Tony Quarrington

“King of the Crimps”, James “Shanghai” Kelly was not, as you might have thought, a world renowned hairdresser or Vegas high roller but a notorious criminal in 19th century San Francisco. Crimping, or shanghaiing, was the practice of kidnapping men and forcing them to work on ships, and Kelly was the undisputed master of the art.

He was, as described by Herbert Asbury in his excellent “The Barbary Coast – An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld”, a “short, thick-set Irishman, with flaming red hair, a bristling red beard, and an irascible disposition”.  Seduced, like many of his contemporaries, by the prospect of great wealth as a result of the 1848 Gold Rush in California, he fled to San Francisco where he immediately established a three-storey sailors’ boardinghouse at 33 Pacific Street, between Drum and Davis Streets, in the heart of the area known as the Barbary Coast.  However, this was essentially a “front” for his unscrupulous but lucrative business of supplying sea captains with men to fill boats rendered increasingly…

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  1. […] Great San Franciscan Characters #15: James “Shanghai” Kelly( […]

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