Shanghai Kelly: San Francisco’s King Crimp

james shanghai kelly san francisco
Views of San Francisco circa 1870. Photo credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Wikimedia Commons

In the last half of the 1800s, the bustling port town of San Francisco, which grew out of a gold rush encampment, was a place of paradox.

On one hand, it was the “Paris of the West,” where the wealthy and fashionable made their homes in ornate Victorian homes called “painted ladies.” But on the other hand, there was the seedy side of the City by the Bay where characters like James Kelly, otherwise known as Shanghai Kelly, made his fortune by engaging in a diabolical form of human trafficking known as “crimping” or “shanghaiing.”

From the mid-1800s through the early years of the twentieth century, unsuspecting men who accepted a drink from a friendly stranger in a waterfront tavern (NEVER accept a drink from a stranger in a waterfront tavern, by the way) might wake up the next day aboard a merchant ship to China — and not as a cruise ship passenger.

Let’s look at nine facts, rumors, myths, and legends about Shanghai Kelly and the practice of shanghaiing in the Old West.

1. Shanghaiing was a form of human trafficking.

No joking here: human trafficking remains a huge problem in today’s society, but it has changed and evolved since the days when James Kelly ran a waterfront bar in San Francisco in the 1800s.

Today, we think of human trafficking as young girls and women who are forced to work in the pleasure industry, but it also includes people — usually immigrants far from their homes — who are tricked and coerced into forced labor in factories and hospitality industries.

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor.”

And that’s exactly what shanghaiing was.

Strong, young, able-bodied men were drugged, sold to sea captains, and forced to work on merchant ships from which they could not escape.

Shanghaiing was a common practice and few people batted an eye at it, in part because there was a shortage of sailors, and workers were needed to keep trade and commerce afloat. Literally.

Related read: Lost Treasure in California: True Stories of the Golden State’s Hidden Riches

2. It was called “shanghaied” for a reason.

One of the most hated, yet profitable trade routes at this time took merchant ships from San Francisco to Shanghai, China. Even back then, most of our products came from China.

Ship captains had trouble finding crews to work this route — it was a terribly long voyage, and once the merchant ship arrived in China, it may be months before it was fully loaded and ready to make the return trip. Experienced sailors didn’t want to hang around a far-off country where they couldn’t speak the language, so they usually gave this route a hard pass.

If a captain couldn’t hire the crew he needed, he just took one. Let’s call it what it was: kidnapping. Since most of the men were kidnapped to go to China, the practice became known as “shanghaiing.”

shanghaiing in san francisco
Photo credit: True Frontier Magazine, October 1972

The term shanghaiing was most closely associated with the practice in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, another west coast harbor town in desperate need of maritime laborers in the 1800s.

Other commonly used terms for this practice were “crimping” and “impressment.” They all pretty much meant the same thing — kidnapping someone and forcing them to work for you against their will.

Related read: 7 California Ghost Towns that Capture the Golden State’s Rich Mining History

3. Ship captains rarely did the dirty work.

Merchant ship captains, while lamenting their labor shortage, didn’t typically dirty their hands by shanghaiing or crimping. Instead ,this task became a lucrative side hustle for tavern owners and board house managers in port towns like San Francisco.

Both establishments were prime hunting grounds for crimpers because this is where able-bodied men gathered and drank. Drinking was key to the shanghaiing process, as we’ll soon see.

Related read: The Invisibly Adventurous Life of Josephine Marcus Earp

4. James Kelly was San Francisco’s most legendary crimper.

James Kelly, a big, red-headed, Irish American with an entrepreneurial spirit and a thirst for money, was the owner of a popular waterfront tavern in San Francisco, as well as a nearby boarding house.

“Shanghai Kelly was a dumpy little man. He had a mass of riotous red hair, and a huge red beard. He had fury written all over his ugly face. He was so terrible ugly that San Francisco mothers used to frighten their recalcitrant offspring by saying, ‘You be a good boy or I’ll give you to Shanghai Kelly.'”

Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson

Although his legit businesses did well and helped him earn a good living, Kelly saw an opportunity to make more money, so he ran with it. In time, Kelly’s tavern and boarding house provided him with a steady stream of unsuspecting able-bodied men.

Kelly would drug them, then sell them to ship captains to staff their vessels. His knack for meeting his quota turned him into Shanghai Kelly, soon to become San Francisco’s most infamous crimper.

Related read: 10 Wild West Facts of Everyday Life on the Frontier

5. Shanghai Kelly roofied the drinks.

Shanghai Kelly’s bartenders had special bottles of whiskey behind the bar. We aren’t talking top shelf liquor — these bottles were laced with opium. Things could go down a couple of ways. Kelly could spot an easy target — perhaps a naïve-looking out-of-towner — and nod to the bartender to serve him the roofied whiskey.

Or, Kelly, a gregarious fellow, might join a group of men sitting at a table and engage in friendly conversation over drinks. Once the men were a few drinks in and had let their guard down, the smiling Kelly patted one of the men on the shoulder, announced how much he was enjoying the company of his new besties, and offered to buy them all a drink.

shanghaied in san francisco
Not having a good time. Photo credit: True Frontier Magazine, October 1972

You can see where this is going. NEVER accept a drink from anyone! It was good advice back then and it’s still good advice today, even if you aren’t in danger of being shanghaied.

Similar tactics were used at Kelly’s boarding house, which was so conveniently close to the docks that it was a popular place for sailors who just put into port. The sailors stumbled back to the boarding house after a night on the town, and either Kelly or the boarding house manager offered them all a night cap.

By morning, they were gone, heading west on a ship bound for Asia.

Related read: 17 Epic Facts about the Transcontinental Railroad

6. Shanghai Kelly used sneaky tricks.

Since it would be bad for business for customers to watch as an impressment gang carried an unconscious man from Shanghai Kelly’s tavern to a waiting merchant ship nearby, Kelly had to come up with sneaky ways to get his victims from Point A to Point B unseen.

According to San Francisco legends, Kelly had three trapdoors installed in various parts of his tavern. When a victim passed out after drinking the opium-laced whiskey, either Kelly or his bartender would make a scene about how much alcohol the man had consumed and how he couldn’t hold his liquor.

Their Oscar-worthy performances were for the benefit of the other bar patrons. If they were asked later to explain what happened to the victim, they all swore they saw him drink himself unconscious.

Kelly and his men, claiming to be escorting the drunkard out the back door so he could sleep it off in the alley, really carried him to one of the conveniently located trap doors.

He was dropped in a tunnel and skirted off to an awaiting ship. This happened over and over and over again. Kelly had a talent for chatting up his victims and selecting men who were new to town and had no family around to report him missing.

Related read: 8 Famous (and Infamous) Sheriffs of the Old West

7. Shanghai Kelly was once Shanghaied himself.

According to San Francisco lore, Shanghai Kelly was once the victim of shanghaiing himself.

As the story goes, Kelly, a young man at the time, was duped by another Bay Area crimper, Johnny “Shanghai Chicken” Devine (arguably the best named of San Francisco’s crimpers), who shipped him off to Peru.

Months later, Kelly made his way back to San Francisco and began to shanghai his own victims for cash.

Related read: 8 Wells Fargo Stagecoach History Facts You Might Not Know

8. Shanghai Kelly pulled off a mass shanghaiing … or did he?

One incredible tale of a mass shanghaiing has been attributed to Shanghai Kelly. The incident reportedly occurred in the early 1870s and, if the stories are to be believed, Kelly was able to shanghai more than 100 men at one time.

How did he do it?

Apparently, Shanghai Kelly rented a paddle steamer and announced that he was hosting a booze cruise to celebrate his birthday and that anyone was welcome to attend.

Did I mention he was offering free drinks all night? That was enough to entice about 100 men to climb on board and grab a drink. None of these men knew the rule: NEVER accept a drink from a stranger. Especially free ones on a paddle steamer in the 1870s.

san francisco ships
Ships freshly arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

They didn’t know what we know about Shanghai Kelly’s special whiskey. After dark, the partygoers were all unconscious from the drugged drinks. Kelly steered the boat from one waiting ship to the next, unloading the snoozing bodies and pocketing the cash.

He didn’t think things through, though. After he offloaded his shanghaied men, he realized that folks would get suspicious if he sailed back into port with an empty steamer, especially because his well-publicized booze cruise was the talk of the town.

But Shanghai Kelly got lucky. He happened upon another boat that had struck a rock. The vessel was taking on water and the people on board were panicked. Kelly rescued the people on board and then, in a show of hospitality, offered them all a drink of whiskey — the non-drugged stuff.

By the time they arrived back in San Francisco, the people were happy drunk. The public saw a crowd of people disembark from the ship and no one realized that it was not the same group that left a few hours earlier.

While this wild Shanghai Kelly story had been discredited over the years, it is still deeply ingrained in the lore of San Francisco’s shanghai days.

Related read: Oregon Trail Stories: True & Inspiring Tales of Prairie Pioneers

9. The U.S. Government allowed shanghaiing to continue.

On December 6, 1865, the United States Congress ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that prohibited slavery in the country. The actual wording bans both slavery and “involuntary servitude,” which sounds a lot like shanghaiing.

But the 1897 Supreme Court ruling Robertson v. Baldwin specifically excluded shanghaied sailors from the 13th Amendment, calling seamen “deficient in intelligence.” So, while slavery was prohibited, people like Shanghai Kelly could still kidnapping unwilling men and sell them into involuntary servitude.

Thanks to nefarious characters like Shanghai Kelly, shanghaiing continued into the early 1900s. The number of men impressed into servitude is unknown, but it was probably not as many as the myths and legends would like us to believe.

Related read: The Wives of Wyatt Earp, from Aurilla Sutherland to Sadie Marcus

Explore the Old West

Sources & Further Reading
  1. Tales of San Francisco, Samuel Dickson
  2. Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, James Brook, Chris Carlsson, Nancy J. Peters
  3. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, Herbert Asbury
  4. True Frontier Magazine, October 1972
  5. Old West Magazine, Summer 1973

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.

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