Portland was the “shanghai” capital of the world in 1890s
In the days when Portland was a rough, tough, hard-drinking, hard-punching dockside town, the city's “crimping” activity actually generated international incidents with foreign governments.
This colorized postcard image is of Portland's harbor
very early in the
20th century. The picture is from www.
portlandwaterfront.org; to see
the site's full gallery of
photos and other images from Portland's early
waterfront years, click here. [Larger image: 600 x 450 px]
By Finn J.D. John — June 19, 2010
You’d never know it from looking around the Pearl District of Portland today, but a little over 100 years ago this was the most dangerous place on the West Coast to go out drinking.
The risk you ran wasn’t so much death or injury, though. It was the risk of waking up the next morning on board a barque headed for China, with an angry first mate screaming at you to get up and get to work and probably kicking you in the ribs, too.
Not many people know it, but at the end of the 1800s Portland was the most notorious city in the western hemisphere for the practice known today as “crimping,” after a Dutch word for a holding pen for fish.
Crimping involved opening a boardinghouse and extending credit to sailors, unemployed loggers and hobos, and letting them run up the tab until they couldn't pay — except by going to sea as a deckhand on a sailing ship. Soon the time would come when the resident would have to either pay up or go to sea, so they'd be forced to go to sea, and the "crimp," or boardinghouse owner, would then get paid out of an advance against the new sailor's pay.
When a ship needed a man or two and there wasn't one in the boardinghouse, sometimes the crimps would take even more drastic measures — which is where the shanghaiing came in.
“I will state that there is one port on the Pacific coast that has always been known as the greatest crimping den in America,” Andrew Furuseth, president of the International Seamen’s Union of America, testified to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1911. “I refer to the port of Portland.”
It got so bad that the French embassy actually filed a formal complaint in 1901, saying French sailors were regularly being crimped there.
In Astoria, the scene was similar, but because Astoria wasn’t the second-largest city on the West Coast, it wasn’t as widely noticed.
Crimps operated in several ways in 1890s Portland and Astoria. Most ran boardinghouses at which rent was on “credit,” and when a captain needed a few able-bodied sailors (“A.B.s,” they called them) the crimp would simply clear the house out, collecting a fee of $30 to $100 a head from the captain and often delivering the men unconscious, wrapped in a canvas tarp. If there weren’t enough sailors and laid-off loggers living in the boardinghouse, the crimp might try prowling the downtown watering holes, chatting customers up and slipping knockout drops into their drinks — in other words, shanghaiing, a practice that pretty much all the crimps engaged in, but none would ever admit to.
Crimps drummed up extra business by coaxing sailors to desert while they were in port. Sometimes, when the cargo was unloaded and it was time to set sail, captains found themselves “buying” their old crew back.
Sold: Two dozen dead and dying "sailors"
Portland’s notoriety reached a peak in the mid-1890s. There's an enduring waterfront story from that time about a particular colorfully named crimp named Joseph “Bunko” Kelley, who reportedly delivered two dozen dead men to the captain of a British merchant ship. (Kelly himself vigorously denied the story, and I haven't been able to find any corroborating evidence. I also haven't been able to track down a trace of any of the businesses or ships supposedly involved in the caper. It seems clear to me that this story is waterfront folklore rather than history, although there may be a kernel of historical truth buried in it somewhere.)
The story is that Kelly, on the prowl for A.B.s, came across an open cellar door and found, inside, several dozen dead and dying men. They had broken into the cellar of what they thought was a saloon, but it was actually the mortuary next door to it, and the booze they’d been guzzling was embalming fluid — deadly poison. Kelly wrapped them up, hauled them down to the waterfront and cashed them in — so the story goes. One imagines the ship's captain being less than pleased the next morning.
Authorities: U.S. Constitution doesn't cover seamen
You might think hauling 24 bodies out of a cellar and down to the waterfront would be an activity that would attract some official attention. Not in 1890s Portland. In fact, when Portland chief of police Samuel Parrish quit in 1892, there was a persistent rumor that he'd been asked to leave because he'd been discreetly shanghaiing drunks out of the city lockup, and had accidentally shipped out someone important. And the top Portland crimper, a hard-punching scoundrel named Larry Sullivan, once boasted, “I am the law in Portland.”
The sailors themselves didn't have much of a say in all this; no one seems to have given much thought to whether all this crimping and shanghaiing was an OK way to treat them. In fact, in 1897 the U.S. Supreme Court actually ruled that the 13th Amendment effectively didn't apply to sailors when it declared involuntary servitude unconstitutional, ruling in essence that merchant sailors were not fit to be entrusted with the full rights of citizens.
This postcard image, dating from around 1920, shows a cargo ship
being loaded with wheat at the Port of
Portland. This was well after the
"golden age of
crimping," as evidenced by the fact that the vessel is
steam powered. For a larger image, click here.
Steamships to the rescue
In fact, the end of the crimping era would come not from the law, but from commerce. Labor-intensive barques, barkentines and schooners were giving way to the more lightly staffed steamships, and it was no longer necessary to shark up a big list of A.B.s. By the early 1900s, crimping, while still practiced, was a dying “art,” and by 1915 when the federal government finally did something about it — passing the relatively toothless Seaman’s Act — the practice was mostly history anyway.
(Sources: Pintarch, Dick. “Shanghai City,” Great Moments in Oregon History. Portland: New Oregon Publishing, 1987; www.portlandwaterfront.org; U.S. Bureau of Navigation, Annual Report of the Commissioner of Navigation, 1902; U.S. House of Representatives, The Seamen’s Bill: Hearings …, 1911; Starin, Nicholas. "Portland Seaman's Friend Society," The Oregon Encyclopedia,www.oregonencyclopedia.org.)