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San Francisco's Shanghai Kelly

by Gail MacGowan

In the black trade of “shanghaiing” sailors from San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, one man’s infamous villainy earned him the label “King of the Crimps.” Known by all as Shanghai Kelly, he was a short, slovenly, man with unkempt flaming red hair and beard and a fierce temper. Born James Kelly in Ireland in 1820, he joined the Gold Rush to California in 1848.

Kelly soon set himself up in business with a sailors’ boardinghouse at 33 Pacific Street, the heart of the Barbary Coast. This was the perfect set-up for his real money-maker, filling the “orders” of sea captains desperate for sailors to man their ships sailing on from San Francisco. In the years after the Gold Rush, with hundreds of ships entering San Francisco, so many sailors were deserting the harsh sea-going conditions to seek their fortunes on land that it was well-nigh impossible to find crews to sail them out again.

Here’s where the crimps and their runners filled the need. Runners would row out to arriving ships and offer free liquor or other inducements to get sailors to come to their crimps’ boardinghouse or saloon. Once there, the innocent sailors would be drugged with liquor spiked with laudanum, opium, or chloral hydrate. If that didn’t knock them out, they were konked over the head. After they were relieved of their belongings – including their clothes – they were wrapped in a blanket and rowed unconscious out to a waiting ship. The captain paid the crimp the agreed-upon fee for his new crew members, hauled anchor, and set sail. When the unfortunate sailors regained consciousness, they were far out to sea – heading to such faraway destinations as Shanghai.

Shanghai Kelly was just one of many crimps – male and female – conducting this dastardly business. But Kelly’s birthday party escapade set his fame above the rest.

One day – some sources say it was in 1854, others say the mid 1860s or ‘70s – Kelly found himself with an urgent order for nearly 100 crew members and a dearth of sailors at his usually full boardinghouse for him to shanghai. The ever-resourceful Kelly quickly came up with a plan. First he chartered an old paddlewheel steamer, the Goliah. Then he put the word out on the streets that it was his birthday and everyone was invited aboard to celebrate with free food and drink. Ninety men showed up and the Goliah put out to sea amid great merriment of drinking, eating, and song. As soon as all the guests had passed out from the drugged drinks. Kelly sailed to the three ships waiting outside the Golden Gate. The still unconscious “sailors” were handed over to their new captains, who sailed away.

Kelly now saw a slight problem: all of the Barbary Coast knew he had sailed off with a shipload of merrymakers. How would explain returning with the Goliah empty? He sailed on down the California coast to mull it over.

As the story goes, it was off Point Concepcion that he met his incredible stroke of good fortunate. He came upon the ship Yankee Blade that had run aground and was taking on water. Kelly saved its entire crew and sailed them on up to San Francisco. Hailing him as a hero, no one seemed to notice that his full ship carried not one of his original party guests.

It is said that Shanghai Kelly’s days as a crimp ended when he himself was shanghaied and ended up jumping ship in Peru. Rumors reached San Francisco that he died there in a shoot-out with one of his former San Francisco runners.

Is the tale of Shanghai Kelly’s birthday party true? In his book Shanghaied in San Francisco, Bill Pickelhaupt casts doubt on the tale’s veracity. But there is no doubt that, true or not, Shanghai Kelly’s birthday party is firmly entrenched among the legends of San Francisco. In 1967 it was featured in an episode of the TV show Death Valley Days. And locally, Shanghai Kelly has earned the highest honor of all: an old-time saloon on Polk at Broadway named in his honor, although as far as we know not continuing his business practices.

Sources: Charles F. Adams: The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco (1998) Herbert Asbury: The Barbary Coast (1933) Samuel Dickson: San Francisco Kaleidoscope (1949) Bill Pickelhaupt: Shanghaied in San Francisco (1996)

Historic photo 8 reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Could that boat pulling alongside the Desdemona in this 1864 photo be bringing shanghaied sailors aboard?

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