Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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WHAT APPEARS TO have happened here is, upon arrival in Astoria, Carroll Beebe checked into a boardinghouse run by a matronly woman named Bridget Grant — a onetime auburn-haired beauty still striking and charismatic in her mid-50s. A widow who kept her boardinghouse with the help of her grown sons, she certainly looked the part of a standard-issue boardinghouse landlady. But, of course, her boardinghouse marketed itself particularly to sailors.
Now, in the 1800s, as you may know, sailors’ boardinghouses were different from regular boardinghouses. An ordinary boardinghouse was like a long-term no-frills bed-and-breakfast, and charged weekly or monthly rates. A sailor’s boardinghouse, on the other hand, let people stay “on credit.” This means one paid nothing for room and board, but a tab was carefully kept and when the day came when a ship captain needed a man or two, the guest was presented with a choice: Pay up, or discharge the debt by shipping out.
That’s the theory, anyway. In practice, “pay up” often wasn’t an option even if the guest had the resources to do it. Ship captains paid handsomely for sailors — reimbursing the room-and-board fees plus a generous service fee that was popularly called “blood money,” and which ranged from $30 or so up to over $100 depending on market conditions. And these, of course, are 1880s dollars, each worth about $28.50 in modern money. So a boardinghouse operator had a powerful incentive to avoid having guests be on a cash basis.
We don’t know if young Carroll was staying at Bridget’s place “on credit” or if he was paying weekly or monthly for room and board. It seems likely, given the nature of young footloose men, that he was on credit — but the fact that Bridget resorted to a rather dirty trick to get him to ship out suggests that perhaps he was not.
What she did was essentially to ask him, as a favor, to muster aboard the barque Xenia as a crew member to hold the place of a sailor she was bringing in from Portland. The sailor wasn’t going to make it in time, she told him, and if he wasn’t there for roll call she would lose the $60 fee (worth roughly $1,700 in 2019 dollars) she was due for her services. Would he take his place at roll call, just long enough for her sailor to arrive?
Sure he would.
“I being going to sea for a number of years, I told your cousin what sort of woman Mrs. Grant was,” Donald McGregor wrote, in his letter. “He had been what us sailors call ‘shanghied’ by her … The captain refused to let him go ashore, saying he had paid Mrs. Grant $60 for him, and that he would have to make the best of it.”
There must have been some concern about potential liability, though, because immediately after the drowning the captain of the Xenia confiscated Carroll’s sea chest and all his belongings, then took the rather eyebrow-raising step of confiscating a packet of papers that Carroll had entrusted to Donald McGregor. Donald suspected that the captain was keen to hush the whole thing up and wanted no word to get back to the young sailor’s family; and he turned out to be absolutely right. Luckily, a card with cousin Vernon Gilmore’s address on it had fallen out of the packet before the captain robbed Donald of it, and he was able to use the address on it to get word out.
The captain was probably lucky. Had Carroll’s parents been yet alive, there likely would have been some trouble over this. But part of the reason Bridget Grant was so successful for so long as a boardinghouse operator in both Portland and Astoria was her personal touch. It is extremely unlikely that she would have shanghaied Carroll without first making sure there was no one in the world who cared enough about him to make trouble from four states away.