- 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
Working in the commercial and financial center of the Western Hemisphere, the New York crimp was less conspicuous than his counterpart in a primarily maritime town. So San Francisco became known as the queen city of shanghaiing.
Pre-eminent among all San Francisco crimps was “Shanghai” Kelly, a red-bearded boarding master who led his profession in both success and ruthlessness. Kelly’s three-story building stretched out on pilings over a section of the bay at 33 Pacific Street and featured boardinghouse rooms, liquor, women—and trapdoors that could be reached by skiffs at high tide. Most of Kelly’s departures were handled legitimately, save for whatever fees might have been paid when the men were safely aboard ship. But when scarcities arose, he resorted to drugged liquor or opium-laced cigars, and he was said occasionally to oblige downtown clients who wanted to dispose of personal enemies.
Kelly’s fame crested in 1875, when he was engaged to supply crews for three ships, one of them with an especially bad reputation, at a time of particularly low supply. On the pretense of holding a birthday picnic aboard a chartered side-wheeler, Kelly attracted guests from the entire Embarcadero. Drinks aboard the craft were free, as promised. They were also drugged. Kelly delivered ninety men to the three vessels, assuring the captains that they would be solid hands once sobered up.
Shanghai Kelly and Miss Piggott had trapdoors to send their victims through.
The transactions completed, the resourceful Kelly spotted some survivors of a wrecked clipper off Point Conception, rescued them, and returned to the wharf to be hailed as a hero. In the excitement no one seemed to notice the absence of his picnic guests.
Trailing Kelly only slightly in San Francisco celebrity was Johnny Devine, described variously as a runner, a crimp, a brawler, and a murderer. He earned the nickname Shanghai Chicken by scrapping as ferociously as a fighting cock to make up for his small stature. Unlike most other crimps, Devine accumulated a lengthy record of arrests, albeit few convictions, by combining his crimping with thievery, pimping, and hired killings. Finally convicted of murder, he was hanged in 1873.
Women, too, took part in crimping. In San Francisco a Mother Bronson ran a boardinghouse and bar on Steuart Street, and a Miss Piggott owned a similar establishment on Davis Street. The latter, perhaps following the example of Shanghai Kelly, sent her drugged victims by trapdoor to waiting boats, while Mother Bronson was capable, according to a reporter, of “lifting a customer from the floor to the top of the bar with one kick.”
Some records indicate that Portland, Oregon, actually surpassed San Francisco as the most feared West Coast port of call late in the century. Much of this claim to infamy was ascribed to the exploits of its reigning crimps, including James Turk and the flamboyant Joseph (“Bunko”) Kelly (no relation to Shanghai).
Turk, Oregon’s first major crimp, operated a hotel and several sailors’ boardinghouses for more than twenty years until his death in 1895. The city’s Chamber of Commerce decried his “inhumanity and cruelty” toward seamen; he supposedly once shanghaied his own son to cure the boy’s taste for carousing. Bunko Kelly was best remembered through stories told to the writer Stewart Holbrook in 1931 by Spider Johnson, a talkative former sailor who had known him. Johnson has Kelly collecting money for a cigar-store Indian wrapped in a tarpaulin and delivered to a ship as a very drunken sailor, and shanghaiing a group of dying men who had consumed embalming fluid from what they thought was a keg of beer, having mistakenly broken into the basement of Johnson & Son undertakers, which was next door to the Snug Harbor saloon on Morrison Street. If such stories sound farfetched, Kelly’s reputation is nevertheless well defined. He was both a boardinghouse keeper of low repute and a street crimp who was convicted and sent to prison in 1894 for murdering a man while attempting to shanghai him.
Port Townsend, Washington, strategically located at the entrance to Puget Sound, stood out among smaller seaports plagued with shanghaiing. Water Street, the main thoroughfare, and Front Street, extending on pilings into the bay, were crowded with standard crimping lairs, some owned by ostensibly honest merchants.
Some successful crimps never resorted to force. The San Francisco boardinghouse keeper Mike Conner trained greenhorns briefly at a back-yard contrivance consisting of a ship’s wheel, mast, jib, and rigging and then passed them off on captains as experienced hands. And a few crimps became specialists. John (“One-Eye”) Curtin, of San Francisco, gained a monopoly on supplying men for coal ships running along the coast. Jimmy Laflin gathered crews only for whalers. A Providence, Rhode Island, crimp known as the Portuguese Consul specialized in sailors arriving from Portugal and the Azores.