This article examines how white slave narratives in California helped inscribe social, cultural, and institutional divides at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Progressive Era. The predicament of American prostitution in Mexicali and Tijuana amplified fears of interracial sex, which readily translated into hysteria over white slavery throughout California. Consequently, concerned citizens decried the so-called trafficking of American girls at the border and contributed to growing demands for a more rigid international boundary. As such, this panic over white slavery and the “protection of white womanhood” helped construct both figurative and literal borders between the United States and Mexico between 1910 and 1930, an era recognized by scholars as a critical moment in the social reordering of California’s nonwhite inhabitants. Analysis of local newspapers, club records, vice reports, reformers’ correspondence, and government documents reveal that the ascription of racial difference rested upon lurid portrayals of sexual deviance in border towns—particularly among African Americans and the Chinese. Such representations colored the Mexican border, and perhaps Mexicans themselves, as menacing to both American women and the nation itself. These stories galvanized support for closing and fortifying the U.S.-Mexico line early in the century.

Eighteen miles south of San Diego, California lies Tia Juana.…Everything goes at Tia Juana. There are scores of gambling devices, long drinking bars, dance halls, hop joints, cribs for prostitutes, cock fights, dog fights, robberies, and indescribable obscenities.…One of the chief resorts, ‘The Main Event,’ was until recently run by Jack Johnson, the American prize fighter convicted of white slavery. According to one of the girls, “Dorothy,” Johnson claimed the “right of the seigneur” from every white girl coming to work at Tijuana.…[O]ne girl…was only seventeen, and another from Tia Juana…was only fourteen.…Sometimes they are paid wages and made to share tips, and at some of the saloons they are supposed to accommodate the Mexican police.…Some of the joints are run by Chinamen and negroes with white girls.1

The report quoted above, issued by the Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1920, circulated as one of several statements against American vice resorts in Mexican border towns between 1912 and 1929. Although the report mentioned Jack Johnson just briefly, a large photograph of the African American prizefighter clutching a white woman was featured as the central visual of the story. It was symbolic and strategic. The explicit connection between Johnson and Tijuana quickly alerted readers to the real perils of the Mexican border: the crime of “white slavery” and the transgression of interracial sex.2

To white Americans, the heavyweight champion defied the dictates of Jim Crow America with his romantic connections to white women and his crushing defeats of white opponents (Figure 1). His very public interracial liaisons, and even his marriage, prompted charges of trafficking and recrimination under the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, or Mann Act, which made transporting a woman in interstate or foreign commerce “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose” a felony. Johnson was prosecuted twice under the act, which ostensibly sought to punish those ensnaring women into prostitution but, more often, criminalized dark men who stepped beyond their prescribed place. In response to the charges, Jack Johnson fled to Mexico.

Figure 1.

Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, accompanied by his wife, driving his car around the curve in front of the Cliff House, 1911. The Cliff House–Sutro Baths streetcar terminal is visible in the left distance. Johnson’s very public interracial liaisons drew the ire of many white Americans and prompted charges of trafficking under the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. After his conviction, Johnson fled to Mexico.

Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

Figure 1.

Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, accompanied by his wife, driving his car around the curve in front of the Cliff House, 1911. The Cliff House–Sutro Baths streetcar terminal is visible in the left distance. Johnson’s very public interracial liaisons drew the ire of many white Americans and prompted charges of trafficking under the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910. After his conviction, Johnson fled to Mexico.

Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California

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As scholars have explained, the so-called “white slave panic” that informed this legislation reflected middle-class anxieties brought by urbanization and immigration in the early twentieth century.3 The formulaic story of an innocent girl coerced into prostitution by the nefarious methods of foreign procurers in the city spoke to white middle-class fears about urban life, racial mixing, and changing gender norms. Such changes magnified fears of white racial decline, fears embodied in the figure of Jack Johnson.

Just as anxieties over miscegenation reaffirmed the need for racial boundaries in the greater United States, so too did dramatic demographic and social changes in California in the early twentieth century heighten prejudice and hasten exclusions in the borderlands. As such, historians of the American West locate the racialization of Mexicans in the United States and the fortification of the border within the larger story of race making in the Progressive Era.4 And while many explain the consolidation of the U.S.-Mexico border as a convergence of events such as state building and capitalist development in northern Mexico, U.S. public health initiatives, the Mexican Revolution, and World War I, less has been said about the role of women and sexuality in the formation of such national divisions and identities.5 Only recently have scholars begun to trace connections between the state’s regulation of bodies and borders in the United States, and few locate the modalities of gender and sexual exclusions at the U.S.-Mexico line.6 Accordingly, this essay examines how the panic over white slavery—and the presumed need to protect white womanhood—helped construct both figurative and literal borders between the United States and Mexico during 1912–1929, an era recognized by scholars as a critical moment in the social reordering of California’s people of color. Analysis of local newspapers, club records, vice reports, reformers’ correspondence, and government documents reveals that the ascription of racial difference to people of color rested upon lurid portrayals of sexual deviance among the residents of border towns—particularly African Americans and the Chinese. Such representations colored the Mexican border, and perhaps Mexicans themselves, as menacing to both American women and the nation itself. Indeed, stories of white slavery helped build the case for closing the border between the United States and Mexico. The following also considers Mann Act prosecutions against alleged traffickers operating in California and Mexico, exposing how popular representations of female victimhood diverged from the testimony and lived experiences of actual American prostitutes. Their statements often refuted the ideological underpinnings of white slave stories and offered counternarratives of agency and mobility. Whether they were victims or agents, sex workers or “white slaves,” American women influenced and helped define U.S.-Mexico border policy.

Alarm over white slavery in Mexican border towns emerged in response to the migration of American sex workers into Mexicali and Tijuana between 1909 and 1929. By 1925, the Los Angeles Times reported on the “500 inmates” in Baja California, “80% of whom [were] white.”7 The women’s exile into Mexico’s northern district was largely driven by California’s 1913 Red Light Abatement Act, legislation that made the owners of rented properties used for prostitution subject to punishment. A campaign to abolish vice had galvanized the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and various other reform groups in California who began their crusade with the temperance movement of the late nineteenth century. By the twentieth century, their activism converged around the so-called Social Purity movement, an effort to extinguish vice by imposing a single (white, middle-class, and female) standard of sexual morality. Their crusade grew in response to increasing support for the regulation and segregation of prostitution in American cities and what they perceived as the general decline of social and cultural mores. Prostitution became, in historian Thomas Connelly’s words, a “psychological clearinghouse for an extraordinary range of troubling issues” and refracted a broad range of anxieties among America’s middle class: the presence of young independent women in cities, the commercialization of sexuality, the problem of venereal disease, and the overall breakdown of Victorian gender codes and “civilized morality.”8

Upon their removal from U.S. cities, American prostitutes found opportunities for the “commercialization of their sexuality” across the border in Baja California.9 There, prostitution was legal, lucrative, and regulated by local governments. The trade flourished within northern Mexico’s state-sanctioned vice district, a vital sector of the regional economy that developed between 1910 and 1920 in the wake of Mexico’s revolution. Political disruptions, American capital investment in the area, and the influx of male agricultural labor in the adjacent Imperial Valley created a ready market for illicit leisure activities in Baja California. What began in 1910 as a cottage industry of alcohol, gaming, and prostitution grew quickly and, by 1915, Mexicali and Tijuana were, in popular parlance, “wide open.”10 Indeed, by the time the red lights went out in California, reported the New York Times, you could find “scores of gambling devices, long drinking bars, dance halls, hop joints, cribs for prostitutes, cock fights, dog fights, bull fights, robberies and indescribable obscenities” (Figure 2).11

Figure 2.

Postcard labeled “‘Mexicali’ Beer Hall, ‘The Longest Bar in the World,’” ca. (1910–1930). By 1915, Tijuana and Mexicali were “wide open” to Americans looking to drink, dance, and gamble.

Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego

Figure 2.

Postcard labeled “‘Mexicali’ Beer Hall, ‘The Longest Bar in the World,’” ca. (1910–1930). By 1915, Tijuana and Mexicali were “wide open” to Americans looking to drink, dance, and gamble.

Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego

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When reformers pushed one of California’s most notorious gambling syndicates south of the border, Marvin Allen, Frank Beyer, and Carl Withington reunited in Mexico in 1916 to establish the “ABW,” one of Baja’s most iniquitous institutions—an enterprise that included the Monte Carlo, the Tivoli, the Foreign Club, the Sunset Inn (established in 1920) and, most notoriously, the Owl.12 That same year, the Tijuana Jockey Club opened to a crowd of 15,000 revelers, drawing Hollywood celebrities, sports luminaries, politicians, and many other Americans looking to evade sumptuary laws. Passage of the 1919 Volstead Act in the United States, which prohibited the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages, further expanded Mexican vice commerce and inaugurated what one vice tourism guidebook calls the “golden days” of Mexicali and Tijuana. Cantinas, casinos, and similar vice resorts proliferated at the border, doubling from thirty to sixty between 1920 and 1924 in Tijuana alone.13 There, according to a contemporary report, bars and brothels lined the streets. “Starting at the Last Chance Saloon at one end of Main Street, and proceeding through the Cantina Vernon, the Savoy Café, the Log Cabin Bar, the Nuevo Palacio, the Tivoli Bar, the Anchor Bar, Booze’s Place, the Red Mill, the Office Bar” and on to the Molino Rojo and Jack Johnson’s famed outposts, the Newport Bar and the Main Event (Figure 3). While U.S. concessionaires certainly profited from their gambling and nightlife establishments across the line, the industry’s prime mover was Baja California’s financial instability and its empty coffers. License fees and “sin taxes” underwrote much of the northern district’s economy, with prostitution generating 40 percent of Mexicali’s municipal income in 1911, and over 20 percent in 1912 and 1914.14 In 1915, territorial governor Colonel Esteban Cantú (1915–1920) expanded and institutionalized an informal system of regulated vice that began under Governor Escudero Gordillo (1912–1913) in 1912. Cantú’s taxation venture followed Mexico City’s model of registration and medical examination and was enunciated in the publication of the Reglamento de Sanidad para el Districto Norte de la Baja California (Regulations for Sanitation for the Northern District of Baja California).15 The system maximized prostitutes’ taxable labor to the benefit of local government and infrastructure. El Reglamento also attempted to manage the presence of public women in city space with proscriptions to prohibit registered women from “congregating in the streets,” “mixing with others in the plazas,” acting “scandalous” in public places, and other mandates (most of which went largely unheeded). Cantú’s successor, Abelardo L. Rodríguez (1923–1929), continued to promote the vice economy, despite persistent protests by American reformers. His tenure as governor during America’s Prohibition era (1920–1933) presented unparalleled economic opportunities for both Mexico’s northern district and the hundreds of U.S. prostitutes that migrated south in search of new markets.

Figure 3.

Tijuana street scene, ca. 1925. By 1924, sixty bars and cantinas lined the streets of Tijuana and were eagerly patronized by Americans evading U.S. Prohibition laws.

Courtesy of San Diego History Center

Figure 3.

Tijuana street scene, ca. 1925. By 1924, sixty bars and cantinas lined the streets of Tijuana and were eagerly patronized by Americans evading U.S. Prohibition laws.

Courtesy of San Diego History Center

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Working as prostitutes, cabaret entertainers, or percentage girls (who received a commission on drinks sold), American émigrés discovered they could earn twofold in Mexico what they made in the United States (and comparatively more than the four to six dollars a week garnered for U.S. factory jobs).16 Most contracts in border saloons promised anywhere from twenty-five to thirty dollars a week and up to 50 percent on each drink sold, which were relatively high wages for women on either side of the border in 1915.17 Significantly, these women discovered that Mexico’s established system of regulated prostitution afforded them both legitimacy as workers and protections of the state.18 Public women claimed rights and representation in Mexico’s legal system, challenging government officials who infringed upon their “libertad tan sagrada” (liberty so sacred), often successfully, in the courts.19 Many prostitutes also transcended a racialized stigma as immigrants in the United States and optimized their American status to claim “whiteness” in Mexico’s more variegated and permissive racial schema.20 As many groups learned, the border presented women with opportunities for social, and even legal, advancement not available in the United States.21 Given these incentives, American women likely migrated by choice and not coercion.22 Their deliberate movements affirm historian Elisa Camiscioli’s contention that “trafficking might be reframed as gendered histories of migration” rather than simple stories of victimization.23 These broader patterns of global mobility among women not only reassert their role as historical actors, but redefine sex work as a legitimate category of labor, with related implications for exclusionary immigration policies, deportation, and other social interventions. And yet, to most Americans, white slavery offered not just a framework to understand prostitution, but a moral cause, albeit a panic, to drive its extinction.

A public panic over “white slavery” reverberated globally and nationally in the early decades of the twentieth century. At its height, Americans produced over fifteen plays, six movies, and a profusion of books, articles, and pamphlets warning young women about the perils of the city and the dangers of exploring their own sexuality (Figure 4).24 Historians view white slave narratives as an important cultural touchstone and have offered various interpretations of the multivalent discourse. Their divergent analyses of the story all capture how industrialization destabilized American assumptions about gender, race, and sexuality. Lurid tales of girls forcibly drugged and enslaved in an urban underworld explained why young women turned to prostitution and, most significantly, implicated men—often depicted as dark-skinned immigrants—in the victimization of white women (Figure 5). While the initial white slavery discourse condemned the trafficking of foreign-born prostitutes, by 1909, focus shifted to identify the entrapment of native-born white women, largely as a reflection of disruptive and unsettling demographic changes.25

Figure 4.

Frontispiece, Ernest A. Bell, War on the White Slave Trade (Chicago: G.S. Ball, 1910). In the early twentieth century, Americans blamed the perceived increase in prostitution on “white slavery,” envisioned as dark-skinned immigrant men forcing young white women into prostitution.

Figure 4.

Frontispiece, Ernest A. Bell, War on the White Slave Trade (Chicago: G.S. Ball, 1910). In the early twentieth century, Americans blamed the perceived increase in prostitution on “white slavery,” envisioned as dark-skinned immigrant men forcing young white women into prostitution.

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Figure 5.

Illustration, “The First Step,” in Ernest A. Bell, War on the White Slave Trade (Chicago: G.S. Ball, 1910). At the height of the “white slave” panic, Americans produced some fifteen plays, six movies, and a profusion of books, articles, and pamphlets warning young women about the perils of the city and the dangers of their own sexuality.

Figure 5.

Illustration, “The First Step,” in Ernest A. Bell, War on the White Slave Trade (Chicago: G.S. Ball, 1910). At the height of the “white slave” panic, Americans produced some fifteen plays, six movies, and a profusion of books, articles, and pamphlets warning young women about the perils of the city and the dangers of their own sexuality.

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The story of the Italian, Slav, Jew, black, or Chinese procurer crystallized Progressive fears regarding immigration and urbanization as thirteen million newcomers besieged American cities between 1900 and 1914.26 According to such historians as Thomas Connelly and Kathy Peiss, the movement of young women into factories, offices, and department stores, as well as their participation in the burgeoning world of heterosocial leisure, exacerbated concerns among the middle class over America’s changing sexual mores and the declining relevance of traditional gender roles.27 Stories of abduction and enslavement maintained that illicit sexuality was not a choice among young female workers, but rather an unfortunate outcome of women’s increased social autonomy within the new industrial order. Moreover, white slavery narratives allayed the guilt of America’s middle class, a group who needed the fiction of kidnapping tales to absolve themselves of complicity in a capitalist system that drove young women into sex work.

Other scholars see the white slave panic as reflecting fears of racial degeneration that reached prominence in the 1910s and ’20s in response to the influx of southeastern European immigrants and the internal migrations of African Americans out of the South into northern cities.28 Books like The Rising Tide of Color and The Passing of the Great Race warned of race suicide and the threat to both Nordic people and the culture of white supremacy.29 This alarm over racial dilution reflected the broader tenets of Social Darwinism and found legitimacy with the emergence of scientific racism. By early 1900, American racial bigotry was granted the imprimatur of “science,” with more precise codification of racial categories and a corresponding structural taxonomy. The great challenge was how to keep the categories distinct with the surge of so many dark ethnic populations. Narratives that affirmed sexual difference and depravity among European immigrants, Chinese, and African Americans created and reinforced racial categories and sexual prohibitions between whites and people of color.30 Accordingly, white slavery was yet another iteration of racist fears that found expression in Jim Crow segregation, miscegenation laws, American eugenics, and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924.31 Most notably, the white slave panic inspired the notorious Mann Act of 1910, mentioned above, which prohibits the importation and interstate transportation of women for “immoral purposes,” with the explicit objective of ending the presumed traffic in white women.

The Mann Act exemplified what scholars deem the “intimate state,” an intersection of gender, sexuality, and governance, and the extension of institutional power into the personal lives and movements of women. Scholars such as Eithne Luibhéid, Grace Peña Delgado, and Martha Gardner trace the emergence and connections between state regulation of bodies and borders, showing how sexuality critically informed immigration exclusions in the United States.32 Prostitutes, alongside felons, were the first deportable class, and their exclusions helped, in Gardner’s words, to “construct a moral border” that protected the nation against immorality and racial hybridity.33 Concern over the enslavement of young Chinese women in nineteenth-century California initiated the nation’s first restrictive immigration mandate with the 1875 Page Law.34 Subsequent exclusions emerged from both national and international concern over the global white slave trade, resulting in the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910. Such mandates imposed more stringent prohibitions against the entrance of alien women practicing prostitution and likewise established policies and procedures for their deportation. Several provisions of the 1910 Immigration Act were informed by the work of the U.S. Congress’s Dillingham Commission, whose exhaustive immigration report of 1909 included an investigation of sex trafficking in the United States. Remarkably, the Dillingham report confirmed that those practicing prostitution were not “forced or deceived into the life,” nor did they show any desire to leave the profession.35 And yet Congress selectively invoked the report to garner support for the Mann Act—legislation that profoundly affected women both within and outside the United States while, as noted, transforming American institutions and policy. Jessica Pliley reveals how enforcement of the Mann Act created an increasingly expansive Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) dedicated to policing female sexual behaviors and “immorality,” not to halting the traffic in women.36 Like Gardner and Luibhéid, Grace Peña Delgado also connects the Immigration Act of 1917 to the emergence of American immigration protocols to stop the alleged traffic in Mexican women at the U.S.-Mexico border.37 Relatedly, this research on white slave narratives recovers the symbolic centrality of Euro-American women in that process of state making and race making at the border in the 1910s and ’20 s. The trope of protecting white women indeed shaped and helped determine the construction of national borders, as well as the U.S. immigration regime of the early twentieth century.

In 1915, California newspapers began publishing reports of young girls’ “harrowing experiences with Mexican white slavers” in the border towns of Baja California.38 In April, the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Sun both recounted Selma Potwin and Mary Purcell’s scripted rendering of their abduction and “torture” in a Tijuana opium den, “operated by Mexicans but…presided over by a horrible looking Chinaman.”39 Both papers commented on the “scores” of other victims and intended victims and confirmed that “their story has been told by numerous others.”40 The experience proved so terrible that each girl attempted suicide, “preferring death to life with the mark of Tia Juana upon them.”41 Although eventually exposed as somewhat fictionalized, the white slavery fabrication still provided justification for an investigation by the U.S. State Department and prompted San Diego’s chief of police to propose an embargo on the passage of tourists to Tijuana (Figure 6).42

Figure 6.

Dance hall featuring “Cabaret & Dancing,” probably in Tijuana, Mexico, 1920. The two women are the daughters of civil engineer Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy, who developed San Francisco’s Hetch-Hetchy water system. Many American women ventured south to Mexican border towns for a good time, but U.S. newspapers often warned that such women were likely to be kidnapped “for immoral purposes.”

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of California, Berkeley

Figure 6.

Dance hall featuring “Cabaret & Dancing,” probably in Tijuana, Mexico, 1920. The two women are the daughters of civil engineer Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy, who developed San Francisco’s Hetch-Hetchy water system. Many American women ventured south to Mexican border towns for a good time, but U.S. newspapers often warned that such women were likely to be kidnapped “for immoral purposes.”

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of California, Berkeley

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In the years to follow, Los Angeles and San Diego newspapers increasingly featured accounts of trafficking and stories of the “many young girls, under the age of 20 being brought to Tijuana.”43 Reports told of how “young girls, apparently of the better class, were taken for ‘immoral purposes.’” Articles described the “hop joints” where girls were “left, helpless, at the mercy of Chinese and negroes” and concluded that, in Tijuana, the victims “fall as low as women can go.”44 While such dramatic newspaper accounts illuminated white fears about racial mixing and gender transgressions in Mexico, they also reflected the sensationalized journalistic style of the day and so must be viewed critically. Nonetheless, government documents and clubwomen’s letters about white slavery often contained lurid renderings of the “indescribable conditions” and “demoralizing influences on the other side of the line.”45

In 1920, the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that, of the hundreds of women missing in the city, “many of the girls were traced to Tia Juana and Mexicali, Lower California border towns where they were in ‘white slavery.’”46 They concluded that “few would return because of dread of disgrace.” To many white Americans, the “disgrace” of Mexico invoked the crime of interracial sex, a transgression they could only explain through stories of coercion and victimization. Accounts that spoke of the “shame” and the “mark of Tijuana” exploited regional concerns about the prospect of miscegenation and the possibilities of racial dilution in the American West.

Borderlands scholars like Julian Lim affirm that social mixing amid the region’s diverse demography of Mexicans, Chinese, and African Americans caused distress among white Americans in close proximity to such “mongrel” spaces.47 Indeed, American journalists, government documents, vice reports, and letters of protest frequently commented upon the “congress of all nations” at the Mexican border.48 Even the New York Times publicized “the people—they that dwell in Tia Juana! All Nations! But the American, the Mexican, the Chinese and the ‘colored gem’man from the Souf’ [sic] predominate.”49 Collective angst over degeneration reflected the horrifying possibility of racial domination by “Negroes, mulattos and Indians,” an abiding fear rooted in the early U.S. conquest of the western frontier.50 American acquisition of the Southwest and its “mixed-breed” populations in the nineteenth century heightened regional anxieties about sexual and social mixing and engendered a uniquely western obsession with racial purity. Anglo-Saxons in the U.S. West had a particular disdain for “mestizos,” whom they considered the “doomed progeny” of miscegenation.51 Moreover, the complexity of the racial landscape posed a formidable challenge to the imposition of white supremacy and engendered regionally specific means of subordinating people of color, including such legislation as California’s 1851 Foreign Miners Tax, Congress’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and some of the country’s earliest and most complex antimiscegenation statutes. Interestingly, western states (even more than those in the South) passed the most elaborate prohibitions outlawing marriages between whites and virtually all other racial categories: Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, and Native Americans, as well as blacks.52 Such mandates against illicit intimacies didn’t hold beyond the border and served only to magnify white American fears about the racial disorder of Mexico and the shameless immorality of its nightlife.

Sensationalized depictions of Mexico’s white slave traffic also resonated with emergent racializing discourses about the “Mexican problem” in the United States in the 1920s, imaginings informed by the immigration of more than a million people during Mexico’s revolution. Scholars explain that, between 1910 and 1930, associations with contagion and disorder marked Mexican bodies as dark and menacing to the nation. Not surprisingly, they developed in tandem with the U.S. Border Patrol and fortifications erected along the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1920s.53 And while American condemnation of border towns did not always or explicitly demonize Mexicans, the discursive connections to the threats that people of color posed to the nation did the job. Lurid accounts that associated Mexico with depraved sexuality among all kinds and colors expectedly contributed to what historian Tomas Almaguer called the “darkening of the Mexican image” in the American mind, and convinced respectable citizens of the racial disorder beyond the international line.54

Newspapers gave a disproportionate amount of attention to the presence of African Americans in border towns, at least in comparison to their actual demographic representation. The establishment of Mexicali and Tijuana as thriving centers for jazz music and cabarets that attracted big names like Jelly Roll Morton helped solidify associations of the border with blackness and unbridled sexuality. The New York Times also referred to Tijuana as “Jack Johnson’s social headquarters” and, like many newspapers, noted disapprovingly the flagrant racial mixing at the border.55 The migration of black Americans to the borderlands began years earlier, as enslaved men and women “carved an underground railroad across Texas to freedom in Mexico.”56 After the Civil War, many followed exodus movements west, some pursuing colonization projects in Mexico.57 The twentieth century drew more African Americans who sought to escape Jim Crow across the border and enjoy a more variegated and permissive racial landscape. Their flight from restrictive racial policies intersected with other Americans’ flight from restrictive entertainment laws. The arrival of “all nations” further diversified the already diverse, multiracial landscape in Mexican border towns, which made many white Americans nervous.

In spring of 1916, the Los Angeles Tribune and Evening Express published an excessively dramatic and inflammatory multivolume exposé about the “disgrace” of Tijuana. The series ran in response to the opening of Tijuana’s racetrack during San Diego’s Panama–California Exposition, when the latter city became a worldwide tourist destination. Although the articles addressed the issue of white slavery less directly than other accounts, anti-vice publisher Edwin T. Earle called considerable attention to both the presence of white women in Tijuana and the incidence of race mixing there.58 The paper proclaimed that “the flower of San Diego’s young womanhood is being sacrificed upon the altar of greed” in Mexico and went on to describe “San Diego girls…scarcely out of their teens rubbing elbows with the notorious Mexicans, Castilians, Chinese, Japanese, Negroes, [and] gamblers.”59 Most provocatively, Earle exploited fears of black/white mingling with passages that emphasized the social and physical proximity of the races. He wrote, “I saw a white woman betting on a basis of common equality with a greasy negro at the race track.” He continued to describe the “tall, slender negro, as black as Jack Johnson” whose “eyes gleam[ed] like coals of fire.” The depiction invoked scandalous associations linked to the prize fighter and rendered black men both vulgar and demonic.60

The Los Angeles Times also featured articles that highlighted Johnson’s interactions with white women in Tijuana, reporting that “white women danc[ed] with him at the cafes at night” and “drank with him at the bar.”61 Even without direct statements about miscegenation, references to Johnson encoded particularly powerful racial ideas that darkened and eroticized border towns in the American imagination. Those rhetorical links between race, sex, and criminality crystallized in the late nineteenth century as means of preserving racial hierarchies after the dismantling of slavery in the American South. The myth of black hypersexuality reemerged with a vehemence during the Progressive Era, when the northern urban migration of Africans Americans—and increased immigration of darker European races—reignited fears of racial amalgamation among native-born Euro-Americans.62 Even the official publication of Tijuana’s gambling sector, The Rounder, exposed the proclivity for such racial transgressions in border towns and warned of the implications for such mixing. It informed its readers: “The Rounder will not tolerate the appearance of white women with diseased minds to be seen in public with negroes in Tijuana.” The newspaper admonished those “unfortunate lewd women” to practice their trade elsewhere and rebuked the “smart coons…under the impression that Mexico [would] tolerate them.” Significantly, The Rounder forewarned that “the quicker they get away from Tijuana the better for their necks”—a threat that had particular resonance during a period of Ku Klux Klan resurgence in the United States.63

Such accounts amplified some Americans’ concerns over racial integration and permissiveness at the Mexican border. Articles like those in the Los Angeles Tribune and Evening Express, Los Angeles Times, and even The Rounder exposed Mexico’s disregard for American norms of segregation and sociability and leveraged the cultural potency of black sexuality to denounce vice resorts at the border.64

American citizens also articulated their condemnation of “disorder” in Mexicali and Tijuana in racial terms. In 1916, in response to the Tribune’s exposé, Edward Browne of Calexico wrote publisher E. T. Earle to remind him of the “vileness and degeneracy” of Mexicali.65 He explained:

You speak of the race track evil of Tia Juana. Allow me to ask, is that more important than the honor and virtue of the womanhood of California? There are approximately 200 licensed prostitutes in the brothels of Mexicali and everyone of them has been recruited from the young womanhood of California. There are dance hall entertainers galore, who have been recruited from the same place. Mexicali is the paradise of the white slaver, where he is allowed to ply his vile trade in utter defiance of all the laws of God and man…a nice condition…the selling of American girls for the pleasure of Mexicans, negroes, Chinese, Hindoos and practically every other known nationality.…The conditions are intolerable. It is a crime against nature, society and decency. The time has come when our girls must be protected.66

Undoubtedly, Browne’s reference to “our girls” invoked not just their national identification as American, but also their racial designation as white. His demand for their protection is resonant of the call for defense against menacing black rapists in the postbellum American South. Moreover, the statement that American women in Mexico constituted a “crime against nature, society and decency” held racially embedded and explosive meanings about transgressive sexual relations between white women and men of color. When federal authorities prosecuted Jack Johnson for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines, his indictment included the legal categories of “unlawful sexual intercourse,” “debauchery,” and “crimes against nature,” allegations that registered with Americans as the crime of miscegenation.67

Various other petitions from California citizens deployed racially coded language to express opposition to border conditions with statements that decried “the blackest hell” and “dark blot” of Tijuana.68 Women of the Imperial Valley’s Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) likewise proclaimed that Mexicali’s vices could “never be pictured black enough to do it justice”; the WCTU relied upon discourses of “morality,” “decency,” and “respectability” to cloak members’ distress over the sexual and racial transgressions of American citizens in border towns.69 These articulations—often coupled with such terms as debauchery and degradation—permeated women’s protest letters, with their encoded fears of miscegenation and cultural decline. Their outcry solidified associations of “darkness” with border life and reasserted the importance of protecting American women by restricting passage at the international line.70

Beyond blackness, so-called Orientals and opium dens figured centrally in American depictions of border towns. In 1916, the San Diego police chief alerted immigration agents to “numerous complaints from organizations and individuals” convinced that the “hop dens” in Tijuana were “responsible for a large proportion of the delinquency of the girls in this city.”71 San Diego officials alerted the U.S. secretary of the treasury, William G. McAdoo, to the conditions. In his response he confirmed the “number of incidents of young girls of 16 or 17 years of age being taken to Tia Juana…kept under the influence of opium…and subjected all the while to attacks by Chinamen and dope fiends of all descriptions.” His correspondence described the frequency of victimization among American girls and testified that such occurrences were “almost nightly” and “but one small example of existing conditions.”72

The sexual enslavement of young white girls at the hands of Chinese men provided powerful imagery certain to incite horror among white Californians. Indeed, descriptions of American women in Mexicali living in close proximity to what the San Diego Sun called the “homes of 3000 emaciated and half naked Chinese and opium dens by the score” resonated powerfully with popular racial beliefs in California.73 Such accounts exploited the state’s long-standing antipathy toward the Chinese as threatening, unassimilable foreigners. These representations of racial difference crystallized around perceptions of disease and perverse sexuality, largely based on the disproportionately male community and the corresponding problem of prostitution or “yellow slaves” in Chinatown. Whites also invoked the language of “dirt and disease” to describe the Chinese as a menace to public health and respectable domesticity.74 Moreover, opium dens, with their symbolic association of Oriental decadence and barbarism, epitomized to Americans the aberrant gender, sexual, and social norms of Chinatown and its inhabitants.75

Lurid representations of “hop joints” in Mexicali and Tijuana were regular features in vice reports and California newspapers. In 1916, for example, the San Diego Sun described the “Terrible Orgies” in Mexican opium dens where “amoral perverts” and “the lowest scum of humanity…daily enacted scenes of the most revolting nature.” Not surprisingly, the primary offense was not the desperation to “gratify their common desire for ‘hop,’” but interracial mingling of “white and negroes, Mexicans and Chinese of both sexes.”76

In addition to dispensing addictive drugs to the citizenry and imperiling the physical health of the nation (particularly since whites patronized opium dens in great numbers), Americans disliked the racial politics of such establishments. They feared that the social mixing prevalent in opium dens jeopardized white purity and endangered Anglo-Christian civilization with both the transmission of disease and racial mixing. And thus, the connections forged between Chinatowns and Mexican border towns, and between Chinese men and white American women, solidified perceptions of darkness and danger in Mexicali and Tijuana, and rallied cries for restrictions at the international line (Figure 7).

Figure 7.

“Building a Wall along Our Mexican Border,” San Francisco Examiner, 1924. Alarm over what American reformers called “shocking debaucheries” in Mexicali and Tijuana prompted petitions to the U.S. government for greater controls at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Figure 7.

“Building a Wall along Our Mexican Border,” San Francisco Examiner, 1924. Alarm over what American reformers called “shocking debaucheries” in Mexicali and Tijuana prompted petitions to the U.S. government for greater controls at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Despite American hysteria over Mexico’s white slave traffic, actual convictions for trafficking women across the border were rare. Moreover, most Mann Act prosecutions charged white native-born American men with the crime, not the dark, menacing foreigners represented in popular accounts.77 Perhaps such procurers successfully eluded U.S. agents beyond the border or, alternatively, their trials have simply disappeared from the historical record. Either way, official evidence of villainous men dragging American women across the U.S.-Mexico line remains scarce.

While it might seem that issues of national sovereignty explain the paucity of records, the U.S. Bureau of Investigation did indeed have jurisdiction over the transporting of women into Mexico, since state lines were crossed in the process. Although we cannot draw broad conclusions from the limited number of cases, the existing evidence reveals female “victims” thwarting the state by refusing to behave like victims.

In 1917, California newspapers drew attention to an alleged Mann Act violation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Charges named Frank Beyer, one of the owners of Mexicali’s infamous Owl Dance Hall, and three of his employees: Dan Malone, Warren Fabian, and Lawrence Chatran.78 The case hinged on whether the establishment’s paid dancers (the renowned “Flora Dora Babies”) were transported across state lines from Los Angeles to Mexicali into an immoral atmosphere that would lead to their debauchment. The prosecution claimed that the chorus girls were hired as “entertainers” but that this was only a pretense and, in fact, their descent into prostitution was inevitable, as the dancers shared the Owl’s dance floor with working prostitutes and were in close proximity to the cribs where prostitutes serviced their customers. The district attorney alleged that the “defendants…knew that they were taking [the] girls to perform in a whore house” and that the defendants “knew they were taking [the] girls down there to associate with whores.”79 The government summoned dancers Alma Person, Sallie Claxton, and Grace Covert as witnesses to incriminate Beyer. However, when called to the stand, their testimony critically undermined the prosecution’s case. Other witnesses, like Lela Caville, Vivian de Lamar, and Daisy North, further undermined the state’s case by skipping town and refusing to testify.

When interrogated, the dancers feigned ignorance regarding prostitution at the Owl. Person insisted she was unaware of any cribs at the Owl and that she did not know where they might be located. Moreover, the seventeen-year-old showgirl claimed to know little about the other women employed at the saloon and surely “didn’t know they were prostitutes.”80 Grace Covert concurred, saying she had never spoken to or interacted with other women at the saloon and dance hall. Sallie Claxton reiterated that the male patrons of the Owl were seldom drunk, that they were never indecent toward her, nor had they ever propositioned her.81 At one point Claxton insisted that “she had never noticed a man that close.”82 All three women explained that they had been instructed to refuse all male solicitations, asserting that they were “not there for that purpose.”83 Remarkably, neither Person nor Claxton could remember how much money they made each night.84

Despite the chorus girls’ vowed commitment to “honest work,” historian Ruth Rosen suggests that many if not most entertainers in such establishments also worked as prostitutes, and that the boundaries between women’s occupations in dance halls, taverns, and similar venues remained quite fluid in the early century (Figure 8).85 In any event, the Owl dancers’ professed ignorance demonstrated the women’s conscious intention to thwart prosecution of their employers. Their refusal to cooperate with prosecutors shows that Mann Act convictions depended, at least in part, upon young women’s willingness to identify as victims, an identification that many American exiles in Mexico resisted.86 The testimony of Mexicali’s mayor, Francisco Borques, likewise showed how difficult it was in such establishments to discern between registered prostitutes and chorus girls, although he admitted that “dancers” were indeed exposed to “the trade.”87 Beyer, Malone, Fabian, and Chartran were ultimately found guilty, committed to the Los Angeles County Jail, and fined $2,000 each.88

Figure 8.

Postcard labeled “Wine, Women and Song! Tijuana, Mex.,” ca. 1910–1930. American women employed in Mexican cantinas rarely incriminated their employers.

Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego

Figure 8.

Postcard labeled “Wine, Women and Song! Tijuana, Mex.,” ca. 1910–1930. American women employed in Mexican cantinas rarely incriminated their employers.

Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, University of California, San Diego

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The conviction of Jim Miller (alias Simpson) in 1916 marked another Mann Act prosecution of white slavery in Tijuana.89 Although the case was ostensibly against Miller, who owned “The Palace” in Mexico, the U.S. Department of Justice showed equal intent to indict Vida White (alias Vida Rogers), who managed the bordello. David Gershon of the Bureau of Investigation explained: “I know Vida Rogers. I saw her in the last few days at the Palace in Tia Juana, Mexico.” Gershon admitted that he had been “trying to serve her on this side of the line for some time…possibly since last February or March and have not been able to do so.” While the court ultimately convicted Miller for transporting Rogers from San Francisco for the immoral purpose of managing a brothel, records show her to be less a victim than an agent in the business of trafficking women across the border.90

Beyond court records, reports from investigative case files of the Bureau of Investigation reveal additional attempted Mann Act prosecutions at the international border. Documents reveal that U.S. authorities tried to contrive Mann Act violations by detaining and questioning American prostitutes at the border. Yet the attempt to wrest incriminating statements from women about the arrangements of their transportation and the nature of their work faltered. When apprehended by officials at the Calexico immigration office in 1918, for example, May Lewis and Florence Costello persistently claimed they were “innocently going to Mexicali, Mexico, that no one in San Francisco knew they were going and that no person in Mexicali knew they were going there.”91 Despite evidence that the two were sent for by alleged “white slavers,” a fact later confirmed by Frank Beyer of the Owl, the charges fell apart when a “very high priced attorney” from San Francisco was called to the women’s defense.92 These and similar incidents suggest that statements of victimization did not come easily to exiled American prostitutes, and that extensive networks existed among workers of the underworld, offering them protection when necessary.

At the same time, however, some American women cooperated with U.S. agents at the border, offering incriminating information against white slavers and other American criminals for their own benefit. In 1918, Bureau records identified a certain “Mrs. Rosencrantz” as an American prostitute who furnished agents with information about white slavers, opium smugglers, and neutrality violations in Mexico. Bureau operatives considered her statements “unquestionably authentic and valuable to the Department.”93 Rosencrantz professed inside knowledge regarding Mexican cantina owner Antonio Elosua, whom the Bureau deemed “one of a great many Mexican crooks with which this county is infested,” which individuals were “a menace to our women” and “generally undesirable.”94 Rosencrantz disclosed Elosua’s intent to procure twenty girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen for the purpose of prostitution, gave information regarding a narcotics smuggling ring, and offered to work undercover for the Bureau of Investigation to infiltrate these operations. Even though Rosencrantz insisted she was a woman of “independent income” and that the adventure of the task appealed to her more than the money, she still insisted on government protection and expected the same “consideration as any other agent…in the way of salary and expenses.”95

Investigative files also reveal that, in some cases, women attempted to use the Mann Act to further personal vendettas. In May 1921, Bureau records reveal, Stella Ward, “employed as an entertainer in the various saloons in Tijuana, Mexico,” filed a complaint with Federal Agent Gershon.96 Ward accused her employer, B. Barrerro, of violating the White Slave Traffic Act. Barrerro allegedly hired Ward as a waitress in his saloon with the promise of sixty dollars per week in addition to a percentage of the drinks sold. Barrerro and Ward proceeded to have illicit relations on several occasions in Tijuana, Mexicali, and San Diego. Upon failing to receive her due wages, ostensibly for her employment in the saloon, Ward brought suit against Barrerro, charging him with transporting her across state lines. Yet the federal agents concluded that Ward was an “adventuress” and a “money getter” with a record of perjury and arrest (for attempting to extort $500 from a lover she falsely claimed impregnated her). Not surprisingly, the charges were dropped.97

In 1928, Miss Dorothy V. Carlburg brought Mann Act charges against another Mexican club owner. The twenty-one-year-old American woman filed suit for $50,000 in damages against E. A. Washburn, who managed the International Club in San Luis, Mexico.98 Carlburg asserted that, although she was hired as a waitress, she was forced to both dance and drink “with a Mexican patron.”99 Carlburg also alleged that she was drugged, upon which she “lapsed into a comatose state, and was hurried off to a room by the Mexican, who then attacked her.”100 By appealing to the fear of sexual victimization by dark-skinned males, Carlburg strategically invoked the power of the white slave narrative for monetary gain. Indeed, these enterprising women perceptively leveraged the conventions of vulnerability and victimhood at the border to their own ends.

The advent of Prohibition and the establishment of a naval base in San Diego in 1919 revived the anti-vice movement and the outcry against gambling, drinking, and white slavery at the border. In 1920, Rear Admiral Roger Welles, commandant of the Eleventh Naval District, alerted the secretary of the navy to the conditions at the border. Welles reported that Judge Marsh of San Diego’s juvenile court provided records showing that “girls of 15–17 years old have been engaged, carted to Tijuana there to be employed and debauched.” According to Welles, “as many as fifty cases a day can be seen where men take girls of tender years to Mexico” and get them “liquored up.” “Surely,” concluded Welles, such events should raise the question of “whether the Mann Act is being violated.”101

Letters making similar allegations reached both U.S. politicians and Mexican president Álvaro Obregón himself, demanding that they “close up the White Slavery Dance Halls and saloons and save hundreds of girls.”102 California clubwomen’s efforts were most influential in seeking to seal the border so that, as one put it, “American girls may be protected” and “the transportation of immoral women across the international line be stopped.”103 As such, Los Angeles Customs Collector James Elliot alerted Treasury Secretary McAdoo to clubwomen’s petitions to modify border hours and to close custom house gates at an earlier hour. Echoing the fears expressed by many concerned citizens, government reports likewise averred the “shameless violations of girlhood and womanhood” and decried American women who entertained “Chinese laborers, Mexicans, Japanese, Negroes…without distinction of race, color, or cleanliness.”104

In 1924, the American state department finally implemented an earlier border closing (at 9:00 P.M.) at the behest of California and Arizona clubwomen. The nine o’clock closure lasted until 1926, when even greater restrictions were imposed. The change followed the alleged rape of the Peteet sisters, two teenaged American girls, in Tijuana. This “ravaging of white womanhood,” as one newspaper put it, and the girls’ subsequent suicide evoked a racist furor intended to convict and punish the four Mexican suspects and to finally close the international line. Local papers sensationalized the story of the “defiled daughters” who “were locked in a den of vice for hours and ravished by several Mexican brutes and…a Chinaman.”105 Consequently, as the Los Angeles Herald explained, “the entire family committed suicide because their honor had been destroyed.”106 Other newspapers described the event as a foregone conclusion, the common lot for American girls in border towns: “The outrage upon the Peteet girls is not a unique instance of Tia Juana depravity. It is a typical example of Tia Juana depravity. It is a typical example of Tia Juana debauchery.…Too many innocent young girls have been ruined…[and] hundreds of other cases of criminal viciousness…have occurred and are occurring almost daily.”107

The Peteet “tragedy” fully realized American fears about the defilement of white women by men of color in Mexico. It reflected increasing prejudice against what the same newspaper called the “lowest kind of Mexicans and half breeds,” whom editors linked discursively to white slavery and to such historically despised groups as African Americans and Chinese.108

The Peteet case reasserted the central importance of American womanhood to the nation. In the words of Reverend John Wood, protecting the “future home builders and mothers of men” demanded that the United States close its border with Mexico at 6:00 P.M. daily for over a year so that “common decency [would] prevail and…women and children may be safe.”109

Indeed, in defining the moral and symbolic boundaries of the nation, women were central to the cultural politics of the border in this era. The sexual misdeeds of American prostitutes in Mexico critically imperiled the racial purity and vitality of the body politic. The consequent demand to protect white womanhood and, thus, the nation was rendered legible through narratives of white slavery. Just as national discourses about the white slave traffic drew internal boundaries between white women and dark men, what reformers called “stories of shame” at the border inscribed a more rigid line between the United States and Mexico in the 1910s and ’20 s. After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the repeal of Prohibition four years later, vice tourism in Mexico all but ended. Yet dark and menacing perceptions of the region remained. Accordingly, Americans conceived of the border not simply as a political boundary, but as a racial and sexual divide and a line of protection for the national body.


“Enclosed in letter to Calvin Coolidge from Reverend John Wood, March 2, 1926, 812.40628/201” (National Archives Microfilm Publication M274, roll 150), Records of the Department of State Relating to Internal Affairs of Mexico, 1910–1929, Record Group 59 (RG 59), National Archives College Park, Maryland (NACP).


For more, see Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Vintage Books, 2006); Theresa Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).


Thomas Connelly, The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage-Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).


Natalia Molina and Alexandra Minna Stern explain that the “darkening” of Mexicans in the public imagination—a narrative that emerged in the United States during a period of increased immigration from Mexico between 1910 and 1930—was largely accomplished through discourses and practices related to U.S. public health; see Molina, Fit to Be Citizens: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).


Grace Peña Delgado, Making the Chinese Mexican: Global Migration, Localism, and Exclusion in the U.S. Borderlands (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Linda B. Hall, Revolution on the Border: The United States and Mexico, 1910–1920 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988); Kelly Lytle Hernandez, La Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Molina, Fit to Be Citizens; Juan Mora-Torres, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo León, 1848–1910 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001); Stern, Eugenic Nation; Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S. Mexico Border (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).


Ramón Gutiérrez, “The Erotic Zone: Sexual Transgression on the U.S.-Mexican Border,” in Avery Gordon and Chris Newfield (eds.), Mapping Multiculturalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 253–261; Eithne Luibhéid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002). More recently, Grace Peña Delgado reveals that efforts to exclude alleged Mexican prostitutes at the border gave rise to the U.S. deportation immigration bureaucracy; see Delgado, “Border Control and Sexual Policing: White Slavery and Prostitution along the U.S. Mexican Borderlands, 1903–1910,” Western History Quarterly 43, no. 2 (2012): 157–178.


“Mexico Orders Brothels Near Border Closed,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1925, 5. Other estimates counted seven hundred American women working there during the 1910s and ’20 s; see Rachel St. John, Line in the Sand: A History of the Western U.S.-Mexico Border (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 156.


Connelly, Response to Prostitution, 7–8.




Baja California’s vice industry first began in 1909 with Jefe Politico (“Chief Political Officer”) Celso Vega, who began siphoning off sizable profits from some thirty-four Baja California saloons. In 1911, the American Magonista filibustering venture expanded gambling halls and saloons for American pleasure seekers. For more, see Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Sembradores: Ricardo Flores Magon y El Partido Liberal Mexicano: A Eulogy and Critique (Los Angeles: Aztlan, 1973); Lawrence D. Taylor, “The Magonista Revolt in Baja California: Capitalist Conspiracy or Rebelion de los Pobres?,” Journal of San Diego History 45 (Winter 1999): 2–31.


“The Extinct Wickedness of Tia Juana,” New York Times, September 19, 1920, 32, 38.


The first government-issued gaming concession was given to Antonio Elosua in 1915. Elosua’s Feria Tipica (“Tijuana Fair”) established Tijuana’s early industry of illicit entertainment: gambling, boxing, racing, bullfights, and all other such amusements outlawed in the United States.


Kenneth Roberts, Saturday Evening Post, 1924, quoted in Roberta Ridgeley, “The Man Who Built Tijuana,” San Diego Magazine (September 1968), 116.


Eric M. Schantz, “From the ‘Mexicali Rose’ to the Tijuana Brass: Vice Tours of the United States-Mexico Border, 1910–1965” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2001), 111.


Archivo Histórica del Estado, Baja California (AHE), Fondo: Distrito Del Norte, Sección 70JD Caja no. 6, F-BC Serie Penal Ano 1913–1915 Reglamento de Sanidad para el Districto Norte de la Baja California.


League of Nations, Report of the Special Body of Experts on Traffic in Women and Children, Part Two, Document Class IV–Social, No. 2, Geneva, November 27, 1927, 122; Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 147.


United States of America v. F. B. Beyer, 1176 (S.D. Cal, Los Angeles, 1916), 95, U.S. District Court Southern Division (Los Angeles) 1900–1929, Case 1130, Box 67, Criminal Case Files, Records of the District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21, National Archives and Records Administration at Riverside (NARA-Riverside).


Catherine Christensen, “Mujeres Públicas: American Prostitutes in Baja California, 1910–1930,” Pacific Historical Review 82, no. 2 (2013): 215–247.


Ibid., 227.


Ibid., 244.


See Julian Lim, Porous Borders: Multiracial Migrations and the Law in the U.S. Mexico Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Gerald Horne, Black and Brown: African Americans and the Mexican Revolution, 1910–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 2005).


Elisa Camiscioli reframes the trafficking of prostitutes to account for both “coercion and choice,” highlighting both the vulnerabilities and opportunities sought by working-class women in the early twentieth century. See Camiscioli, “Coercion and Choice: The ‘Traffic in Women’ between France and Argentina in the Early Twentieth Century,” French Historical Studies 42, no. 3 (2019): 483–507.


Elisa Camiscioli, “Trafficking Histories: Women’s Migration and Sexual Labor in the Early Twentieth Century,” Deportate, Esuli, Profughe: Rivista Telematica di Studi Sulla Memoria Femminile 40 (Summer 2019): 1–13.


These include, among others, Reginald Wright Kauffman, The House of Bondage (New York: Moffat Yard, 1910); Ernest J. Bell, War on the White Slave Trade (Chicago: Charles C. Thompson, 1909).


Jessica R. Pliley, Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 60–61.


Connelly, Response to Prostitution, 48.


Ibid., 9; Peiss, Cheap Amusements; Meyerowitz, Women Adrift; Rosen, Lost Sisterhood.


Brian Donovan, White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender and Anti-vice Activism 1887–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Kevin J. Mumford, Interzones: Black/White Sex Districts in Chicago and New York in the Early Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).


Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916); Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color against White World Supremacy (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920).


Pliley, Policing Sexuality, 82, 100.


The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States to 2% of the total number of that nationality in the United States as of the 1890 federal census. The Act also closed immigration from Asia and sought to minimize immigration from southeastern Europe.


Martha Gardner, The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration and Citizenship, 1870–1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Delgado, “Border Control and Sexual Policing.” In Entry Denied, Eithne Luibhéid likewise discusses how sexuality mapped the internal boundaries of the nation and served as “a crucial site for the construction and regulation of sexual norms, identities, and behaviors, since 1875” (Luibhéid, Entry Denied, x).


Gardner, Qualities of a Citizen, 73.


The 1875 Page Act prohibited entry of “Oriental” prostitutes and criminals to the United States, becoming a blueprint for later race-based immigration laws codified in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.


Dillingham Report, “Importing Women for Immoral Purposes” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office 1909), 29. Martha Gardner likewise affirms the report’s findings that challenged theories of trafficking; see Gardner, Qualities of a Citizen, 65.


By 1917, the Supreme Court had broadened the interpretation of “immoral purpose,” allowing the statute to police women’s illicit sexuality more generally; this broadening “was primarily used to uphold domesticity and the patriarchal family.” Pliley, Policing Sexuality, 208.


Delgado, “Border Control and Sexual Policing.” Celeste R. Menchaca also reveals how many Mexican women contested and evaded sexual regulations at the southern U.S. border by manipulating state interrogations; see Menchaca, “Staging Crossings: Policing Intimacy and Performing Respectability at the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1907–1917,” Pacific Historical Review 89, no. 1 (2020): 16–43.


“Back from Tia Juana Hell-Pit,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1915, 1; “Chief Wants Tijuana Closed,” San Diego Sun, April 22, 1915, 1.


“Back from Tia Juana,” 1.


“Chief Wants Tijuana,” 1.


“Back from Tia Juana,” 1.


“Captivity in Border Den Told Police,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1925, 20; “Police Say Mrs. Appel Was Not Doped,” Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1925, A-11.


“Awful Menace of Tijuana Dives and Track Related at City Hall Conference,” San Diego Sun, June 7, 1916, 1.


Ibid.; “Would Close the Tijuana Gate at 12,” San Diego Sun, June 8, 1916, 2.


“Letter from John Elliot enclosed in correspondence from Secretary of Treasury William McAdoo to Secretary of State Robert Lansing,” June 13, 1916, 812.4065/86 (M274, roll 150) RG 59, NACP.


“228 Girls Lost in Los Angeles during a Year,” Calexico Chronicle, January 22, 1920, 3.


Lim, Porous Borders, 2–4.


“Letter from A. C. Allen,” September 25, 1920, 812.4065/117, RG 59, NACP.


“The Drought and Tia Juana,” New York Times, June 6, 1920, 69.


In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick uncovers the U.S. West’s heritage of xenophobia and its “legacy of conquest,” or the violent contest among Euro-Americans and Indian Americans, Latinos, Asians, and African Americans to claim the “status of legitimate beneficiary of western resources”; see Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 27, 260–261.


Rosa Linda Fregosa, MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 134.


Peggy Pascoe, “Race, Gender, and Intercultural Relations: The Case of Interracial Marriage,” Frontiers 12, no. 1 (1991): 5–18, 5, 6.


Hernandez, La Migra!; Molina, Fit to Be Citizens, 86, 142; Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014); Stern, Eugenic Nation, 91–92.


Tomas Almaguer, Racial Faultlines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 72.


“Drought and Tia Juana,” 69.


Lim, Porous Borders, 56. In recent years, historians have focused increasingly on the migration and colonization of African Americans in Mexico. See Laura Hooton, “Little Liberia, the African American Agricultural Colony in Baja California,” in Sterling Evans (ed.), Farming across Borders: Transnational Agricultural History in the North American West (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2017); Horne, Black and Brown; Karl Jacoby, The Strange Career of William Ellis: The Texas Slave Who Became a Mexican Millionaire (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016).


For example, in the 1890s, black Alabamans had settled in Durango, Mexico; and in the early 1900s, black migrants from California established an agricultural community in Baja California known as Little Liberia. See Hooton, “Little Liberia”; Horne, Black and Brown, 21–24.


“The Shame of San Diego (Second Installation),” Los Angeles Express and Tribune, June 7, 1916, 11.


“The Shame of San Diego (First Installation),” Los Angeles Express and Tribune, June 6, 1916, 11.


“Shame of San Diego (Second),” 11.


“Johnson Doesn’t Cross,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1920, I, 4; “Jack Johnson Is Jailed Here Despite Protest,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 1920, II, 1.


See Mumford, Interzones, xvii.


“Brickbats and Bokays,” The Rounder, April 9, 1927, 2.


Despite the prevalence of interracial mixing in both Mexicali and Tijuana, Governor Cantú did attempt to institute segregation in Baja California, and select venues (such as the Owl) did establish separate saloons for African Americans. Moreover, Mexicali’s Chinatown existed as a separate space within Mexicali.


National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the Department of State, “Letter from Edward Browne of Calexico to E. T. Earl, enclosed in correspondence from Robert Lansing to William Stephens,” July 8, 1916, 812.4065/89 RG 59.




Mumford, Interzones, 11.


Archivo General de Mexico, Obregon-Calles, “To Obregon from Wilfred Knudston,” February 10, 1922, 425-T-7; AGN-OC, “To Obregon from C.A. Bunker,” February 12, 1922, 425-T-7.


RDS, “From Brawley W.C.T.U. to President Coolidge,” March 27, 1924, 812.40622/63 (M274, Roll 148) RG 59, NACP. In her work on prostitution and reform in Puerto Rico, Eileen J. Suárez Findlay argues that claims of morality/immorality were sexually saturated racializing discourses that “provided a medium for asserting whiteness” and a way to discuss race “without directly naming racial distinctions”; see Findlay, Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 7, 8. See also Ann L. Stoler, “Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures,” American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (1989): 634–660, 643.


For more, see Catherine Christensen, “Mujeres Públicas: Euro-American Prostitutes and Reformers at the California-Mexico Border (1910–1930)” (PhD diss., University of California, Irvine, 2009).


“Letter from Chief Wilson to John B. Elliot,” June 6, 1916, 812.4065/86 (M274, roll 150) RG 59, NACP. “Hop den” patrons publicly consumed narcotics, especially opium.


“Letter from John Elliot enclosed in correspondence from Secretary of Treasury William McAdoo to Secretary of State Robert Lansing,” June 13, 1916, 812.4065/86 (M274, roll 150) RG 59, NACP.


“Mexicali, the ‘Outlaw of the West’ Provides Refuge for the Bad Man and the Fallen Woman,” San Diego Sun, May 19, 1915, 1.


Interestingly, many letters of protest invoked similar discourses of public health in condemning Tijuana and Mexicali. Such terms as plague spot, public health menace, cesspool, contamination, and disease appeared consistently in the correspondence analyzed. As Natalia Molina explains, Mexicans within California, and especially in Los Angeles, were likewise stigmatized by such language during the early twentieth century; see Molina, Fit to Be Citizens, 46–115.


For more, see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).


“Terrible Orgies,” San Diego Sun, February 9, 1916, 2.


Pliley, Policing Sexuality, 82.


United States of America v. F. B. Beyer, 1176. Dan Malone was the Owl’s manager, Warren Fabian the entertainment manager, and Lawrence Chartran the bartender.


Ibid., 6.


Ibid., 6–77, 82.


Ibid., 28, 29, 39.


Ibid., 24.


Ibid., 72–73.


Ibid., 58.


Rosen, Lost Sisterhood, 44.


Martha Gardner’s research on the deportation of immigrant prostitutes confirmed that women imported for “immoral purposes” would not “inform inspectors of their intentions” (Gardner, Qualities of a Citizen, 68–69).


Although Borques insisted that Mexicali’s registered prostitutes were easily recognizable, cross-examination by prosecutors revealed that city officials often could not distinguish between women who had registered as prostitutes and those who had not.


The defendants attempted unsuccessfully to appeal the case.


United States v. James B. Simpson (S.D. Cal, Los Angeles, 1916), U.S. District Court Southern Division (Los Angeles) 1900–1929, Criminal Case Files, Case 1098, Box 62, RG 21, NARA-Riverside.


Ibid., 11.


“May Lewis,” Case 308752, Publication Number: M1085, 6, Investigative Reports of the Bureau of Investigation 1908–1922, Old German Files 1909-21 (IRBI-1909-21), NARA-Riverside.




“Illegally Securing American Passport: Antonio Elosua,” 326251, Publication Number: M1085 (IRBI-1909-21), NARA-Riverside.




Ibid., 2. Unfortunately, the records fail to reveal the fates of either Rosencrantz or Elosua.


“Alleged Violation White Slave Traffic Act,” Case 31-2296-1, Publication Number: M1085, 1 (IRBI-1909-21), NARA-Riverside.


Ibid., 5. According to the records, Ward was arrested for cohabitation and, later, for public intoxication. Both times, Ward violently resisted arrest. Agents also revealed that Ward had filed a civil suit in Tijuana against Barrerro and was simply trying to extort him for money.


“Girl Charges White Slavery,” Los Angeles Times, April 28, 1928, A-2.






“Letter to the Secretary of the Navy from Roger Welles,” December 14, 1920, 812.4065/120 (M274, roll 150) RG 59, NACP.


Archivo General de Mexico, Obregon-Calles (AGN-OC), “Letter from HT Gibbons to Obregon,” November 1921, 425-T-7.


California Federation of Women’s Clubs, letter to Secretary of State, Charles Hughes, November 2, 1922, 812.40622/22, RG 59; Letter from Arizona District Federation of Women’s Clubs to Henry Ashurst, U.S. Senate, August 25, 1924, 812.40622/103, RG 59, NACP.


Letter to Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby from the Southern California Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, October 13, 1920, 812.4065/118, RG 59 NACP; Letter from H. C. Von Struve, American Consul at Mexicali, to the Secretary of State, November 28, 1922, 812.40622/24, RG 59, NACP.


“Are the Responsible Officials of Tia Juana to Go Unpunished?,” Los Angeles Examiner, February 15, 1926.


“The Peteet Tragedy,” Los Angeles Herald, July 23, 1925 [sic].






Enclosed article, “Resolutions at Redlands Ask Border Clamp as Vice Conditions Told by Pastor,” in Letter to Calvin Coolidge from Rev. John Wood, March 9, 1926, 812.40622/201 (M274, roll 149) RG 59, NACP; “From the Official Board of Methodist Episcopalian Church to Frank Kellogg, Secretary of State,” February 16, 1926, 812.40622/177 (M274, roll 149) RG 59, NACP.