Friday, March 22, 2013

John P. Betts

Accused of shanghaiing 53 years after his death

At 10 minutes before 8 o' clock on the evening of April 24, 1903 a meteor, much like the recent one in Russia, burst across the skies of Portland. The headlines in the Oregonian the next morning read:

Fire in the Sky

Brilliant Meteor Bursts over Portland

With Loud Detonation

Dazzles the Eyes of Many Startled Spectators

Moves Rapidly to the West

Heavenly visitor is the size of a moon. Sheds a dazzling radiance and leaves a trail of bluish white light.

The report included the testimony of many eyewitnesses. One of these was a prominent citizen whose address was given as "Thurman Street in Willamette Heights." This was John P. Betts (known as J.P.), a mild mannered and well liked gentleman, who lived quietly with his wife enjoying such bourgeois comforts as the city could provide.
John P. Betts, from his obituary in the Oregonian, May 12, 1908

Betts was born in 1850 in Nova Scotia. He and his brother, Albert came to the Pacific Coast when they were young men. Albert (known as Al) was a ship's captain skillful enough to become a Columbia River bar pilot, and a river pilot as well. John P. Betts made a fortune selling real estate in Astoria and Port Townsend. It can be deduced by an ad in the Astorian in 1885 that J.P. Betts was operating as a stevedore in that city, and did business with James Turk, hiring sailors. In 1888 he helped form the Puget Sound Stevedoring Company, a consortium of top stevedores from Astoria, Portland, Tacoma, and Port Townsend, to control the management of longshore work in those cities. By 1900 he was living in Portland where he was elected town constable for Ward 2, which included the "Whitechapel" district in the north end.  

Except in the case of meteors, John P. Betts preferred to stay out of the limelight. He was well known in business circles, and assumed the post of "shipping master" in Portland. His obituary in the Oregonian in May, 1908, states that he held this post for 25 years, but I doubt this very much, since he was reported to have been living in both Astoria and Port Townsend during many of those years. If I had the time to go rummage through dusty records I could probably pinpoint the years he was "Shipping Master" (as the position was called), but suffice it to say, he did it for a number of years, and he was working in this post when he died—peacefully, of pneumonia—in his house on Portland Heights. This dear little fellow was a faithful Elk (B.P.O.E.), a high Mason, being a Knights Templar, and a member of the Mystic Shrine. He was buried from the Scottish Rite Temple on 14th and Morrison.

I recently saw an article in the Saint Johns Review on shanghaiing in Portland. There were some things that made my eyebrows go up, but those things all happened a long time age, who cares? I was interested in the name J. P. Betts listed among the shanghaiers. I had seen the name mentioned by Larry Barber in a 1975 Oregonian article on crimping. After a little digging, I found the name listed, along with the names of Bunko, Turk, and Sullivan, etc. as one of the big time Portland shanghaiers, in the book Shanghaiing Days,  by Richard H. Dillon, published in 1961 by Coward-McCann. It could be that Mr. Dillon, who knew the San Francisco shanghaiing stories pretty well, came upon an article (March 1900) where J. P. Betts was named in a lawsuit, along with all the members of the Larry Sullivan, Grant Bros, and McCarron boarding house, and the ships master, for shanghaiing a fellow named Otto Ranft aboard the British Ship, MacMillan. The suit was thrown out of court for having no merit after Otto admitted to having signed the ship's papers.
Shanghaiers, as depicted in the silent film "Shanghaied", starring Charlie Chaplin

The United States Shipping Commissioner position was put in place by the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872 (Dingley Act), an attempt by law makers to put an end to the kind of abuses sailors had been subjected to over the years. This is an complex and interesting subject, too big for a mere blog post. Suffice it to say the law was passed to combat crimping (shanghaiing). It required that a sailor had to sign on to a ship in the presence of a federal shipping commissioner (or, in some cases, a British consulate official). The law further required that a seaman be paid off in person in the presence of a shipping commissioner, and the he declare that he signed the ship's papers willingly and soberly. Needless to say, the law was circumvented in all ways possible, in Portland, and other ports around the country. In practice this was also done by authorized officials, such as J.P. Betts, or by U. S. Customs officials, or in the case of overseas ports, consular officials.

I don't think of John P. Betts as a shanghaiier. It was his laxity in enforcing the law that caused many a poor landlubber to go to sea. In social class, dignity, and the eyes of society this gentleman was far removed from the dockside ruffians who dealt with sailors. We have no way of knowing what sorts of arrangements Betts had with people like Larry Sullivan, or Jim Turk, but it is safe to wager that it had something to do with Bett's ability to pay for his Portland Heights home, carriage, etc. But had you called him a shanghaiier to his face, he, and all the gentlemen within earshot would have been appalled. Were he to know that in 1961, in a book that was to become the primary source of information on Pacific Coast shanghaiing, he was numbered among the lot—named beside Turk, Bunko Kelly, and Sullivan—he would have been devastated.

Since that book was published nearly every article on the subject has listed the same motley crew, usually in the same order—including the name "Dave Evans," the Tacoma sailor's boardinghouse master who, never did a dime's worth of business in Portland, and the obscure name, ”Jim Vierck," of whom nothing is known. It could be that the "Shanghaiing Days" author, Mr. Dillon, got this information from Stuart Holbrook, who could make up a good, historical fact with the blink on an eye. But it is disheartening to see this list repeated so frequently by people who go no further than a single document penned years after the time in question to find information.

This little instance of the weird list of Portland shanghaiers, along with the burgeoning fakelore of the shanghai tunnels, is a microscopic view at how "history" unfolds, and solidifies, to turn into words written in stone. I happened to have become interested in Portland's old waterfront, but I have a suspicion that whatever else I may have become interested in, the same sort of phenomenon would occur. A tiny piece of false information becomes wedged in the stream and gathers driftwood and leaves to support the fact that it is real.

I am sure Mr. Betts would much rather be remembered as a man standing on his front porch gazing up at a bright meteor as it crossed the sky--from the Oregonian tower to the forest above Linnton--bursting to pieces with an earth shattering roar, causing the valleys below to echo. Our lives come to us in moments along the course of the arrow of time, but our history is written by people who were not there.

present day depiction of the April 24, 1903 event