In the mid- to late-19th century, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was infamous. The site of numerous boarding houses, dance halls, bars, brothels and many other shady establishments, it was a popular destination for sailors on shore leave.
But things could get messy there. So messy, in fact, that some sailors might disembark from one ship and wake up on another, with nothing but a sore head and a legally binding contract preventing them from abandoning ship.
This practice, not made illegal until 1915, was called shanghaiing. And James ‘Shanghai’ Kelly was the master.
What was shanghaiing?
Named for the fact that many of its victims ended up in far-flung ports (such as Shanghai), shanghaiing – or crimping – was the practice of signing some poor bastard up for crew work without his consent. It was achieved through a number of techniques, none of which were pleasant for the hapless future sailor. Intimidation, drugging and outright violence were all used. The crimper added insult to injury by collecting an advance on the victim’s wages for the first few months, making the sailor basically a slave for some portion of his tenure on board.
James ‘Shanghai’ Kelly
Born in Ireland in 1820, James ‘Jim’ Kelly emigrated to the US in 1848 to join the California Gold Rush. Things apparently didn’t pan out (geddit?) and Kelly moved into the boarding house and crimping business.
Mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco had a huge problem with sailors – specifically, it didn’t have enough of them. Sailors would arrive, decide that months on end without wine, women and song was frankly quite shit, and decide to stay in port to seek their fortune. This left many ships without sufficient hands to set sail again, let alone maintain the ship and haul cargo.
All of this was solved by Kelly and men of his ilk by way of shanghaiing. Kelly’s preferred technique was to offer free booze at his boarding house, for which any sailor worth his salt was down. Of course, the free booze came with a catch – it was laced with opium, laudanum or chloral hydrate. Some particularly hardy sailors needed a hand being rendered unconscious, and were promptly clouted around the head. Whatever the degree of enthusiasm afforded to putting them out cold, the sailors woke up miles from shore, wholly legal shipmates who could not abandon ship upon pain of prosecution.
Kelly – a diminutive, irascible bloke known for his fiery red beard and fierce temper – was king of shanghaiing, and business was good.
One day, even Kelly’s considerable powers of abduction were put to the test when he received an order for one hundred able-bodied men. Not to be thwarted, Kelly devised a plan…
Kelly’s ‘birthday’ celebrations
Kelly had a problem – his usually packed-to-the-rafters boarding house was pretty much empty, and so he could not draw upon his usual resources. He therefore hit upon a plan – he charted a paddle steamer, put the word on the street that it was his birthday, and invited all and sundry to board his steamer for all the free food and drink they could stomach.
Ninety men showed up for his impromptu birthday party, and the steamer set out beyond the Golden Gate. By the time she got there, Kelly’s ‘guests’ were good and conked out. He offloaded the unconscious men to the three waiting ships and collected his pay.
This, however, presented Kelly with a problem. All of the Barbary Coast had watched him leave with ninety guests, and it would look slightly suspect if he turned back up with zero revellers. However was he to resolve this conundrum?
Fortune favours the wicked
Luckily for Kelly, he came across a ship that had run aground and was taking on water. Displaying the altruism for which he was famous, Kelly rescued all of the passengers and magnanimously ferried them back to San Francisco. So it was that he sailed back into port with (roughly) as many guests as he’d left. If anyone noticed that they were completely different people, nobody commented upon it.
How much of it is true?
Though it is a fact that Jim Kelly existed and that his bread and butter was shanghaiing, the story of his birthday celebrations may, in fact, be apocryphal. In this post-truth era, however, whoever let the facts get in the way of a good story?
And what became of Jim Kelly himself? Rumours abounded that he ended up shanghaied himself, eventually ending up in Peru where he absconded and was subsequently shot dead.
The federal government, in the meanwhile, started looking into this whole abduction-and-forced-servitude malarkey and wondered if it oughtn’t to be a crime. Thanks to widespread graft and conflicting interests the practice continued for a good long while before eventually being outlawed in 1915.