The Legend of Bunko Kelly

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 The Legend of Bunko Kelly

                                                             If you've lived in Portland for any time at all, you’ve heard stories of Joseph "Bunko" Kelly, the infamous Shanghaiier of 1890's Portland,  providing crews for sailing ships by any means.  And we do mean, any means.
    There are stories of Bunko kidnapping two prostitutes after getting them drunk, cutting their hair, dressing them
as sailors then putting them aboard a sailing ship as crew – for which Kelly was paid somewhere between $35 and $75 each. 

Joseph "Bunco" Kelly in 1894 at the time of his trial.  Drawing by Felloes of the Portland Evening Standard

    Or the story told by Spider Johnson in a 1920's interview with writer Stewart Holbrook about how Kelly earned the nickname "Bunko".  The story goes that one wet, rainy night in October, 1891, Kelly was searching the waterfront, in those days running from today's Jefferson Street North, for one last man to fill out a crew.  Not finding a victim, Kelly allegedly stole the six and half foot tall, 300 pound plus wooden Indian from the front of Wildman's Tobacco Shop at 1st and Couch.  Kelly wrapped it in a tarpaulin, and carrying it on one muscular shoulder, walked it about half a mile to the old Mersey Dock where he sold the Indian for $50, plus $2 for the cost of “getting it stiff”. 

    As news of this feat spread through the North End, now known as Oldtown, he was given the nickname Bunko for his skill and audacity in deceiving the ship's captain. 

    Then there was the famous night Kelly provided a crew of 50 in just three hours.  By Kelly's own account, he Shanghaiied about 2,000 men and women between 1879 when he arrived in Portland, and November 1894, when his career ended. 

The Flying Prince Incident 

 The most infamous story in Kelly's legend is the notorious Flying Prince Incident.  In various versions of the legend, Kelly accepted a last minute assignment to provide a full crew for the Britisher, The Flying Prince, at anchor in the Willamette channel, loaded with logs for China. 

    Kelly and his "runners" or assistants, combed the saloons, casinos, brothels and boarding houses of the old North End, searching for drunk or otherwise incapacitated men to "recruit".  At Second and Morrison as Kelly walked past clam shell doors in the sidewalk leading to a basement storeroom, he heard voices, the voices of inebriated men.  Just what Kelly was looking for. 

    Investigating, Kelly found a group of men in various stages of intoxication.  Seizing the opportunity, Kelly sent a runner to fetch horse-drawn cabs, and started ferrying the men to the ship.
The number of men Kelly obtained in the basement changes with the telling in Holbrook's articles, but is said to have been from eight to 38 men.  This notwithstanding, Kelly met his contract, being paid $720 for 24 men in Holbrook's 1959 Oregon Journal article. 

    All was well – until the Flying Prince reached Astoria and the Captain sent a mate down to roust the crew.  The mate returned to report that all the men Kelly provided were stiff.  i.e., dead.  It seems that the men, looking to continue a night of drinking, broke into what they thought was the cellar of the Snug Harbor Saloon.

     Instead, they were in the basement of Johnson and Sons Mortuary, located right next door to the Snug Harbor.  And, rather than drinking from casks of whiskey, they imbibed embalming fluid laced with formaldehyde, a deadly cocktail. 

    Within days, so the story goes, the British Government of Queen Victoria was threatening to boycott Portland if something wasn't done about Kelly and his depredations. 

    A thrilling and shocking story of the days when Portland was considered the most dangerous seaport in the world. 

    There is only one problem.  There is no evidence that it ever happened.  Consider - 

    There is no mention of a ship named “The Flying Prince” in the records of Lloyds of London, the company the insures the great majority of ship’s cargoes both then, and today.  On top of that, there is not one word about the incident, which is said to have occurred in October of 1894, in any newspaper of the era, including the Oregonian, the Daily Astorian and the Evening Standard, between 1892 and 1895.  Finally, there was no mention of this incident in reports of Kelly’s trial for murder in December of 1894. 

    In 1894, Portland's chief providers of crews to sailing ships was the firm of Sullivan & Grant, with offices in the North End listed in the City Directory.  Headed by ex-bare-knuckle prize fighter Larry Sullivan and his partners, Brothers Peter and John Grant, all notorious Shanghaiiers in their own rights.  According to the listings in the City Directory, Kelly worked for the company as "clerk" from 1892 to 1894. 

    Something happened between Sullivan and Kelly in the fall of 1894.  There are newspaper accounts of Kelly re-opening his Sailor’s Home on NW Glisan.  We don’t know exactly what happened or why, but in October, 1894, Kelly and Sullivan had a knock-down, drag out fight at SW 2nd and Ankeny streets.  You might think that Sullivan would win easily.  After all, Larry was six feet tall and a trained boxer, and he outweighed the five foot, four inch, Kelly by thirty some pounds. 

    By all accounts, though, the donnybrook was a draw, ending with both men bloodied and injured, Kelly with fractured ribs and Sullivan with a fractured hand, and both men standing in Police Court being fined $10 each for disturbing the peace. 

    Less than a week later, the body of George W. Sayers was found floating in the Willamette.  Sayers was known to be working with Kelly at the time in a scheme to sell opium cut with powdered sugar to the Chinese owners of the North End’s Opium Dens. 

    In November, Kelly was arrested for the crime and convicted in December of second degree murder and sentenced to life at hard labor in the Oregon State pen. 

    Was Kelly guilty of murder? 

    Probably not.  In the 1890’s, Larry Sullivan was a protégé of J. Bourne, Jr., notorious as the political boss of the city.  It was Bourne who ran the Portland Police, it was Bourne who appointed judges, it was Bourne who appointed the District Attorney, and it was Bourne who supervised the polling lists from which Jurors were drawn.  Finally, it was Bourne who ran the North End, including the Shanghaiing trade operated by Larry Sullivan. 

    Kelly trained Sullivan in the trade of Shanghaiing in Astoria in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, before the ambitious Sullivan decided to turn what had been a cottage industry into an organized business and became publicly known as one of Bourne’s two chief lieutenants.  Kelly knew a tremendous amount about Sullivan, and having worked for Sullivan & Grant, he undoubtedly knew more than was good for him about what was going on, and more to the point, who was involved.

     At his trial, the evidence presented against Kelly was circumstantial.  The evidence that placed him at the scene, a bow tie he was known to favor, was found at the murder site a full week after Sayres body was discovered.  What was never explained by either the prosecutor or the court-appointed defense attorney, is how a necktie could pulled off a man’s neck – without untying the knot.

     It didn’t matter.  Kelly was led away to jail in March, 1895, protesting his innocence, claiming it was a frame up, all the way to Salem. 

    After Kelly was released from the pen in 1908, he wrote a semi-autobiographical book entitled "My Thirteen Years In The Oregon State Penitentiary" which exposed the inhuman conditions of the prison and led to many reforms.  In the book, Kelly tries to establish a reputation as a man who worked hard to reform the practices of recruited sailors, including assertions that he never Shanghaiied anyone. 

    What happened to Joseph “Bunko” Kelly?  He left Portland soon after publication of his book to visit San Diego, California, a trip from which he never returned.  On the trip  he was accompanied by one of the Grant Brothers, Sullivan’s partner in many things. 

    Sullivan and his partners continued to run both Portland’s Shanghaiing industry and our North End with an iron hand for about another fifteen years.  

    So who had the motivation to frame Kelly then smear his reputation?  Kelly knew Sullivan as well as anyone.  Kelly trained Sullivan in the craft of providing sailors to ships through means both foul and fair, and worked in the offices of Sullivan & Grant for some time before he left to open a new sailor's home.  Why, no one knows, but, they had a violent fight in public, so it's obvious there was bad blood between them.  

    Kelly's arrest and conviction for murder certainly got him out of Larry Sullivan's way simply because Kelly knew too much about Sullivan and the political establishment that supported him.  From Sullivan’s point of view, what better way to protect himself than to frame Kelly for a murder probably committed by a Chinese Tong then spread stories designed to destroy his reputation?