Even though California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850, slavery was widespread.

John Sutter’s ranch was serviced by Indians who were not slaves according to the US Federal Government though they were very much that. But in the 1850s another form of slavery arose, and with it the term to be Shanghaied. This was widely practiced in San Francisco and, for a change, many of those enslaved were white men. As commerce boomed in California, the need for men to crew ships became dire and desperate times encouraged unscrupulous ship captains to be…creative. The labor shortage was answered by crimps (kidnappers) who plied the saloons and boarding houses capturing hapless country lads, busted Argonauts and sailors fresh in from a long voyage.

“Oh, mercy me!”

Many were amazed at the friendliness of the barkeepers who stood them for free drinks and gave them a place to stay out of pure openhearted San Francisco hospitality. The difficulties arose when the opium laced moonshine rendered the men comatose. Then they were lowered through a hatch in the floor to a waiting small boat below the barrooms which were often built over the water.

The unconscious sailors were then rowed out to waiting ships and sold for as little as $10 or as much as $75. Once aboard, federal law stipulated that the sailor was basically the property of the captain for the duration of the voyage. He was expected to work and he was to be paid but he was forbidden to leave. This practice is as old as ships but it was perfected to an art form in San Francisco.

A notorious madam/Shanghaier, Chloroform Kate, had the neat trick of sewing rats into the sawdust filled sleeves of a dummy thereby animating the supposed victim enough to sell it to an eager ship captain.

Dear ol Kate

Before enough piers were built to handle the ships’ passengers and freight, Whitehaulers were the backbone of the waterfront. These 20 foot skiffs, and crew by the same name, were called for the boat’s designer and they plied the waterfront moving personnel both legitimate—sitting up, or unconscious—under a tarp, as well as above board cargo. They also rescued people who had fallen in the bay. In the beginning there was a procedural problem that had to be ironed out. The city government paid $10 if you fished a corpse out of the water but only $5 if you saved a drowning man. The boatmen were less inspired to rescue the living with this payment scheme.

Shanghaiing was a big business. Men were captured off ships in the bay and sold to other ships, they were kidnapped from their beds or tricked with ads reading “Come on a South Sea cruise as the captain’s steward. Good pay and light work.”  The reality could be a two year voyage of hard labor as a deck hand at the end of which you could end up back where you started. Once back in San Francisco you might immediately be cheated out of your wages then knocked out and sold all over again. A hotel called The Seaman’s Rest was built for the advertised purpose of housing itinerant seaman but it was actually an involuntary recruitment center. Thousands were sent back to sea against their will. It was illegal to kidnap someone but once on deck there was no law prohibiting impressment. And even if there was, who ya gonna call?

The practice lasted until it was outlawed 1905. You might think this would have been corrected earlier considering the USA went to war with England in 1812 over this issue. The sailors and gold miners in early San Francisco were a swashbuckling crowd. Organized (barely) bare-knuckle fights were all the rage. Some bouts went over 100 rounds and more than one pugilist never recovered.

The waterfront was such a tough place it became known as the Barbary Coast and is  named for a rough stretch of pirate-infested water off North Africa (the U.S. Navy was established to quell the Barbary Coast pirates of old and the Marines memorialized the effort by referring to “the shores of Tripoli”).

San Francisco in the mid-19th century had a world wide reputation as being the most rough-and-tumble city in the world and boasted more brothels, saloons and gambling halls per capita than anywhere else. Gangs rose up to run the enterprises and this, along with the fact that the city burned down five times in four years, gave the place a somewhat disorderly atmosphere. Things got so bad that a committee was formed to deal with organized crime. These were prominent citizens who banded together and took control of the city from City Hall. They were called the Committee of Vigilance from which we get the term ‘vigilante.’ In 1851 the Vigilantes issued orders that certain named persons were to leave town or be hanged. Some ignored the order but as the bodies began to dangle from downtown buildings the gangs dispersed. Even so it took four years to calm things down at which time the Committee dissolved and handed the keys to the city back to the mayor.

A contemporary description of San Francisco at the time reads, “The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where foggy-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome are they. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.”  

Sounds like a fun place to visit and in fact I did, as this it’s an apt description of North Beach in the 1970s.

Subscribe to Pacific Voyages

Voyage to distant locales, right from your inbox.


Leave a Reply

Created by Captain Jamis MacNiven (Editorial) & Chief Officer Ryan Sport (Design)

© 2020 Pacific Voyages