Bruce E. Baker

Humanity in Our City — Accounts of the Laboring Poor in New Orleans, 1873

Humanity In Our City. Poor Jack. Sailors' Boardinghouses—How they are Conducted—Their Capacity—The Old System of Shipping and the New—Their Libels, Wages and Articles—Wrongs—Outrages

New Orleans Times, Feb. 15, 1873, p.3

Years ago several persons, whose names will appear subsequently, undertook to form a society, self-constituted, to have their say and do in the mode of controlling, the fitting out and manning of foreign vessels in our harbor, and regulating in general what should be done with "Jack" when he steps ashore. Of course no timid man entered into or sanctioned the enterprise. It was a bond, solemnly executed between these parties, to assist each other in reducing consignees and foreign shippers to a state of subserviency, they furnishing or withholding at will the crew requisite to enable a foreign vessel to proceed on her voyage. The conditions with shippers and consignees was entered into specifically, as if it were a matter of privilege for ships to be allowed even to land at our wharves. The men who thus undertook to conclave to dictate how, when and upon what conditions foreign vessels should come and go, and how Jack was to be held in durance, provided for and hired out at their will and pleasure, may read here the experiences of our reporter with profit; and the public may learn that the tableau of the three Tooley street tailors may at any and all times be reproduced under new auspices and new effects every day in the year.

The stereotype "Benevolent," in the style of this coffeehouse creation, was entirely ignored. The matter of their success depended alone on the hardihood of their undertaking. "Jack" was thrown ashore, as it were, and given into their charge, under the circumstance of necessity alone. As to him, he cared nothing further than that he was supplied with food and whisky and permitted to enjoy at least one-twentieth of his advance. The society who took charge of Jack paternally provided for his reshipment and future employment, without any consultation with him, or effort to obtain either on his part.

The "runners" in the employ of the association were never indifferent to their personal interest, or derelict in the furtherance of whatever measures the organization suggested as proper. In this respect they were, in most part, highway robbers or cut-throats: the hirelings, who were ready to gag, murder or rob, as opportunity offered, or as hope of reward was held out. The association, for a long term of years, fulfilled the objects of its undertaking, with a vengeance terrible to contemplate. It grew prosperous and wealthy. The blood-money paid on Jack's head, in addition to the enormous advances extorted from the foreign commerce of our city, forms a handsome aggregate, and to this day stands to the credit of these very individuals in the bank depositaries of our city.

The first object, of course, for the permanent success of the society, was the establishment of mammoth boarding-houses and domestic groggeries, to supply the necessities of Jack under all circumstances and conditions, the profits being regulated by the degree of recklessness and intoxication with which their victims enjoyed themselves, after a long and monotonous voyage. These were inaugurated or perhaps were existing at the time, in immense proportions, but had not assumed the character of shipping rendezvous, until after the formation of the society. The long line of old and decayed buildings extending from Marigny to Esplanade street, on the Levee front, suited their purpose well, the real vicinity of foreign craft of medium capacity, never requiring any length of time in securing their cargo and casting loose.

The principal persons now forming this society, and who are engaged in the business of keeping sailors' boarding houses, are Brewster, Tom Newman, Jack Smith, Buckley and Mr. Oliver Canton, the latter's house open exclusively for negro sailors engaged in the Liverpool and New Orleans packets. To these we might add the Liverpool House, kept by ----- Gleason, which is by far the most respectable and best conducted house of the whole. The large sitting room fronting on the street, the files of newspapers and standard periodicals of the day the clean sanded floor, and the neat and quiet aspect of the place, attest the industry of the proprietor. The fact that there is no domestic groggery attached to the premises, is of itself sufficient evidence that the house has seldom more than twenty or thirty guests, while the others very often exceed one hundred. The subject being deemed of sufficient importance to afford entertainment to readers of the Times, our reporter made a careful and searching inquiry into the modus operandi by which these places are conducted, the extent of their operations, and a clear showing of the business, in order that abuses might be corrected, and improvements suggested which may leave our commerce with foreign countries not altogether at the mercy of any man or set of men that may band together for personal profit to themselves.

Brewster's House is the most extensive, and most popular of all such houses in the city. A bar is attached to the premises to meet the demand for liquor, which the guests require at all moments of the day. They are charged six dollars per week for food, entertainment and lodging, but the bar account in most instances exceed double that amount. The guest is at all times at liberty to call for what he pleases, and an account is kept of his expenses until the limit of his advance is reached, when he is then shipped on the first opportunity that offers. Their time on shore, that is, from the day they arrive until they are again shipped, is from five to fourteen days. If they are frugal which is rarely the case, they are permitted to remain the latter number of days; if they are improvident, the former.

On their food alone, having the testimony of those engaged in the business, we are able to show that the profits to the proprietor are at least three dollars per week on each man. To form an estimate of the profits derived from the drink furnished is much more difficult, but we presume, considering the stuff which is poured out, the it doubles that amount.

Their supplies, taken collectively week by week, are furnished much cheaper to these persons than it is to housekeepers of a more limited quantity. Beef, pork, ham, etc., furnished in bulk, always realize a handsome profit where furnished in such immense quantities as these houses daily require. Sometimes the number in this house alone exceeds one hundred and fifty, and each and every one contributes his pro rata of profit to the proprietors, which at the end of the week, or month, is by no means trifling. Their food is furnished, we must admit, in a clean and wholesome style; they may eat when they please, and what they please. Those who are first are first served, there not being sufficient sitting room at all times for the number present. Their beds are of the cot pattern, this is, those who enjoy such a luxury, but there are others stowed away in bunks, built one over the other, in which they throw themselves at their pleasure. Two or three beds are placed in each room, and often two men sleep together. A man cook supplies the daily food, and their rooms and beds are attended to by two or three others. Women of any color are seldom seen. The premises are barracks, a citadel of brick, of necessity unhealthy and impure; the smoke of tobacco pipes, and the foul odor of whisky, retching and offal, polluting the atmosphere and corrupting the human system.

In this home too, conjointly with others of less capacity and resort, are seldom seen the morning journal, or the standard periodical. We do not assume that such is always the case—generally it is—for the sailor seldom wishes to learn anything about a city in which he is only permitted to remain as long as he is sober and frugal. His animal wants being supplied, he is in most cases indifferent to everything around him; he plays cards, smokes his pipe, drinks whisky, and is in ecstasy over the graceful adjustment of a bow-line knot, a strap block, or a splice. He is as destitute of cunning as of money; he drinks his grog heigh-ho, and is jolly.

We were led to reflect, as we loitered about these places and indulged in stray gossip with the sailor, or his more daring and cunning enemy, the runner, upon the human face divine, as we looked steadfastly into it. The sailor's boarding house is peculiar in its appearances. There are the uneven tread, the shy but hardened visage of the old tar, destitute of any expression save such as the hardships of the storm leave behind, or the more forlorn traces of dissipation and blows. The old shellback with battered nose, crispy skin, and discolored features, plays chin, chop with the lad who has left his brothers and sisters in their humble home to satisfy the romantic ambition of being a sailor, and who has not just completed his first voyage as an apprentice. These two are associated together, aged fifty and fifteen years respectively, but they enjoy one another's society exceedingly well. The old tar exacts nothing from the lad out of respect for his experience or his age, but an encore simply to renew the memory of his Mary, or the hardships of the Rio Grande.

The boarding houses kept by Tom Newman, Jack Smith, and Buckley, are in all respects similar to that of Mr. Brewster. In many instances however, they are much more disorderly, and afford better opportunities to decide as to the merits or abuses of the whole system. These accommodate respectively from twenty to sixty, as the necessities of the time require, but on the whole they may be classed favorably with the one we have just described, both as to their general keeping and their individual profits. One, however, kept by Mr. Oliver Canton, at the corner of Hospital and Gallatin streets, is worthy of particular remark. His house is exclusively for negroes, and it is difficult to form any estimate of its capacity and business. The crews on foreign vessels are never mixed—a white or a black crew must in all cases be secured. The business of Mr. Canton is perhaps less risky and uncertain than the others, for he receives all the negro crews on their arrival from Liverpool, and is always able to furnish the same on application. We presume also that the negroes as a class, are much more profitable, and easier to dispose of, than the whites. Their food and whisky are, in a measure, worse, but not such as would appear so at a cursory view, and seldom excite complaint. The business is profitable to all the members of the so-called Shipping Association; by keeping and boarding sailors, they have made money, and all are at this day in enjoyment of small fortunes.

The advances made to sailors shipping on American vessels, and those made to others signing articles on English vessels are different. For this we can assign no satisfactory reason except that the former are more popular. The sailor on an American ship laden for Liverpool receives fifty dollars advance, while the other often receives, as at present, fifty-five for the same trip aboard an English merchantman. To this may be added ten dollars, blood money, as it is called, to the shipper or runner for every hand that musters round the capstan. Such rates as these are unknown in any seaport in the world, and show how clearly the foreign and domestic commerce of our city has been controlled and taxed to satisfy the unwarrantable demands of those who have for years banded together and constituted themselves as arbitrators to decide how much the shipmaster must pay to the sailor, and how much they can themselves realize therefrom, before they will, or ever did, allow a vessel to leave her moorings with a full crew.

Before we speak upon the advantages which the United States shipping act is expected to achieve, we might here enumerate some of the crimes and outrages committed over and over again, in days probably gone by, among the shipping fraternity in general, and the highway man and cut throat in his avocation as a "runner." Usually it was not thought necessary to muster the crew around the capstan to answer to their names, that those in charge of the vessel might see whom they took into their service on a foreign voyage. The clearing took place generally at midnight; the sailors were, and usually are, intoxicated on the eve of departure, and are often conducted to the vessels by the boardinghouse runners, led by the arm, carried on stretchers, jolted off in wheelbarrows or hand carts and thrown into their bunks as some unclean and unholy thing that has fulfilled a certain purpose and is no longer required. These were the palmy days, happily for poor Jack, now passed away. Tailors, merchants and tradesmen, whose stomachs turned sick at the idea of salt water and a rolling ship, were often times as insecure from the clutches of the runner as the drunken and used up mariner; and were often arrested in the streets at night and carried off to the departing vessel, after they had been stunned and half murdered, that they might not be able to tell their story to the captain, or the officer in charge. It was a first principle among the profession that no person should board the vessel in his natural senses, and as this rule became more general the shipping masters were at liberty to ship as sailors whom they could lay hold upon, to complete the requisite number, and receive the advance and blood money. Why they adopted this rule of departing at midnight can only be inferred from the fact that their outrages could then be carried on with more impunity and with more certainty of success. The advance made to sailors on foreign voyages at the time of which we speak was one hundred dollars. Any method of furnishing the requisite number was deemed legitimate, so the reward was paid. In one instance a man with a wooden leg was stowed away drunk and answered the purpose of the profession; but was returned on the following morning from the bar by Capt. Thompson, master of the John Garrow, on which the victim was placed. And while we shudder in telling it, another case occurred where a dead man served the same purpose. Bob Darling—may his name be ever memorable—is credited with this exploit. Drunken, heedless Bob—his house on Front Levee is now converted into a wholesale liquor store; but the tradition is fresh in the minds of his compeers, even after he is long buried and forgotten; a sad biography of poor, careless, drunken Bob Darling, the most heartless and genuine of his profession.

Happily these strange modes of furnishing merchant marine with the crews necessary, have all passed away, and under the provisions of the United States Shipping Act, a safeguard is thrown round the sailor, and a check forever fastened on the exploits of the reckless class, employed as runners for the boarding-house keepers. The act provides for the appointment of a shipping commissioner, defines his duties and emoluments, places the heretofore abandoned class of sailors, who were preyed upon, robbed and beaten, beyond the reach comparatively of the boarding-house master and his employees; and makes it imperative on the officer so holding, to see that Jack gets his money, or a due bill perhaps instead, and that he shall answer in all respects for himself, both as to the signing of articles, and follow his own pleasure, in accepting or declining engagements. A worthy officer now occupies that position, appointed by Judge Woods of the Circuit Court, and by his energy and the wise measures always at the disposal of Commissioner Weller, a noteworthy improvement must necessarily follow. Mr. Weller we have reason to believe, is by far better posted in Jack's quarrels and wrongs, and the unjust demands and commands of masters and officers of ships, than any other man in this State. Most of the cases brought before him are amicably adjusted; he always insisting upon hearing both sides impartially and judicially, and has very often to abandon his just but small charges, in arranging the differences between the opponents. He cares little to look up international or national questions in order to delay or hinder Jack from a speedy settlement of his dues; nor does he care to search the books as to what manner these dues may be collected. He talks to the sailor plainly and to the point, and will not permit any advantage to be taken of nationality to avoid the proper performance of a bona fide contract, when it is entered into with a foreigner in a foreign port, whatever it may be.

Perhaps so important a matter as the question of wages paid to seamen leaving here for England, and those arriving here from that country, will not be inappropriate here. The difference is so striking as to require a separate paragraph.

An English ship leaving here pays its hands $30 per month and $55 advance. Leaving Liverpool, the same ship, with perhaps the very same hands, pays them £3, or $15 a month, and the same amount in advance. We pay nearly four times the amount in all cases, which goes, not to the sailor, but to the support of a society, avowedly hostile to the best interests of our commerce. So far as the sailor is concerned, the amount of his advance is all that he generally ever receives. He seldom remains on the vessel during a round trip from here to Liverpool and back, and of course forfeits his wages. The Society of Boarding and Shipping Masters reap all the benefit of the high wages paid, they assuming that Jack is nameless and friendless, and is never at sea more than when he is on shore, they have a right to the revenues of his labor, as they have a right to carry off his body and keep him in their strongholds until he has eaten and drank what they think proper, then ship him, receive his advance in full and a fair sum in blood money as a reward for his capture.

Perhaps the abuses to which we have called attention, and which nothing but a fair amount of close inquiry has enabled us to discover, may some day, not far distant, be placed before the Chamber of Commerce; and the question may be pertinent, in the face of a proposed reform, whether or not they, as a class, have not lent a powerful aid in support of the dangerous combination that we have endeavored to expose; and whether, as shippers and merchants, no items of blood money disfigure their ponderous ledgers, paid to the runners and masters who have for years assumed to arbitrate as to how much they are to realize upon every man on board of our outgoing vessels.


Page revision date: 30-Jun-2018