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July 2024
15min read

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

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.

Captains watched their crews fly off to the goldfields. Crimping was the only apparent solution.

The relative obscurity of shanghaiing can be attributed to several factors. It took place only at unsavory waterfront locations frequented by a tiny, roisterous segment of the citizenry. Politicians and law officers could easily ignore the problem or benefit from it. The relevant laws served more to protect shipowners and captains from mutiny than to safeguard the rights of seamen. And most victims were not literate enough to record their plights—a U.S. Supreme Court justice described seamen in general as “thoughtless, credulous, complying, and easily overreached”—and few non-seamen even cared about their fate.

During and after the Civil War, maritime authorities were simply overwhelmed with much more urgent problems. Confederate raiders destroyed 257 vessels, compelling Union shipowners to transfer 700 others to foreign registries—a blow from which the U.S. Merchant Marine did not fully recover until 1900. But half a century earlier impressment of American seamen—the forerunner of shanghaiing—not only represented a principal government concern but was one of the most urgent issues leading to the War of 1812.

In retrospect impressment seems a blatant denial of human rights. Nevertheless it was supported by British statutes for centuries. Based on the premise that the adequate manning of warships, vital to the empire’s survival, outweighed concerns for individual freedom, the Royal Navy had authority to press men into service by virtually any means—seizing crews from merchant ships, anchored or at sea, or rounding up unsuspecting sailors at docks and taverns. When President James Madison asked Congress for a declaration of war on June 1, 1812, he cited the “pernicious consequences” of impressment and blockades as the two chief provocations.


Yet the 1815 treaty that ended the war made no reference to impressment; the issue was among several that had been scuttled by both sides in the guise of compromise, and the matter lost its impact in diplomatic debates. Nevertheless the problem smoldered, as tales of impressment persisted and then burst forth again at mid-century in a more subtle cloak—as the work of private enterprise. This new version presented a mirror image of its predecessor. Instead of preying on merchant ships, the modern crimp supplied them.

In 1848 the discovery of gold in California touched off an avalanche of migration. Easterners could get there overland or by ship. So many chose the latter that shipbuilders from Maine to Virginia went into a spate of production limited only by the numbers of workers they could round up. Some 770 ships carrying twenty-eight thousand gold seekers rounded the Horn from Eastern ports in 1849; just four had gone to California the year before. Captains watched fortune-seeking crews join their passengers in leaving the ships upon arrival in San Francisco, and the bay became littered with abandoned vessels.

Owners of ships carrying cargoes to go on to foreign ports after dropping off passengers faced the prospect of watching their goods rot in holds unless they could fill their crews. Those hoping to return East felt equally stranded, while along the Atlantic seacoast, manning the growing number of new sailing vessels became similarly difficult.

The only apparent alternative to bankruptcy was the crimp. Faced with this newest challenge as brokers of seamen, many crimps did not hesitate to turn to shanghaiing.

History is vague on the origin of the term shanghai . The explanation most widely accepted is one given by the Reverend William Taylor in his 1856 book, Seven Years Street Preaching in San Francisco : “… but from ‘Shanghae in China,’ there were seldom any ships returning to California. To get back, therefore, they [seamen] must make the voyage around the world. … Hence to get ‘crews’ for Shanghae … they [shipowners] depended, almost exclusively, on drugging the men. Crews for Shanghae were, therefore, said to be Shanghaed, and the term came into general use to represent this whole system of drugging, extortion, and cruelty.”

Father Taylor had gained a substantial reputation preaching on the streets of Washington and Baltimore before accepting a missionary assignment in San Francisco in 1849. The Reverend Edward Thompson Taylor was even better known as an outspoken defender of seafaring men. Having been impressed himself by the British during the War of 1812, he founded the Boston Seamen’s Bethel and “trod its quarter deck” for forty years. The efforts of such religious leaders, however, were suffocated under the pressures applied by the powerful crimps.

The hierarchy of crimping was developed in New York City and Boston. At the top were shipping masters and boarding masters, both known as crimps. The shipping master, charged with producing a crew, depended primarily on the boarding master, or boardinghouse keeper, for his supply of sailors. The boarding master provided food, shelter, liquor, and entertainment for men awaiting berths. At times the two vocations overlapped.

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.”

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.

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.”

So the custom passed into history—and into the realm of the picturesque. On Pacific Avenue in San Francisco, for instance, a jolly sign showing a well-dressed thug slapping a belaying pin into his open palm welcomes patrons to Shanghai Kelly’s Saloon. But there are places where the crimp’s trade is still too close to be the stuff of ribald legend. The author of this article knows from personal experience that there are members of highly respected families on the West Coast who know all about shanghaiing but are very glad the custom is so forgotten. They are not eager to have the world discover that their ancestral fortune began with a blow to somebody’s head.

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