The American term shanghaied refers to the practice of conscripting men as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. Those engaged in this form of kidnapping were known as crimps. Until 1915 unfree labor was widely used aboard American merchant ships. The related term press gang refers specifically to impressment practices in Great Britain's Royal Navy.
Shanghaing predominantly took place in the Northwest United States.
The role of crimps and the practice of shanghaiing resulted from a combination of laws, economic conditions, and practical considerations that existed on the American west coast in the mid-1800s. Crimps flourished in port cities like San Francisco in California, Portland and Astoria in Oregon, and Seattle and Port Townsend in Washington.
First, once a sailor signed onboard a vessel for a voyage, it was illegal for him to leave the ship before the voyage's end. The penalty was imprisonment, the result of federal legislation enacted in 1790. This factor was weakened by the Maguire Act of 1895 and the White Act of 1898, before finally being eradicated by the Seamen's Act of 1915.
Second, the practice was driven by a shortage of labor, particularly of skilled labor on ships on the West Coast. With crews abandoning ships en masse due to the California Gold Rush , a healthy body on board the ship was a boon, and an actual able seaman was worth his weight in gold.
Finally, shanghaiing was made possible by the existence of boarding masters, whose job it was to find crews for ships. Boarding masters were paid "by the body," and thus had a strong incentive to place as many seamen on ships as possible. This pay was called "blood money," and was just one of the revenue streams available. These factors set the stage for the crimp: a boarding master that uses trickery, intimidation, or violence to put a sailor on a ship.
The most straightforward method for a crimp to shanghai a sailor was to render him unconscious, forge his signature on the ship's articles, and pick up his "blood money." This approach was widely used, but there were more profitable methods.
In some situations, the boarding master could receive the first two, three, or four months of wages of a man he shipped out. How this was accomplished requires some explanation. Sailors were able to get an advance against their pay for an upcoming voyage. The purpose was to allow them to purchase clothes and equipment. However, the advance wasn't paid directly to the sailor, because he could simply abscond with the money. Instead, those to which money was owed could claim it directly from the ship's captain. An enterprising crimp, already dealing with a seaman, could supplement his income by supplying goods and services to the seaman at an inflated price, and collecting the debt from the sailor's captain.
Some crimps made as much as $9,500 per year in 1890s dollars, equivalent to about $220,000 in 2007 dollars.
The crimps were well positioned politically to protect their lucrative trade. The keepers of boardinghouses for sailors supplied men on election day to go from one polling place to another, "voting early and often" for the candidate who would vote in their interest. In San Francisco, men such as Joseph "Frenchy" Franklin and George Lewis, long-time crimps, were elected to the California state legislature, an ideal spot to assure that no legislation was passed that would have a negative impact on their business.
The most infamous examples included Jim "Shanghai" Kelly and Johnny "Shanghai Chicken" Devine of San Francisco, and Joseph "Bunco" Kelly of Portland. Stories of their ruthlessness are innumerable, and some have survived into print due to their rough humor. One example of such a story involved "Bunco" Kelly passing off a wooden Cigar store Indian as a much-needed crewman to a desperate ship's captain.
Another example of romanticized stories involves the "birthday party" Shanghai Kelly threw for himself, in order to attract enough victims to man a notorious sailing ship named the Reefer and two other ships. These romantic stories glamorizing crimping have two problems: they belie the cruelty of the practice, and they may well be historically false.
Before 1865, maritime labor laws primarily enforced stricter discipline onboard ships. However, after 1865, this began to change. In 1868, New York State started cracking down on sailor's boardinghouses. They declined in number from 169 in 1863 to 90 in 1872. Then in 1871, Congress passed legislation to revoke license of officers guilty of mistreating seamen.
In 1872, Congress passed the Shipping Commissioners Act of 1872 to combat crimps. Under this act, a sailor had to sign on to a ship in the presence of a federal shipping commissioner. The presence of a shipping commissioner was intended to ensure the sailor wasn't "forcibly or unknowingly signed on by a crimp."
In 1884, the Dingley Act came into effect. This law prohibited the practice of seamen taking advances on wages. It also limited the making of seamen's allotments to only close relatives. However, the crimps fought back. In 1886, a loophole to the Dingley Act was created, allowing boardinghouse keepers to receive seamen's allotments.
In 1915, Andrew Furuseth and Senator Robert LaFollette pushed through The Seamen's Act of 1915 that made crimping a federal crime, and finally put an end to it. This legislation was successful primarily due to the widespread use of steampowered vessels in the world's merchant marine services. Without acres of canvas to be furled and unfurled, the demand for unskilled labor greatly diminished.