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September 25, 1997

Down to the Sea in Ships

It all began when a ship, battered against Alcatraz Island and deserted by her gold-seeking crew, was dragged ashore and converted into a saloon. For ten years, weary travelers passed through the doorway cut in her bow, until her precious wood was needed for other purposes and she was torn down, replaced by a two-story brick building with lodging space for 22 seamen above the barroom. San Franciscans were thirsty, and business was good. The building survived fires and earthquakes until the big temblor of 1906 reduced part of her brick walls to rubble. Then, quickly rebuilt, she opened her doors again. They are still open today; only the name has changed. People working near the Embarcadero stop to eat at Bricks Bar and Grill during the day or relax there in the evening over a beer. It has adapted to modern life, offering dishes such as salmon with arugula as an alternative to hamburgers. But if you walk west on Pacific, a little past the restaurant, and look back, you will see a memento of earlier, harder times inscribed in fading paint just below the roof: Old Ship Saloon, Henry Klee, Prop.

The Old Ship Saloon was a site of one of the most horrifying practices devised by  ìlabor-friendlyî San Francisco, which Bill Pickelhaupt has described in detail in Shanghaied in San Francisco  (Flyblister Press, 1996). It was here, and in countless other boardinghouses along the waterfront, that seamen were drugged or simply coshed and delivered, for a fee, to waiting ships. They generally recovered consciousness somewhere out at sea, often literally on a slow boat to China. Whether Henry Klee, the last proprietor of the Old Ship Saloon, resorted to chicanery to obtain prospective crew members, he was certainly paid for the seamen he supplied to whalers in the early twentieth century, and several of his predecessors ó including James Laflin and Warren P. Herman ó ranked among the most notorious crimps in the city.

These men and women formed a crucial piece in the transformation of San Francisco from an isolated harbor town to a major seaport. The story loses none of its drama in the retelling. In 1849 a fleet of 777 ships left the East Coast for the gold fields of California. Abandoned by their crews, they were forced to sit idle until new hands were found. Many of the ships never left the bay. They were sold as land fill and scuttled to create the waterfront area that we know today. But throughout the nineteenth century, ships kept coming, first to deliver fortune hunters, later to load thousands of tons of grain from the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Their urgent need for crew members continued, as sailors fled the cruel conditions of the sea and sought new opportunities in the West.

It was here that the crimps came in. Usually poor immigrants (black or white, Asian or Hispanic, it didnít seem to matter), they quickly discovered that they didnít need much money to run a boardinghouse and that, with a little hustle, they could make a tidy living as labor brokers in a sellersí market. They created a tight-knit hierarchy: even seamen signing on voluntarily had to use them as their agents. At the bottom were runners, often newcomers, who worked for anyone requesting their services. Plying tiny Whitehall boats between ships and shore, they picked up cash any way they could, smuggling in liquor or opium, delivering meat from city markets, transporting sailors in both directions. Next came the members of the Seamenís Boarding House Mastersí Association, the crimps themselves, whose constitution designated them as the sole suppliers of men to ships and outlined orderly procedures (no poaching from another house) and fee schedules (payable upon signing up). At the top were the shipping masters, veterans who oversaw the entire market, allotted seamen as needed, and made sure that proper payments were made.

They fit right into the local community. A number of runners and crimps, accustomed to living by their fists as well as their wits, became successes in the local boxing world, where bare-knuckle bouts often went twenty or more rounds before one of the fighters fell. A little bantam cock Irishman named John ìShanghai Chickenî Devine, for example, fought ìSoapyî McAlpine for 116 rounds in 1866, until ó according to the Daily Alta ó ìthe ëChickení was so badly ësoapedí that he couldnít crow.î Devineís left hook was replaced by a metal one two years later when his wrist met a well-honed carving knife.

Other shanghaiers chose more acceptable pastimes. Some demonstrated their sailing skills in an annual Whitehall regatta that raised money for local charities. Crowds lined the shore to cheer their favorites: in 1882, policemen bet enthusiastically on a boat named for the chief of police, which won handily. Others strengthened their position by political activities. Tommy Chandler, president of the Seamenís Boarding House Mastersí Association in the 1870s, served as a Democratic county committeeman; ìFrenchyî Franklin, who became president of the association in the 1880s, was a Republican county committeeman and a member of the state assembly.

What of the human beings that these labor merchants trafficked in? For them the crimps formed the third leg of a triangle, closing off any possibility of escape from the often equal perils of diabolical shipsí masters and the deep blue sea. It was customary for a seaman to be paid two monthsí wages before sailing, so that he could settle outstanding debts, purchase supplies for his journey, and provide for his family. In San Francisco, however, he started out with empty pockets,  because most of this money ó as well as a payment of blood money (a kind of finders fee) ó went directly to the shipping master and the crimp who provided his labor. His pockets were empty at the end of the voyage as well, for once aboard, he was forced to pay exorbitant prices to refill his poorly stocked slopchest with clothes, blankets, and tobacco. Once on dry land again, he headed ó or was steered ó to a nearby boardinghouse. There,  penniless, he began to accumulate another bill, which could only be paid off by signing up, under the careful guidance of the boardinghouse keeper, for another term at sea. Removed from the sight of potentially sympathetic landlubbers, he had no recourse. In fact, seen as ìdeficient in that full and intelligent responsibility for [his] acts that is accredited to ordinary adultsî (as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Arago decision of 1897), he needed the crimpsí tutelage.

Occasional newspaper revelations of mistreatment did little to alleviate the situation. Nor did salvation come from the formation of the Coast Seamenís Union, led by the craggy Norwegian Andrew Furuseth. Crimping ultimately died a natural death about the time of World War I, when sailing ships faded from the scene and sailing crews were rarely needed.

But the ghosts of the crimps and their victims hover along the waterfront in San Francisco. It is sobering, when dining at Il Fornaio or enjoying the sun in Leviís Plaza, to remember that the ground underfoot was formed by the compression of hundreds of wooden sailing ships and the oppression of thousands of sailing men. And it is perhaps instructive, when considering the role of the city in the new Pacific Rim economy, to note that it was working people here, on the shores of San Francisco, who gave new meaning to the word ìShanghai.î


-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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