- Historic Sites
The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, but right on into this century sailors were routinely drugged, beaten, and kidnapped to man America’s mighty merchant marine
September 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 5
William Davis, a cabinet-maker, left his home near Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory in the mid-1870s and headed for Northern California, a fast-growing region where he hoped to earn up to six dollars a day by adapting his expertise to ship carpentry. He made the eight-hundred-mile trek with his wife, Isabelle, and three small children, the youngest of whom was just six weeks old.
After working briefly at the Mare Island Navy Yard, north of San Francisco, Davis left his family in nearby Vallejo while he made a brief trip into San Francisco in search of an even better job. Unfortunately he chose to quench his thirst after the journey at a waterfront saloon in the area known as the Barbary Coast. His family didn’t see him again for nearly eight years.
People familiar with the dangers along the wharves speculated on his probable fate, but it wasn’t confirmed until he reappeared several years later. After passing out from either liquor or a drug, he had awakened aboard a ship bound for Europe by way of Cape Horn.
William Davis had been shanghaied. His nightmare was intensified by a shipwreck and what he found at the end of his long struggle to get home: After having taken in washings to support her family for several years, Isabelle had moved back to Utah, had her husband declared dead, and remarried.
Davis’s ordeal was longer than most, but it was by no means an isolated incident. Thousands of hapless victims fell prey to crimps along the waterfronts of port cities on both coasts during the last half of the nineteenth century and even into the early 1900s. William M. Coffman, an Underwood Corporation executive and founder of the East-West Shrine Football Game, describes in his autobiography being drugged, beaten, and shanghaied out of San Francisco in 1902, when he was nineteen.
The means of entrapment ranged from subterfuge to drugged liquor and blackjacks. Since no seafaring knowledge was required for menial jobs aboard a schooner or clipper ship, any tourist, shoemaker, bricklayer, minister, farmer, lumberjack, cowboy, or even rookie policeman could meet the need. Alfred Austin, a house painter looking for work in San Francisco around 1870, made the mistake of accepting a drink from a prospective employer on Market Street and woke up in the forecastle of a British ship headed for Australia. Thomas Cranna thought the stranger he met on New York’s Canal Street in 1873 was hiring him to help whitewash a ship anchored offshore. Instead he scraped masts and decks all the way around the Horn to California. While sightseeing in Baltimore in 1888, Edward Gurran and John Schreven were befriended by a man who after several drinks invited them to visit his yacht. It turned out to be an oyster sloop, from which they tried and failed to swim away.
Still, the crimp’s. primary targets were seamen, taken from boardinghouses and bars or simply off the streets and shuttled quietly to waiting ships. Any reluctance to sign shipping articles specifying wages and duties could be overcome by force or forgery, often just a witnessed X.
The English word crimp arose in the eighteenth century to mean a person who lured or forced men into sea duty. Not all so-called crimps in America fitted that definition; many were legitimate middlemen between shipmasters and job seekers. But most were despised by sailors and shipowners alike, their sole purpose being to supply live bodies for sailing crews.
New York and San Francisco were the predominant hunting grounds. Portland, Oregon, however, was a close runner-up, and the practice thrived to a lesser degree in Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, Baltimore, Savannah, Tacoma, and such smaller cities as San Pedro, California, and Port Townsend, Washington. The Gulf ports of New Orleans, Galveston, and Mobile were also not immune.
This long-lasting episode in American history was mystifying. It went against all the nation’s ideals. As one victim observed, it “reduced the value of a sailor to the price of a knockout drop.” An 1869 New York Times article called it “one horrible and incredible story of inhumanity, cruelty, and neglect, which ought to excite the astonishment and move the indignation of the country.” Yet it flourished, never much in the public view. It is well documented in congressional hearings, Maritime Commission records, seamen’s unions’ archives, letters and personal notes collected by maritime museum libraries, firsthand reports by reform leaders, and interviews by a few dedicated investigative reporters and historians.