We’ve decided to pull aside the velvet curtain today, to give you a scintillating glimpse inside the wandering Scoutmob attention span. First we were thinking about the shameful bit of schadenfreude we felt when we heard that a yachting team couldn’t find a place to live during America’s Cup. This got us thinking about ships, and how a dude in Sausalito is building a ginormous replica of a 19th century ship, right here in San Francisco (boat nerds shout: huzzah!) Then we started thinking about pirates, an inevitable progression.
Namely, why have so many parts of the world been ransacked and terrorized by badass sea
marauders, but here in San Francisco, we have to settle for a silly impersonation holiday? But yar-har, Scoutmobbers, while we
may not have much history of pirating off our shores, we’ve certainly had our share of coastal infamy.
Behold: the Barbary Coast, where our attention spans finally settled today.
Sure, everybody knows it was a seedy SF neighborhood in the mid-1800s, with whores and opium and
whatnot. But how much do you really know about “shanghaiing,” the practice of kidnapping people and
sending them out to sea to perform slave labor? This practice was rampant in the Barbary Coast, and we
have all the fun facts:
-Shanghaiing became common in the during the Gold Rush, because so many sailors abandoned their
posts to go prospecting. Hey cap’n, lost your sailors? Steal new ones!
-People who did the kidnapping were called crimps, which sounds kind of wussy. We prefer the
term “people pirates.”
-Bonking guys on the head was a popular method of shanghaiing, much like every cartoon you’ve ever
- The most notorious person involved in this unscrupulous business was Shanghai Kelly. His henchmen
would bring dudes to Kelly’s bar for drinks, laughter and the promise of female companionship. Through
the use of drug-laced booze, the hapless characters would be knocked senseless, then stashed under a
-Kelly once had a birthday party and invited 100 hard luck characters to join him on a little booze cruise.
Surprise surprise, the whiskey was laced, and none of the party guests ever made it home.
-Kelly’s Wikipedia page says “James Kelly
(crimper).” It also refers to him as the King of Crimps.
-One of Kelly’s main competitors in the Shanghaiing trade was Johnny "Shanghai Chicken" Devine. That’s
-Many of the shanghaied would remain at sea for years, until they scraped together enough chump
change to buy passage back to SF. First stop: Kelly’s Bar, for a Welcome Back Whiskey!
This nautical weirdness went on for many decades after the Gold Rush, until some do-gooder senator
finally passed the “Stop Bonking Guys on the Head and Making Them Sailors Act” (technically called the
Seaman’s Act of 1915).
For a little direct exposure to history, you can visit the Old Ship Saloon,
which originally served as a shanghaiing den. Or if you just want to drink like a Barbary Coast sailor,
there’s a North Beach tourist dive named Shanghai Kelly’s
(no connection with Kelly’s original bar), with an ever-popular knockout-drugs-and-abduction theme.