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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
So far this sounds legitimate. But brazen groups like the New York Association of Boardinghouse Keepers and the Seaman Landlords Protective Association of San Francisco, organized in the 1860s, drew up agreements stating that no man would be put aboard any American or foreign ship without being prepaid two months’ wages—perhaps fifty dollars. And this money was turned over directly to the crimp, ostensibly for boardinghouse charges, whether for an hour or for a week. In addition, the ship’s captain had to pay the crimp a commission of five to seventy-five dollars per man.
Like today’s high-level drug traffickers, crimps defied law enforcement, bribing city officials and threatening captains, who accepted the system partly from fear. When Capt. James C. Cleary of the British vessel Blackwell resisted in the 1860s, his ship was burned to the water. A formal complaint from a group of sea captains to the San Francisco Merchants Exchange in 1867 read: “It is probably unknown to the public generally that there exists in our midst a secret society of persons, bound together by the strongest ties, for the object of enslaving seamen and levying blackmail upon the commerce of the port, and that under its ruse no seaman is free to obtain employment where he will, neither can he choose his place of residence in the port, nor leave it when he desires to, yet such is the case.”
Exact numbers are of course impossible to pin down, but it is likely that crimps used various forms of shanghaiing to fill perhaps as much as 20 percent of merchant-ship berths. In 1890 The New York Times reported that shipping masters still had “a complete monopoly” on supplying sailors for outgoing ships.
Ships’ captains, however, cannot escape shouldering a share of the blame. Men like the infamous Robert H. (“Bully”) Waterman, who never denied being the most despotic of all American sailing masters, clubbed and flogged men, sometimes to death, for misreading a compass, responding too slowly to an order, or simply getting sick. Shanghaied landlubbers, knowing nothing of halyards, jackstays, and jib booms, suffered most of all. With no recourse and very little money, escape was difficult even when the ship was in port. Many a sailor knew that he could be arrested as a deserter even if his service had been involuntary. Because he was considered riffraff, few people cared. A fugitive-sailor law remained in effect for more than three decades after the fugitive-slave laws had been repealed.
As the crimps’ network expanded through the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, menacing neighborhoods grew even more perilous. In New York crimps mostly employed contact men called runners, whose strong arms and weak principles might find a likely candidate in any wanderer making his way through the swarms of streetwalkers, procurers, panhandlers, thieves, gang members, seamen, and drunks at the lower end of the Bowery. No fewer than two hundred boardinghouses were interspersed among the rough-and-tumble bars and brothels of Water, Cherry, James, Oliver, Roosevelt, West, South, and First streets.
Sailors knew they could be arrested as deserters even if their service had been involuntary.
An article by James H. Williams in the Coast Seamen’s Journal in 1908 reported: “The more ignorant or complaisant man they found, the better the blood-money-hungry crimps liked him. All sorts and conditions of humanity were regularly shanghaied on board outward bound windjammers and turned over to the bucko mates to be ‘combed out’ and remodeled into a sailor. If his alternative was being bloodied by a belaying pin, he became a willing deck hand.”
Born in 1864, Williams went to sea at the age of twelve, sailing out of Boston aboard the brig Nicanor . Endowed with a natural flair for colorful expression, he learned enough reading and writing eventually to become a leading spokesman for East Coast sailors. The Independent magazine discovered Williams’s ability and began printing what became a series of more than thirty of his articles. These stories, backed by the magazine’s reputation for authenticating its material and by maritime records, help document the sailor’s plight during the crimping years.
Among the incidents that Williams reported and The Independent ’s editor ratified was the mistaking of the master of a Norwegian vessel for a common sailor on a New York waterfront; he was drugged and shanghaied aboard a Yankee ship. Fortunately, Williams said, the mistake was discovered in time for a tugboat crew to rescue him near Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Scores of instances were cited by the seaman writer, who had himself once been shanghaied in Norfolk, Virginia. He told of Shanghai Brown, Harry Walters, and other celebrity crimps, who “filled our forecastles with the rakings and scrapings of Hell and Newgate,” and insisted that New York was the “stronghold of crimping,” although tactics “did not differ materially in different sections of the country.”