Ever been sailing? The smell of the clean sea air and riding waves sounds fun, right?
But now imagine being stuck on a cramped boat with 30 other guys for months at a time, with only salt pork and stale biscuits to eat. Oh and for all your work you only get paid a measly 700 bucks.
Yeah, being a 19th century sailor was not best job in the world. Often, boarding masters in charge of finding a crew would employee known criminals fleeing from the law. But even then, crews were often shorthanded.
And that’s where the nasty practice of shanghaiing comes in.
For those who don’t know, shanghaiing involves kidnapping someone, knocking them out, then selling them to a boarding master in need of a few extra bodies. The helpless victim would then wake up only to find they were now in the middle of the ocean with days of sea sickness to come. The practice got its name because often that was the next destination of ships leaving the west coast ports.
One such port on the coast was Portland, Oregon. The bars of Portland were always busy with sailors looking to blow what little cash they had on some booze and maybe a little company. Needing a faster and safer way to transport the alcohol, and the money used to buy it, many bar owners decided to grab some shovels and dig long tunnels all the way to the river front where the ships would dock. The tunnels were even connected to many of the hotels in the city.
While there is no absolute proof that these tunnels lead people to a new life at sea, let’s put two and two together. You have bars full of drunk people, with tunnels underneath (that very few people even knew about) which lead right to where the ships were docked. It’s not a far stretch to think the tunnels were used for more than then just carrying around whiskey barrels. It also doesn’t help that the tunnels are in a part of the city which became known as Chinatown, another possible root for the word Shanghai.
Portland was also very well known for its many “crimps” the name given to the Shanghaiers. The most famous crimp in all of Portland was a man known as Bunko Kelly.
Joseph “Bunko” Kelly was a crafty man. Legend even says he was once able to sell a wooden Indian to an unsuspecting boarding master. According to Kelly, he personally shipped over 2000 people in his career. Unfortunately, as clever as Kelly was, he was no match for the alcohol driven stupidity of others.
Kelly had caught word that a British ship named the Flying Prince was in need of men for a trip to China. So Bunko did what Bunko did best, kidnapping 24 very drunk sailors. Kelly took them to the basement of a nearby funeral home and locked them up. When the sailors woke up, figuring they had been locked in the basement of the bar they had been drinking in, they decided they might as well keep drinking. Gruesomely, the bottles they drank from weren’t full of booze, but embalming fluid. This lead to the deaths of all 24 men.
Now Kelly had several dead bodies on his hands he somehow needed to get rid of. Not being able to come up with a better plan, Bunko managed to sell all 24 bodies to the boarding master of the Flying Prince, passing them off as passed out drunks sleeping their previous night’s revelry off.
Needless to say the company that owned the Flying Prince was less than happy, having just bought a crew full dead guys. They complained directly to the British government, which then demanded the government of Portland, upon the threat of much violence, arrest and imprison Bunko Kelly, or so the legend has legend has it, like anything involving Portland’s tunnels it’s hard to separate myth form fact.
As with much about Joseph Kelly’s life, any evidence of this event is circumstantial at best. What we do know is that Kelly spent 18 years in prison for the murder of his friend and fellow criminal George Sayers. The evidence used to convict Kelly of this crime was thin… as thin as the many legends about him. Both Kelly and Sayers had done some work for the Bourne crime syndicate, which used a man named Bourne’s political pull as district attorney to run most of the crime in Portland.
A week before the murder Kelly and a man named Larry Sullivan helped manage the criminal activities of the Bourne and had reportedly had a serious disagreement that led to a fist fight between the two. While there is no way to know exactly what the two men were fighting over but there has long been speculation that the Bourne syndicate had Kelly framed for the murder of Mr. Sayers. The only thing really linking Kelly to the murder was a bow tie that looked similar to the type Kelly owned.
After he was released from prison in 1908, Joseph Kelly authored a book about his stay in Oregon’s prison system, showing its ugly inner workings at the time. He died sometime not soon after the book was published. As for the tunnels under Portland, they are now a hot spot for tourists and paranormal investigators alike. Like the stories of ghosts inhabiting their darkness, the history of the tunnels is mostly rumors told in hushed tones. We only know that stuff was carried through them, possibly including future sailors. So stay safe and remember to pay attention of your surroundings…especially if you’re going out for a drink or two.