San Francisco News and Tall Tales: 1800s

Sailor Thieves

January 5, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Sailor Thieves - Gallant Resistance

On Saturday last, Captain Richardson, commanding the three-masted schooner Corinthian, urgently requested Marshal Crozier to send some trustworthy and efficient officer to protect his rights and property on board his vessel from that most villainous combination called sailor thieves, some of whom had openly threatened to take his men from him even if they had to follow him twenty miles to sea to accomplish their purpose. In view of these facts, the Marshal with praiseworthy promptitude selected Mr. Daniel O'Regan, who was an officer in the Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers during the Mexican war, and enjoyed a high celebrity as a gallant and reliable officer. Mr. O'Regan has also been an officer in the police department of this city and served under Marshal Crozier during his last term of office. Before Mr. O'Regan went on board, the rascals had commenced operations by stealing the schooner's boat. About 3 o'clock, A.M., Sunday night, Mr. O'Regan repaired to his berth, under the promise from Capt. Richardson that some one should be placed to keep watch. The cook was called and put on guard.

A short time after, the cook was surprised by three men, two of whom choked him to keep him silent while the third broke open the forecastle with a marling spike, the hatch being closed and locked for the better security of the men. The cook succeeded however in making them believe that he was interested in their success and was a friend rather than an enemy to their intentions, whereupon they released him; but no sooner was he at liberty than he ran to the cabin and woke up Mr. O'Regan, who ran forward just in time to see the scamps making their escape over the bow into their boat; he ordered them to stop, which they refused to do. He then threatened to fire at them, but they continued, and he fired some three or four shots, nearly all of which took effect.

One man was wounded in the lower part of the chest, another was shot through the ear, and a third was hit in the fleshy part of the left arm near the shoulder. The one who was shot in the breast made a statement to Marshal Crozier, fully exonerating Mr. O'Regan from any blame, stating that under the circumstances he did just what he thought an officer, who was placed there for that purpose, should do. He says further, that he was hired about 2 o'clock of the morning in question by several men, to take them off in his boat to the Corinthian, and received $30 for so doing. We understand that the various foreign Consuls in this city are about holding a meeting to see what steps can be taken to suppress this vile association of sailor thieves, and that Mr. Fortin, The Danish Consul, the Corinthian belonging to that flag, has expressed his approbation of the determination evinced by the officer above mentioned to do his duty under all circumstances. These are just the kind of policemen we need in California.

Daily Alta California, June 6, 1853, San Francisco



Some of these scoundrels went on board ship Arethusa before daybreak this morning, and stole away three of the foremast hands. It may not generally be known that sailors leaving this port receive two months' advance pay, the wages being from forty to fifty dollars a month. The consequence is that when seamen run away, the commit a downright robbery. Sailor thieves are those who supply them with every means and make every effort to enable them thus to defraud the ship owners, receiving a portion of the plunder as their prequisites.

Daily Alta California, San Francisco, January 8, 1853

Operations of the Sailor Thieves.
Revenue Cutter Frolic.

The recent outrages committed by this combination of scoundrels are again calling the attention of the mercantile community to the subject. When our now flourishing and populous city first commenced its wondrous career, the shipping interest of foreign nations, as well as our own, was much injured by the operations of this gang of desperadoes: Their manner of acting and the object intended to be achieved by them.

The moment a ship comes into port, the gang visits her in boats, and the men are immediately incited to revolt. In some cases, they have broken in on the cargo. Masters of vessels have frequently found themselves abandoned by their crews, while the ship was in the stream, with sails hoisted and anchors at the cat heads. Several of our fine clipper ships were, on coming to this port, deserted in the manner above stated. The Sword Fish, when she arrived, immediately sent to request protection from Capt. Ottinger of the revenue cutter Frolic, which was promptly afforded, Captain Ottinger himself going on board and staying there until the ship was moored alongside the wharf. She was the first vessel that kept her crew until those duties were performed. So bold and daring were they that they openly made threats to board land take the revenue cutter Frolic.

Captain Ottinger immediately ordered the round shot to be drawn from the 32 and 12 pounders on board, and loaded them with canister. The guns were then depressed, so that the heavier ones should strike the water at seventy-five yards and the lighter at fifty; small arms were prepared, matches lit, and the crew kept at their quarters. The great pity was, that the scoundrels did not undertake to carry their threat into execution. Several times Capt. Ottinger has been sent for to protect British vessels in their rights and has always afforded the protection demanded.

On one occasion he boarded an English ship, which had been visited by these sailor thieves, and left the crew so panic stricken by their murderous threats, that, although willing to perform their duty, they had not the courage to lower their boats, when ordered to do so by their officers. Captain Ottinger established a code of signals, for both night and day, with the masters of merchant ships, which will at all times bring an armed boat from the cutter to their relief. By hoisting the colors in a "with" at the peak by day, or two lanterns about six feet apart, one under the other by night, captains can at any moment command such aid as they may desire. An offer is at all hours of the day and night on the deck of the cutter, and she is when in port, always anchored at some point which will afford a view of all parts of the harbor.

Revenue Cutters.

The combination of sailor thieves is formed for the purpose of plundering and robbing ship owners, by stealing their men from them after they are on board and have received their advance pay. The pay of seamen in California averages from thirty to forty dollars a month, two months wages being paid in advance. The men receive this, go on board, and the ship is streamed. During the night she is boarded by a gang of sailor thieves, who take the men away and convey them on shore to a new boarding house ready prepared for them, and they are as soon as possible re-shipped again, to be again stolen, thus carrying on one of the most nefarious systems of robbery that can be conceived. Not only do ship owners suffer from the actual loss of the money, but also, and sometimes much more, by the detention consequent upon shipping a new crew, and with no better prospects of keeping them than they had the first.

The subject is one which has excited the attention of the foreign consuls in this city to a considerable extent, and is a fruitful source of much anxiety and pecuniary loss to our mercantile society. Some merchants, both in England and France, as well as in the Atlantic States, will not send their ships here for the very reasons above stated, and we are of opinion that the legislative powers of the proper authorities could be very usefully employed in furnishing a suitable remedy for this evil.

Ships at the seaport of San Francisco, California
From the hills looking north to Marin County over San Francisco Bay

From the Alta California: "From January 1, 1849 to April 11, 1849, there were a great many arrivals by sea, including at least 3,000 seamen who abandoned their ships upon reaching San Francisco.

Californians 13,000
Foreigners 18,500
TOTAL 94,000

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.






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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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