherever she goes, “the system” follows, and she has to keep moving. In Houston, after “dropping” (pawning) all her belongings, she spends her last dollar on a “crib” and awaits the inevitable. She’s found and returned to Keefer, forced to “slave for him again”.
Annie slumps in a chair with her head in her hands and remembers the happy days when she lived with her parents. How does it end? We’re shown an unmarked mass grave and told “she was laid away an outcast in Potter’s Field”.
There are a few other episodes, including one about an immigrant girl and another about police busts and “smiled” police (crooked cops on the take), but these are much more fragmentary and hard to follow.
Traffic in Souls, the inspiration for The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, wasn’t a particularly well-made film. It’s obviously low-budget and the filmmakers weren’t terribly skilled in their craft, but it was successful thanks to its strong, well-paced story, and because, despite presenting itself as a documentary, it wasn’t adverse to a bit of theatricality here and there to drive the narrative. White Slave Traffic is just as unskilled and even lower budget, and although its story is more compelling on paper, the dry, unemotional, documentary style of delivery it strictly adheres to makes it tiresome to watch. The lost episodes may have been different, but it’s doubtful. Contemporary reviews tend to focus on the Annie story, so it was likely the best one.
On a technical level, the production is so cheap that it took several viewings before I could actually tell the characters and sets apart. The hotels and apartments were all very, very obviously the same room with the furniture moved around and I think all of the women shared a single costume. The locations shots look authentic, but that’s just because much of the film was shot guerrilla-style in real stores and restaurants – which resulted in more than one lawsuit against the producers by business owners who didn’t like their establishments being painted as fronts for a nefarious international pimp guild known as “The System”.
I can’t see anyone enjoying the film based on its own merits, but if you’re interested in the controversy surrounding it (and there was a lot of controversy – it was outright banned in many locations) or in early exploitation films in general, you might want to give it a go.
My rating: I don’t like it.
What I reviewed above was a print of the film as it commonly exists in circulation. It’s highly fragmentary (as noted) and the scenes that do survive are rather jumbled up (which I didn’t mention, but I did re-arrange some things in the plot synopsis to make more sense). Going by the typeface and style of some of the replacement titles, I would guess the print was probably assembled in the mid to late 1920s (post ’24, surely) out of whatever material was still extant from the film’s original release, with very little regard for how it was pieced together or whether the final product was at all comprehensible.
In the several months since this review was written, and after study of contemporary documentation, I have a much firmer grasp of the Annie story as as well as the other three episodes, and I also know more or less how the surviving scenes were originally arranged. I’ve released a reconstruction of the film with explanatory text inserted wherever so much material is missing that the plot can’t be followed.
As far as my opinion of the film goes, that has not changed. It’s still awful. Watch Traffic in Souls.
Available from Harpodeon