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Pursuing Johns

Criminal Law Reform, Defending Character, and New York City's Committee of Fourteen, 1920-1930

Thomas C. Mackey

Publication Year: 2005

In Pursuing Johns, Thomas C. Mackey studies the New York Committee of Fourteen and its members’ attempts to influence vagrancy laws in early-20th-century New York City as a way to criminalize men’s patronizing of female prostitutes. It sought out and prosecuted the city’s immoral hotels, unlicensed bars, opium dens, disorderly houses, and prostitutes. It did so because of the threats to individual “character” such places presented. In the early 1920s led by Frederick Whitin, the Committee thought that the time had arrived to prosecute the men who patronized prostitutes through what modern parlance calls a “john’s law.” After a notorious test case failed to convict a philandering millionaire for vagrancy, the only statutory crime available to punish men who patronized prostitutes, the Committee lobbied for a change in the state’s criminal law. In the process, this representative of traditional 19th-century purity reform allied with the National Women’s Party, the advanced feminists of the 1920s. Their proposed “Customer Amendment” united the moral Right and the feminist Left in an effort to alter and use the state’s criminal law to make men moral, defend their character, and improve New York City’s overall morality. Mackey’s contribution to the literature is unique. Instead of looking at how vice commissions targeted female prostitutes or the commerce supporting and surrounding them, Mackey concentrates on how men were scrutinized.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: History of Crime and Criminal Justice

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. vi

Table of Cases

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

In the course of researching and producing this volume, I have incurred numerous debts from numerous people. Those debts remind me of Romans 1:4, “I am a debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise.” I owe a lot of Greeks, the people in my world, a great deal for their patience and encouragement, their harsh comments and kind words, their cold criticisms and hot meals. If I fail to mention everyone, then it is an error of oversight...

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Introduction: "To Live Correctly": Themes and the Significance of Character

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pp. 1-14

In his 1927 book of essays, , newspaperman and social critic H. L. Mencken turned his sharp wit and pen against social purity and social hygiene reform groups such as the Committee of Fourteen, New York City’s longest-lived antivice society and the primary focus of this study. Puritan legislation, especially in the field of public law, is a thing of many grandiose pretensions and a few simple and ignoble realities. The Puritan, discussing it voluptuously...

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1. "Only the Barbarian Waits": New York City's Committee of Fourteen

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pp. 15-34

On 9 July 1921, shipping magnate and securities investor Edward N. Breitung visited Mrs. Nellie Kift, his personal madam and possibly his occasional mistress, and her female “friends” at Kift’s apartment—640 Madison Avenue, #3- D, Manhattan, New York. His tryst that afternoon set off a chain of arrests, trials, decisions, lobbying...

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2. Drifted: Feminist Reformers and Prostitution's Changes in the Twenties

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pp. 35-54

When Mae West quipped, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted,” she caught a flavor of the 1920s: more than just West “drifted” in the crucial years of the twenties.1 Her image of “drift” captured the sometimes subtle, sometimes startling, changes of those times. This chapter provides further backdrop for the customer amendment campaign. First, this chapter presents an overview of one group...

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3. "The Time Has Come": Vagrancy Law, Police Procedure, and Proceeding against the Customers

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pp. 55-80

Officers Frank Raihl and Joseph Massey of the New York City police, Special Services Unit (the vice squad), stood on the street outside of 640 Madison Avenue, Manhattan, on the afternoon of 9 July 1921.1 At 3:00 PM, they witnessed Edward N. Breitung and Mrs. Nellie Kift, a woman suspected of running a disorderly house from her apartment, enter the building. At 4:45 PM, armed with a se...

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4. People v. Edward N. Breitung: Not the "Simply Immoral"

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pp. 81-106

On Saturday, 9 July 1921, Officers Frank Raihl and Joseph Massey arrested Nellie Kift, Jean Whitney, and Edna Clark whom they found with Edward N. Breitung.1 They did not arrest Breitung. What then occurred can be gleaned from the magistrates’ docket books, the newspapers, and a series of letter to and from Frederick H. Whitin regarding the arrest and trials of the women and the eventual arrest...

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5. "To Make It an Offense for a Man to Buy What the Prostitute Has to Sell": Public Policy Debates

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pp. 107-127

Magistrate Moses Ryttenberg’s dismissal of the charge against Edward Breitung left the Committee of Fourteen in a quandary. It had resolved to pursue the cultural reform of prosecuting the customers of New York City’s prostitutes at its January 1921 special meeting. It had committed itself to pursuing a test case, but the test case failed, raising doubts about the strategy of employing vagrancy to...

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6. "The Fruitful Mother of Blackmail": Hope and Opposition to the Customer Amendment

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pp. 128-155

On 16 March 1922, less than a month after the special meeting of the Committee of Fourteen, executive secretary Frederick H. Whitin wrote to his friend and fellow prostitution and purity reformer George E. Worthington, in San Antonio, Texas, where Worthington served with the US Interdepartmental Social Hygiene Board. After chatting about the manuscript Worthington was then putting together and offering his definition of a “jump raid” in vice...

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7. "Our Principles Demand": Hearings and Disappointments

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pp. 156-179

At 10 AM, Tuesday, 11 March 1924, in room 313-A of the New York State capitol in Albany, Senator William T. Byrne, chairman of the Senate Codes Committee, gaveled the committee to order.1 Little did Senator Byrne or any of those gathered in the room that morning know that it was to be the highwater mark and the most public airing of the proposed criminal law reform known as the customer...

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8. "Mr. Veiller Again Prevailed": Disappointment and Death

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pp. 180-201

Nineteen-twenty-five opened with high expectations and found Executive Secretary Frederick H. Whitin lining up supporters for the customer amendment. In late January, he wrote Chairman Dr. James Pedersen wondering if the committee ought not to try to get the Public Health Committee of the Academy of Medicine to endorse the proposed changes to New York State’s vagrancy statute. “You will remember,” Whitin reminded Pedersen, “that Dr. Dickerson was much...

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9. Reflection on a Reform

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pp. 202-216

“New York has less open vice than any of the world’s largest cities,” proclaimed the Committee of Fourteen in its Annual Report of 1919–1920. Yet, in that same report, the committee reported that the Women’s Court of New York City disposed of 1,308 cases of women charged with prostitution.1 This apparent conundrum of proclaiming victory while demonstrating little, if any, progress, if not..


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pp. 217-272


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pp. 273-288


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pp. 289-298

Series Page

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pp. 299-300

E-ISBN-13: 9780814272886
E-ISBN-10: 0814272886
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814209882
Print-ISBN-10: 0814209882

Page Count: 297
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: History of Crime and Criminal Justice

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Prostitution -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Committee of Fourteen (New York, N.Y.) -- History.
  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
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