- Pursuing Johns: Criminal Law Reform, Defending Character, and New York City’s Committee of Fourteen, 1920–1930
Thomas C. Mackey's Pursuing Johns is a narrow study of a failed effort to achieve social reform. Specifically, it analyzes the New York City Committee of Fourteen's 1920s campaign to expand the use of vagrancy statutes to prosecute male customers of female prostitutes. Given the constricted topic and the effort's lack of success, why does this matter? Mackey offers two convincing reasons. First, this campaign illuminates the more general dynamic of how social reform worked, especially movements that sought to use criminal law to generate change. Second, it contributes to a rethinking of the 1920s in American history, suggesting ways in which reform persisted into a decade glibly associated with a revolution in manners and morals.
Although the records of the Committee of Fourteen have been used widely by scholars, the Committee's actions have been largely forgotten. In fact, the Committee of Fourteen (which existed between 1905 and 1932) was one of the most enduring and active private social reform organizations of its day. Led by executive secretary Frederick H. Whitin, the Committee operated mainly by sending investigators into brothels and saloons to act as moral watchdogs. Beginning in the late 1910s, the Committee gradually shifted its attention away from suppressing the supply of prostitutes and toward instead suppressing the demand for them by pursuing their male clientele, "johns." Their weapon of choice was vagrancy law, the same statutes under which women could be prosecuted for prostitution. Yet using vagrancy law presented a problem: vagrancy was a status, not a criminal act, and under both legal and common sense definitions, most prostitutes' customers were not vagrants. Embracing the progressive enthusiasm generated during World War I, the Committee of Fourteen, and especially Whitin, nonetheless believed that they could use criminal sanctions to promote masculine restraint and old-fashioned character. At first, they pursued a test case in which they convinced the New York City District Attorney's office to prosecute a wealthy businessman picked up with two alleged prostitutes; they hoped to use the case to convince the judiciary to adopt an expanded definition of "vagrancy" that could be applied to men as well as women. When this tactic failed, the Committee then adopted a new strategy of seeking to change the vagrancy law itself; they formulated revisions to bar men from purchasing sexual services, as well as barring women from selling them. This new tactic shows how reform made for strange bedfellows; the Committee of Fourteen found itself aligned with the feminist National Woman's Party, which did not share the Committee's moral agenda but which opposed the current law's position that only women were legally culpable for prostitution. Although the two agencies convinced representatives to introduce their bills into the New York State legislature in 1924, 1925, and 1926, their proposals never escaped committee, and ultimately faded from reformers' agenda, especially after Whitin's death in 1926.
For Mackey, this campaign's failure represents the most revealing element of the story. The "customer amendment" failed in part due to divisions among [End Page 1207] reformers themselves. Opposition to the strategy of pursuing johns was led by housing reformer Lawrence Veillors, Whitin's mentor and a member of the Committee of Fourteen until he resigned in disagreement with their plans. Veillors argued that the new approach would be impractical and likely to undermine existing mechanisms of fighting prostitution. Aligning influential police administrators, judges, and legal professionals against the proposed bill, Veillors outflanked its advocates at every turn. This reform campaign also failed because it was built upon an outdated understanding of American culture; the Committee of Fourteen sincerely believed that the threat of prosecuting men for purchasing sexual services would promote a middle-class Victorian model of character and an improved moral climate. While they understood their goals to be forward looking, ahead of...