Saturday, April 7, 2012

Lazy Bones Arises


In looking at my Portland Waterfront History website for the first time in ages I am filled with remorse for not updating it as I discovered new things. I sat down this morning and quickly dashed off a new version of the chapter on the period from 1870 to 1900. I have discovered so much about this period that each subject that I mention is a subject that I would gladly write pages, chapters, even whole books on if I had the time.

I am going to publish that new material here as well. I plan to turn it into an entirely new site using some of the images I have collected in the six or eight years since I first put the site online. Here is the chapter, a brief overview of Portland's shanghai masters, and their environment:

 The Years of the Sailor's Boarding House Masters

The thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution had outlawed slavery in 1865, but in a nation whose beginnings had been staffed by indentured servants from the home countries and captured slaves from Africa, the idea of slavery was not so abhorrent that the very lowest class of laborer, the seaman, could not be subjected to such abuses. Sailors were a pariah class in those days. This gave rise to many opportunities to defraud and abuse them. There were strict laws against desertion, and once an individual had signed onto a ship all the force of the law would come to bear to make sure that person remained to fulfill their obligation. Without such laws the entire maritime machine would be disrupted.

But by the eighteen seventies in the United States desertion from vessels coming from foreign ports was almost a standard mode of operation. After a long sea voyage the sailors would want to enjoy themselves to the fullest, but they would not be paid until they returned to the home port. The sailor's boarding house owners, and "runners" would offer the sailors room, board, and the pleasures of vice if the sailor would desert. The crimp would also nearly always tell of another ship that paid higher wages. The sailors would desert and as soon as the boarding house master was able he or she would ship the sailor off on another vessel, thereby making a substantial profit by receiving the sailor's advance pay for the expenses the sailor had incurred on his tab. The sailors were cheated mercilessly, and the crimps grew wealthy and powerful.

The words, "crimp" and "sailor's boarding house master" are interchangeable. In writings of the day they would also use the word "runner." That meant specifically, a person engaged in drumming up business for the boarding house. Passenger ships were met by "hotel runners," and in Portland both the sailor's boarding house runners, and the hotel runners were supposed to be licensed by the city and issued official badges.

When tugs pushed a vessel up to one of the wharves along the Willamette, the crimps were there waiting. Sometimes they would use a hook and ropes to board the vessel from rowboats before it even came along dockside. The crimps would accost the crew with tales of their fine boarding house and all the pleasures it afforded, and stories of better pay on a different vessel. When the crew members deserted the captains were glad to see them go because they were then able to keep the wages owed to them while obtaining fresh crewmen from the same crimps when the ship was ready to sail some weeks (or even months) later.

The boarding house masters were not just interested in sailors. In a city where (as in most cities of the day) vagrants were taken to the city jail the boarding houses offered the passing hobo a room on credit. The "landlubber" would then be shipped off to pay the bill with the advance. Often times ship captains had so many hobos on board they were afraid to sail as this news article shows. This trick was played year in and year out on many a wandering fortune seeker, would be gold miner, fun seeking cowboy, plow boy, logger, fisherman--anyone without any particular place to go wandering the streets of Portland, or looking for a good time in any number of establishments near the waterfront. If there was a large number of vessels in port needing fresh crews, the crimps were not above slipping someone a Mickey Finn, or going down to the “shape up,” where longshoremen were being hired, with a sap (blackjack) in one hand and a canvas tarp in the other to pick off some unwilling seamen from among the no-hires for that day. Ship captains not averse to having new crew members delivered dead drunk and wrapped in a canvas tarp.

The first of the boarding house masters was a cruel and powerful man named Jim Turk. He and his wife were also drunken brawlers whose names were always in the papers for some assault or another. In a city with a corrupt civil society and police force Jim Turk rose to be practically untouchable. An example being the time he beat a man almost to death in the very offices of the British Vice Consul. For this act he had to pay a small fine. Early on Turk thought he could be a respectable hotel manager and business man, but it was not in his nature to do so.




From the City Directory 1879

Other boarding houses were soon established both in Portland and Astoria. The geographic location made it impossible for ship's captains to obtain seamen through any other source, and should they try on their own, they would be punished by the crimps in numerous ways until they conceded. Portland and Astoria became world famous, debated in the British Parliament and other European capitals. This nasty business had a negative effect on shipping, and yet it was allowed to continue from the early 1870s into the first part of the 20th century.

Another famous crimp was a low life named Bunko Kelly. Many outrageous stories about his supposed exploits have become a part of Portland's imaginary history. An old salt named Spider Johnson spent long hours in Erickson's saloon getting free booze for telling the writer Stewart Holbrook tall tales of Bunko Kelly. I have read enough of the old reports and seen documents enough to lead me to the conclusion that Bunko well deserved his nickname, he was a compulsive liar of the very highest order. He was eventually framed for murder, most likely by another shanghaier, and sent to the penitentiary.






Bunko Kelly, from his self published prison memoirs.
 I was lucky enough to find a copy online. It was in a book store in Australia.

There was also Larry Sullivan, an ex-boxer, who rose to become a big politician in the so called "Whitechapel," or north end, where many of the palaces of vice existed unmolested by the law. Sullivan is famous for having the ballot box for elections located in his boarding house. He oversaw his own election to city government holding a shotgun to make sure the police didn't interfere with the winos, foreign sailors, and women prostitutes that were voting. This sounds like myth, but it can be substantiated by numerous newspaper reports. Sullivan was in business with the Grant brothers, the sons of Bridget Grant, an Astoria sailor's boarding house keeper. She was thought to be above shanghaiing, but I have found strong evidence that she was too subtle for the news reporters of the day, and shanghaied unsuspecting souls in a very sneaky manner.

One of the latter day shanghaiers was another boxer, the welter weight champion of the world, a man with the mysterious name, "Mysterious" Billy Smith. He was in business with some brothers named White, and they operated from Albina. They had some serious run ins with Sullivan and the Grant Brothers over the years. Mysterious Billy Smith quit being in the crimping business around 1906. He opened a tavern in Albina and lived to a fairly ripe old age.




A cigarette card

It took Portland a long time to overcome the bad name. Many of these tales died out with the eye witnesses, simply because the bad reputation was one that was not wanted by Portlanders, whether newspaper editors or anyone else. It was a long, terrible period of unholy cruelty and injustice, and one that was tolerated for over half a century by civil society. Add to this the fact that the city government of Portland was so notoriously corrupt that in 1912 Oswald West, the new prohibitionist governor of Oregon, stepped in and put his own man in as sheriff, a man named Tom Word. Word went at it with a vengeance and closed all the north end brothels, gambling dens, and whore houses. This is a very interesting year in Portland history. I have to say though, for all Sheriff Word's efforts, a report two years later showed that these places had reestablished themselves like mushrooms.

There is much said on this subject about "shanghai tunnels" a supposed system of tunnels whereby the crimps could secretly move their victims to the docks. I wonder why they would need a tunnel for something they could do in broad daylight? I have found reports of U. S. Marshals being used as an armed guard to make sure all the unwilling sailors made it to the mouth of the Columbia and out to sea. Once the ship's papers were signed, a man belonged to the ship and was no longer a free citizen.

In the 1970s the papers carried some stories about Portland's “shanghai tunnels.” The excavating had turned up a tunnels in northwest Portland with much evidence of them being frequented by humans. There was even a cage found, large enough for a grown man. Tours of these places are now offered to tourists, and I am sure they are a lot of fun. The earliest mention of these tunnels I could find was 1976. Even Spider Johnson didn't know about them. I am planning to research the subject further just to see if I can pinpoint a date that the rumor started.

The practice of crimping had be used for centuries by the British Navy to obtain men for its large fleets of ships covering the entire world. By the mid 19th century it had become fairly common practice on east coast cities and in New Orleans. In San Francisco the practice had become a necessity during the gold rush days with entire crews jumping ship to run off to the gold fields. By the 1870s in Portland it had become such a intrinsic practice in the port that the more successful crimps became men of substance who kept the police and the judges paid off. The new boom town port needed the practice just to keep booming, so as far as most people were concerned there was a “hands off” policy as far as crimps were concerned.

Some of the more respectable, and morally minded city fathers may have understood the necessity for such practices to keep their goods and cargoes flowing uninterrupted, but they did not just stand idly by. In the 1870s the Portland Seaman's Friend Society was formed, a society which, using their own words, was formed:

...to promote the temporal, moral and spiritual welfare of the Seamen, Steamboatmen and Longshoremen, visiting or belonging to this port. The means employed are a Mariner's Church, boarding house, library, reading room, visitation of ships including religious services on board, and the distribution of suitable literature.
On the board of directors of this new society were most of the prominent merchants and bankers of the time, H.W. Corbett, Geo. H. Chance. W.S. Ladd, E.B. Babbitt, etc.—the list read like a who's who of who was making money off of the shipping industry in Portland. That being said, they were good and upright citizens who were appalled by the injustice and cruelty they observed on the waterfront that they themselves had created through their businesses. In spite of their good intentions to provide an alternative to the so-called “boarding houses” of the crimps, with the police and politicians on the side of the crimps, their efforts were fairly minimal. The society raised money and built the "Mariner's Home," a building that still stands at N.W. 3rd and Davis. This facility had rooms for sailors, a library, and a cafe. It was an upright place for sailors to board and ship from away from the treachery and vices of the crimps. The place operated for a few years, but finally closed for lack of business. The ship captains were unwilling to use seaman from that source for fear of being blackballed by the crimps.

Read more about the Seaman's Friend Society at the Oregon Encyclopedia.

From the conservative point of view, it was a busy port with far more important things to attend to than the discomfort of sailors, or of the lowlifes being taken out of vagrancy and put to work on ships. By end of 1883 the Portland waterfront saw more vessels at one time than ever before in its history with up to 40 vessels at dock at one time. Keeping this commerce in motion was an enormous effort. That year the city had to start using its own dredges just to maintain the river channel for shipping. And that was the year that Portland was said to have displaced San Francisco as the main export center for inland commodities, due to its new railroad linkages.