Attention has lately been directed to the idiosyncrasies, so to speak, of those who make a living by “shipping” sailors on board of merchant vessels leaving San Francisco. This business is in the hands, principally, of the proprietors of sailor boarding-houses, otherwise and generally known as “boarding-masters.” There may be, in fact there are, a few honorable exceptions, but as a rule, a more dishonorable, dishonest crowd of blood-suckers than the “boarding-masters” of San Francisco it would be hard to find. The hardest case in San Quentin, indeed, would be an honorable gentleman in comparison to one of these fellows.
The moment an incoming ship touches the wharf, the “runners” of these leeches are on hand with their wagons to carry off the easily seduced sailors. Once the sailor reaches the boarding-house, he occupies the same position toward the “boarding-master” that the fly does toward the spider in whose net it has been caught. He is at once filled up with vile whisky, and carefully kept in that state. His wages-and he generally pays off with $100 and upwards-are taken by the “boarding-master” “for safe-keeping,” and he is judiciously supplied with a few dollars occasionally “to spend outside the house.” At the end of a couple of weeks he is gently informed that his money is all gone, and it is time for him to go to sea again. As the sailor has kept no account, he is obliged to accept the “boarding-master’s,” and is generally cheated out of from $50 to $80, according to the length of time he takes to sober up and get ready for signing articles.
When he is in a fit condition to perform this operation he is taken before the United States Shipping Commissioner, signs his name on a ship’s articles, and obtains his advance not for $60. To the sailor this advance note is so much waste paper. The “boarding-master,” however, kindly discounts it and charges a liberal rate for his kindness. The convivial mariner is again filled up with bad whisky and then taken to an outfitter’s establishment to buy such things as he wants. For about ten or fifteen dollars worth of goods he is charged about thirty or thirty-five dollars, the difference being divided between the outfitter and the “boarding-master.” From that period up to the time he is due on board his ship, which is generally within twenty-four hours after signing articles, the jolly tar is allowed to drink and to treat all he wants to. The amount thus drunk and treated depends upon the carrying capacity and liberality of the sailor; but whether it be much or litt le it always exhausts the balance coming on the advance note. At the end of the twenty-four hours the sailor is on board his ship, and all he has to show for the $60 advance note received the day before is about fifteen or twenty dollars worth of “slops!”
We have not space to describe the “blood-money” and many other exploits of these “boarding-masters;” but we have space enough to ask the U.S. Shipping Commissioner to stand up and explain how he happened to let two kidnapped boys to be shipped on board American vessels recently. One of the principal functions, for the performance of which he is paid an extravagant salary, is the prevention of such crimes. His wife, the amiable Emily Pitt-Stevens, of whom we have not heard for a long time, should comb his hair; or, better still, Uncle Sam should “fire” him.
San Francisco News Letter
February 19, 1881