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Shanghaied in Astoria: A once-perilous port city

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By Finn J.D. John
March 25, 2012

YOU COULD THINK of the last couple decades of the 1800s the “golden age of shanghaiing” on the West Coast. Pick the wrong place to stop for a drink or rent a room for the night — or even just walk down the wrong street at the wrong time of night — and an innocent bystander could wake up the next morning to the vigorous kicks and curses of a “bucko” second mate, huddled on the deck of a four-masted barque headed for Hong Kong.

One of the worst ports for this practice — a port where almost anyone, doing almost anything, could suddenly find himself at sea — was Astoria.

How the shanghaiing business worked

The term “to shanghai” was coined by a preacher in San Francisco, in 1855 — the height of the Gold Rush. The term referred to a particularly aggressive form of a practice known as “crimping.”

The term “Crimping” comes from a Dutch word, “krimp,” a holding pen or tank for live fish. The basic idea is, you set up a boardinghouse for sailors where they can stay on credit while they’re ashore. That way, more of their money is available to spend on debauchery. Eventually, the sailor’s money is all gone, and he is simply living in the boardinghouse — still on credit. He repays that credit by shipping out when the boardinghouse operator gets an “order” from a ship captain who needs a crew member. When that happens, the boardinghouse operator places the sailor on an outbound ship, presenting a claim against his future earnings to cover his room and board.

Rarely did the sailor go willingly back to sea — they always wanted to stay on land just a little longer. So often times the sailor had to be rendered unconscious with a shot of whisky laced with laudanum.

The grateful ship captain would then pay the crimp a bonus of $30 to $90 per sailor, depending on market conditions. This bonus was popularly called “blood money.”

This was what you might call “normal” crimping — a system designed to manipulate sailors into incurring financial obligations that they could only discharge by making slaves of themselves. It was certainly bad enough … but shanghaiing was worse.

Systematic kidnapping

Shanghaiing was like freelance crimping. Rather than selling off sailors he’d enticed into his boardinghouse and encouraged to run up a debt, the crimp would simply prowl the streets with a blackjack looking for some stranger to clobber, roll up in a tarp and cash in.

Shanghaiing had certain advantages; the up-front costs, obviously, were quite a bit lower. It’s not the way most crimps liked to operate, because it was dangerous and left a trail of deadly enemies — who occasionally returned to the port years later with revenge on their minds. Also, skippers didn’t much appreciate finding out that the “old salt” they’d signed on was a 19-year-old plowboy who’d never been on the water before.

But at times when there weren’t very many professional sailors in town, desperate ship captains would start raising the “blood money” bonuses they offered. The higher these bonuses got, the more tempted crimps were to fill their pockets with knockout drops and go out looking for someone to shanghai.

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A street scene in downtown Astoria from the "golden age of shanghaiing" in Oregon, featuring the Odd Fellows Temple, drawn by the staff artist at The West Shore, a literary magazine based in Portland, and published in 1887.

Astoria in particular seems to have presented the crimps with this sort of dilemma frequently, to the point that they resorted to some desperate measures to try to get crew members.

Shanghaiers making house calls

Historian Martha McKeown recounts the experiences of one newcomer to Astoria, Mont Hawthorne, who came to the city in the early 1880s and took a job cutting timber. Hawthorne was immediately warned by a neighbor to be on his guard. It seemed another neighbor had been kidnapped in the middle of the night, out of his own cabin, and hauled down to the waterfront and shipped out on a windjammer.

Accordingly, Hawthorne took to lugging a rifle and a shotgun with him at all times when he was in the woods. He also packed a revolver on his hip when he had to go to town.

Then one night, he was awakened by a huge racket at the door of his cabin. Someone was trying to force it open.

Hawthorne bellowed a warning, which was ignored, so he put seven rifle bullets through the door. After that, he heard a great crashing through the brush — audible, it seems, even over the ringing in his ears from having laid down a curtain of fire in an enclosed cabin — as the crimps beat a hasty and panicky retreat. They never bothered him after that — so the story goes.

A minister’s shanghai story

However, a couple of them did make an attempt on the town’s Methodist minister, George Grannis. According to an account passed on by author Richard Dillon, Grannis went one Sunday to ring the bells in his church. On his way back down the stairs, someone suddenly stepped up behind him and threw an overcoat over his head, while another pinned his arms to his sides.

The would-be shanghaiers surely thought this would be a doddle. How hard could it possibly be to kidnap a preacher? Clergymen are the “turn-the-other-cheek” people — soft of voice and tender of foot. After all, who ever heard of a trained, successful prizefighter deciding to quit the ring and become a Methodist minister? Preposterous, right?

Grannis kicked out at the place in space which he was pretty sure contained one of his assailants, and was rewarded with the feel of a solid hit. The other one then lost his grip enough for Grannis to get a nice productive head-butt in. The three of them tumbled down the stairs to the bottom, and when they got there, Grannis was on his feet and moving like a pro. A few violent, painful seconds later, his assailants decided they’d bitten off more than they could chew and ran for it.

The next day, Grannis noticed one of the local crimps was missing a few teeth. And after that day, he was left in peace to minister to his flock.

(Sources: McKeown, Martha Ferguson. The Trail Led North: Mont Hawthorne’s Story. New York: Macmillan, 1948; Dillon, Richard. Shanghaiing Days. New York: Coward McCann, 1961)

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