Based on an Oregon legend
(The following was received by The Oregonian on March 17, 1880)
March 2, 1880
I, Sylvester Humphrey, of sound mind and body, relate the following:
I write to confess my cooperation with Bunco Kelly in activities that resulted in the deaths of multiple young men. If this letter is being read, I have come to an untimely demise, most likely at the hands of Bunco Kelly himself. My hope is that the sad facts I set forth here will persuade the world that the evils of the shanghaiing business must be addressed.
My brother Henry, age twenty-two, and I, age nineteen, came to Portland about a year ago with references that got us office jobs. But one morning, a few months after our arrival in town, I put carbolic acid in my eye.
At the time, both my brother and I were working at the law firm of Holmes, Holmes, and Chapman, I as a scrivener, he as a courier. I’d been injured during a brawl on Front Street, while out searching for Henry. Somebody had hurled a chair through a saloon window, leaving me with a wooden splinter in my eye and a laceration in my arm that became infected with streptococcus. The doctor had given me carbolic acid for my arm and an opium wash for my eye.
I can’t see a thing without my spectacles, which I took off for the administration of the opium wash. One morning, I misread the vials, and I put the carbolic acid in my eye.
Henry went out for a doctor after he found me screaming. The doc put eight leeches around my eye to address the inflammation.
I asked Henry to tell the law firm that I couldn’t work because of my infirmity. In my agony, I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I should’ve known not to send him. The sights and sounds of my distress had made him uneasy. And when Henry got uneasy, he acted strangely, reached for the bottle, or both. But I knew of no one else to send. We’d given the doctor most of our money, so we couldn’t get a messenger. We’d only been in Portland for a few months at that time, and while Henry had his share of scurrilous friends, I knew few people.
So, Henry got drunk before visiting our supervisor at the law firm to let him know that I wouldn’t be in. Our supervisor was a teetotaler. Henry was a drunken fool, and our supervisor fired both of us on the spot.
Henry was so remorseful that I couldn’t stay angry at him for long.
We tried hard, but we weren’t able to get other office positions without references. It was suggested to us that we go out to sea. But I wouldn’t fare well as a sailor–I’m a runt, bookish, and short-sighted. Neither Henry nor I, knowing the average plight of a sailor—enjoying poor food and dangerous conditions and becoming the legal property of the captain—wanted to go to sea. Also, I’d promised Mama when we left our farm in Klamath Falls that I’d keep Henry safe. When we were younger, Henry had looked out for me, protecting me from other children and our father, who’d been an angry man until his death in ’78. I’d told Mama that it was my turn to keep Henry out of danger. So, we couldn’t go out to sea.
We couldn’t go home, either, seeing as we’d left Klamath Falls to get Henry away from the married Modoc woman he’d claimed to love beyond all measure. Mama and I had worried about what the woman’s husband would do. It was during this crisis that I’d first observed how, during periods of stress, Henry could be oblivious to external realities; he would stare vacantly, lying in bed or rocking in a chair. He’d also been turning often to the bottle. Mama and I had hoped that a life in Portland, a place Mama had described as one of wholesome industry and commerce, would adjust Henry’s spirits.
At first, the move to Portland did him some good. His courier job had given his life some structure. But after the rusticity had rubbed off, he’d begun spending all his free time on Front Street, playing cards with great skill. With enough whiskey, Henry could tell a tale like no other, one that would have half the bar laughing. Unfortunately, these habits had got him noticed by people who were up to no good.
Which is how Henry could announce, not long after I put acid in my eye and we lost our jobs, that he’d found us work. With Bunco Kelly.
The reader of this letter will probably know of Bunco Kelly’s fame as a crimper, know how he gets farm boys drunk or addled on opium and then shanghaies them, selling them to ship captains for a tidy sum. Kelly had been in the papers plenty since our arrival in town, more than once because of murder charges (dropped after witnesses disappeared), and his name often came up in editorials in The Oregonian about the nest of thieves that controlled Portland’s docks.
At first, I objected to the idea of being in Bunco Kelly’s employment. But Kelly’s agent, Henry’s friend, told us that we could quit any time and for any reason. Henry and I badly needed money, so we took the jobs with the rationalization that it was a temporary measure.
The work was pretty ordinary, considering who it was for. All that they say about the business is true. But not everybody who works for a crimper is dragging semi-conscious bodies to the docks. Some buy a sailor’s belongings when he’s drunk away his money on shore and sell these items to ship captains, making a healthy profit on the transaction. Sailors are given the opportunity later, at sea, to buy back their things at an inflation rate of around three hundred percent. Kelly has got this all figured out–in Astoria, here in Portland, and in San Francisco.
Henry and I moved into a shared room at the Sailors’ House on Second Street, a boarding house and center of Kelly’s Portland operations. This agent of Kelly’s who hired us, he had Henry running messages, and as for me, I started keeping the books. The pay was double what it had been at the law firm, and we sent much more money home to Mama each week.
But even though my endeavors were bloodless, it wasn’t long before I knew a great deal about the secret specifics of Kelly’s operations—like which politicians, judges, and police officers had been bribed to look the other way when Kelly’s activities crossed the line into criminality.
We should have quit. But the money was too good, and we were fooling ourselves, thinking that we could keep our hands clean. But Henry and I did make a plan for if we got in trouble: he was friends with a madam who blamed Kelly for the disappearance of her sister a few years before. If we wanted to hide from Kelly, the madam would conceal us in the tunnel that connected her basement to the waterfront until we found a way out of town.
Not long after we started working at the Sailors’ House, the man who’d hired us disappeared in a swirl of rumor that he’d done something to offend Kelly. Afterwards, Kelly himself took a greater interest in the Sailors’ House. He had somebody review the books I’d been keeping, and I was praying that things weren’t off by a dime.
But I’ve always been good with numbers, and the books showed this. Kelly saw me to express his approval, and I took my first look at the tall, thin man, with a big head and hooded eyes that made him seem sleepy until you looked close and saw that he was taking everything in. He was very careful with his clothes, and the rumors were that he used shoe polish in his hair. Seeing him without knowing who he was, it would be hard to know that his character was as ugly as original sin.
Henry didn’t fare as well as I during Kelly’s evaluation of Sailors’ House operations. Kelly decided that Henry, given his familiarity with the bars on Front Street and his skill at cards, should go to work as a lure. Kelly wanted Henry to buy the farm boys drinks, play cards with them, take them to opium palaces, and once their wits were gone, get them to sign their rights away and board waiting ships bound for the mouth of the Columbia and the Pacific.
Henry came to me with this news, distraught. He couldn’t do it, he said.
But we didn’t see how to fix it. As far as quitting, we took a more realistic appraisal of our options than before. Bunco Kelly as good as owned the docks in Portland and Astoria, and he’d affect our prospects as far away as Alaska and San Francisco. Moreover, if we quit, our knowledge related to the most unsavory aspects of his business would make us liabilities in his eyes, and it wasn’t overdramatic to say that we might come to bad ends.
The stress of the situation gave Henry more days when he didn’t want to get out of bed. Sometimes I found him rocking in a corner in his room, not responsive to any question. On those days, I sent word that Henry was ill. But I knew we couldn’t keep this up. Sooner or later, Henry was going to break down at the wrong time.
Henry came to me one night as I was doing the books at the Sailors’ House, pleading for my help. Kelly had entrusted Henry with money so that he could buy boys drinks and opium. And Henry had lost this money when he was beset by one of his bad spells while at the card table.
Henry was as sorry and as apologetic as one could be. I was in a fury and ventilated my views on the subject of our predicament. We wouldn’t even have been in Portland if it hadn’t been for Henry, wouldn’t have lost our respectable jobs if it hadn’t been for Henry, wouldn’t have got involved with Kelly if it hadn’t been for Henry. I was terribly fierce with him; he burst into tears, and it took me a long time to calm him down.
Finally, Henry said he knew what to do. Instead of buying his targets drinks, he would break into the cellar of the Snug Harbor Saloon, the boys with him. He’d have them down there until they were ripe to be taken to the docks. He’d tell Kelly that he’d spent the lost money entertaining the conscripts, and Kelly would be none the wiser.
So, what was my role? Henry needed a look-out.
I had to face the fact that Kelly’s knowing about the lost money would result in Henry getting a severe beating or worse. I’d promised to take care of Henry, and I couldn’t think of any better solution.
So, around one in the morning, we went with a group of lads Henry had collected–thirteen fellows, the oldest nineteen, the youngest fourteen, all straight off the farm–and we went to Second and Morrison.
Henry pointed to a sidewalk cellar grate.
I asked him if he was sure. Two grates were side-by-side, and in the limited light from the street gas lamps, it wasn’t clear to me which grate belonged to the saloon.
Henry declared he was certain and opened the grate. He and the lads descended the ladder into the cellar with a great deal of carrying-on, despite my hissing at them to stay quiet. Their voices became faint as they pulled the grate closed from within.
It was a damp, cold night, the weather and the hour keeping passers-by to a minimum. On the corner, I pulled my coat tighter around me and watched for people.
Henry and his boys had already had plenty to drink prior to the break-in, so Henry had told me an hour with what they would find in the cellar should be enough to influence his naïve prospects to sign the paperwork agreeing to a term of indefinite service aboard the Crown Prince. Henry also had a date to rendezvous with the boat at four in the morning. He and the boys were going on foot to the waterfront, and it was already after two.
I waited over an hour with no sound from them. Finally, I left my look-out spot, thinking that they’d lost track of time in their carousing, went to the cellar grate, and opened it.
What I saw down there in the light of their lantern—a jumble on the floor of limbs and faces—told me instantly a story of something horrible.
As I started down the cellar stairs, I smelled a biting chemical, not whiskey. The smell cut through the mud-and-manure odor of the street.
Then I saw Henry. He was on his back. His eyes were open, and it was like he was looking at me, except that his expression didn’t change at all.
They’d run into a patch of bad air, I thought, and if I went down there, I might go under too, and then there would be nobody to get help. Maybe I reasoned myself into cowardice. At any rate, I kept the cellar grate open with the hope that it would dispel whatever noxious fumes were down there, and I ran.
I saw no one in the drifting mist as I dashed through the streets. I arrived at the Sailors’ House and burst through the doors.
And who was there? Bunco Kelly, doing God knows what in the lobby at around three o’clock in the morning. I almost lost whatever I had in my belly when I saw his face. I realized that if Kelly knew about the cellar, he might sniff out the fact that Henry had lost the money. Not knowing what to say, I was as stupid as an oyster as I looked at the man.
Kelly said gruffly, “Sylvester? What’s wrong, kid.”
I didn’t see I had a choice. I told him in bits of breathless sentences—I don’t know what, exactly, for my memory of that time is all a blur—but he got the necessary information out of me and didn’t interrogate me as to why Henry had gone to steal liquor.
I was half frozen, and Kelly saw this. He ordered me to stay inside and drink a cup of cider before I went back out. With the warm apple taste in my mouth, I felt hopeful that Kelly wasn’t the monster his reputation made him out to be.
After I gulped my cider, I ran back out to Second and Morrison, and I found several carts pulled up to the cellar. In kind of a chain, Kelly’s men were hauling the boys out of the cellar, tugging at limp bodies and pushing them into the carts.
I saw a boy raise his head slowly, like he was half asleep, but others weren’t moving at all.
Perhaps it was Kelly’s kindness with the cider that led me to assume that the boys were being taken to the doctor whom Kelly used for all Sailors’ House-related emergencies, a man Kelly trusted not to speak to the police about gun and knife wounds.
Second-to-last to come out of the cellar was Henry. I saw his limbs moving feebly. When they tried to get him to walk, he collapsed. The men pulled him up and tossed him into the cart like the others. I dared not call out to him; the men were all moving in silence, with only the occasional mutter.
I saw Bunco Kelly’s big head. He was talking to the first driver, and then there was the lash of the whip, and the cart took off.
I waited until the last cart, the one with Henry, was ready to set out and raced to it.
I’d just jumped on the cart when I heard Kelly. He said, “That Sylvester? Get him down from there.”
One of Kelly’s men grabbed me by my belt and the collar of my shirt and threw me to the road, stunning me.
As I lay there, I heard the jingling of the bridles, the driver’s hushed call to the horses, the lash of the whip, and then the wheels of the cart in the mud as it rolled away.
When I could sit up and look about, I saw Kelly talking to his men. Occasionally, one of them would look at me, and I suspected that I was the subject of their discussion.
Finally, Kelly spun around and walked to me as I struggled to my feet.
“Well, son,” he said, looking me up and down with those hooded eyes.
I wiped at my face, for I was covered in mud, and said, “Sir, if I could go meet them at the doctor’s—my brother–”
Kelly frowned. “The problem,” he said, “is that you are a prime witness to all of this.”
I didn’t know why my seeing a bunch of sick boys would be an issue, but I said nothing.
“Yes, indeed,” Kelly said. “A prime witness.” He lit a cigarette.
When I saw how he was looking at me, I was scared. I thought of the books I kept for him, where the money for each new sailor delivered to the ships was carefully tallied. The way Kelly was looking at me was like he was considering whether I should be erased like a mistaken number in a ledger.
‘‘I think what we should do,” Kelly said, looking at me with one eye shut as he puffed on his cigarette, “is send you to San Francisco.”
“But my brother—”
That’s when he plucked a wad of cash from his coat and said, “You send a telegram here with your new address, I’ll personally make sure your brother gets it.”
The bills he handed over were in large denominations, and I could see that the amount was much more than the cost of a ticket for a steamer to San Francisco. Later, I saw that it was four times more than the cost of such a ticket.
The moment the money appeared, I knew Kelly’s talk about the telegram was all humbug. Probably my brother, along with the boys he’d gathered, were bound for the boat, their illness passed off as intoxication, their signatures on papers forged. Why Kelly didn’t kill me then, I don’t know. Maybe it was easier to get rid of a live body than it was a dead one. Maybe he thought the money would shut me up.
I confess, for a moment I was tempted by the idea of a life without Henry. I could live without the constant worry about what he might be up to. But I felt this only for a second. It wasn’t just the promise I’d made to Mama. It was all those times Henry had stood up for me. He was the most important thing in my life, as troublesome as he was.
But being surrounded by Kelly’s men, I could only do what I did, which was to take the money and thank Kelly.
My first thought was to get to the brothel, according to the plan Henry and I had devised. Hopefully, Henry would recover in time to slip off the boat in Astoria. He would know to send a message to me at the brothel.
Kelly told me that his man would spend the rest of the night with me, if I didn’t mind the company, and see me off on a boat to San Francisco later in the day. His man, a hulking brute, followed me to my room at the Sailors’ House. As I got into bed, he took the single chair, set it against the door, sat, and quickly fell asleep.
I’d never thrown a sure punch before. Henry had fought all my battles for me. But after Kelly’s man fell asleep, I bashed in his head with a water pitcher with all of my strength. He groaned and slid out of the chair, bleeding copiously.
I opened the door and fled.
I stole away to the brothel and hid in the tunnel that led from the madam’s basement to the waterfront. The madam got the paper for me every day, and when the news from Astoria came in, three days after I’d last seen Henry, I saw the report.
They’d identified him from some document he’d had on him. Several of the boys had not been as lucky, and descriptions of the anonymous dead were in the paper.
Further investigation determined the cause of death: the boys had poisoned themselves with formaldehyde when they’d broken into the cellar of an undertaker, instead of the cellar of the next-door saloon.
With the madam’s help, I sent the money Kelly gave me to Mama. The madam will also deliver this letter to The Oregonian in the event Kelly gets to me. I tried to write a letter like this to Mama. But I couldn’t do it. I knew that the news about Henry’s death would reach her some other way. I had nothing to add other than the details of my involvement, which she will also come to know when I tell the authorities what happened that night or, if I fail to survive, when this letter is published. I hope she understands how sorry I am.
My feeling is that I can’t redeem myself by apologizing for what I’ve done, for I know that if I hadn’t agreed to help Henry, he and those other boys might still be alive. However, I mean to speak up against the terrible way Bunco Kelly and his people use young men like my brother and me. I will go to the police and tell everything I know, this letter serving as my voice if I disappear.
My hope is that my miserable tale will help persuade those in power to pass laws restraining people like Bunco Kelly from exploiting naive young men. Perhaps our fates will serve as an instructive example for others who think of Portland only as a place of wholesome industry and commerce.
Julie Rea’s work has appeared in several places, including The Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Nude Bruce Review, BLYNKT, The Weird Reader, and in the Nasty! anthology. She lives in the Philadelphia area, where she teaches and writes about life in a wheelchair and other fascinating subjects.
© 2018, Julie Rea