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Levy, Maxwell (d. 1931), Port Townsend's Crimper King

HistoryLink.org Essay 7763 : Printer-Friendly Format

From the 1890s to 1910, when he retired, Maxwell Levy was the "king of the crimpers" in the booming port of Port Townsend. A crimp or crimper is one who forces or entraps sailors into service against their will or when they are insensible, such as drunk. Levy was the leading supplier of sailors to ships leaving port. He obtained them in a practice known as shanghaiing. Men were "sent to Shanghai" when, in the most extreme case, they were knocked out and placed on a ship on its way to the Far East. Levy obtained sailors using various forms of coercion for 20 years without being convicted of any crime. He worked out of a boardinghouse he operated for sailors at the wharf. Finally, changes in laws and the switch to steamships, which required fewer sailors, forced him to give up his lucrative business. He retired in 1910 and moved back to San Francisco, where he died in 1931.

Maxwell Levy Arrives

Maxwell Levy was born in San Francisco. He came to Port Townsend in the late 1880s. He became a partner in the Chicago Clothing Company with a man named Thomas Newman. He prospected in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, where he married a woman named Harriet. He divorced her after he returned to Port Townsend in 1899. Soon afterward, he married Lucy Hogg, daughter of a local sea captain. They had one son, named James Maxwell Levy, born in 1903.

The Levys divorced and Lucy married Ed Sims. Levy became friends with Sims, a businessman and deputy U.S. shipping commissioner. Sims's financial backing allowed Levy to purchase a share in a sailor's boarding house and saloon called New Sailor's Home.

Banking on Sailors

The boardinghouse was located on Water Street, near the wharf, where sailors went ashore to spend their wages. Typically after spending all their money, a sailor would count on the boardinghouse owner to cover him until he next sailed. Levy accommodated sailors by recording their debts as an advance against their wages. When they were hired by the next ship's captain, the captain deducted the amount they owed and repaid Levy before paying the sailor.

Captains also paid Levy a fee for each man received, sometimes as much as $50 each. Once a sailor found he would be making the trip and working virtually without compensation, he would be somewhat reluctant to fulfill his commitment. That's when shanghaiing came in. Levy found various tricks, most of them illegal, to force them aboard.

Levy also worked with Sims, who would look the other way when Levy signed up crews for ships. According to an 1895 law, men had to be fully aware of what they were doing (i.e., not intoxicated) when they signed up. Their signature also had to be witnessed by the consul of the country that owned the ship or by a U.S. shipping commissioner. Sims would allow men brought before him to go on board without a second look.

A Sailor's Life

So began a lucrative business for Levy. His boardinghouse was a handsome brick structure right on the waterfront. It got the attention of sailors just coming into port, who chose it as a place to stay. Many sailors could not pay for the lodging, so Levy would lend them enough to pay for their room and board. When a new ship came into port, the captain called upon Levy to supply men. This arrangement indebted the sailor to the ship's owner and earned an excellent profit for Levy.

Levy usually did not do his own dirty work. He gave orders to his "runners" and then stood back to collect the money. These runners didn't hesitate to use force whenever necessary to get their quota of sailors. They waited until a man passed out when he'd had too much to drink. Or if they didn't have time to wait they put "knock-out drops" in his drink. Once the man was out cold, they dumped him into a skiff and rowed him out to the waiting ship. By the time he woke up, he was far out to sea.

The runners chose their victims carefully. They never shanghaied an Indian because by that time, most Indians were under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If there was a complaint, the federal government would soon come poking around. Levy wanted no part of that. Runners also avoided taking local residents. If they couldn't find professional sailors, they took farmhands or loggers or soldiers or even vagrants. For the most part, a man's race didn't matter at all.

Piracy on the Waterfront

One of the most notorious of Levy's runners was a man named Charles Gunderson. He used any method to do Levy's bidding, including beating people into insensibility. One time, Gunderson and fellow-runner "Chilean Pete" snuck aboard a British ship out in the harbor. They went there to convince the sailors to desert. The runners paid them to desert; Levy planned to get his money twice when he would resell them to another captain.

But the runners were discovered before they could complete the transaction. They quickly jumped off the ship into their skiff and frantically rowed to the rear of Levy's boardinghouse. The ship's mate and boatswain rowed after them in a small boat and caught up with them. Gunderson tried to knock them out with an oar. The ship's mate fired his gun, fatally wounding Chilean Pete and wounding Gunderson in the shoulder.

A trial followed the shooting, but the jury found the mate not guilty since Chilean Pete had been engaged in piracy. Gunderson was charged too, but escaped conviction because he claimed he had not boarded the ship and that he was there at the invitation of the sailors.

Ruses and Altercations

Levy's favorite tactic was to pay off one crew so that he could be paid to supply another crew to the same ship. He lured the first crew away with promises of better conditions that he knew about on another ship. The conditions would be of course no better and were sometimes worse. On one occasion, he succeeded in convincing three different crews to abandon the ship America, before the vessel was finally able to sail with a full crew.

One man who had been shanghaied on a ship to Hong Kong swore he would get even with Levy. It took two years before he finally got back to Port Townsend and he headed straight for Levy's office. He found Levy talking to two of his runners. Though outnumbered, the man jumped on them anyway. It wasn't long before he lay unconscious on the ground.

Another shanghaied man swore revenge on Gunderson. Gunderson was trying to get this man drunk, but it was taking too long. He finally knocked him down with a bar stool and then kicked him in the face. He dragged him aboard a ship bound for Australia. As soon as he could, the sailor returned to Port Townsend. He accosted Gunderson and stabbed him seven times. Gunderson survived, but tendons in his neck and arms were severely damaged. He ended his relationship with Levy and lived out the rest of his days as a fisherman.

Riot at Latona Saloon

One memorable event occurred on August 11, 1893. About 8 p.m. that night, a sailor staggered into the Latona Saloon, owned by Max Levy and frequented by non-union sailors. The sailor who came in had been attacked and beaten up, presumably by union sailors. And the man was not alone. Some union sailors had followed him, and soon a large union force gathered across the street from the saloon.

At first the two groups just taunted each other. Then one of the union sailors tried to enter the Latona for a drink. Levy stopped him at the door. Gunderson and barkeeper Robert Kirk picked up their weapons and prepared to do battle. The three men warned the union men to stay away or there would be trouble.

The union men ignored the warning and swarmed the saloon. No one knows who fired the first shot or threw the first blow. Union sailor James Connor was shot in the right shoulder and the right hip. Waiter Otto Anderson was slightly wounded in the stomach from a stray bullet. Newcomer Ricordo Gueraro had been attracted to the altercation by the noise and was hit in the right leg. Union sailor Joseph Dixon cut his arm when he attempted to smash the window of the Latona. Ultimately every ground floor window of the Latona Saloon was broken and the inside looked like a hurricane hit it.

Finally the police got the riot under control. Officer Brophy escorted Levy, Gunderson, and Kirk to the jail to protect them from the mob that wanted to lynch them. They were joined the next night by several others who tried to continue the fight, but instead were caught and charged with inciting a riot and for destroying the Latona Saloon. They were held in a part of the jail separate from where Levy, Gunderson, and Kirk were held.

Levy went to trial for assault. Attorney A. R. Coleman, from the shipowner's association of San Francisco, defended Levy, Gunderson, and Kirk. Coleman explained how Gunderson had only fired warning shots into the floor. But when the union men ignored it and lunged toward them, the three men were just defending themselves. Two union sailors named Ralston and Lanstrum testified that Levy had not been armed and that he had only come out from behind the bar to try to settle things down.

The union men told a different story. Attorneys James Hamilton Lewis and E. S. Lyons claimed Levy had kicked and beaten up the victim without provocation. Union agents McGlynn and Benedikton also claimed that the fight had not been a union vs. non-union issue. They said a man had gone into the saloon because he had lost a ring there two weeks ago. He had simply gone in to demand the return of his ring. The fight started when he was kicked out of the saloon.

The first trial ended with a hung jury. The second jury acquitted Levy. The others charged with inciting a riot were also acquitted. Shortly afterward, some of the union issues were settled. The union agreed to a $5 per month salary reduction on deep-sea-going vessels. Other salary reductions were made. This seemed to be the end of similar labor disputes.

Business as Usual

After his release from jail, Levy went right back to his old tricks, shanghaiing sailors and relieving them of their money. He and his runners beat up a ship captain and one of his sailors because they had hired a sailor without Levy's consent.

Levy cut corners whenever he could. He generally received about $90 a man and about $20 to pay for clothes and other items the sailor would need while at sea. One time, Levy supplied about 20 sailors to a British ship. But before the ship could sail, the sailors were threatening to mutiny. The ship's captain called Levy about the problem. Levy called the British consul to help. For once, Levy's plan backfired.

After talking to each sailor, the consul discovered that the clothing supplied was woefully inadequate. Some of the attire looked as if it had been taken out of trash dumpsters or off corpses. Some of it was even women's clothing! The consul discovered what Levy had done and told him he would have to supply appropriate clothing. Levy grudgingly did so, and he would never make that mistake again.

Early in 1896, Levy ran into trouble with the law. He shanghaied two men for a British ship that was in port. He and one of his runners, Thomas Newman, rowed them out to the ship and left them there. As he was rowing away, one of the shanghaied men jumped overboard in an attempt to escape. Thomas Newman saw him jump and went to rescue him. Levy beat him up for his trouble. Levy was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, but the case was dismissed.

In May 1896, Levy and Newman were charged with stealing baggage belonging to a sailor named Alex Von Hagen. The charge was brought before U.S. Commissioner James G. Swan. Newman had stored Von Hagen's baggage on board his ship. Then he asked Von Hagen to sign a promissory note for $50 that he supposedly owed Levy for his room and board. Von Hagen refused because he thought the bill was much too high. Newman refused to give Von Hagen his luggage until he paid.

Levy admitted that they took the luggage. He said that he would have gladly given it to anybody who had come after it; all they had to do was ask. Swan dismissed the case, after ordering an assistant to escort Levy and Von Hagen to get the missing baggage.

A Notable Fight

The incident must have left Levy in a foul mood. Just a few days later, he was involved in an altercation that would land him back in jail. A sailor named Charles M. Carlson was leaning on a railing outside the Red Front Clothing House, when Levy approached him. He threw a rock at Carlson and injured his eye.

Levy was charged with assault and battery and a large crowd was on hand to see him convicted. The city attorney prosecuted the case. M. B. Sachs defended Levy. Carlson testified that the assault was totally uncalled for and unprovoked. Three other men, William Debbert, Eugene Thurlow, and Charles Webber, were in the street nearby and all saw Levy hit Carlson. They could not say what provoked the assault or whether it was justified, but could verify that he did do it. None of them saw Carlson strike back.

Levy testified in his own defense. He said that Carlson was interfering with his boardinghouse business. He said Carlson was trying to entice men away. The night he hit him, he saw Carlson standing in front of the Red Front store and decided to talk to him about what he was doing. While talking, he said Carlson kicked him in the stomach. He was only defending himself when he hit Carlson back.

Two other witnesses said they saw Carlson strike first. Webber and Debbert said they did not see Carlson kick Levy. Carlson also denied that he had struck Levy. Due to the conflicting testimony, the jury could not reach a decision. Apparently Levy was to be recharged, but whether he ever was is unknown.

More Deals, More Ruses

In January 1897, Levy attempted to sell a crew twice. The British ship Chiltonford bought a crew from Levy. Part of the deal was hiring Levy employee Adrian Sheehan to watch over the crew before the sailed, to prevent rival crimpers from "stealing" the sailors. Sheehan then proceeded to get the crew drunk, allegedly so they would put up little resistance when Levy showed up later to sell them off to another boat.

But the captain of the ship was also keeping a watch and saw what Sheehan was doing. When the boarding-house crew arrived he fired gunshots, which scared the men away. Levy only profited once that night.

Men weren't always available. Some of the men Levy scavenged from a card game or saloon weren't even sailors. Levy wasn't too choosy when it came to giving the ship's captains what they wanted.

One such case occurred in 1899, when Levy was challenged to find a crew for the ship British General. The captain needed 10 men, and, partly due to the high demand for ships sailing to Alaska to get to Canada's Yukon River gold fields, there was a shortage of men in port. Levy called upon his friend David Evans of Tacoma. Evans managed to find five men and Levy managed to find five more. Out of the 10, only two had actual sailing experience. The rest were farmers or other tradesmen. The ship's captain had no time to be picky as he was under a strict deadline to set sail. Fortunately, the ship came to no harm before arriving at its destination.

End of an Era

In 1906, shanghaiing came to an abrupt halt. New laws prohibited any runner, shipping concern, or steamship agency from hiring a sailor who was drunk. The law also stated that once a sailor was on board, he could leave for just cause by bringing it before the board of commissioners. Steep fines, from $200 to $500 for each occurrence, were imposed against those who failed to obey the law.

This law made it difficult for Levy to continue as he had before. He kept his hand in the business for a little while though, taking care to keep a low profile. His business was damaged further when steamships started rapidly replacing sailing vessels. Fewer hands were needed to handle the new ships, which further eroded his boardinghouse business. Unions were also doing a better job of protecting sailors' rights.

By 1910, Levy gave up the business. In 1912, he moved his family to San Francisco, where he died in 1931.

Sources:
Port Townsend Daily Leader, August 12, 1893; Ibid.,, August 13, 1893; Ibid., August 15, 1893; Ibid., August 16, 1893; Ibid., August 24, 1893; Ibid., September 13, 1893; Ibid., September 24, 1893; Ibid., November 15, 1893; Port Townsend Morning Leader, May 19, 1896; Port Townsend Morning Leader, May 21, 1896; Port Ibid., May 23, 1896; Port Townsend Weekly Leader, November 23, 1899; Port Townsend Morning Leader, April 6, 1906; Lucile S. McDonald, "A Captain Usually Got His Crew in Port Townsend's Uninhibited Past," The Seattle Times, September 9, 1962; Peter Simpson, City of Dreams: A Guide to Port Townsend (Port Townsend: The Bay Press, 1986); Gordon Newell,H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1966); James Hermanson, "Shanghaiing Sailors to Fill Crews," Port Townsend Leader, August 28, 1996; Gordon Newell, Sea Rogues Gallery, (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1971); Dillon, Richard H., Shanghaiing Days (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1962); James G. McCurdy, By Juan de Fuca's Strait (Portland, Oregon: Binford & Mort, 1937); Thomas W. Camfield, Port Townsend, An Illustrated History of Shanghaiing, Shipwrecks, Soiled Doves, and Sundry Souls (Port Townsend; Ah Tom Publishing, 2000).


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Port Townsend Customs House, 1893
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