Nestled on page 112 of The Leopold and Loeb Files, Nina Barrett features an excerpt from noted social reformer Judge Ben B. Lindsey of the Juvenile Court of Denver who declared that the Leopold and Loeb crime was symptomatic of a “modern mentality and modern freedom of youth, with the misunderstandings between parenthood and childhood…the indifference to the rights of others in the stealing of automobiles, in joyrides, jazz parties, petting parties, freedom in sex relations and the mania of speed on every turn.”
Although Lindsey’s comments were perhaps unduly alarmist, he does hit upon how the Leopold and Loeb case struck a nerve in the historical moment of 1924. The trial became a way to explore fears about modern life in the Progressive Era, including anxieties about:
the limits and risks of science and rationality
the meaning of intellectual, urban masculinity
the effects of improper femininity and maternity
sexuality as action, orientation, and identity
the questionable security promised by wealth and respectability
the proper social and psychological development of children
A few years ago, at the American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Louisville, I went to a session about the Missouri History Museum’s (MHM) response to Michael Brown’s death. Melanie Adams led the session, and the story she told was so thought-provoking that I still return to it from time-to-time when thinking about the relationships between cultural institutions and the public. Essentially, MHM established a partnership with the St. Louis police that brought community members and police officers together to engage in open dialogue about local policing, crime, and related issues. Adams noted that MHM has a number of these kinds of partnerships with stakeholders representative of a broad array of core community functions. The museum works to build spaces in which people can engage in dialogue about a variety of pressing community needs.
MHM’s actions are representative of the larger turn the public history and museum fields have taken over the past few decades toward the idea that cultural organizations should provide opportunities for people to come together to discuss and find durable solutions to present-day problems. This isn’t a new idea in 2018, of course, but these kinds of big shifts don’t happen overnight and there are still miles of row to hoe before this kind of relationship between public and institution becomes the norm, instead of exceptional exception.
Congress recently passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), and criticsargue that the legislation will put both sex workers and sex trafficking victims at risk. Even before the bill has become law, Craigslist responded by shutting down its personals section and a Kindle policy change sparked fears about the de facto suppression of erotica.
FOSTA/SESTA harkens back to Progressive Era reformers who routinely conflated sex work with sex trafficking in their cries against “white slavery.” One of the driving narratives of anti-vice crusades, “white slavery” proposed that corrupt urban men seduced white women into sexual impropriety, ultimately trapping women in a life of prostitution. White slavery rhetoric drew on strains of abolitionist language that elevated reformers to white saviors of a weaker population. Notably, fears of white slavery eschewed any concern for women of color participating in commercial sex. Additionally, while some women may have felt trapped or deceived into prostitution, the white slavery narrative ignored the agency and economic choices of women forging tenuous lives in an industrializing city.