Shanghaiing: How Trickery And Deception Turned Thousands of Unwilling Men Into Sailors

Apr 23, 2018 0 comments

Underneath Portland’s Old Town is a network of tunnel passages connecting the basements of many downtown bars and hotels to the Willamette River waterfront. In the 19th century, these tunnels were primarily used by merchants to move goods from the ships docked at the harbor directly to the basement storage areas, while avoiding the busy over ground traffic. But over the years these dingy tunnels became the center for organized crime and many nefarious practices such as shanghaiing. Indeed, so pervasive are these stories that the locals call Portland Underground the “Shanghai Tunnels”. But what exactly is shanghaiing?

During the Age of Sail—a period lasting from the 16th to the 19th centuries—a vast number of skilled and unskilled seamen were required to meet the needs of sea going vessels. But life at sea was harsh and there was far too few volunteers. So many European nations, especially the British Royal Navy, resorted to a more straightforward method of recruitment, namely, kidnapping.


“Press gangs” would patrol the waterfront looking for vagrants, plucking them off taverns and boardinghouses, or off the streets. There are accounts of press gangs barging into homes and grabbing men from their beds, or hauling away the groom from wedding procession while the bride screamed in horror, although such accounts are mere hearsay. Pressing actually took more often at sea, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often the targets.

One of the largest impressment operations occurred in the spring of 1757 in New York City, then still under British colonial rule. Three thousand British soldiers cordoned off the city, and plucked clean the taverns and other sailors' gathering places. Nearly eight hundred people were picked up, four hundred of which were then forced into ships.

The American west coast soon became a favorite hunting ground for crimps—the American equivalent of the press gang—and the practice itself came to be known as “shanghaiing”, possibly because Shanghai was a common destination of the ships with abducted crews.

The most straightforward method for a crimp to shanghai a victim is to render him unconscious, often by drugging his drink but a blow to the head works equally well, then forge his signature on the ship's articles during the time of delivery to the ship’s captain. If the unconscious victim is not known to the crimp, a name would be invented. It was not uncommon for an unwilling sailor to wake up at sea and find himself with a new name.


The crimps made good money from shanghaiing. A well-run operation could fetch as much as $9,500 per year in 1890s dollars, equivalent to about a quarter million dollars in today’s money. Aside from the fee, the crimp also collected, on behalf of the men he shanghaied, the two months advance pay that was allowed before a trip so that sailors could pay off debts and prepare themselves for the trip. It was a very lucrative enterprise.

Shanghaiing flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the American west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. On the east coast, cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore were the predominant hunting grounds. Some records indicate that Portland eventually surpassed San Francisco for shanghaiing, although historians argue that the Portland Underground was never a part of this insidious practice.

A leading crimp of the era was James Kelly, better-known as “Shanghai” Kelly, who ran a number of bars, a saloon and a boarding house in San Francisco. These establishments enabled Kelly to provide a steady supply of victims to undermanned ships at the San Francisco waterfront.


One of his most famous heist took place in the early 1870s, when Kelly set sail on a rented paddle steamer with close to a hundred guests he had invited to celebrate his “birthday”. After the opium-laced whiskey had knocked out the guests, he quietly offloaded them to three waiting ships in the sea. His biggest concern was returning from a well-publicized event with an empty boat. By a stroke of good fortune, another streamer struck a rock and began to sink. Kelly rescued everyone on board and resumed celebration. When they returned, nobody at the waterfront noticed that the people who stepped off the boat were not the same who left on it.

Following closely behind James Kelly in notoriety was Joseph “Bunko” Kelley, who admitted to have shanghaiied about 2,000 men and women during his 15-year career. Bunko once set a record for crimping by rounding up 50 men in three hours. In one infamous deal in 1893, Bunko delivered twenty two men who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid from the open cellar of a mortuary. He sold all the men, most of whom were dead, to a captain who sailed before the truth was discovered.

Women also took part in crimping. In San Francisco, a Miss Piggott operated a saloon equipped with a trapdoor over which the ferocious old woman would maneuver unsuspecting guests, before serving them a cocktail composed of equal parts whisky, brandy and gin laced with laudanum or opium. Sometimes a knock on the head is required to complete what the drug failed to accomplish. Miss Piggott would then pull a lever and dump the unconscious man to a mattress waiting below.

Shanghaiing began to decline by the end of the 19th century, following a series of legislations aimed towards combating crimps, such as requiring a sailor to sign in the presence of a federal shipping commissioner, and prohibiting the practice of seamen taking advances on wages. But it was the widespread adoption of steam-powered vessels that finally did it. Crimps couldn’t just drug anybody and pick them up from the streets to work on a ship, because newer vessels relied more on skilled labor and trained experts who could work a engine. Eventually, the Seamen's Act of 1915 made crimping a federal crime, and this ended the practice for good.


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}