retold by S.E. Schlosser
It seems the infamous crimper Bunko Kelly was commissioned one night by a ship’s captain to find him – by hook or by crook – 17 men to sail his ship to Shanghai and back. Kelly went on his usual rounds of the local inns and taverns, looking for drunkards to kidnap and send to sea. But he wasn’t having any luck.
On his way to yet another bar, he passed the local funeral home. As he neared the opening for the cellar steps which led up to the sidewalk, he heard the sound of men’s voices groaning either in pain or ecstasy; Kelly couldn’t tell which. Intrigued, Bunko Kelly went down the steps to investigate. He found 22 men scattered around the cellar, slumped around a huge keg in the middle of the floor. They had obviously been drinking from it, and were now suffering from a massive hangover of some sort. A sniff of the keg told Kelly the men – who apparently thought they’d broken into the cellar of the pub next door – had been drinking embalming fluid all evening. All of them were dying.
In this gruesome situation, Kelly decided he’d found a solution to his problem. He’d dump all the men onto his crimping cart, take them down to the dock, throw them into the waiting canoes, and give them to the ship’s captain as sailors. He’d get paid – which was all that mattered to him – and the captain would have a crew. At least for one evening!
To think was to act for Bunko Kelly. Quick as a wink, his employees had loaded the men onto the cart, taken them to the canoes, and Kelly was standing on the prow of a canoe, negotiating with the captain to take 22 men instead of the 17 he’d requested. All or none, Kelly told the sea captain. Reluctantly, the captain agreed. He loaded the semi-conscious, groaning men into his hold and set sail up the Willamette River to the Columbia, and from there to the sea.
So Bunko Kelly got paid after all. And the sea captain? Well, when he arrived in Astoria, he put in a request for 17 more sailors to take his ship to Shanghai. Must have given him quite a shock to go down into the hold of the ship and find 22 bodies where his able-bodied sailors should have been. Still, he managed to get rid of the bodies somehow without causing a fuss, because no investigation was ever made into the disappearance of the fellows who snuck into the funeral parlor that unlucky night.
Read more Oregon folklore and ghost stories in Spooky Oregon by S.E. Schlosser