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Shanghai (verb)

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Shanghai (verb)

Shanghaiing refers to the practice of kidnapping men to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. Those engaged in this form of kidnapping were known as crimps. Until 1915, unfree labor was widely used aboard American merchant ships. The related term press gang refers specifically to impressment practices in Great Britain's Royal Navy.[1]


Crimps flourished in port cities like San Francisco in California, Portland[2] and Astoria in Oregon,[3] and Seattle[4] and Port Townsend in Washington.[5] On the West Coast, Portland eventually surpassed San Francisco for shanghaiing. On the East Coast, New York easily led the way, followed by Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.[6]

The role of crimps and the spread of the practice of shanghaiing resulted from a combination of laws, economic conditions, and the shortage of experienced sailors on the American West Coast in the mid-19th century.

First, once a sailor signed on board a vessel for a voyage, it was illegal for him to leave the ship before the voyage's end. The penalty was imprisonment, the result of federal legislation enacted in 1790.[7] This factor was weakened by the Maguire Act of 1895 and the White Act of 1898, before finally being eradicated by the Seamen's Act of 1915.

Second, the practice was driven by a shortage of labor, particularly of skilled labor on ships on the West Coast. With crews abandoning ships en masse because of the California Gold Rush, a healthy body on board the ship was a boon.[8][9]

Finally, shanghaiing was made possible by the existence of boarding masters, whose job it was to find crews for ships. Boarding masters were paid "by the body," and thus had a strong incentive to place as many seamen on ships as possible.[8] This pay was called "blood money," and was just one of the revenue streams available.[10] These factors set the stage for the crimp: a boarding master who uses trickery, intimidation, or violence to put a sailor on a ship.[11]

The most straightforward method for a crimp to shanghai a sailor was to render him unconscious, forge his signature on the ship's articles, and pick up his "blood money." This approach was widely used, but there were more profitable methods.[10]

In some situations, the boarding master could receive the first two, three, or four months of wages of a man he shipped out.[8] Sailors were able to get an advance against their pay for an upcoming voyage to allow them to purchase clothes and equipment, but the advance wasn't paid directly to the sailor because he could simply abscond with the money. Instead, those to whom money was owed could claim it directly from the ship's captain. An enterprising crimp, already dealing with a seaman, could supplement his income by supplying goods and services to the seaman at an inflated price, and collecting the debt from the sailor's captain.[10]

Some crimps made as much as $9,500 per year in 1890s dollars, equivalent to about $260,000 in 2012 dollars.[12]

The crimps were well positioned politically to protect their lucrative trade.[13] The keepers of boardinghouses for sailors supplied men on election day to go from one polling place to another, "voting early and often" for the candidate who would vote in their interest. In San Francisco, men such as Joseph "Frenchy" Franklin and George Lewis, long-time crimps, were elected to the California state legislature, an ideal spot to assure that no legislation was passed that would have a negative impact on their business.

The most infamous examples included Jim "Shanghai" Kelly and Johnny "Shanghai Chicken" Devine of San Francisco, and Joseph "Bunco" Kelly of Portland.[13] Stories of their ruthlessness are innumerable, and some have survived into print.

Another example of romanticized stories involves the "birthday party" Shanghai Kelly threw for himself, in order to attract enough victims to man a notorious sailing ship named the Reefer and two other ships.[13]

Ending the practice

Demand for manpower to keep ships sailing to Alaska and the Klondike kept crimping a real danger into the early 20th century, but the practice was finally ended by a series of legislative reforms that spanned almost 50 years.

Before 1865, maritime labor laws primarily enforced stricter discipline onboard ships.[14] However, after 1865, this began to change. In 1868, New York State started cracking down on sailors' boardinghouses. They declined in number from 169 in 1863 to 90 in 1872.[15] Then in 1871, Congress passed legislation to revoke license of officers guilty of mistreating seamen.[15]

In 1872, Congress passed the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872 to combat crimps.[15] Under this act, a sailor had to sign on to a ship in the presence of a federal shipping commissioner.[15] The presence of a shipping commissioner was intended to ensure the sailor wasn't "forcibly or unknowingly signed on by a crimp."[15]

In 1884, the Dingley Act came into effect. This law prohibited the practice of seamen taking advances on wages.[16] It also limited the making of seamen's allotments to only close relatives.[16] However, the crimps fought back. In 1886, a loophole to the Dingley Act was created, allowing boardinghouse keepers to receive seamen's allotments.[16]

In 1915, Andrew Furuseth and Senator Robert LaFollette pushed through The Seamen's Act of 1915 that made crimping a federal crime, and finally put an end to it. This legislation was successful primarily because of the widespread use of steampowered vessels in the world's merchant marine services. Without acres of canvas to be furled and unfurled, the demand for unskilled labor greatly diminished.

The verb "to shanghai"

The verb "to shanghai" joined the lexicon with "crimping" and "sailor thieves" in the 1850s.[17] The most widely accepted theory of the word's origin is that it comes from the Chinese city of Shanghai, a common destination of the ships with abducted crews.[1][17] The term has since expanded to mean "kidnapped" or "induced to do something by means of fraud."[18]

Notable crimps

  • Maxwell Levi, Port Townsend's Crimper King
  • Jim "Shanghai" Kelly of San Francisco[13]
  • Johnny "Shanghai Chicken" Devine of San Francisco[13]
  • Joseph "Bunco" Kelly of Portland[13]
  • "One-Eyed" Curtin[13]
  • "Horseshoe" Brown[13]
  • Dorothy Paupitz of San Francisco[13]
  • Andy "Shanghai Canuck" Maloney of Vancouver[13]
  • Anna Gomes of San Francisco[13]
  • Thomas Chandler[13]
  • James Laflin[13]
  • Chris "Blind Boss" Buckley, the Democratic Party boss of San Francisco in the 1880s[13]
  • William T. Higgins, Republican Party boss of San Francisco in the 1870s and '80s[13]
  • "Shanghai Joe" of New Bedford, MA[19]
  • Tom Codd the Shanghai Prince of New Bedford, MA[20]

See also

Nautical portal
Organized labour portal



  • Samuel Dickson, "Shanghai Kelly" in Tales of San Francisco Stanford: University Press, 1957
  • Stewart Holbrook, "Bunco Kelly, King of the Crimps" in Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks, edited by Biran Booth. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-87071-383-3

External links

  • Article in San Francisco News Letter February 19, 1881
  • Shanghaiing at
  • Barbary Coast: San Francisco's Bawdy Paradise, The has section on crimping
  • Shanghaied! The 1895 Voyage of the A. R. Tucker - a New Bedford MA account
  • An account of crimping for the East India Company in London - 1767
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