Local pirate leaves a legacy of tales, by Leslie Allen

Local pirate leaves a legacy of tales
Trying to track the tales of Roarin’ Dan Seavey, the Great Lakes Pirate, is like being on a tiny ship in a November gale on the north end of Lake Michigan, searching for port through a swirling kaleidoscope. By all accounts, Seavey was a rogue, a thief, a drinker, a fighter, a man involved in such nefarious activities as bootlegging, prostitution, piracy and murder. He also was a prankster, a legitimate businessman, an expert seaman, a U.S. Deputy Marshal, and a man who treated children kindly by giving them ice cream, apples, root beer and the good advice not to steal.
“He was just an ordinary guy,” said Dale Vinette, ninety-three, who was one of the boys Seavey treated to tales and root beer down at the docks in Escanaba in the 1920s. At that time, Seavey, born in 1865, was well into middle age and perhaps mellowing a bit.
“He wasn’t rough-talking,” Vinette said. “He was very mild-mannered, quiet; I think he kept his talents as a thief undercover. He was only in jail once in his life.”
And that once didn’t last very long. It was, however, Seavey’s most infamous escapade: the alleged 1908 theft of the Nellie Johnson and her cargo of cedar posts. It was this scrape that would add piracy to Seavey’s legend, and to this day he is the only man ever arrested for piracy on the Great Lakes. It is a particularly murky story.
Various reports of the incident diverge in details large and small, but here is what seems to be agreed upon: On June 17, 1908, Dan Seavey sailed the lumber-laden schooner Nellie Johnson to Chicago where he tried to sell her cargo. A number of days later, Seavey was arrested for piracy aboard his yacht, The Wanderer by Federal Marshal Tom Currier, who was aboard the revenue cutter Tuscarora, dispatched to hunt down Seavey.
But where, exactly, did the Nellie Johnson disappear? Was it Montague (Michigan), as reported by a June 30, 1908 New York Times article? Or Grand Haven, as more recent accounts state? And how did Seavey come to be in control of the ship? According to the transcript of “Captain Dan Seavey—Great Lakes Pirate,” a 1953 WDBC (Escanaba) radio broadcast, “… Dan weighted down the captain with some iron chains and tossed him over the side.” Other accounts are less dramatic and baldly suggest that Seavey drank the Nellie Johnson’s captain and crew under the table before sailing off in their boat.
Everyone agrees Seavey made it to Chicago, but whether he actually sold the cargo of cedar posts is a mystery. According to some accounts he did; according to others he did not. Sale or no sale, Seavey did sail back to Frankfort (Michigan), and, at some point, the Tuscarora began its pursuit, apparently having been notified of the theft of the Nellie Johnson by her captain, R.J. McCormick.
A 2005 article in the Wisconsin Maritime Museum’s Anchor News put it this way:
“The owner and skipper of the schooner, Captain R.J. McCormick, found the schooner missing when he returned from a visit to the local bars. Because of his inebriated state, he had a difficult time trying to convince the local authorities that Nellie Johnson had actually been stolen.”
The popular story is that Seavey lay low in Frankfort, having hidden the Nellie Johnson upriver. But the New York Times preferred this tale: “After a chase up and down Lake Michigan, Seavey abandoned the schooner at South Haven and went on board his own yacht, The Wanderer, in an endeavor to escape.”
Seavey eventually did attempt to escape the Tuscarora in The Wanderer, but how, exactly, was he caught? There are many possibilities. From the WDBC radio broadcast:
“A revenue cutter, Tuscarora, lay in wait out of sight just north of Port Betsie. Dan led the cutter a merry chase. He shot out the red buoy which marked the harbor and dropped a red lantern on a barrel into the water. The Tuscarora ran aground.
“But the wind changed; old Dan was a goner. The cutter fired a shot across his bow and took the Great Lakes Pirate to Chicago in heavy irons.”
The September 2006 edition of Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage, the newsletter of the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association, had this account: “…his vessel was no match for the steamer Tuscarora, so Dan was soon overtaken, boarded and arrested for piracy.”
From Anchor News: “Tuscarora gave chase and captured Seavey…During the chase, the intense heat, generated by the boilers, burned the paint off Tuscarora’s smokestack.”
And the New York Times: “ ‘Wanderer ahoy!’ bellowed Capt. McCormick of the Tuscarora through his speaking trumpet, and followed the hail by a fierce command to stop.
“Seavey only took another tack. Deputy Currier gave the order and a shot from the cutter’s forward gun went whizzing over the water past Seavey and his craft. That ended the chase.”
Agreed: Seavey was caught, arrested for piracy and taken to Chicago to be charged and tried. What happened next is, once again, open to speculation. Seavey was not charged with piracy (or maybe he was?), but it doesn’t really matter, for in a few days he was let go and everyone agrees he returned home happy and noticeably well dressed. Some speculate he actually was part owner of the Nellie Johnson; some say that McCormick, encouraged by his inebriated state, gave the ship to Seavey to repay an old debt. And there’s always this: Seavey knew a good lawyer …
Vinette lets loose a soft chuckle and recalls that Seavey said he won the boat in a poker game.
But what Vinette remembers best is the root beer. He told of Seavey coming to port in Escanaba with a cargo of fruit from Washington Island or Benton Harbor that he would then sell to a wholesaler in town. After tying up his boat, he’d head straight to Blue Ribbon Johnson’s Saloon.
“We went fishing down at the Merchant Dock,” Vinette said, recalling the names of some of his boyhood pals. “When [Seavey] would leave his boat, we’d go over and steal apples and peaches.”
Seavey caught on to this, and his solution worked well for everyone.
“When we’d go down to the lake, we’d go by a place called Blue Ribbon Johnson’s Saloon. It was on Main Street,” Vinette said. “That was prohibition days, and we had ‘blind pigs’ in Escanaba. These fellows had all owned saloons before the ban on liquor came out. So they ran these ‘blind pigs.’ At Ribbon Johnson’s they had a big oak root beer barrel on the bar. We’d go in the side door and see if there was anyone in there we knew. Dan Seavey used to hang around there … and Dan would see us and he’d say, ‘OK you kids, stay here now, I don’t want you to steal my apples. I’ll buy you a root beer instead.’ So he used to buy us root beer. We got to know when he was in town, so we’d purposefully go by that saloon.”
The early background on Seavey’s life seems clear. He left his boyhood home of Maine at age thirteen and joined the Navy at eighteen, serving for three years before taking on a deputy marshal position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, working in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, reportedly watching for trespassers and smugglers on the reservations.
By the late 1800s, Seavey was in Milwaukee where he owned a farm, ran a tavern, was married with two children. But he abandoned this life, and some accounts blame beer king Frederick Pabst for Seavey’s sudden departure from Milwaukee, claiming that Pabst urged Seavey to go off in search of gold in Alaska. According to the WDBC transcript, “…the lure of easy money drew him to Alaska during the Gold Rush. He sold his saloons, fish boats, farms and went north to the gold fields. He came back broke.”
In 1900, Seavey washed ashore in Escanaba, and the legend begins.
“Dan Seavey was a lake captain with a rather spotty reputation…His raucous personality and outrageous adventures earned him the nicknames ‘Roaring Dan’ and ‘Dan the Pirate!’ During the early decades of the 20th century, he became a feared and famous troublemaker in many ports around Lake Michigan …” (From Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage.)
Marquette’s own maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, quoted in a 2007 Chicago Sun-Times article, called Seavey “a low-life scum.” In an e-mail correspondence he amended that to “low-life petty thief,” claiming Seavey “would steal a bag of returnable bottles if he could get away with it…to call him a pirate demeans the word.”
But whichever bottle you choose to look through at Seavey’s life, it plays out like a brawl in a Western saloon. There are a number of tales of fights Seavey engaged in, all with a familiar crack, bam, slug and pow: “The battle started just after dinner. Several hours later the saloon was a total wreck. Every now and then, the fighters would stop for a drink of whiskey.”
This tale is from the WDBC broadcast, and it describes a fight in Naubinway, during the time when Seavey was wearing his deputy’s badge. He was in town to arrest the man he was now fighting.
“Dan shoved the outlaw against the bar, breaking most of the bottles. Captain Dan became worried for fear there wouldn’t be enough alcohol left and decided to finish the fight. He knocked the man down and shoved a piano on the outlaw’s neck.”
The “outlaw” died. As the story continues, “Dan handed him over to be buried, sent in his report and went scott free.”
In addition to piracy, thievery, fighting and heavy drinking, all seem to agree that Seavey was a bootlegger and a pimp, of sorts, running boats of ill-repute off the Garden Peninsula. His antics have provided fodder for many curious reporters, some making more of the tales than others, and some, perhaps, even doing their part to create the legend. Here’s another excerpt from the WDBC radio broadcast:
“Captain Seavey had a large flour sack full of Indian skulls, dug up from a burial ground in the wilds of the north. He used to carry some of the skulls into the semi-darkness of a Frankfort saloon and scare the daylights out of the drunks.
“Dan took great delight in walking up to some guy and placing a grinning skull on the bar alongside of him. After greeting the barfly, he would yell in a horrified voice, ‘Yeowww. This is my last drink. Look there behind you.’
“After a hurried look, the fellow would fall off his stool and either leave by the door screaming or dive through the closed window.”
Of such stuff legends are born.
Carl Behrend, a Munising songwriter and folksinger, has penned a rather melancholy tune about Dan Seavey the Great Lakes Pirate. The refrain goes: “The only thing about a pirate’s life, the good times just don’t last.” And as well storms end and tiny ships come to rest, whether in a safe port or at the bottom of the sea. Seavey spent his last years in a nursing home and, at age eighty-three, was laid to rest in a Marinette cemetery. By all accounts, he was penniless.
—Leslie Allen

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