Sunday, January 18, 2015

Roaring Dan Seavey, Lake Michigan Pirate

Captain Dan Seavey

Dear George,
Thanks to the lumber and mining industries, the U.P. in the late 1800’s experienced a major boom in population growth and economic activity.  It was still, however, a frontier region, rough and unregulated.  One of the more notorious rogues of the day was Captain Dan Seavey, also known as “Roaring Dan” and “Dan the Pirate.”  Seavey was a famous, feared troublemaker in many ports on Green Bay and Lake Michigan including Escanaba, Charlevoix, Frankfort, and Menominee. (1) Here is some of Roaring Dan’s story which I’ve drawn from various sources. [Note: numbers in parentheses refer to citations listed at the end.]

Seavey was born in Portland, Maine, in 1867.  His father was a schooner captain, and Dan quickly took to the sea in his youth.  At age 13, he left home to work on tramp steamers, and he joined the Navy for a three-year term at age 18.  When his navy hitch ended in the late 1880s, Seavey moved to the village of Middle Inlet in Wisconsin’s Marinette County.  He married a 14-year-old local girl, Mary Plumley, and the couple had two daughters.  The family moved to Milwaukee where Dan bought a small farm, operated a commercial fishing business, and owned a saloon near the waterfront.  Captain Frederick Pabst, the Milwaukee beer magnate, encouraged Seavey to invest in an Alaska mining company. Seavey deserted his family in 1898 and spent a couple of years in the Klondike Gold Rush.   His Alaskan excursion proved unsuccessful, and he returned empty-handed to Milwaukee about 1900.  Seavey then relocated to Escanaba in Michigan’s U.P. where he operated a freight service.  He acquired a fourteen-ton topsail schooner, built in 1900 and originally owned by the Pabst family, which he named The Wanderer. (5)

The Wanderer

In Escanaba Seavey married 22-year-old Zilda Bisner.  This was another disastrous marriage, and she filed for divorce four years later, revealing how Seavey beat her and threatened her life. Seavey disappeared on the lake.  Several years later he married Annie Bradley from the Garden Peninsula in the U.P., a marriage that was to last for many years. (2)

Seavey employed the Wanderer and other boats in legitimate business to transport agricultural and other commodities.  However, he used the same boats to transport poached venison, bootleg liquor, and stolen black market items.  Much of his merchandise was pilfered.  Historian Tom Powers reports: "Seavey and a small crew would silently slip the Wanderer, with no running lights, into ports in the dead of night and make off with anything on wharves, in unlocked warehouses, or on nearby streets that was of value and could be carried on the schooner." (4)  Seavey was also notorious for what was then known as “moon cussing”.  He and his crew altered sea lights on the lake, either turning them off or placing false lights at rocks or on sandbars where ships would be grounded.  When their sailors abandoned ship, Seavey moved in to loot the wreck.

Seavey's most lucrative business was poaching venison.  One of his hideouts was on St. Martin's Island, off the Garden Peninsula near Escanaba.  Seavey slaughtered deer there with his rifle and hauled it to meat markets in Chicago.  The Booth Fish Company, a Chicago business with underworld ties, sent a gang of thugs on one of their boats to take over Seavey's territory.  After a vicious fight, Seavey caught up with the Booth boat in the Wanderer and blew them out of the water with a cannon that he'd mounted on his ship’s bow.  All of the Booth Company crew died in the attack. (7)

Seavey also used the Wanderer to bring prostitutes, some of whom he kidnapped from the Iron Range, to U.P. ports along Green Bay like Fayette, Nahma, Garden, and Escanaba.  Though local lawmen were trying to close brothels in their communities, their authority ended at the water's edge, and Seavey took advantage of this loophole in the law by traveling from port to port with prostitutes and liquor. (4)    

Seavey was a large man, 6-4 and 250 pounds, with a barrel chest and a powerful physique.  He loved to fight and was known through the Lake Michigan communities for his willingness to take on any comer.  His most famous fight occurred in the winter of 1904 at Frankfort, Michigan, where he battled a professional fighter named Mitch Love on a large circle drawn in the snow on the ice of Frankfort harbor.  200 lumberjacks placed bets on the battle.  The fight went on for over two hours until a battered and bleeding Love was finally hauled off by his supporters.  Seavey not only collected the main purse from the fight, but also a percentage of the many side bets that his followers had made. (3)

Seavey’s most infamous act involved the theft of a forty-ton lake schooner named the Nellie Johnson in Grand Haven, Michigan, on June 11, 1908.  Serving on the Nellie Johnson as a crewman, Seavey got the schooner captain, R. J. McCormick, and members of his crew to drink themselves into a stupor, then stole their vessel and set off across Lake Michigan for Chicago.  Because of suspicions by the harbormaster, Seavey failed to sell the stolen cargo of cedar posts in Chicago.  When a federal revenue service cutter, the 178-foot steel-hulled Tuscarora with Captain Preston Uberroth in command, was sent to capture them, Seavey and his comrades hid the Nellie Johnson on a river near Frankfort.  The Tuscarora, the fastest ship on the Great Lakes, searched the east shore of Lake Michigan for the Wanderer -- St. Joseph, South Haven, Saugatuck. Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegom, Whitehall, Pentwater, and Ludington -- but not a trace of the stolen ship.  When federal agents eventually closed in, Seavey escaped in the Wanderer.  The Tuscarora took chase at full speed, allegedly burning the paint off her smokestack and boilers.  When the gunboat overtook the Wanderer, Captain Ueberroth is said to have ordered a cannon shot across the Wanderer's bow which ended the chase, and Seavey was arrested by Federal Marshal Tom Currier for piracy, then a death-penalty crime.  Despite the government's best efforts, a Chicago grand jury failed to indict Seavey, and, released on bond, he was soon back on the water, claiming that he had won the Nellie Johson in a poker game.  For reasons that are now obscure, all charges were dropped later that summer. (8) 

The Tuscarora

Perhaps because it takes a crook to catch a crook, Seavey was appointed as a U.S. Marshall toward the end of his career, and he was charged with shutting down illegal whiskey, venison poaching, and smuggling on Lake Michigan.  He was a crack shot with the firearms that he always carried.  In one incident he tracked down a bootleg liquor smuggler to a tavern in Naubinway in the U.P.  The smuggler boasted that no lawman would ever take him in hand-to-hand combat.  Seavey and the smuggler battled for hours, wrecking the saloon and stopping every now and then to drink whisky.  Finally, Seavey won the brawl by tipping over a piano on his opponent's head.   The man received medical attention, but died of his injuries during the night.  Seavey wired the authorities:  "Outlaw expired while resisting arrest."  (9) 

The Wanderer was destroyed by fire under suspicious circumstances in 1918, and Seavey switched to a 40-foot motor launch which he named the Mary Alice.  It's unclear whether he continued as a marshall in his new ship, though he did operate as a rumrunner during prohibition, transporting bootleg liquor from Canada. (1)  

Seavey was known to love kids, and he would talk with them about his seafaring adventures.  When he lived in Escanaba, local boys would wait on the docks for his return, and he would tell them stories for hours.  One boy's disapproving father, a prominent Escanaba businessman, came by, grabbed his son as he left Seavey's ship, and spanked him right on the docks.  As the father started to leave with his son, Seavey grabbed the man, knocked him down, and gave the father a spanking, ordering him to "leave my shipmates alone." (6)

Because of various injuries, Seavey retired from sailing in the late 1930’s.  He reconciled with his daughters from his first marriage, and moved to Martha Champ Weed's boarding house in Escanaba.  He had made over a million dollars from criminal activities during his career, but, with a reputation as a self-styled Robin Hood, he gave away most of his profits to benefit children and the poor. (6)  Later Seavey lived with his daughter Josephine in Peshtigo.  He became very religious in his older years and could be seen around town carrying a Bible.  Roaring Dan died, reportedly penniless, at the Eklund Nursing Home in Peshtigo on Feb. 14, 1949, at age 84.  He was buried next to Josephine in Forest Home Cemetery in Marinette.  And that’s the story of the only Great Lakes sailor who was ever formally arrested on charges of piracy.

SOURCES: (1), "Yo Ho Ho, How the Swabs Made Way for Roaring Dan, the Lone Pirate of Lake Michigan" (4/22/62, pp. 34-35);  (2), “The Giant and the Pirate”; (3), “The Many Tales of Pirate Dan Seavey”; (4), "The Life & Crimes of Dan Seavey"; (5), “Roaring Dan Seavey: The Pirate of Lake Michigan”; (6), "Lake Michigan Buccaneer"; (7), "Dan Seavey"; (8), “Great Lakes Patrol”; (9), “Do you know…pirate problems abounded on Lake Michigan?”

G-mail Comments
-Phyllis S (1-18):  That's an amazing story, Dave.  It would seem almost mythical.  What a character he must have been.
-JML (1-18): Wild

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