Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Pirates' House

Shanghaied in Savannah

Back Wall
Back Wall

Underground Savannah is honeycombed with tunnels. Likely, they were built at different times and for different purposes. Some of the earliest were probably the work of the British Army and dug as part of the city's defensive plan. Other tunnels were reportedly used as storage for the bodies of those killed by yellow fever. Some tunnels were used to hide escaping slaves. A series of tunnels found beneath a local hospital was probably part of a morgue complex. Long persistent rumors tell of body smuggling and human experimentation in the tunnels beneath the hospital.

Historic Plaque
Historic Plaque

But Savannah's most infamous tunnel was said to have been dug directly beneath The Pirates' House. It ran from the rum cellar under the tavern to a dock on the Savannah River just a block away. Through this dark passageway were dragged drunken bar patrons who would soon find themselves involuntarily pressed into service onboard a merchant vessel, or worse, a pirate ship.

Entrance to the Rum Cellar
Entrance to the Rum Cellar

According to The Pirates' House own written history, the tavern and inn was not only a meeting place for pirates, but also a fertile recruiting ground for disreputable sea captains to find replacements for crew members lost at sea.

"Here seaman drank and discoursed, sailor fashion, on the exotic high seas adventures from Singapore to Bombay and from London to Port Said," the popular restaurant's placemat reads. "Stories still persist of a tunnel extending from the old rum cellar beneath the Captain's Room that led to the river through which men were carried unconscious to ships waiting in the harbor. Indeed many a sailor drinking in carefree abandon awoke to find himself at sea on a strange ship bound for a port half a world away."

According to local historians, sea captains would come into the tavern and inn and negotiate with the proprietor, who—for the right price, usually $12 to $14 per Shanghaied sailor—would provide the agreed upon number of drunken but relatively healthy men.

After getting unsuspecting sailors drunk on cheap booze, and perhaps even drugging them, the tavern owner would summon help from the captains with whom he'd made his nefarious deals. Together they would lower the passed-out men down the steep winding stairs into the rum cellar. From there they would drag the men through the tunnel to the riverside dock and then haul them onto a waiting ship that was ready to sail. When the men awoke the next day—always with splitting headaches—and were well out to sea, their new captain would order them to work or swim.

Old Picture of Ship in Port
Old Picture of Ship in Port

One story frequently told in Savannah is that of an unfortunate city police officer.

"A Savannah policeman, so legend has it, stopped by The Pirates' House for a friendly drink and awoke on a schooner sailing to China from where it took him two years to make his way back to Savannah," The Pirates' House placemat reads.

Crime Library Video: The Rum Cellar
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