Salt and Corruption

salt and corruption shanghaied
*This story originally appeared in The Missouri Review, March 2024

Henry Short had a family who cared enough to notice he was missing—and this made him unique. After his disappearance in 1901, his parents no doubt questioned their decision to raise their son, who had just turned 15, in the still-wild Pacific Northwest. At the time, Seattle was home to just over 80,000 people—and home, too, to a booming black market that prayed on young men like Henry

The Shorts filed a missing person report at the local police station, but in their hearts, they knew it’d do no good. In fact, the uniformed officers across from them might have helped make their son disappear. Still, Henry’s parents told the police their suspicion: they believed he had been shanghaied.

It’s a shame Henry’s height or weight wasn’t documented by the police that day. If we knew that he was tall or fat, we could say with more confidence that he was probably dead by the time his parents realized he was missing. The dose of opium or laudanum he was given would have been more likely to stop his heart: bigger men needed large doses to knock them out for sixteen hours, and the crimps, whose business it was to get teens like Henry to swallow the drugs unknowingly, weren’t exactly anesthesiologists.

“Crimp” was a term used in Seattle at the time to refer to a person who was, more or less, a sea pimp. Crimps took many forms: landlords, boardinghouse owners, barkeeps, prostitutes, or anyone whose line of work brought them to the docks or the seedy establishments frequented by sailors and desperate men.

Many people wanted to be a crimp. There was big money in it if you did it well. Drugging a man, beating him up, and dragging him on board a ship for months of forced labor was worth $30 to $50 in the eyes of a ship captain—roughly $1,100 to $1,800 today.

Crimping originated in London in eighteenth-century Napoleonic times and remained a reason to keep your head on a swivel at the docks in Liverpool, New York, and Sydney for the next hundred years. But at the turn of the twentieth century, everyone knew the most dangerous docks in the world were located on the upper West Coast in cities like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Had Henry been shanghaied in Portland, he might have been drugged in a bar and held in an underground tunnel until dawn, possibly even dropped through a trapdoor in the floor, before being dumped on a ship. In San Francisco, Henry might have come face-to-face with Johnny Devine, also known as The Shanghai Chicken. Seattle didn’t have tunnels or a kingpin with a cool nickname, but residents knew that any bar south of Yesler Way was a place to avoid. Crimping took place to “an alarming extent” in these areas, the Seattle Star reported.

At the time, the port city of Shanghai was one of the largest and busiest in the world. It took about sixty days to get there by boat and no direct route back home existed, so a sailor would have to sojourn along the West Indies and through the Middle East to Alexandria and London before returning to America. A direct route from London to West Coast port cities like Seattle did exist, but the Panama Canal did not—so ships had to travel south and around Cape Horn at the tip of Chile—some 18,000 miles total. It could easily be two years before you returned home.

As a result, sailors avoided working these routes. But captains still needed sailors. In those days, a sailor was paid his 20 percent advance before the ship left, but never in cash. Captains set up lines of credit at local shops that provided crews with clothes, food, shelter, tobacco, and alcohol. The sailor would only receive the remaining 80 percent of his earnings if he completed his voyage, months or even years later. For a ship captain, the decision to pay crimps for their service was purely economic. When a man got shanghaied, the captain simply gave the 20 percent advance to his captor—a great deal for the captain and the most reprehensible sort of finder’s fee you’ve ever heard of.

Captains also had plenty of tricks up their torn, salty sleeves to avoid paying the final 80 percent. When a boat got stuck in the port waiting to unload—which could take months—sailors were not permitted to leave the vessel, even with land in sight. Budget-conscious captains used this delay to their advantage. They fed their crews rotten meat, distributed dirty water, and supplied inadequate clothing, all in an effort to get them to quit. Months and sometimes years of work would get wiped away if a sailor broke his contract. It was far cheaper to get sailors to whom you owed money to jump ship, then pay the crimps at the docks to shanghai a new crew. Occasionally, a man would jump ship sans pay after months at sea on the same boat, only to get drugged a few nights later and end up back on the same boat under the same captain.

In 1890, eleven years before Henry Short was shanghaied, a broker in San Francisco named James Laflin recorded over $71,000 in advances for 1,168 crimped sailors—over $60 each—paid out to his network of crimps. Today, that would be a sum of $233 million. Apply that figure to more than 100,000 crimped men from 1850 to the turn of the century, when Henry disappeared, and you’ve got a black-market industry easily worth billions.

As is often the case, with good business came corruption, and in 1901, crimping was still soaring to new heights in North America. This is when an already brutal practice got darker.


Nine years after Henry vanished, the New York Times ran an article about crimping titled “Why Sailors Prefer the Old to the New Method.” Five years later, crimping would be outlawed for good.

For fifty years, loggers, farmers, and boozehounds were the type of Americans who got drugged and tossed on ships. While these men came from different backgrounds, they had common qualities that made them shanghaiable:

Strengths… Vitality and resilience.
Interests… Money, women, and free liquor.
Location… The wide-open West Coast.

Despite their foul mouths and often modest educations, sailors weren’t stupid. They were, in fact, incredibly street-smart. So much so that roughly every twelve months, crimps had to change their methods and adapt their ruses as word about them spread.

When the men grew privy to what led to their capture—drinking drugged liquor—they started refusing free drinks. As a result, one shanghaier in San Francisco partnered with a cigar bar owner to give away free samples—which had been laced with opium.

When the shanghaiable became aware of who was shanghaiing them, the crimps stopped showing their faces at the docks. They instead hired a team of runners, usually other young poor boys, and overpowering sailors with brute force became the new method. Runners were encouraged to build rapport with boys from good families like Henry Short or play the fool with unsuspecting Native Americans and immigrants from Mexico and Central America who started showing up in town.

Once again, the sailors adjusted. They quickly learned to ignore any kids who approached them. Hell, ignore anyone you don’t know.

Everything changed when the crimps started paying off the police.

Cops were already known to occasionally shanghai a man out of convenience. A drunkard who acted up near the docks or bothered women in saloons might be handcuffed and dragged to the next departing boat. Crimps were known to slip an officer a cool $20 bill for his trouble. But once the police were officially on the take, the threshold for “crimes” committed loosened greatly, and news spread that young men were being falsely arrested and forced on ships. As a result, San Francisco police officers who patrolled the docks were required to carry not only a revolver and baton, but a twelve-inch knife, as many men decided that maiming or even killing a police officer was their best chance to escape.

Over and over, the pipeline of shanghaiable men dwindled, but the demand for sailors did not. Eventually, barkeeps and landlords were backstabbed—and many who crimped others got crimped themselves. In one instance in San Francisco, a pastor was summoned to a ship about to leave port and asked to “bless” a supposedly dying man on board. The last image of land he ever saw was of two people exchanging cash on the docks.

Eventually, the crimps realized they had a business problem. Crimping one man at a time was too expensive. So the crimps did what any struggling business owner would do: scale. And they did so to devastating effect.


All day, there had been a buzz around San Francisco. A wealthy man was throwing a birthday party for himself on a yacht? Everyone’s invited? Young boys and prostitutes dressed in street clothes handed out flyers all day.

“Free booze!” they shouted. “Free liquor! Get it while it’s still there!”

Several hours later, one hundred men lay unconscious on the deck of a rented yacht. A team of runners worked until dawn, dragging carcasses off the rented boat in fishing nets and distributing them among the captains.

After a decade or two of turning a blind eye to the disaster by the docks—crimping was heavily reported in newspapers—politicians got in bed with the crimps, too. In exchange for a cut of the action, they squashed any talk of lawsuits or unionization before it left city hall. Word was then passed down by lawmakers to the crimps: “Do what you have to do.”

Runners stopped looking for a man to shanghai. Now they looked for men. Early in the evening, they would enter bars and casually learn the name of every man inside. Hours later, after the men were drunk, the runners marched into the saloon with a police force at their sides, telling the men to get on a boat or go to jail for breaching their contracts.

“We didn’t sign any contracts!” the men argued.

A contract with their name (often misspelled) and an unfamiliar signature was brandished, and off they went.

Crimping started to die off in New York, but you could still get away with it in cities that were raw and growing—Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. Every day, new faces showed up in need of work.

Henry Short was drugged or beaten. Whether he was part of a group or a more expensive solo catch, there’s no doubt about the method of his capture. Ship captains didn’t pay full price for conscious men, since they knew they’d either have to knock the man out themselves or drug him to prevent him from jumping overboard.

But what became of a boy like Henry after that?

Say he was sent to Shanghai and made it there in sixty days. Everything went right—as right it could—and after two long years, Henry made his way back to Seattle and his family. Only, his parents no longer lived at 308 Union Street. His neighbors, now speaking to a shaggy man missing several teeth, tell him they left abruptly when their son went missing. They moved to Philadelphia. Or maybe it was Chicago.

Having spent every cent he earned getting home, a boy like Henry wouldn’t know how to proceed. Seattle would have changed greatly in his absence, with more right angles and clean lines and far fewer muddy roads—much different from the cold, damp, swaying existence he was used to.

So Henry walks to the saloon he sometimes visited as a boy. It’s under new ownership now. A strange man, disgusted at Henry’s musk and appearance, spits at his feet. No matter—he’s now quite used to being treated like scum. He knows a place like this is the only kind of bar that extends credit to people like him, so he orders a whiskey to plot his next move.

A boy with a dirty face approaches. He’s wearing a cravat.

“Need a job, mister?”

Henry looks up from his drink. “What’s it entail?” he asks.

“The job?” the boy says. “Bit o’ everything, really.”

“You’ll be my boss?” Henry laughs.

“No, sir,” the boy says earnestly. “My father runs a logging business in town. Dollar fifty a day.”

Henry considers. Something feels off. “No, thanks,” he says.

The boy disappears without another glance, confirming Henry’s instinct. The bartender hands him another drink.

“On the house,” Henry says.

“Cheers.” He doesn’t make eye contact.

Henry stares into the heart of his whiskey, scanning for irregularity, wondering if he should have taken the kid up on that job after all. He takes a long sip, figuring what the hell.

Some time later, he wakes to a familiar scent of rusted metal and sea salt. The subtle red behind his eyelids is the same color as the ocean at dawn. His core muscles instinctively find traction, flexing to the deck against the gentle sway of the ocean.

Henry isn’t as mad about getting crimped a second time. No longer a boy, he doesn’t have a resume or references or even enough vitamin C to keep his immune system healthy. What he does have are scars on his forearms from rope burns and on his knuckles from fighting. Until society comes to the defense of shanghaied men, which won’t happen for another thirteen years, he’s got no chance at a normal, free life. Outside this floating prison cell, he hasn’t got a pot to piss in. You see? He’s even got a sailor’s mouth.