Calculating Vice

H. L. Mencken poked holes in the numbers:

How little dependence is to be put in the tales of vice “experts” was lately shown in New York, when a man employed by young John D. Rockefeller made the astounding statement that there were 26,000 white slaves in the greater city–not merely prostitutes, mind you, but white slaves, women “owned” by definite men and regularly robbed of their earnings by these men. A brief examination is sufficient to show the absurdity of such allegations. Go to the figures yourself. The present population of Greater New York, according to the usually accurate estimate of the New York World, is 5,173,064, but this includes the population of two suburban boroughs, Richmond and Queens, in which no white slave trade is alleged to exist. The population of the other three boroughs, Manhattan Brooklyn and the Bronx, comes to 4,476,098.

How many of these New Yorkers are female? According to the census of 1900, the last for which complete figures are available, the population of New York is almost evenly divided between males and females. This gives us, in the three boroughs, 2,373,049 females. But how many of them are of white-slave age? Let us assume, despite the crusaders’ donkeyish theory that a prostitute lasts but five years, that some of the white slaves are as young as 17 years and that others are as old as 34. This gives us a range of 17 years. How many women between these ages live in New York?

Going again to the census of 1900 we find that women between the ages of 17 and 34, inclusive, make up exactly one-third of the female population of the city. Now divide three into 2,373,049 and we get 791,016, which is the maximum number of possible white slaves in New York, counting in married women, college girls, suffragettes and all other indubitably virtuous women. Now divide 791,016 by 26,000 and we get just 30. What does this mean? It means, in brief, that young John D.’s “expert” alleges that one woman in every 30 in New York city, counting in even respectable women, is a white slave.

But ordinary prostitutes are yet to be considered. According to Young John’s “expert,” they greatly outnumber the actual white slaves. How far they outnumber them he doesn’t say: he will come to that by and by. But meanwhile, his statement that there are “many more” justifies the assumption that he means at least half again as many more, That assumption given us 39,000 as the number of ordinary prostitutes. Now add 39,000 to 26,000 and we get 65,000. What does this mean? It means that one woman in every 12 in New York is a prostitute!

Could absurdity further go? And yet such bogus statistics are accepted with the utmost seriousness and published broadcast. The newspapers print them, moralists weep over them, the public is appalled by them. But it seldom occurs to anybody to question them, just as it seldom occurs to anybody in our own dear Baltimore to question the grotesque overstatements of such ludicrous crusaders as Dr. O. Edward Janney and the Rev. Dr. Kenneth O. Murray.

Perhaps John D. Rockefeller was applying “white slavery” in a Sermon-on-the-Mount way, those women who were “white slaves” in their hearts.

2K Reinforcement

Richard Gamble, my colleague in history and fellow elder in the OPC church plant in Hillsdale, has a new book, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. It is a deconstruction of the Puritan and American abuse of the biblical metaphor when applied to either Massachusetts Bay or the United States. Here’s a tantalizing excerpt (thanks to our friends at The Imaginative Conservative):

Whether Jesus had in view only his chosen disciples, his followers in general, or the universal Church he promised to build, he clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day. He could have done so. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seem[ed] to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration.” Centuries earlier, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. Jesus, in contrast, gave these metaphors to his Church and not to an earthly kingdom. At some point in history—we will never know when—someone first applied the city metaphor to something or someone other than Jesus’ disciples, to something or someone outside the boundaries of the Christian church. That may not have happened for many centuries. It may not have happened first and only in America. But along the way it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.

It is not natural or inevitable that America should have been given this sacred identity. The path from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America is not an obvious one. Nor is the path from a sermon about life in the Kingdom of God to blogs about national destiny. Along that path, individual Americans did something to Jesus’ metaphor that changed it. Gradually or abruptly, intentionally or not, they helped remake the “city on a hill” from “a metaphor into a myth,” to borrow a phrase from historian Michael McGiffert. Even if we cannot pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, we will see in the following pages that at one time Americans chiefly used the “city on a hill” to describe something transcendent and theological, and then at a later time chiefly to describe something earthly and political. The transition required nothing less than the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth.