Bunco Kelley: The Coyote of Portland’s waterfront mythos
Is there any truth to the stories of shanghaiings of the cigar-store Indian and of the dozens of dead guys found in the basement of a funeral parlor? Well ... maybe. But then again ...
By Finn J.D. John — July 20, 2014
In last week’s article, we talked about the most notorious shanghaiing artist of the old Portland waterfront: Joseph “Bunco” Kelley.
Last week we explored what we actually know about this colorful 1890s evildoer. In this article, we’ll talk about stories we’re pretty sure are NOT historically accurate — that is, the myths.
Most of those myths come down to us through a series of conversations held in a local watering hole in the early 1930s between legendary Oregon raconteur Stewart Holbrook and an aging waterfront thug named Edward “Spider” Johnson.
Johnson had, in his youth, been a “runner” for sailors’ boardinghouses. Runners were kind of like the outside-sales force for a boardinghouse. They met incoming ships arriving in harbor, handed out bottles and cigars to the crew, and tried to talk as many as possible into checking into the boss’s lodgings rather than staying aboard or choosing a competing boardinghouse.
So Johnson clearly knew what he was talking about. The question is, did he tell it straight, or exaggerate a few things to make a better story? And did Holbrook write his stories as he told them, or did he exaggerate a few things himself? Remember, this was at the height of the Great Depression, and Holbrook was paying the bills with his pen. How well he would eat the next month depended on how compelling his copy was.
(As a side note, it’s illuminating to compare Holbrook’s accounts of Bunco Kelley’s adventures as written for a nationwide audience in The American Mercury in the late 1940s with the original articles from the Portland Morning Oregonian fifteen years earlier. Thrilling details are added, conversations are re-created, and key facts are changed.)
In any case, most of the stories that came out of the Holbrook-Johnson drinking dates have proven to be highly suspicious. And nowhere is this more clear than in the legends of Bunco Kelley.
According to Johnson, Kelley earned his name — “Bunco” — by one evening snaffling the big wooden Indian at a local cigar store and, after wrapping it in a tarp, selling its services to a particularly thick ship captain as an “A.B.,” or Able-Bodied Mariner.
Writing in the American Mercury, Holbrook says Bunco did this by slipping aboard ship with the big wooden thing (which, by the way, stood a foot and a half taller than Bunco, who was five-three) and hauling it directly to the forecastle, where the sailors slept. He stuck it in a bunk, covered it up with blankets, and only then did he seek out the captain to collect his $50 fee.
So, did it happen? Well ... maybe.
Bunco Kelley, ladies’ man
Johnson recalled that Bunco established a boardinghouse deep in the North End shortly after arriving in Portland in the 1880s, but quickly learned that he could make more money in other ways. A naturally charming man, he soon made fast friends with the proprietresses of the North End’s finer bordellos. Such entrepreneuses as Nancy Boggs, “Liverpool” Liz Smith, and Mary Cook would often receive customers who had no local connections and wouldn’t much be missed if they vanished over the bar aboard a China-bound barque. So, Johnson tells us, when a skipper placed an order for manpower with Bunco Kelley, Bunco would immediately go forth to visit his ladyfriends and see if any anonymous loggers, itinerant hobos or gawky farmboys were being entertained in one of their girls’ cribs. If there were, they stood a pretty good chance of waking up aboard ship, well out at sea.
The shanghaied dead
The most notorious Bunco Kelley story, though, involves dead guys. Lots of them; either 24 or 39 (depending on whether Holbrook is writing in 1933 or 1948) — but either way, that’s a lot of dead guys.
It seems while on the prowl for a big order of A.B.s for a ship called the Flying Prince in late 1893, Bunco was having a run of tough luck. He visited the bordellos, as usual, but the ladies were having a slow night. He visited his saloonkeeper friends, hoping to find a stranger or two to chat up and “drink with,” but no luck. He was just on the point of giving up when he smelled something funny while leaving the Snug Harbor Saloon on Morrison street.
Investigating, he found the smell was coming from the basement of the Johnson & Sons Undertaking Parlor. It seemed two or three dozen men had broken into the basement, thinking they were in the saloon next door, and had gotten started drinking from the barrels of alcoholic-smelling liquid which they found there — which, as it turned out, was formaldehyde.
By the time Bunco found them, half of them were dead and the other half were dying.
“By God!” Bunco gasped, according to Holbrook. “Them stiffs has been drinkin’ undertaker’s dope!”
Bunco’s shock didn’t last long, though, as his crafty mind turned, as was its wont, to thoughts of commerce. Hastily closing the door so that his new friends would not be discovered and rescued by some night-stalking do-gooder, he quickly got to work. First he rounded up a posse of friends and associates to help him with the task of muscling dozens of dead guys around. Then he hired a fleet of hacks to haul his catch to the waterfront; and finally, he and his friends stowed the corpses securely in the bunks in the forecastle of the “Flying Prince.”
Then, having collected $30 apiece for them, Bunco went on his way.
The ruse was discovered the next day. “Long before noon the first mate made the hideous discovery in the forecastle,” Holbrook writes. “The ship put in at Astoria, where the corpses were removed. Astoria newspapermen soon had the story on the wires. The sensation following the discovery of the dead men made a great rumpus in Portland.”
So Holbrook writes. There are, of course, a few reasons not to take him at his word. For one thing, there’s no sign of any of the businesses he named in any historical record I’ve been able to find: No Snug Harbor Saloon, no Johnson & Sons Undertaking Parlor. There’s no record of any British ship called Flying Prince. I personally spent three and a half hours going through The Daily Astorian archives on microfilm, for calendar year 1893, and found no reference to the incident at all. And during the extensive newspaper coverage of Bunco Kelley’s murder trial the following year, there was not even a passing mention of it.
So, what really happened? Your guess is as good as mine. My guess, if you’re curious, is that the story grew out of an accident, in which Bunco accidentally overdosed a group of shanghaiing victims — not 39, surely, but maybe four or six — and came up with the “undertaker’s dope” story to avoid being charged with murder, and the rumors just snowballed from there. But really, who knows?
Who knows, indeed? Apparently not even Spider Johnson. After recounting this tale in the 1933 article, he added, “No, I don’t know positive that that story is true, but it’s one you’ll hear from any of the old-timers.”
Still, even though they can’t tell us what really happened, we could do a lot worse than to study the stories of those old-timers — not as historical accounts, but just as stories, as a part of a colorful and long-gone waterfront culture — like Paul Bunyan stories. And as a wonderful possibly-partly-true-but-probably-not piece of historical Portland folklore, the adventures of Bunco Kelley have no equal.
(Sources: Holbrook, Stewart. “Shanghai Days in the City of Roses,” Sunday Oregonian, 10/1/33 and 10/8/33; Holbrook, Stewart. “Bunco Kelley, King of the Crimps,” The American Mercury, Oct 1948)