Cases of Slavery in the U.S. in the 1910s-1930s

For more than 20 years, some of Baltimore’s wealthiest and most established families had been helping themselves to the institutionalized patients at Rosewood. They’d been “adopting” these mentally challenged girls and women only to turn them into their own private slaves.

Kanner found that an astonishing 166 patients left Rosewood under habeas corpus writs from 1911 to 1933, with nothing at all to indicate the oddly obliging judges’ criteria for their decisions. And when Kanner and a diligent social worker named Mabel Kraus looked into the matter further, they confirmed that these girls, women, and a few boys had not only been legally snatched from Rosewood right under everyone’s noses, but they’d been bought by the rich as unpaid laborers and indentured servants. It was a well-oiled human trafficking operation.

The shocking revelations didn’t end there. Kanner and Kraus tracked down most of the former residents of Rosewood to determine what had become of them since their releases. It wasn’t a pretty picture. The vast majority had indeed gone to reside with those “society matrons” who, under the pretense of providing them with a loving home, had in fact paid Wolf or the other unscrupulous lawyers to obtain a resident of their choosing. Most got more than they bargained for. “Many of the women soon became dissatisfied with their maids and expressed great astonishment that the girls seemed ‘stupid’ and ‘slow,’ ” Kanner told his colleagues in Pittsburgh. “This discovery, however, did not deter them from ordering another girl from Lawyer I when they got rid of the one they had.” One lady had a change of mind about a particular Rosewood girl the moment she left the courtroom, leaving her confused new charge in the parking lot. Another intended her adoptee to be a personal housemaid for just two months, kicking her out when the family left for a European vacation.

Others fell victim to abuse in these high-society homes. “A few of the women so overworked and underfed their imbecile maids,” Kanner reported, “that several of them died within two or three years after their release, mostly of acute pulmonary tuberculosis.” One woman who collected no fewer than 35 Rosewood girls had an especially mean-spirited young daughter who would spit in the maids’ faces and tip over their buckets while they did backbreaking work. Those who complained about her behavior were simply replaced by new girls. Some were sexually abused. “One girl placed in the home of a physician under his wife’s supervision was so poorly supervised,” Kanner told of another deplorable story, “that she went through nine months of an illegitimate pregnancy and gave birth to a child without anyone noticing it; the ‘supervising’ wife of the doctor … found the newborn baby in her cupboard.”

Once they proved poor housekeepers, the women were eventually tossed out on the streets. And here, things got even grimmer—the former Rosewood girls saw “a sad peregrination through the whorehouses and flophouses of the slums,” as a student of Kanner’s would write many years later. For the original 1937 report, social worker Kraus had managed to track down 102 of the 166 habeas corpus cases on record. She found that 11 women (all of whom had been in perfect health when they left Rosewood) had died of illness or neglect; 17 were plagued by infectious diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, or tuberculosis; 29 were prostitutes; eight had been reinstitutionalized in mental hospitals; and six were in prison for serious crimes. Overall, Kanner wrote, 89 had “failed miserably and inflicted grave harm and perils on themselves and the communities in which they live.”

A typical case was that of “Edna May H.”

In 1924, a judge released [her] to a woman who wanted a maid. Edna May became a prostitute and, at least on one occasion, had sexual intercourse with her own brother. [She] now has four feebleminded, neglected, malnourished children who are often covered with scabies and live in dirty, vermin-infested quarters.


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