In August 1912 Julia Curran, a young Irish woman from Kilkenny, was brutally murdered in a New York brothel. Later that year the case would become a significant scandal when it emerged that corrupt police had tried to help the brothel cover up her death as being from ‘natural causes’, but long before then the story was widely reported in the Irish press. The victim (frequently described as being from a ‘good family’ and having worked as a governess in aristocratic homes in Ireland) had been travelling in America as a lady’s companion to a wealthy family when she made the acquaintance of a ‘foreign’ man and abruptly left her employment to travel to New York with him. She was later seen arriving at the brothel in his company in a visibly ‘drugged’ condition, her body being found in their room the following day (she had been strangled), her male companion having disappeared.
This grim story would have seemed eerily familiar to many readers of the Irish press, where it was avidly reported in papers from the Kerry Reporter to the Strabane Chronicle under headlines such as ‘New York Horror’ and ‘Irish Girl’s Fate, Pretty Governess Murdered’. It read like an exact real-life example of the tales of ‘white slavery’ they had been hearing for years, but with a particular intensity around the time of Julia Curran’s death. ‘White slavery’ was the deliberately emotive term used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to warn young women of the reputed threat they faced of being seduced, tricked or even kidnapped into prostitution. These threats were, it was argued, especially great for young women who moved to big cities looking for work, away from the protection of their families and supposedly becoming vulnerable to the cunning wiles of procurers who would target them at train stations, ports and even in busy streets. As Katherine Mullin describes in her book on the Irish social purity movement, a pamphlet entitled The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes, which was published in 1912, used a photo-story reconstruction of how unwary girls could be fooled into prostitution. In the first image, a charming stranger engages the innocent young woman in conversation in a city street. In the second image, he has persuaded her to accompany him to a restaurant where ‘the smooth-tongued villain tells of his affection and undying love for her’ while, of course, drugging her food. And in the final photo, she is seen dazedly following him into a building, now ‘incapable of self-control and is easily led to her ruin. Awaking she will find herself in a house of shame’. The following year not one but two films on the topic, Traffic in Souls and The Horrors of the White Slave Trade, were released into the increasingly-popular movie theatres. The international campaign to ‘rescue’ unwitting girls from the clutches of ‘white slavery’ was of course a close relative of the broader social purity movement which was previously discussed here on this blog in relation to its campaigns against ‘evil literature’. In Ireland, this had actually begun as a late-19thC campaign against the brothels in Dublin’s Monto district, involving street pickets and attempts to identify and shame male customers – but from around 1900 the focus of Irish purity campaigns moved to an emphasis on popular fiction, photographs, crime and divorce reporting. However, the moral panic about innocent young women being tricked into ‘white slavery’ did have considerable resonance in Ireland as a cautionary tale of what might result from emigration, especially emigration to big cities such as London or New York.
The decades immediately before and after 1900 were periods of enormous emigration from Ireland – often from rural areas to the huge cities of Britain and the United States. Not only were Ireland’s emigration rates extremely high, but young single women constituted an unusually high proportion of those emigrants, and this made awful warnings of the moral dangers they faced a popular theme of anti-emigration rhetoric. Not that female emigrants were the only targets of warnings against leaving home, however. Ireland’s Own in particular maintained a steady flow of anti-emigration rhetoric through its fiction, factual articles and editorials from its earliest years, and many of these were aimed at young male readers as well as female. Ireland’s Own’s principal demographic, young working-class or lower-middle-class readers (both male and female) were of course also the principal demographic who were emigrating, and this was therefore a sensitive topic for the paper to raise. Nevertheless it did so regularly, and in ways which left no ambiguity about its editorial position on the subject. Within its first few months for example, an opinion column of December 1902 claimed that every day 108 people left Ireland ‘with much patriotism on their lips but not any in their hearts….there was a time when the word ‘emigrant’ was nearly synonymous with “martyr”. At the present day, in view of the arduous labour and risk of moral degradation that a life outside of Ireland entails and the obvious opportunities for work that await the willing hand at home, it is an abuse of the words to call deserters “emigrants”. Here emigration is painted not only as a moral risk to the individual emigrant, but also as such a significant loss to the national body politic that it can be characterised as unpatriotic or even as ‘desertion’, a highly emotive term. In another article in the same vein more than a decade later, the paper would rail against the ‘terrible drain on our resources that has been made by the constant emigration of the strong and the young to America’. Here then emigration was a betrayal of Ireland, and something of an accusation from the paper to its own readers, many of whom must have emigrated each year, or had siblings and friends who did. Perhaps aware that calls to remain in Ireland for purely patriotic reasons were unlikely to deter many potential emigrants, Ireland’s Own frequently invoked the difficulties and disappointments of life abroad, especially in the United States. This was an anti-emigration narrative particularly aimed at male emigrants, who were assured that ‘few, very few, ever earn more than a living wage’, along with warnings about the high cost of living in cities like New York, and the competition for jobs they would face from Russians, Swedes, Germans or Italians, who it was claimed were hired in preference to Irishmen and would work for less money. These points were reinforced in fiction as well, with stories about emigration gone wrong. In 1908 for example, the paper published ‘A False El Dorado’ by Thomas Geraghty, about a young man who leaves his family home in Ireland for New York, in part to search for his brother who had emigrated some years before and not been heard of since. Our hero struggles to make a living, but perseveres, until one day he rescues from the river a man attempting suicide – who of course turns out to be his brother, aged and defeated by his failure in New York, and too ashamed to stay in contact with his family. The story has a happy ending in which the brothers return to the family cottage in Ireland, but the moral for readers contemplating emigration was clear.
Nevertheless, for all the dire warnings of the economic hazards awaiting male emigrants, the fate conjured for young women was definitely even worse. In 1903 the paper’s women’s page warned of difficulties in finding work and lodgings, or even a suitable church to attend, concluding that it was ‘far better to stay at home and make the best of things’. More sensational warnings would follow in later years however, ones very similar to those contained in white slavery pamphlets such as The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes. In 1915 a correspondent to Ireland’s Own from Montreal warned that girls who emigrated alone lacked moral guidance in their new life, and would spend their time going to movies on their nights off as well as reading ‘cheap literature which is very far from being up to standard. As time goes on she makes an acquaintance, and then what’s the result? In this way Ireland loses sight of the daughters she’s so proud of’. This warning was coy however by comparison to that from 1909, which had described Irish girls who emigrated to New York being forced to work in service for families ‘who have no God’, and associate with other girls ‘who mock purity, girls who are morally dead’. Ireland’s Own went on, ‘the rest of the story is too horrible. In very many cases the unprotected girl sinks lower and lower, until her condition is that of social outcast’. This it was argued would inevitably lead to arrest, imprisonment, alcoholism ‘to sustain her exhausted body, and then one night she runs to the river and goes to be judged’.
Such melodramatic predictions of the fate awaiting young Irish women in New York and other cities were sometimes tempered by more sober acknowledgements that female emigrants (in particular) had their reasons for leaving in such large numbers. It is noticeable that these acknowledgements tended to come from women journalists, who probably had personal experience of some of the limitations women faced in Ireland. In 1906 Ireland’s Own published a long article entitled ‘Country Homes and Home Makers’ by Mary EL Butler, which directly addressed the issue of young female emigration. Butler was one of the most successful women journalists in early 20thC Ireland, as well as being an active member of the Gaelic League. She had a long-running column in the Irish Independent, was regularly published in nationalist papers (she had a particular commitment to the Irish language and published in Irish), and also wrote at least one novel, The Ring of the Day in 1907. In her 1906 piece for Ireland’s Own, Butler acknowledged that for many young women a desire to escape from a dull rural life to something ‘gayer, more exciting’ was an important incentive to emigration. She argued that ‘distaste for country life with us amounts to a national danger’ because of its influence on emigration rates. While her tone is disapproving of these emigrants’ decision, she does go on to argue that ‘if the exodus which is bringing our country to its knees is to be stopped it is absolutely necessary to make home and village life attractive’. A similar attitude was displayed the following year in an article in Lady of the House by Mary Costello. Far less is known of Costello than of Butler, but she published at least one novel (Peggy the Millionaire in 1910) and several long pieces with Lady of the House over many years, including an investigative journalism series called ‘A Woman’s Life in the Dublin Slums’ during the 1890s which contained fierce denunciations of the social and political failures responsible for the city’s tenements. Her 1907 article for Lady of the House was called ‘Fore! The Modern Woman Demands the Clearing of the Way’ and was a bold assertion of Irish women’s new-found confidence, illustrated with a drawing of a Gibson girl playing golf. Costello argued that ‘in no other English-speaking part of the globe have women been more kept down than they have among us, more handicapped in education and in the means of earning an honourable livelihood.’ Noting the high levels of female emigration, she described them as starting ‘alone and dry-eyed across the Atlantic into the heart of life, undismayed by the pictures of hard work, failure, and loss of health which anti-emigrationists forcibly depict.’ While mourning the loss of such energetic young women, she added that nothing would be more likely to stop it than ‘giving Irishwomen an interest and a voice in all that goes on at home’.
None of this would have been much consolation to Julia Curran, whose death may have seemed like the (mainly invented) propaganda of the anti-white slavery campaign but which was for once all-too real. As a final indignity, her death was then used to sell Irish newspapers using sensational headlines like ‘How Miss Curran Was Lured to Death’, along with graphic descriptions of how she was killed. Even Ireland’s Own, which did not print such details, did discuss her death, the editor commenting that ‘it is a sad satisfaction to me to know that “Ireland’s Own” consistently and strenuously warned its readers against the dangers and pitfalls that await the unwary in the huge and seething attics of the New World’.
Katherine Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZHihjo_eBQ
Traffic in Souls (1913) available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLZLhdqQXug
Clifford Griffith Roe, The Horrors of the White Slave Trade: the Mighty Crusade to Protect the Purity of Our Homes (London and New York, 1912).