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The Life & Crimes of Dan Seavey

Dan Seavey stepped ashore the docks of Grand Haven, Michigan, armed with two of the most dangerous weapons known to man: booze and bad intentions.

It was night of June 11, 1908, and by daybreak “Roaring Dan” was sailing into maritime history as the pirate of the Great Lakes.

Stealing a 40-ton ship and doing battle with a federal cutter will earn you that reputation.

Shanghaied in Grand Haven

Like all Great Lake ports, Grand Haven’s harborside nightlife was ripe for a guy like Seavey, a sailor not above switching buoy lights to send ships aground so he could “salvage” the cargos after the crews departed. Nor was he opposed to running boatloads of poached deer, or using his ship as a floating whorehouse, or dropping a piano on an adversary’s head.

With a fully stocked jug, Seavey easily befriended three marks that fateful June night - the crew of the Nellie Johnson.

One thing about sharing a jug: You never know how much other guy is drinking.

Seavey allowed his companions to incapacitate themselves, likely faking his own swigs from the jug. With the crew literally under the table, Seavey commandeered the forty-ton Nellie Johnson, fully loaded with cargo, and set sail across Lake Michigan.

It took a day or so for the Nellie Johnson’s skipper to convince authorities he hadn’t merely lost track of the ship in his drunken stupor.

Meanwhile Seavey was shopping his ill-gotten booty in Chicago, where the big city harbor was teaming with folks who would buy his goods no questions asked.

The harbormaster, however, had his suspicions. Maybe it was Seavey’s assertion he had won the ship and its expensive cargo of cedar posts in a poker game. Perhaps it was Seavey’s companion, a known counterfeiter with an outstanding arrest warrant in his name. Either way, Seavey ran up the Nellie Johnson’s sails and departed Chicago rather hastily. With that, the alarm went up and down the Lake Michigan shore: That reprobate Dan Seavey had pirated the Nellie Johnson.

Piracy was a capital offense in 1908.

Capt. Preston Ueberroth of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service in Milwaukee took the call, telling reporters, “I was asked to set out on a hunt for the man.”

With a federal marshal on board, Ueberroth ordered the steamer Tuscarora loaded with coal and prepared for a chase.

A chase he got.

Our Pirate?

Sure, the facts and the fictions of Dan Seavey’s life are so intermingled at this point in time that his exploits must be viewed with some degree of skepticism. Even his most widely reported adventure – the commandeering of the Nellie Johnson – contains widely conflicting accounts from the newspapers of the day.

But scale down the tall tales and Seavey still looms large, particularly since the common threads of his life include monumental acts of drinking, brawling, whoring, poaching, stealing, and moon cussing.

Great Lakes historian Frederick Newhouse profiled Seavey in the book “Great Lakes Crimes” and provided ClassicWisconsin with his bottom-line opinion:

“Seavey was certainly a real low-life. Today he would be the guy stealing pop cans for the ten-cent deposit.”

Moon Cussing and Other Tricks

The mariners along the Atlantic seaboard knew all about “moon cussing” – the nasty old pirate trick of rearranging or removing guide lights to send ships aground. When the crews abandoned ship, the pillaging commenced.

It was in this no-holds-barred seafaring tradition that Dan Seavey learned the ropes. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1867, Seavey ran away at age 13 to pursue the life of a tramp sailor.

“He arrived in northern Wisconsin near Marinette in the late 1880s, where he married a local girl with whom he had two daughters,” according to an article published by the Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association (WUAA). “The family then moved to Milwaukee, where Dan fished, farmed and owned a local saloon near the waterfront.”

Another old-time sailing tradition involves abandoning one’s family. Seavey did just that when news of the Yukon gold rush reached the states in 1898.

He was in his 30s when he returned to the Great Lakes region, penniless, about 1900. Seavey had already spent more than half his life living by his wits in the wildest ports-o-call in the world. With a schooner aptly named the Wanderer -- obtained by means we can only imagine -- Seavey was about to make the Inland Sea his personal playground.

“In reality the (cargo) business served as a cover for piracy,” according to Tom Powers’ book “Michigan’s Rogues, Desperadoes & Cutthroats.”

“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.”

To be fair, Seavey did engage in the lawful transport of local commodities: fruit from Door County, hay and grain from Kewaunee, whores from the Iron Range.

According to Powers: “The Wanderer regularly supplied Squeaky Swartz’s Frankfort bordello with ‘soiled doves.’ And after dropping off the fresh faces, Squeaky often loaded up woman who’d had the shine worn off working at Squeaky’s and transported them to the Soo area, where new clientele eagerly awaited them.”

But Seavey would drop anchor in harbors along the way and invite the women to line the deck. Soon rowboats would be making their way to the Wanderer, and Seavey was safely offshore to avoid any pesky local authorities.

Seavey’s most lucrative business was venison. By several accounts he ran one of the largest poaching operations on the Great Lakes. Allegedly he did battle with Booth Fisheries when the commercial fishing company attempted to horn in on his poaching racket, resulting in a Booth-owned boat going to the bottom with all hands.

There is no disputing Seavey, a large man for his day, loved a good brawl.

“Seavey heard there was tough fighter in Manistee,” recounts a Milwaukee Journal article. “The two met in a saloon and agreed to fight. First they drove the bartender and customers out so that they could have more fighting room. All the windows and bar fixtures smashed when police arrived, just as Seavey knocked out the Manistee bruiser.”

“Perhaps his most notorious fight occurred one winter day in 1904 at Frankfort, MI,” according the WUAA. “Mitch Love, rumored to be a professional fighter, battled Dan on the ice of Frankfurt Harbor, where a large circle drawn in the snow served as a makeshift ring. The contest, witnessed by some 200 betting fight fans, lasted over two hours until a bruised and battered Love was carted of by his dejected supporters.”

It was all fun and games and easy cash -- sailing through the night with deer carcasses stuffed in the hold, smashing up waterfront saloons on long winter days, pimping for frontier prostitutes -- until his greatest heist, the Nellie Johnson, led to the call for Dan Seavey’s neck, potentially in a noose.

The Hunt for Dan Seavey

The imposing U.S. Revenue Service Cutter Tuscarora, 178 feet long, gleaming white, the brass of two six-pound cannons shining in the sun, departed Milwaukee in pursuit of Seavey mid-June 1908.

Capt. Ueberroth set a course to canvas the east shore of Lake Michigan.

“We visited St. Joseph and South Haven, patrolling the river and harbor without finding the vessel. Then we took in Saugetuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Whitehall, Pentwater, and Ludington without a trace.”

Ueberroth’s biggest concern was having personnel at the life saving stations tip off Seavey. (It’s possible some of those men had enjoyed Seavey’s floating bordello when it came to town.)

For more than a week the Tuscarora plowed along the lakeshore.

All the while Seavey was hiding in Frankfort, the Nellie Johnson moored on a river inland.

Ueberroth finally received notice from the Frankfurt station – about the same time Seavey received his.

“We waited all night and had just dropped anchor to communicate again with the life saving station when we sighted the schooner under full sail and with a good stiff breeze sailing directly out into the lake,” reported Ueberroth.

Seavey had switched to the Wanderer to make his run. For hours the schooner dodged the Tuscarora, the steamer pursing at top speed for so long the paint on the smokestack melted.

The feds closed ranks only when the wind conspired to slow Seavey. Ueberroth ordered a cannon shot across the bow of the Wanderer. That ended the chase. Seavey was taken to Chicago in irons.

“The revenue cutter overhauled Seavey in the schooner Wanderer seven miles southwest of Frankfurt,” reported the Chicago Tribune, “and sending on board a detachment of marines under arms brought him aboard the cutter and served him with a warrant charging piracy, a crime which is punishable by death.”

But instead of piracy, Seavey was charged with “unauthorized removal of a vessel on which he had once been a seaman.” Apparently Seavey had sailed on the Nellie Johnson years earlier. It saved his neck. That and having a lawyer who knew a good technicality when he saw it.

Seavey was released on bond. In no time he was back on the water, wearing a new suit and a big smile.

The charges were later dropped altogether, for reasons unknown. For all we know Seavey won the ship fair and square in a poker game that night in Grand Haven, just as he maintained for the rest of his life.

Deputy Dan

Commandeering a ship and eluding federal authorities for two weeks only to be set free and made a celebrity could have been Seavey’s greatest accomplishment. It wasn’t.

”On the theory that it takes a crook to catch a crook, Seavey is appointed a U.S. Marshal and ordered to close down illegal whisky, venison and smuggling on Lake Michigan,” according to historian Stonehouse.

He pursued his new job with characteristic gusto. One legend maintains he killed a bootlegger following a brutal fight in a Naubinway tavern by dropping a piano on the man’s head.

When the infamous Wanderer was destroyed by fire in 1918, Seavey upgraded to a 40-foot motor launch. It’s unclear if he continued as a marshal or an outlaw, or both. It should be noted the speedy motor launches were the vehicle of choice for Great Lake rum runners when Prohibition began, just about the time Seavey’s schooner burned.

One account states Seavey retired from the water in 1926. Another says he was sailing well into the 1930s.

Requiem

“Seavey had a soft spot for children and would treat them to fruit from his ship and tales of his many adventures,” according to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. Old timers in Escanaba relate stories of Seavey buying root beer for the kids when he hit town.

“He wasn’t rough talking, he was very mild mannered, quiet. I think he kept his talents as a thief undercover,” a 92 year-old Escanaba resident told the Marquette Monthly in 2008. “He was an odd guy working on the edge, making a buck wherever he could.”

According to the maritime museum, Seavey became religious in his old age and was often seen carrying a Bible around Peshtigo, the town in which he retired.

Seavey died in a Peshtigo nursing home Feb. 14, 1949, an inglorious end to a life fully lived. He was 84. It has been reported he died penniless and lonely. He couldn’t been entirely lonely – his brief obituary in the Marinette Eagle notes Seavey had resided in the area for many years with a daughter.

While the truth of Dan Seavey’s life and crimes may never be revealed, we do know this: At his core Seavey was a master of the lakes, and it’s not a stretch to picture the land-bound old sailor gazing from a nursing home window, looking east toward the waters of Green Bay, imagining the roll of the waves and the snap of the sail, the luminescent Milky Way overhead, a dependable schooner underfoot, the humid summer night heavy with scent of kelp, and through the mystic, the distant clang of a channel buoy calling him home.

Captain Dan Seavey is buried next to his daughter in Forest Home Cemetery, Marinette.

Michael Bie
ClassicWisconsin.com 2009

 

ClassicWisconsin is pleased to recognize the following sources for this story:

Frederick Stonehouse, “Great Lakes Crime,” Avery Color Studies Inc., 2004
“The Giant and the Pirate,” Wisconsin Underwater Archeology Association newsletter Vol. 16, No. 3, September 2006
“The Many Tales of Pirate Dan Seavey,” Marquette Monthly, Oct. 2008
Tom Powers, “Michigan Rogues, Cutthroats & Desperadoes,” Friede Publications, Davison MI, 2002
Veronica Franz, “Pirates on the Great Lakes,” Wisconsin Maritime Museum Anchor News, Fall 2005
Chicago Sun Times
Chicago Tribune
Marinette Eagle
Milwaukee Journal