New York City Sailor History

In the streets in the vicinity of the water, there are many buildings used as “Sailors’ Boarding-houses.” One would suppose that poor Jack needed a snug resting-place after his long and stormy voyages, but it is about the last thing he finds in New York. The houses for his accommodation are low, vile places. They are located in the filthiest sections of the city, and are never clean. Jack, however, is used to hard fare. He has spent six months, or it may be two years, in the damp and cheerless forecastle, and he will not grumble at the aspect of the only quarters available to him on shore. He has crowded with twenty men and boys into a space much smaller than the chamber assigned him, and he does not object to having half a dozen room mates. The bed is a wretched cot, but it is better than a bunk or a hammock, and Jack is not so used to cleanliness as to make him very fastidious.

The boarding-house has a flashy air. There are bright curtains at the windows, and the entire front is usually painted some gaudy color, and is adorned with a sign, with the name of the establishment in gilt letters. “The Sailor’s Retreat,” “Our House,” “The Sailor’s Welcome Home,” “The Jolly Tar,” and “The Flowing Sea Inn” are favorite names with these places. The entrance is generally low and narrow, and conducts the visitor to the main room, which is often the bar, of the house. This is a small, low-pitched apartment. The floor is sanded, and the ceiling is lined with tissue paper pendants cut in various designs. The mantelpiece is adorned with various seamen’s trophies and curiosities from foreign lands, the majority of which have been stolen from the poor fellows, who brought them home for a different purpose. The bar is adorned with a multitude of bottles, decanters, and glasses, and the liquors give no indication to the eye of their deadly properties. A person accustomed to cross the ocean in the luxurious cabin of a Cunarder, would not find the place very attractive, but to Jack, who has never known anything better than the forecastle, it has many attractions, and he falls an easy victim to it.

The landlords of these places are simply the meanest of thieves and bullies. They charge a uniform price of about seven dollars per week, for which they give a mean bed in a dirty room occupied by five or six other persons, and three indifferent meals a day. They do not, however, reap their profits from their legitimate business. Their principal earnings are gained by their crimes.

They keep their runners in the harbor on the watch for ships coming in from long voyages. These board the vessels as soon as they reach the bay, and at once begin to extol the merits of their several establishments. They are adepts at their art, and before the vessel has cast anchor at her berth, they have secured one or more men apiece for their houses. They never leave them after this, but “stick to them” until they receive their wages, after which they conduct them to the boarding-house, and turn them over to the landlord. If the sailor is unwilling to promise to become a guest at the boarding-house, the runner has but little trouble in inducing him to “drop in and look at it.” The great object is to get him within its doors. The first sense of freedom from the confinements of the ship is very grateful to Jack, and puts him in a good humor with himself and everybody else. This renders him the easier a victim.

When he has been brought within the portals of the boarding-house, the next step is to induce him to drink. Sailors are very tough, but even they cannot stand up against the effects of the poisonous liquors sold here. If the landlord is not able to induce the new-comer to drink, the “Jackal,” or the porter, is called in. Jack never suspects the porter of any design upon him, but believes that the landlord is his only enemy, and the “Jackal” is usually successful. If it is found necessary to make quick work of the case, the liquor is drugged; but, as a general rule, it is poisonous enough to stupefy even a strong man in a very short while. When the victim is fairly helpless, he is conducted to his room. There may be other “boarders” in this apartment, but they are generally too drunk to notice what is going on. The doors are utterly without fastenings, and are oiled to prevent them from creaking. When all is quiet, and the victim is plunged in a heavy slumber, the “Jackal” creeps up the stairs, enters the room, and robs the poor fellow of whatever money or valuables he may have on his person. In the morning, when the sailor awakens, sick and disheartened, he discovers his loss. The landlord is full of sympathy for him, and is indignant that such an outrage should have been perpetrated beneath his roof. He has the house searched, and, if the sailor cannot be made drunk again, goes through the farce of causing the arrest of a “stool-pigeon,” who is of course discharged for lack of evidence against him. Usually, however, the sailor is made drunk, and is gotten to sea again on a long voyage as soon as possible.

The various methods of forcing a sailor to sea are called “Shanghaiing.” The practice is resorted to by landlords, to enable them to complete the crews which they have contracted to furnish to vessels. The owners and masters of these vessels are fully aware of the infamous manner in which men are procured for them, but say they must either connive at it, or let their vessels go to sea shorthanded. In “Shanghaiing” a sober man, resort is had to false promises. He is induced to go on board of a vessel, “to see how he likes her.” He is then detained by force until the ship has left port. His true name is not entered on the list presented at the Custom House on the day before sailing, but he is passed under a fictitious name. When the wretches who carry on this business are very much pressed for men, they do not hesitate to waylay sailors, knock them senseless, and convey them on board vessels in this condition. They are not particular as to the qualifications of the men they ship as “able-bodied and thorough seamen.” They sometimes abduct men who have never trod the deck of a ship before. During the war the notorious Thomas Hadden, of 374 Water street, induced a poor tailor to go on board of a ship by telling him that the crew wanted their clothes mended, and assured him that the “job” would give him employment for several days, and amply repay him for his trouble. The tailor, upon going on board, was at once set to work in the forecastle on a lot of dilapidated jackets, and Mr. Hadden at once went ashore. Immediately the cables were cast off, and the ship was towed out into the stream by a tug which had been held in readiness. The unsuspecting tailor continued his work, never noticing the motion of the ship, and it was not until she had crossed the bar, and gotten to sea, that he was aroused by the rough voice of the mate, commanding him to go to his duty on deck. Then, to his horror, he found that he was on his way to Canton. He returned, after a voyage of two years, and at once took measures to bring Hadden to justice. The wretch escaped, however, and was not seen again in Water street for three years. Mr. Hadden is now serving out a term of ten years imprisonment in the New Jersey Penitentiary, for grand larceny.

Usually, however, “Shanghaiing” is practised upon drunken sailors only. They are made drunk, as has been stated, immediately after the discovery of the loss of their wages, and are kept so until an opportunity presents itself for sending them to sea. Thus they are gotten rid of, care being taken to ship them only on voyages of two and three years duration. The landlords receive a premium on the men furnished by them. They also make out fictitious claims against the poor fellows, and pocket the three months’ wages advanced by the owners or masters of the vessels on which the unfortunates are shipped.



Thus the sailor is plundered, made drunk, prevented from enjoying any other society on shore but that of thieves and the lowest prostitutes. It frequently happens that the poor fellow never receives the benefit of a single penny of his earnings, and never spends more than a week or ten days ashore between his voyages. Efforts have been made by conscientious ship-owners to put a stop to the outrages of the landlords, but each one has failed. The wretches have banded together, and have prevented sailors from shipping, and in the end the ship-owners have been compelled to abandon the sailor to the mercy of his tyrants. Only a law of Congress, regulating sailors’ boarding houses, according to the system now in use in England, will remedy the evil. Efforts are now being made to secure the passage, during the present session of Congress, of a bill, entitled the “Shipping Commissioners’ Bill,” which has received the sanction of the shipping merchants of New York, and which will effectually remedy the evils we have described.

The merchants of the city have also organized a “Seamen’s Exchange,” the objects of which are thus set forth by the Association:

“The objects of this Association shall be the moral, mental, and social improvement of seamen, to elevate their character and efficiency as a class, and to protect them from impositions and abuses at home and abroad.

“To build up such an organization of respectable seamen as will command the respect of the community, enable ship-owners to protect themselves from the imposition of worthless and disorderly characters claiming to be seamen, but disgracing the name, and secure for their vessels reliable and efficient crews; while at the same time the seaman will be enabled to select good ships and good officers, and thus secure good treatment.”

They propose to attain these objects by the adoption of the following measures:

“To provide an exchange, reading-room, library, and savings-bank which shall be open to all seamen on the payment of a small annual subscription. To issue certificates of membership, and of character and capacity. To assert and maintain perfect liberty in the selection of boarding-houses, shipping-offices, and voyages. To refuse to pay or to receive ‘bonus-money’ for ships, or ‘blood-money’ for men, by which custom both shipowners and seamen are sufferers. To supply vessels with crews without the intervention of any shipping-master should it become necessary. To discourage the system of advanced wages as the source of many evils and but few benefits. To keep a record of the name, age, character, and capacity, so far as can be ascertained, of every member of this Association; also, of the vessels in port, their class, owners or agents, and the voyages on which they are bound. To establish means by which seamen can receive afternoon and evening lessons in the common English branches and navigation. To encourage and assist every sailor in his efforts to improve his character and to save his hard-earned money for the benefit of himself and his family, and on all suitable occasions to give him such advice and information as his circumstances may seem to require.”

Our engraving presents a view of the building now in course of erection by the Association.


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