‘White slavery’ in the Oatman camp

May 7, 2019

By Claire Whitley

Special to Today’s News-Herald

It started with an advertisement promising work to women between the ages of 21 and 35. They just had to go to Oatman and enter the dance hall at the “49” camp.

The next thing that Alice Kessee and Carrie Kafka knew, they were on their way from Los Angeles to Arizona.

Kessee and Kafka were just two of 30 to 40 women who were coerced into what was then called “white slavery.”

In the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries, “white slavery” was the term used for sexual slavery. It was not a phrase indicative of race, but simply referred to the practice of organized coercion of unwilling persons into prostitution.

Any race could be forced into white slavery, although of main concern were white women.

“One of the girls testified that they both were impressed with the story of the men that the camp was an orderly place, there being no liquor sold there, and that they would have a comfortable place to live in and would be treated courteously,” the Mohave County Miner wrote March 24, 1917. “They found it otherwise and one of the girls would not entertain the job when she found the nature of the employment.”

Kafka only stayed long enough to pay for her ticket home.

Kessee wasn’t as lucky.

Walter Arndt and Edwin Freese had taken Kessee and Kafka from L.A. to the “bad lands” of Oatman. They faced charges of white slavery and were bound over to the federal court in Prescott.

Kessee was coerced into prostitution and had been in the camp for nearly five weeks before a U.S. official arrested the two men who took her.

“A United States special officer visited the camp last week and found conditions there very bad,” wrote the Mohave County Miner March 11, 1916. “In an interview with Alice Kessee, the woman (spoke) of the manner in which she was brought in and the arrest of Arndt and Freese followed.”

Arndt was found guilty after the jury deliberated for 11 hours on the verdict. He was sentenced to a term in county jail.

Freese “turned state’s evidence” and his trial was delayed until September 1916. Another man, Dick Harding, also charged with white slavery, was acquitted “he having married the girl complainant in the case.”

At the preliminary hearings, one of the girls – the Mohave County Miner didn’t report who – testified that Arndt had tried to make dates with men for her, but she refused to have anything to do with him or them.

Freese was acquitted, but the state believed that he had knowledge of how the women were brought to the camp.

It was during these proceedings that another man’s name was mentioned.

April 15, 1916 the owner of “49” camp was arrested on charges of white slavery and bringing women to the camp for “immoral purposes.” Charles Bennett was held on a $2,500 bond and would appear before federal court in September.

“Bennett … is charged with replacing faded denizens of the half-world of that town with importants from the adjoining state of California,” the Mohave County Miner wrote.

The opinion of the officers was that Bennett had been the one to fund Arndt and Freese, who were the ones who brought the women to the camp.

In 1920, Fred Wood was arrested under the Mann Act for charges of white slavery, and was also held under a $2,500 bond.

To battle sex trafficking in the United States, in 1910 the U.S. Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act (better known as the Mann Act), which made it a felony to transport women across state borders for the purpose of “prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”

After immigration bans in the early 1920s, human trafficking was not considered to be a major issue again until the 1990s.

While a consensus was never reached over the prevalence of white slavery, some estimate that 65,000 American women and 15,000 immigrant women were prey to trafficking every year. In 1911, Theodore Bingham, New York City police chief, estimated that 2,000 immigrant women were brought into the U.S. and enslaved in brothels.

Much like Alice Kessee and the nearly 40 other women who were kept in tents and forced to work at the dance hall in the 49 camp.

A camp that was under a mile from Oatman.