The red lights of Santa Rosa’s tenderloin district went dark in 1909, but not before an alleged victim of “white slavery” told authorities that she had been forced into a life of prostitution.

The story appeared in both local papers as well as the San Francisco Call, but the most detailed version was found in the Press Democrat. A 17/18 year-old Italian woman, Angelina Regiano, was coaxed to immigrate by her sister, Italia. Once she arrived in New York City, Italia and her boyfriend “beat her into submission and forced her into a disreputable house in New York. There she was held in practical slavery until the couple removed to this city, where her state was not improved.” Angelina escaped to San Francisco, where she met and married a photographer named Antonio Montpellier (in less than three weeks!) and soon thereafter, the newlyweds received a letter from Italia: Return my sister or we’ll kill Antonio. At that point the couple went to the police. Italia and her partner were arrested in El Verano by immigration authorities, who told the PD that the pair were expected to get five years in prison. Angelina was also held, sadly, on charges of violating immigration law “which forbids female immigrants leading an improper life within three years.”

So is the story true? “White slavery” was a topic causing roaring hysteria in the years surrounding the turn of the century.  On closer examination, however, those sensationalist accusations of white slavery frequently proved false. This tale is impossible to verify with certainty, but I feel there’s enough evidence to deem it true. The greatest obstacle is tracking names in historical records; as every genealogy buff knows, Ellis Island clerks and newspaper reporters weren’t great at accurately spelling “foreign” names.

Villainess Italia Regiano can be spotted coming to America in 1904, for example, but her name had two “g”s on the ship passenger list and she was from the town of Potenza, not “Patenza.” Angelina’s route is trickier, although she’s likely the young woman of the same age whose name was recorded as Angela Regina, sailing by herself on a ship that arrived in 1906. Her photographer husband Antonio Montpellier (who lost an “l” in the Republican paper) can’t be found at all. And if wandering in that labyrinth of names isn’t confusing enough, consider that the version from the San Francisco Call version had everything jumbled up – it was Italia Reggiano who was forced into prostitution by her sister “Silvia.” Huh? What? Wo ist Silvia? (Eine kleine Schubert Wortspiel, sorry.)

It’s also interesting to note that Italia and her pimpy sweetie Pepine were arrested in El Verano, the little resort town just outside of Sonoma. A couple of years later, it was to become the new center of operations for “Spanish Kitty,” an infamous Barbary Coast madam. (Her house is now the Sonoma Rose Villa Bed and Breakfast at 400 Solano Avenue.) Equidistant by train from Santa Rosa and the Sausalito ferry, El Verano was a great location for a rural whorehouse to set up shop, which is likely why Italia and Pepine  – “until recently said to be brothel agents in San Francisco,” according to the PD – were in town. Santa Rosa’s tenderloin had closed (or really, quieted down) less than a month before their arrest, and it’s my guess that some of those women had relocated with the pair to El Verano.

Also convincing is that the story appeared in the Press Democrat, whose editor Ernest L. Finley was loathe to admit Santa Rosa ever had any sort of problem with prostitution. He was the last person to desire publicity about a “white slavery” incident in Santa Rosa; the story was published on an inside page as if it were any other crime story. He surely would have liked to ignore it altogether, but it’s not every day that the United States marshal for the Northern District and an Immigration Inspector tromps through your back yard.

And finally, the story is far more believable because it appeared in 1909 and not a few years hence, when the white-slave mania was running at full throttle. It wasn’t until the end of that year that President Taft urged white slavery legislation in his first State of the Union address, followed by passage of the “White Slave Traffic Act of 1910,” better known as the Mann Act. A growing number of news articles began appearing after that, peaking in 1912 when more stories on the topic were found in California newspapers than the previous fifty years combined, according to a search of the state papers thus far digitally archived.

(RIGHT: An illustration from the 1910 book, “Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls” by Chicago Rev. Ernest A. Bell, who wrote, “I believe that there are good grounds for the suspicion that the ice cream parlor, kept by the foreigner in the large country town, is often a recruiting station, and a feeder for the ‘White slave’ traffic.”)

The intensity of “white slavery” hysteria in the 1910s is difficult to comprehend today. It was the central plot in a million dime novels and the subject of a million sermons. Politicians won elections fighting it, and newspapers won circulation wars by printing lurid tales about it. Want to draw an audience to your next club meeting? Announce that there would be an “expert” lecturing about the slavery dangers lurking everywhere. In the Bay Area, “The World’s Purity Federation” was formed, along with the “Society for the Abolition of White Slavery,” which urged the formation of a state police white slave squad (San Francisco police indeed had a white slave detail).

Today it’s recognized that their white-slave anxieties were a mash-up of many fears. It was partly the uneasiness about young people leaving rural communities for the dangerous big city; it was prudish discomfort with the concept that some women might sell their bodies without coercion (“white slavery” became a synonym for prostitution for some muckrakers and reformers); but most consistently, it was a warning about the dangers of foreigners. There was supposed to be an international cabal of Russian Jews tricking girls into Chicago and New York brothels; on the West Coast, the threat came from the Chinese stealing young women off the street to either ship them to Asia or force them to do unspeakable things in their opium dens.

The movement to fight “white slavery” a hundred years ago was more about racist fear-mongering than fact, but women and girls were indeed forced into prostitution in the early 20th century America – and still are today. Hopefully the girl with many names from Potenza indeed ended up with a happy life despite her monstrous sister’s detour.

Pitiful Story Told by a Young Woman Who Was Lured from Home to a Life of Shame

United States Immigration Inspector de la Torre made a very important capture Tuesday night when at El Verano, in this county, he arrested Italia Regiano and Pepine Pietra, until recently said to be brothel agents in San Francisco. The couple were taken to San Francisco Wednesday and placed under $10,000 bonds each by Commissioner Hart North to prevent their escape.

A “Black Hand” letter addressed to Antonio Montpellier, San Francisco photographer and husband of Angelina Regiano, a 20-year-old girl, who was brought to this country two years ago and forced into an improper life by her sister and her paramour until rescued by her marriage, has resulted in the capture of the miscreants who planned the girl’s downfall.

Angelina Regiano escaped from her bondage on June 13, according to the details learned in San Francisco, and managed to elude the pursuit of her jailers. While in hiding she met Antonio Montpellier, and her pitiful tale touched his heart. A marriage resulted and threats against the life of the husband immediately followed. On July 3 Montpellier received a letter threatening his life unless he surrendered the girl to Pietra.

This he placed in the hands of Inspector de la Torre and the capture of those who instigated it was consummated Tuesday night. The federal authorities believe they have accumulated enough evidence to send the pair to prison for five years.

Unfortunately the victim herself comes within the specifications of the law and is being held by the authorities under the statute which forbids female immigrants leading an improper life within three years. Her story is a touching one. In her little home town of Patenza she says she received urgent letters from her sister Italia to come to America, where she was promised marriage as soon as she arrived. When she came, however, her sister and Pietra beat her into submission and forced her into a disreputable house in New York. There she was held in practical slavery until the couple removed to this city, where her state was not improved. Finally she escaped but found that her troubles were not ended even when she met the man who is now her husband.

– Press Democrat, July 29, 1909

Arrested at El Verano for Her Depraved Acts

The story of the capture of two brothel agents at El Verano Tuesday night by United States Immigration Inspector de la Torre shows how low in the scale of life people may become. The two people arrested are Italia Regiano and Pepine Pietra, and they were placed under $10,000 bonds each. The former of this duet two years ago brought her own eighteen year old sister, Angelina, to this country from their native home, Patenza, Italy, with the promise that she would be married as soon as she arrived here. On the poor girl’s arrival she was met in New York by her sister and her paramour, the man arrested Tuesday, and by them was beaten and forced to lead an improper life. She was later brought here and was continued to be held as a white slave until she made her escape on June 13. She met Antonio Montpelier, a photographer in San Francisco and was married to him. A black hand letter was sent by the two under arrest to the girl’s new husband, threatening him with death if he did not return the girl to her persecutors. The turning over of this letter to Mr. de la Torre is what has led to the capture of the inhuman sister and her paramour.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 29, 1909


 Pepino Pietra and Silvia Reggiano were arrested by United States Marshall C. T. Elliott yesterday for bringing Italia Reggiano, a sister of Silvia Reggiano, to the United States from Italy for immoral purposes.

 The arrests, which were made in El Verano, Sonoma county, were at the behest of the immigration department at Washington, D. C.

 It is claimed by Italia Reggiano that her sister brought her to New York with the idea of marrying, but on her arrival she was compelled by her sister to live in a house of ill repute.

 – San Francisco Call, July 28, 1909

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