Oregon's most notorious shanghai artist: “Bunco” Kelley
He was Portland's most notorious bad guy, with his fingers in everything from shanghaiing sailors to smuggling opium. But ironically, when he was finally sent to prison, it was for a murder he clearly didn't commit.
By Finn J.D. John — July 13, 2014
In the shadowy world of late-1800s Portland waterfront folklore, there’s nobody who quite cuts the figure of a man named Joseph Kelley — better known by the nickname he carefully cultivated: Bunco Kelley.
Kelley was a crimp — that is, one of those tough waterfront characters involved in the trade of furnishing sailors, willing or not, to ship captains in need of a crew.
And he was also an easy liar with a real flair for a dramatic story — which means it’s often difficult to tell his fact from fiction.
In today’s article, we’ll explore the facts of Bunco Kelley’s life as best we are able to know them. Next week, we’ll turn to the spectacular legends that grew up around this unusually colorful bad guy.
Bunco comes to Portland
Kelley came to Portland on a sailing ship, from somewhere back east — either Liverpool or Dublin or somewhere in Connecticut, depending on whom you asked — with his brother, William. Almost immediately, he went into the sailors’ boardinghouse business.
Sailors’ boardinghouses were dingy, unsanitary hovels kept close to the waterfront, in which sailors, visiting loggers and vagrants were invited to stay on “credit.” Typically, a man would run up a bill for room and board that he couldn’t pay off, and he’d be more or less forced to discharge the debt by signing onto a sailing ship, whose captain would pay his lodging bill as an advance against his meager future earnings.
To be successful in the boardinghouse business required a few key elements, chief among which was a pair of hard fists; there was a reason all boardinghouse owners were prizefighters or legendary brawlers. Rarely did a sailor go to sea voluntarily.
A sailors' boardinghouse operator (known to his friends as a "boarding master" and to his enemies as a "crimp") also needed to have a very high degree of what you might call moral flexibility. After all, the business was basically a human trafficking operation based on swindling people into indentured servitude — a whisper away from outright slave trading.
That Kelley met both these requirements isn’t in any doubt at all, as a number of appearances in the cops-and-courts listings of the Morning Oregonian during that time will readily show.
Kelley kept a boardinghouse for a while, but seemed to prefer the life of a freelance underworld entrepreneur, chasing after anything that smelled like easy money.
Kelley the shanghaier
Through the late 1880s and early 1890s, he developed a reputation as a boarding master of last resort. When the usual boardinghouses were empty, you came in desperation to Kelley, who would go out and find somebody to fill out your crew — often by finding, befriending and shanghaiing some luckless hobo.
This appears to be how he came by his name; in 1887, the skipper of the British barque Jupiter wrote a letter to the Oregonian complaining that the seaman he hired through Kelley’s good offices (probably delivered to him unconscious and wrapped in a tarp, although he does not specify) was “a perfect cripple by rheumatism,” and referring to Kelley as “Bunco Kelley.” The name stuck — with, it seems, considerable encouragement from Kelley himself.
As the late 1880s ripened into the early 1890s, the Portland crimping scene came increasingly under the control of a remarkably well-connected, socially polished prizefighter named Larry Sullivan (here's a link to the Offbeat Oregon story on him). Sullivan and Kelley worked together for years, with Kelley representing Sullivan’s boardinghouse as a “runner” (going out to ships and talking the incoming sailors into staying at Larry’s place).
Losing friends in high places
But at some point in the early 1890s, Sullivan discovered that he could make serious money by selling the services of every sailor in port at election time as a “repeater,” or serial voter. Keeping that illegal money train chugging along meant keeping Portland’s ruling Republican elite happy with his services, something it was getting hard to do with the flashy, notorious, proudly Democratic Kelley on his payroll.
And Kelley really became a liability in 1893, when the doors were blown off the Blum-Dunbar opium smuggling gang, an industrial-scale operation that for a time supplied most of the opium to the West Coast with the help of Portland chief customs official James Lotan — who happened also to be the head of the Oregon Republican Party. (Here's a link to the Offbeat Oregon story on the gang.)
In the trial that held Portland spellbound throughout December of 1893, Lotan found himself facing serious federal corruption charges, and the whistleblower accusing him, Nat Blum, was one of Kelley’s cronies. To make matters worse, Kelley, called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution, testified that he was “in partnership” with Sullivan.
Lotan’s party friends saved him from prosecution. But Kelley’s involvement had probably cost Sullivan a great deal of money, and the two of them were bitter enemies after that.
Kelley goes to prison
The end of Kelley’s career as a Portland underworld figure came in 1894, when Kelley was accused of having murdered an old man named George Sayres — a generally well-liked former saloonkeeper. Significantly, his co-defendant was Bob Garthorn, who had been one of the other key lieutenants in the Blum-Dunbar opium gang. The prosecution alleged that the two of them had been involved with Sayres in a scheme to swindle some Chinese people by selling them a large shipment of fake opium. Things had gone sideways, and Kelley had tried to solve the problem by shanghaiing Sayres; the attempt was bungled, and Sayres ended up dead — that was the prosecution’s story.
Kelley maintained to the last that it was a frame-up engineered by Sullivan, and that he had nothing to do with the killing — and there are compelling reasons to believe him. Sayres’ body, when fished from the river, was still carrying his gold watch and some jewelry; neither Kelley nor Garthorn was the type to let that sort of loot get just thrown into the river. Also, the suggestion that an experienced shanghaier like Kelley would be unable to handle kidnapping a 73-year-old man is highly dubious. And it also seems unlikely that a pair of longtime opium pushers like Kelley and Garthorn would burn their bridges in Chinatown by selling fake dope, even if they’d had the skills and resources to make the little cans that opium came packaged in and to label them with the proper Chinese characters.
But, innocent or no, the verdict was guilty, and after that Kelley was shipped off to the state penitentiary in Salem.
Portland's most notorious bad guy
This moment was the apex of Kelley’s notoriety. Crowds thronged at railroad stations, hoping for a glimpse of Portland’s most notorious bad guy.
Kelley spent 13 miserable years in the joint before being pardoned by the governor in response to a petition signed by some of the same people who’d sought to put him away years before.
He promptly set out to capitalize on his reputation with a book tour. Unfortunately, in the intervening 13 years, so much water had rolled under the bridge that few people remembered him, and he soon found himself crawling back into the underworld — this time in San Francisco. Historian Barney Blalock found a reference to him in coverage of a 1908 trial of a San Francisco gangster for whom he was apparently working. What became of him after that, I have not been able to learn.
And that, in broad strokes, is the life of Joseph “Bunco” Kelley, the most notorious shanghai artist of 1890s Portland. You will immediately notice that there’s not much to this biographical sketch that would justify such notoriety, other than his wonderful nickname. That justification would come from less historically rigorous sources — from the tall tales, myths and stories of the old Portland waterfront, cleaned up and augmented and carefully spun by one of the most skilled storytellers who ever hung his black deerskin gloves and snappy Fedora in the Beaver State: Stewart Holbrook.
We’ll explore these myths and legends in next week’s article.
(Sources: Blalock, Barney. Portland’s Lost Waterfront. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2012; Portland Morning Oregonian, Oct. 1894-Jan. 1895; Portland Evening Telegram, December 1893)