December 24, 1814 I’ll have the Miss Piggott Special

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Infamous “crimps” like James “Shanghai” Kelly were happy to help, with both problems.

In modern times, governments have employed various strategies to meet the personnel needs of national armed services. Recruiting methods range from voluntary to compulsory service, and even a lottery or other form of draft, in times of national emergency.

During the age of sail, vast numbers of skilled and unskilled seamen alike, were required to meet the needs of naval vessels at sea. Governments resorted to more straightforward methods of meeting manpower requirements, namely, kidnapping.

Such involuntary service or “impressment”, was first made legal during Elizabethan times, but the practice dates back to the 13th century.

impressment-of-american-sailors-granger

“Press gangs” would patrol waterfronts looking for vagrants, raiding taverns and even pouncing on unsuspecting victims in their beds. Prints from the time show armed gangs barging into weddings and hauling away the groom. I can’t imagine the bride was too pleased but, good news. In 1835 the practice was limited to a single impressment per man with a maximum term of impressment, of five years.

Such “pressing” often took place at sea, where armed gangs would board merchant ships and take what they needed, sometimes leaving victims without sufficient hands to take them safely back to port.

Such methods were essential to the strength of the British Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic wars. American merchant vessels were often targets. The British Navy impressed over 15,000 American sailors alone, between 1793 and 1812.

impress

The American public was outraged and there were calls for war in 1807, when HMS Leopard overtook the USS Chesapeake, kidnapping three American-born sailors and one British deserter, leaving another three dead and 18 wounded.

This time, American retaliation took the form of an embargo. Five years later, continued impressment of American seamen would be a casus belli for the war of 1812, a conflict ended with the Treaty of Ghent signed this day, in 1814.

Crimping 1

Outside of the British Royal Navy, the practice of kidnapping men to serve as shipboard labor was known as “crimping”. Low wages combined with the gold rushes of the 19th century left the waterfront painfully short of manpower, skilled and unskilled. “Boarding Masters” had the job of putting together ship’s crews, and were paid for each recruit. There was strong incentive to produce as many able bodies, as possible. Unwilling men were “shanghaied” by means of trickery, intimidation or violence, most often rendered unconscious and delivered to waiting ships, for a fee.

Crimps made $9,500 or more per year in the 1890s, equivalent to over a quarter-million, today. The practice flourished in British port cities like London and Liverpool, and in the west coast cities of San Francisco, Portland, Astoria and Seattle. You also didn’t want to be caught out alone and drunk, in east coast port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Baltimore.

Today the area from North Beach to Jackson Square in San Francisco, is ‘Frisco’s’ Chinatown. During the Gold Rush era this was the infamous Barbary Coast, a raucous red-light district of taverns and whorehouses where fewer left, than than ever came in.

Golden nuggets were plentiful during the Gold Rush era and sailors, were not. Happy to help with both problems James “Shanghai” Kelly kept several bars and a boarding house on the Barbary Coast. This character once shanghai’d 100 guys, in a single evening.

In the early 1870s, Kelly rented the paddleboat Goliath and widely publicized a free booze cruise, to celebrate his birthday. Bartenders drugged unwitting revelers with opium-laced whiskey, and then offloaded them to waiting ships. Shanghai Kelly’s biggest concern was returning after such a public event, with an empty boat. His luck held, when another paddle wheel steamer, the Yankee Blade, struck a rock and began to sink. Goliath rescued everyone on board, and continued the party. Nobody back at the waterfront, noticed a thing.

The Laurel & Hardy short film “Live Ghost” (1934) is about the practice, of crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelley was another infamous crimp, also working out of the San Francisco waterfront. The “King of Crimps”, Kelley once set a record rounding up 50 guys in three hours. The Bunko name stuck, when Kelley delivered one crewman for $50, who turned out to be a cigar store Indian. In 1893, Kelley delivered 22 guys who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid, from a local mortuary. He sold them all for $52 apiece though most of them were dead, a fact to which the ship’s captain only became wise, after returning to sea.

Crimping 3, Bunko Kelley
James “Bunko” Kelley

The “Shanghai tunnels” of Portland run through the Old Town/Chinatown section to the main business district, connecting the basements of hotels and taverns to the waterfront at the Willamette River. The tunnels themselves are real enough, though their history is shrouded in mystery. Originally constructed to move goods from the Willamette waterfront to basement storage areas, the number of unconscious bodies hustled down the dark chambers of the Portland Underground”, remains unknown. There are those who will tell you, the practice continued well into the WW2 period.

State and federal legislatures passed measures to curb the practice after the Civil War, but crimping didn’t go away easily. In their heyday, the owners of sailor’s boarding houses had endless supplies of manpower, fanning out across polling places to “vote early and often”.

crimping 2

San Francisco political bosses William T. Higgins, (R) and Chris “Blind Boss” Buckley (D) were both notable crimps, and well positioned to look after their political interests. Notorious crimps such as Joseph “Frenchy” Franklin and George Lewis were elected to the California state legislature. There was no better spot from which to ensure that no legislation would interfere with such a lucrative trade.

A brief list of infamous crimps includes Andy “Shanghai Canuck” Maloney of Vancouver, Anna Gomes of San Francisco, New Bedford’s own “Shanghai Joe” and Tom Codd the “Shanghai Prince”. William “Billy” Gohl, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” of Aberdeen Washington, also happened to be, a serial killer.

In the 1860s and 70s, one “Miss Piggott” operated a saloon and boarding house, in San Francisco. This “ferocious old harridan” would maneuver unsuspecting guests over a trap door and serve them her “Miss Piggott Special,” a potion consisting of equal parts brandy, whiskey and gin laced with either laudanum, or opium. One knock on the head with her “bung starter”, a wooden mallet used to open whiskey kegs, and she’d pull the lever and down they would fall to the waiting mattress, below.

(From left) Colonel Jack Gamble, Miss Piggott and Sam Roberts of the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday June 18, 2014. (photo by Beck Diefenbach / Madam Tussauds)

Imagine the hangover the next morning, to wake up and find you’re now at sea, bound for somewhere in the far east. Regulars knew about the trap door and avoided that thing at all costs, knowing that anyone going over there, was “fair game”.

Widespread adoption of steam power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did as much to curb shanghaiing as did any legislative effort. Without acres of canvas to furl and unfurl, the need for unskilled labor was greatly diminished. The “Seaman’s Act of 1915”, sometimes called the “magna carta of sailor’s rights,” ended the practice for good.

You might want to do yourself a favor, though, if you’re ever at Miss Piggott’s place. Look out for that trap door.

June 22, 1807 Impressed

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment, amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships. In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

The Napoleonic Wars took place between 1799 and 1815, pitting a series of seven international coalitions against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grande Armée.  The former American colonies benefited from the European conflict, remaining on the sidelines and doing business with both sides.  Within a ten-year period, the fledgling United States had become one of the world’s largest neutral shippers.

In 1807, two third-rate French warships were penned up in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, blockaded by a number of English warships outside of the harbor.

4467229436_5635b36a0a
The American frigate, USS Chesapeake

London born Jenkin Ratford was an English sailor who deserted the British Navy and defected to the neutral United States.  This story might have ended better for him had he not run his mouth, but that wasn’t this guy.  Ratford couldn’t resist taunting British officers, boasting of his escape to the “land of liberty”

The USS Chesapeake was preparing for a Mediterranean cruise with Ratford aboard, when she emerged from Norfolk, Virginia.  Her decks were laden with supplies and stores of every kind, and her guns unwisely stored.  Chesapeake was nowhere near combat ready when she was approached by the HMS Leopard on June 22.

The Chesapeake’s commander, Commodore James Barron, was unconcerned when the Leopard, under the command of Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys, asked permission to board.  Lieutenant John Meade of Her Majesty’s Navy presented Barron with a search warrant.  Barron declined to submit, and the officer returned to the Leopard.

Chesapeake_LeopardHumphreys then used a hailing trumpet and ordered the American ship to comply, to which Barron responded “I don’t hear what you say”. Humphreys fired two rounds across Chesapeake’s bow, followed immediately by four broadsides.

Chesapeake fired a single shot before striking colors and surrendering.  Humphreys refused the surrender and boarded, taking Ratford and three American born sailors with them when they left.

There was little resistance, yet the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair” had left three American crewmembers dead, and 18 wounded.

American public opinion was outraged over the humiliation, as the four men were transported to Halifax for trial.   Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were united as never before.  President Thomas Jefferson remarked “Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity.”

The English court found all four guilty of desertion and hanged Ratford by the fore yardarm of his former vessel, HMS Halifax.  The three Americans, David Martin, John Strachan, and William Ware, were sentenced to 500 lashes.

With the puny American navy deployed to the Mediterranean to check the Barbary pirates, President Jefferson’s options were limited to economic retaliation.  The Embargo Act of 1807 intended to extract concessions from France and Great Britain, instead had the effect of imposing crippling setbacks on some industries, while others railed against government interference in the private economy.  Many came to the conclusion that the only solution, lay in violence.

2661E817-FD9D-331B-F65F29408EE37509
Political cartoon depicting merchants harassed cursing the “Ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

British envoys delivered proclamations reaffirming the practice of impressment,  amounting to the kidnapping of sailors and forcing their labor aboard British ships.  In total, the Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 sailors claiming to be American citizens, becoming the driving force behind the United States going to war with England, in 1812.

Despite being wounded, Barron was blamed for the “Chesapeake-Leopard Affair”.  A court-martial suspended him from service for five years, without pay.   Commodore Stephen Decatur was one of the presiding officers at the court-martial. In 1820, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel, killing his fellow Commodore over comments concerning the 1807 incident.

Undergoing a refit in Boston Harbor in 1813, USS Chesapeake was challenged to single combat by Captain Philip Broke, commanding the British frigate HMS Shannon.

Chesapeake_MillUnited States Naval Captain James Lawrence was eager to comply, confident in the wake of a number of American victories in single-ship actions.

It was a Big mistake.

All of Boston turned out that June day, to watch the fight.  Cheers went out across the docks and from scores of private vessels across Boston Harbor, as Chesapeake slipped her moorings and glided out of the harbor.

Boston authorities reserved dock space in expectation of a guest.  The arrival of a captured British frigate, so it was thought, was a foregone conclusion. Rooftops, hills and trees from Lynn to Malden and Cohasset to Scituate were crowded with spectators, come to watch the show.

The tale of the Battle of Boston Harbor must be a story for another day.  Suffice it to say that USS Chesapeake ended her career as the British frigate HMS Chesapeake, before being sold for scrap, in 1819.  Two-hundred years later, the ship’s timbers live on.  Part of the Chesapeake Mill in the historic village of Wickham, in Hampshire, England.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
%d bloggers like this: