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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
Seasoned crimps did not always wait for victims to come ashore; they might send runners to meet vessels just entering the harbor. Swarming aboard with or without permission, the runners marshaled seamen with promises of good times and bribes of liquor, loaded them into boats, and delivered them to the docks. From there draymen carted them on to boardinghouses. Many a captain was left with unfurled sails and barely enough men to make anchorage. When a reporter asked the master of a ship stripped of its crew in New York Harbor why he permitted runners to do this, the skipper replied, “Because I doubt that a captain’s life would be safe if he offended them.”
As early as 1866 a New York City law to “better protect seamen” established a commission to license only boardinghouses with spotless records. Eleven years later James J. Ferris, appointed to investigate the commission’s progress, reported that it had held exactly one meeting—to elect a new president in 1873—and that “no member of the board has ever inspected or visited a boardinghouse.” The U.S. Shipping Act of 1872, outlawing crimps’ commissions, had proved equally ineffective.
In 1884 Congress passed a law banning all advance payments of a sailor’s wages except when made voluntarily to dependent relatives. Undaunted, crimping organizations flexed their political muscles to obtain an amendment adding “original creditors” to those who could claim the allotment. That, of course, meant crimps, who thus continued to skim off their repayments for boardinghouse services.
Crimping at last began to subside, under pressure from unions, the rise of steamships, and public outcry. Much credit is due to a crusader named Andrew Furuseth.
An articulate, dedicated Norwegian who had been toughened by life at sea, Furuseth revived the failing Coast Seamen’s Union on the West Coast in 1885. Convinced the crimp could be defeated through legislation alone, he first attempted to be heard at local levels. When that only got protesters jailed, he and his followers banded with similar groups to form the National Seamen’s Union of America and took their fight to Washington. Basing his case on the Thirteenth Amendment, the union leader was rebuffed by a Supreme Court ruling that the amendment freeing slaves had no reference to seamen. However, Justice John M. Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion insisting that forcing “freemen who happen to be seamen” to “go aboard private vessels and render personal service against their will” was putting them “in a condition of involuntary servitude.” This encouraged Furuseth to press on, well into the twentieth century.
Technology helped doom shanghaiing: You needed a skilled, trained expert to tend an engine.
Jim Williams, meanwhile, reported in The Independent that he had “drifted into the labor movement as naturally as a ship goes with the tide or before a. leading wind.” He became an active participant in the Atlantic Coast Seamen’s Union around 1890, and later served as an officer. More openly belligerent than Furuseth, Williams organized what he called “persuasion committees” of fighters to intimidate non-union crews during an 1894 strike in Philadelphia, and he personally held New York branch members together when they were about to give up their struggle against organized gangs of crimps. After similar work in Baltimore and Norfolk, he joined delegations appearing before legislative committees in Albany and Washington. “I never resorted to unfair methods unless I thought the ends justified the means,” said Williams when queried about his occasionally violent ways; “if it were not for oppression there would be no unions.”
Williams and Furuseth had a powerful ally in technology. As steamships very gradually challenged the dominance of sailing vessels on the open seas, crimps slowly watched their market disappear. Any landlubber revived from his drug-induced anesthesia could pull a rope, but he could not be expected to have the skill and training to tend an engine.
When the American Seamen’s Friend Society announced plans in 1904 to build “the world’s largest and best equipped sailors’ home” in New York—where men could stay in safety and obtain ship berths without having part of their wages delivered to boarding masters—the Times predicted: “This will make some trouble for the crimps and sharks.” Two years later Congress tardily gave seamen some additional protection by passing an act that made shanghaiing punishable by “a fine of not more than one thousand dollars or imprisonment for one year, or both.” As late as 1911 Andrew Furuseth attended a hearing before the House Marine Committee armed with proof of a crimp’s being engaged to shanghai a crew aboard a ship owned by a former opium smuggler. But by then he had won his fight. The practice had become an anachronism that was finally dispelled entirely by the Seamen’s Act of 1915, which abolished all wage prepayments to “original creditors.”