There are approximately 27 million victims of human trafficking worldwide today.1 While it is easy to imagine these victims in some far corner of the globe, many are much closer to home than you might realize. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, human trafficking has touched nearly every county in the state. Sex trafficking, one of the most insidious forms of trafficking, affects hundreds of adults and children in Wisconsin every year.2
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox and Daria Mueller’s accompanying article explores the current realities of human trafficking in Wisconsin and the challenges in meeting the legal needs of trafficking survivors. Although it may seem to be a relatively modern concern, the roots of trafficking and the fight against it run deep in Wisconsin – deeper, in fact, than in any other state in the nation. It is little known that Wisconsin was home to the first anti-trafficking campaign in U.S. history. This campaign, against what was then called “white slavery,” arose in response to the thriving sex trade that developed around the prosperous logging and mining industries of northern Wisconsin in the 1880s.
This article explores Wisconsin’s early sex trade and the efforts of state and local officials and citizen advocates to bring it to an end. By examining the successes and failures of this campaign, contemporary lawmakers and advocacy organizations may gain valuable insight to improve the development of current trafficking law and policy.
The Perfect Storm
The late 19th century was a time of rapid industrial expansion in the United States. Increased demand for lumber, lead, and iron, which were abundant in northern Wisconsin, created a corresponding demand for workers to harvest these resources. Numerous lumber and mining camps sprang up in the Northwoods region, bringing with them thousands of men – men with money in their pockets and little to do for entertainment.3 It wasn’t long before a booming prostitution industry developed to fill the void.
Industrialization also brought significant change to the American family. Many families who had once been self-sufficient now relied on the combined wages of individual members. Young, unmarried women were increasingly obliged to leave the protection of their families and enter the workforce. With few attractive employment options available to them, some women ended up as prostitutes, whether by choice or by coercion, serving the growing demand in the many Northwoods brothels.4
Alongside these changes caused by industrialization, a transformation was occurring in American journalism. A growing population with increased literacy rates and advances in transcontinental communication created a surge in the number and circulation of newspapers reporting on local, national, and international news. Hoping to increase circulation, many newspapers engaged in sensationalism to create reader interest.5 Prostitution – and even more so, the forced prostitution of young, “white slaves” – was an enticing subject for this burgeoning mass media.
This convergence of factors in the late 19th century created a perfect storm in northern Wisconsin. Industrialization’s demand for the state’s raw materials, the sharp increase in male laborers with few recreational outlets and the resulting rise of the prostitution industry, the fear for young, unaccompanied women in the workforce, and the growing mass media seeking titillating stories to sell papers all combined to propel the state into the national spotlight in the late 1880s. Increasingly horrific reports of young women lured to Northwoods brothels spread through newspapers across the nation. Soon, angry voices demanded that this “Badger State Infamy,” as decried by The Chicago Herald, be brought to an end.6
The earliest news reports of women lured to northern Wisconsin, which appeared in late 1886, were relatively tame. Promises of leading roles in dramatic companies turned out to be nothing more than stints in disreputable dance halls where women were expected to don tights and “flashy” clothing and entice men to buy drinks at exorbitant prices. Although there was no mention of prostitution, forced or otherwise, some women professed that they were obliged to remain after becoming indebted to the proprietor.7
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In time, however, the seriousness of the reports increased. The shocking tale of Julia Howden in October 1887 was the first in a wave of allegations of sex trafficking in northern Wisconsin. According to Howden, she was lured north by the promise of respectable employment but was instead held by armed guards and made to have sex against her will. “Treat the man right,” she reported being threatened that first night, “or [you’ll] be sorry for it.” The veracity of Howden’s account was questioned, however, when several individuals declared that she was a long-time prostitute who came to the area willingly. The case against her captor was later dropped for lack of evidence.8
Despite the uncertainty surrounding Howden’s account, similar sensational allegations of sex trafficking in northern Wisconsin quickly followed in newspapers across the country. Just one week later, a front-page exposé in The Chicago Herald declared that “scores of Chicago girls have been ruined, and made to live lives of shame.”9 Outraged by these reports, letters from concerned citizens flooded into the office of Wisconsin Gov. Jeremiah Rusk.
The Governor’s Investigation
In response to this public outcry, Gov. Rusk launched an investigation into the allegations of sex trafficking in northern Wisconsin. His first order of business was to direct local officials to review and report on the situation in their communities and take action if necessary. This campaign launched a round of political finger pointing between Rusk, the state’s district attorneys, and local law enforcement officers.
Marinette District Attorney H.O. Fairchild firmly denied that it was the district attorneys’ responsibility to “shoulder any responsibility, whatsoever, for the existence or perpetuation of these ‘dens of iniquity’ …. [T]he law does not require me to make the complaint and act as the prosecuting officer at the same time, and I most emphatically decline to become a complainant under the circumstances of my official position.”10
Local law enforcement officers also refused to accept blame. “I stand ready at any time to raid all houses when the community desires it or any citizen shall make complaint,” declared Florence County Sheriff A.M. Parmenter. “[B]ut if they fail to bring proof it surely is not my fault if the parties are not convicted…. I know of no law compelling [a] sheriff to swear out his own warrants.”11
It is little known that Wisconsin was home to the first
anti-trafficking campaign in U.S. history.
Although they denied responsibility for the conditions in northern Wisconsin, most local officials did recognize the existence of prostitution in their communities. However, they steadfastly held that the vice was no worse in the Northwoods than it was anywhere else nor did they acknowledge any truth to the allegations of sex trafficking. “I do not know the sources of the many horrifying reports in circulation in regard to these places,” wrote Fairchild. “As often as I hear them I make inquiry into their truth or falsity, and have, in every instance, found a grain of truth mixed with a bushel of falsehood.”12
In addition to these local inquiries, Gov. Rusk also engaged a Madison detective, James Fielding, to conduct an independent investigation in December 1887. In his report, Fielding confirmed the existence of brothels in the Northwoods but concurred with local officials that no sex trafficking was occurring. “[O]ne of the so called pimps … told me that the girls were all street walkers or taken from the dens or lowest houses of ill fame in Chicago and Milwaukee,” wrote Fielding. “There was never a girl but that was an old timer.”13
Gov. Rusk had heard enough. In January 1889, he declared the matter closed in a statement to the Milwaukee Sentinel. “After all the thorough investigations made by myself, and a vast deal of correspondence on the subject, I have been unable to arrive at any other conclusion except that there has been more smoke than fire.… I am convinced that no such deplorable and infamous condition of affairs exists and that there is no call for interference on the part of the state.”14
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union’s Reaction
Despite the governor’s assurance that no sex trafficking was occurring in northern Wisconsin, many critics were unconvinced. Most vocal among these was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which decided to launch its own inquiry in the summer of 1888. Dr. Katherine Bushnell – physician, social activist, and missionary – was selected to conduct the investigation.
Bushnell spent four months visiting most of the cities of northern Wisconsin, personally interviewing almost 600 prostitutes as well as many local physicians, attorneys, ministers, and public officers. She presented her findings in November 1888 at a national meeting of the WCTU. Her report, which described a vast network of vice and corruption across the state of Wisconsin, created a firestorm.15
Bushnell contended that prostitution and sex trafficking were rampant in northern Wisconsin and that numerous individuals were exploiting the labor of prostitutes. Not only were brothel keepers and traffickers illicitly profiting, she alleged, but so were unscrupulous businessmen, physicians, police officers, and political officials. Many of the prostitutes, she affirmed, were being held against their will by threats of violence and legal action.
Women who attempted to escape would be turned over to authorities on prostitution charges. Although a woman could, in turn, report her trafficker, this was typically ineffective because under Wisconsin law at that time, it was only a crime to entice a woman into prostitution if she was of “previously chaste character.” Since a single act was enough to prove unchastity, traffickers simply had to supply a man to testify that he had “sinned” with the woman before her arrival at the brothel.16
Both Bushnell and her report were subject to much hostility in the Wisconsin press. Bushnell herself was openly ridiculed, as this description from the Milwaukee Daily Journal illustrates: “her appearance is not what one would call an artist’s dream, unless the artist had lunched on mince-pie and pickles before going to sleep on a rail-pile. She is tall, angular and earnest, wears spectacles, and has a voice like a boy who is just bursting into manhood.…”17 Wisconsin newspapers were particularly critical of her report, attacking the credibility of her charges. “Miss Bushnell’s most effective work,” wrote the Milwaukee Sentinel, “seems to have been in listening to rumors and working them up in the most sensational style.”18
The Legislature’s Response
Despite the attacks against her, Bushnell and the WCTU continued to pressure the state to do something about prostitution and sex trafficking in northern Wisconsin. Receiving no further help from Gov. Rusk, their next target was the Wisconsin Legislature. In January 1889, Bushnell was invited to address the legislature, over the objections of some legislators who believed her report to be nothing but unsupported “filth.”19 Flanked by her sisters of the Wisconsin WCTU, Bushnell spoke for more than an hour.
The legislature, however, was unmoved by her presentation. “From authority undoubted by us, we are satisfied that the reports relative to such places have been grossly exaggerated,” declared the Senate Committee on State Affairs. “That houses of ill-fame exist, cannot be denied; but the charges of cruelty on the part of the keepers, or previous innocence of the inmates, are not substantiated by any evidence presented to the committee.”20
To “those so-called reformers in other states, who affect such horror over sensational allegations as to the lack of morals in Northern Wisconsin,” the committee respectfully suggested that they mind their own business. “Looking with indignation at alleged crimes from one to ten hundred miles distant, through glasses that magnify a thousand fold, will not benefit humanity half as much as a disposition to correct the immoral, licentious and criminal condition of their own immediate localities.”21
Despite their skepticism toward the charges made by Bushnell and others, the Wisconsin Legislature did ultimately pass several reforms addressing prostitution and sex trafficking in 1889. Although it did not remove the “previous chaste character” clause from the existing statute, the legislature did enact a separate statute that made it illegal to entice any woman for the purpose of prostitution, although with a lesser penalty. The law also made it illegal to detain any woman at a brothel by force and against her will and required mandatory imprisonment for convicted brothel keepers and owners.22
Although Bushnell and the WCTU had hoped that the Northwoods campaign would spark sex trafficking reform on a national level, it never reached much beyond Wisconsin during the 19th century. As horrific as the reports were, they were simply too remote to alarm Americans on a wider scale. Because the allegations were primarily directed at northern Wisconsin, there was no need and no call to take up the issue in other states. Nor was trafficking an issue of federal concern at this time. Under the doctrine of federalism, the U.S. government rarely intervened in social problems in the 19th century, instead leaving them to the regulation of state and local government.
Over the next 30 years, however, the national response toward sex trafficking would change dramatically. Social issues such as trafficking, which were previously left to the states, came under increased federal scrutiny during the Progressive Era. As observed by U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root in 1906, “in certain important respects the local laws of the separate states … are inadequate.… [S]uch power of regulation and control is gradually passing into the hands of the national government.”23
Under this new reform climate, Progressive activists launched a massive, nationwide campaign against sex trafficking. No longer just directed at Wisconsin, allegations of nationwide forced prostitution appeared in the national press almost daily. Alarmed by the prospect of trafficking in their own communities, this time angry citizens from around the country demanded and received legislative action. By the end of the Progressive Era, many states had enacted new and stronger penalties for sex-related crimes, and in 1910, the federal Mann Act, which is still in use, barred the interstate transportation of women for “immoral purposes.”
Although it is relatively unknown, Wisconsin’s 19th-century campaign against sex trafficking is an important first chapter in the fight against human trafficking in the United States. There are lessons to be learned by studying the development of trafficking law and policy over time. Contemporary advocates and lawmakers can learn from the mistakes and build upon the successes of that movement to improve the quality and effectiveness of anti-trafficking efforts today.
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What’s your favorite hidden gem website or database?
There are so many excellent research websites and databases, but my favorite hidden gem is BadgerLink from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. https://badgerlink.dpi.wi.gov/
BadgerLink, which is free to all Wisconsin residents, is a collection of databases offering a wide variety of content for everyone from school children to business professionals. Lawyers may be especially interested in full-text national and state news including the Wisconsin State Journal, the Capital Times, and the Wisconsin Law Journal; thousands of business journals, industry profiles, and market reports; and health and consumer information such as reference manuals on medication effects and automobile design, as well as product reviews in Consumer Reports magazine.
Wisconsinites will also find plenty of popular magazines, recreational reading recommendations, genealogical and historical sources, a comprehensive test-prep database for exams such as the ACT, SAT, and LSAT, and much more.
If you’ve never explored all that BadgerLink has to offer, I highly recommend taking a look. For help getting started or doing more advanced research, reach out to your favorite librarian or contact the DPI at https://badgerlink.dpi.wi.gov/ask-librarian.
Bonnie Shucha, U.W. Law Library, Madison.
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1 2013 U.S. Dep’t of State Trafficking in Persons Rep. 7.
2 Wis. Dep’t of Justice, Human Trafficking in Wisconsin - It’s Happening Here (Jan. 22, 2016).
3 Lois Barland, Sawdust City: A History of Eau Claire, Wisconsin from Earliest Times to 1910 at 46-47 (1960).
4 Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-18 at 3 (1982).
5 Gretchen Soderlund, Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism, 1885-1917 at 73, 77 (2013).
6 “Badger State Infamy,” The Chicago Herald, Nov. 4, 1887.
7 “The Hurley Den: A Chicago Girl Tells Her Experience in Court,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Dec. 3, 1886; “Hurley’s Disreputable Resorts,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 18, 1886; “Why Dives Exist,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Jan. 3, 1887.
8 ”Wisconsin’s Disgrace,” Daily Inter Ocean, Oct. 28, 1887; “The Hurley Dens,” Daily Inter Ocean, Nov. 26, 1887.
9 “Badger State Infamy,” supra note 6.
10 Letter from H.O. Fairchild to Jeremiah Rusk (Oct. 31, 1887), Wisconsin Governor Investigations: Northern Wisconsin “White Slave” Investigation (on file with the Wisconsin Historical Society).
11 Letter from A.M. Parmenter to W.D. Hoard (March 26, 1889), Wisconsin Governor Investigations: Northern Wisconsin “White Slave” Investigation (on file with the Wisconsin Historical Society).
12 Letter from H.O. Fairchild to Jeremiah Rusk, supra note 10.
13 Letter from James Fielding to Jeremiah Rusk (Dec. 20, 1887), Wisconsin Governor Investigations: Northern Wisconsin “White Slave” Investigation (on file with the Wisconsin Historical Society).
14 “The Pinery Dens: Miss Bushnell’s Stories are Exaggerated,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Jan. 9, 1889.
15 Work in Northern Wisconsin, W.C.T.U. State Work, Nov. 1888.
16 Wis. Stat. § 4581 notes of decision (1889).
17 “She Rides a Hobby: Kate Bushnell’s Homely Face and Angular Figure,” Milwaukee Daily J., Jan, 16, 1889.
18 “A Woman’s Scorn: Kate Bushnell Creates Another Sensation,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Jan. 19, 1889.
19 “She Rides a Hobby,” supra note 17; “Resented by All: Kate Bushnell’s Slanders on Wisconsin,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Jan. 16, 1889.
20 State of Wis. J., 39th Sess. 41 (Jan. 16, 1889).
22 An Act to amend chapter 214, of the laws of 1887, entitled “An act to prevent crime and prevent the abduction of women,” 1889 Wis. Laws, Ch. 420.
23 Peter Zavodnyik, The Rise of the Federal Colossus: The Growth of the Federal Power from Lincoln to F.D.R. 280 (2011).