Shanghaiing or crimping is the practice of kidnapping people to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence.

Those engaged in this form of kidnapping were known as crimps.

The Laurel and Hardy episode The Live Ghost (1934) is about “shanghaiing”.

Shanghaiing crimping

James Kelly, better known as “Shanghai” Kelly, was an American crimper in the 1800’s who kidnapped men and forced them to work on ships.

Kelly sported a red beard and had a fiery temper to match. A legendary figure in San Francisco history, Kelly was known for his gift of supplying or shanghaiing men to understaffed ships.

Shanghaiing crimping

Kelly kept a boarding house in San Francisco, variously reported to be on Pacific or Broadway. He also ran a number of bars including the Boston House, at the corner of Davis and Chambers streets near the waterfront. He also ran a saloon and boarding house at No. 33 Pacific between Drumm and Davis streets. These businesses provided Kelly with a steady supply of victims.

In the Gold Rush era, what is now San Francisco’s Chinatown, North Beach & Jackson Square was known as the Barbary Coast.

Shanghai Tunnels (Portland, Oregon)

The Barbary Coast was a red-light district which featured dance halls, saloons, bars, jazz clubs, variety shows, and brothels. Jackson and Montgomery streets were the heart of the Barbary Coast, it was a raucous and lawless place in the days when gold dust was plentiful and sailors were scarce.

Kelly would shanghai sailors here.

The sailors would wake up the day to find themselves far out to sea with the familiar sound of salt spray hitting the deck and winds flapping the sails.

Shanghaiing crimping

In the early 1870s, Kelly was reported to have shanghaied 100 men for 3 understaffed ships in a single evening.

Renting the paddle steamer Goliath, he announced that he was hosting a free booze cruise to celebrate his “birthday”, and to say “thank you” to his fellow crimps and runners who had helped him through the years. After leaving port, his bartenders served opium-laced whiskey to his guests, who were then offloaded to the waiting ships.


Another famous crimper was:

Shanghaiing crimping

Joseph “Bunko” Kelly of Portland, Oregon, kidnapped men and sold them to work on ships. By his own account, he Shanghaied about 2,000 men and women during his 15-year career, beginning in 1879.

Kelly, later called “The King of the Crimps“, received his “Bunko” nickname in 1885 by providing a crewman that turned out to be a cigar store Indian. Kelly made $50 on the deal.

In one infamous deal in 1893, he delivered 22 men who had mistakenly consumed embalming fluid from the open cellar of a mortuary. He sold all the men, most of whom were dead, to a captain who sailed before the truth was discovered. He got $52 for each man.

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