White Slavery Whistleblower
In the winter of 1922, the Fargo Forum reported, “Ruth Baughman...of Grand Forks...and well known throughout North Dakota as an amateur entertainer, startled United State officials with her story of conditions in Panama which has started both American and British governments on an investigation of what is rumored to be the most gigantic slavery plot ever unearthed.”
The news broke when Baughman was safely returned to New York, where her story had begun. After graduating from UND, Baughman had taken a job teaching school, but what she really wanted was to get back on the stage, so she moved to New York. She met a showgirl there, Ann Mason, and they became friends. One night a Spanish woman approached them in a producer’s waiting room and offered them cabaret jobs in elite cafés in Panama.
“She told me that I was too fresh and pretty to battle life as a chorus girl,” Ruth said. “Concert work was the thing for me... andshe painted a glowing picture of the musical world in South America. The next time I saw her she paid me a week’s salary in advance, and I was overjoyed.”
Ruth set sail for the sunny tropics along with Ann and five other young actresses. The contract was the same in each case: passage there and back to the States and a guarantee of three months’ work at $25 a week. “All of us willingly gave the manager an option on our services for an additional three months from the expiration of our contracts,” she said.
Their destination was the Lobby Café in Cristobal, a town adjacent to the American city of Colon. As soon as they arrived, the girls knew they’d been tricked.
The Forum reported, “Once in Panama, (these girls) find themselves shut out from all the world with a most degraded type of tropically bestial men. (When) they refuse to obey the terms of these men, they are whipped with blacksnake lashes and otherwise tortured in public, ‘an entertainment’ for which admission is charged.”
Ruth said, “We learned that a girl from the U.S., the moment she enters Panama in the capacity of an entertainer – no matter what she may be – straightaway is of the underworld, a ‘bad woman’ by Panama standards. After 11 p.m., the jollier American boys were rounded up by the M.P.s, leaving only the (low-life) and the ‘aristocrats’ of Panama, who were worse than the others because they wielded such influence.”
Ruth and Ann learned that three other girls like they had committed suicide the month before. Thankfully, that wasn’t to be their fate. On the their third night, a giant “tattooed creature of the underworld” grabbed Ruth and held her up to the rest of the café patrons. Ruth punched him in the face.
“In a rage, he rushed at her,” the article said, “with fists flying, but before he reached her a uniformed arm shot out and felled him.”
The young Navy ensign who decked the giant brought several officers back with him the next day; they didn’t have any jurisdiction in that part of town, but they offered safe pass to New York to any girl who wanted it. Ruth and Amy jumped at it, and their story led to the discovery of many such operations in New York, London, Paris and Berlin. In New York, the Panamanian Consulate immediately stopped issuing passports to any actress wanting to work in Panama.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm