A Pirate Who Roved the High Inland Seas

Yesterday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day (that’s September 19th in case you want to mark your calendar for next year), a day to practice your “arrrrrrrrrs” and “ahoys” and maybe adopt a pirate name.

While we tend to think of pirates as tropical characters (at least in popular lore), pirates (lumber thieves, privateers, rum – runners) roamed the Great Lakes as well. Only one, however, was actually branded a pirate and formally charged for his actions. Dan Seavey – or “Roaring Dan” as he was known – was guilty of everything from poaching to running a floating brothel aboard his Lake Michigan schooner, the Wanderer. 

Roaring Dan Seavey Source: Wikimedia

Roaring Dan Seavey
Source: Wikimedia

Born in Maine in 1865 and the son of a schooner captain father, Seavey took to the seas as a teenager, first working aboard local vessels and then for a stint in the U.S. Navy. He came to Wisconsin in the 1880s where he met and married 14-year-old Mary Plumley, the first of his three wives. The couple moved to Milwaukee in the 1890s where Seavey had a small farm and operated a tavern with a partner on the waterfront.

Seavey soon met Milwaukee beer king Frederick Pabst who encouraged Seavey to invest in a mining company in Alaska. Seavey took his advice and pulled the first of what would become several disappearing acts. He sold his business and deserted his family to seek his fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush. The company went bust within a few years and Seavey came back to Wisconsin but not to his family. He soon disappeared again, resurfacing in Escanaba, Michigan, in 1900.

There, Seavey married Zilda Bisner. Four years later, Bisner filed for divorce, claiming domestic abuse, and Seavey fled once again onto the lake.

Seavey ran many different businesses in Michigan, both legitimate and not. He tried trapping, logging, lumber milling, and marine transporting. On the side, he also practiced the pirate-y arts of bootlegging, poaching, smuggling, and pimping. All of these activities made Seavey a recognizable character throughout the Lake Michigan port cities. Not to mention the fact that he was nearly 6 and a half feet tall and weighed 250 pounds.

And like any good pirate, Seavey was notorious for his barroom brawls and prize fights. One fight occurred on a frozen harbor in Frankfort, Michigan, in 1904. Seavey fought pugilist Mitch Love bare fisted for two hours before cleaning the ice with Love and collecting his winnings.

Seavey also made a significant fortune off his floating brothel. It was a brilliant move considering that the jurisdiction of local authorities ended at the water’s edge. Crafty schooner captains like Seavey would load their boats with alcohol and ladies and travel from port to port. Weekends and paydays were, unsurprisingly, especially profitable in port towns.

On June 11, 1908, Seavey and two accomplices stole a schooner in Grand Haven, Michigan, and headed south to Chicago intending to sell the ship’s cargo on the black market. The theft initiated a chase with federal authorities. The federal ship Tuscarora steamed after Seavey carrying U.S Deputy Marshal Tom Currier and a warrant for Seavey’s arrest. The Tuscarora eventually spotted Seavey’s ship near Frankfort and gave chase, firing a cannon that ended Seavey’s run. Seavey was arrested and arraigned for mutiny and sedition on the high seas.

Seavey’s luck had not run out, though. Despite the government’s best efforts to prosecute him, the grand jury did not indict him and Seavey was set free. How he got off when he clearly stole the ship is a matter of speculation but the act and the case forever branded Seavey a pirate.






Fashions on the Face: Beards in American History

[I recently appeared on the Wisconsin Public Radio show “Central Time” to talk about the history of beards and the current urban lumberjack fashion. Here’s a taste of what we talked about.]

Facial hair is contentious business.

Joseph Palmer became a martyr to his own whiskers, a long flowing beard that he insisted on wearing long in contravention of the current style. One day in 1830, Palmer was attacked by four men outside a hotel in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. His crime? Wearing a beard.

Source: Wikimedia

Source: Wikimedia

Palmer fought back, and despite being a large man, he was thrown to the ground. He managed to escape only by stabbing two of his assailants in the leg with his knife. He was later arrested and fined for causing an unprovoked assault. Although Palmer could easily have paid the fine, he refused on principle and went to jail for his facial hair crime. Even jail couldn’t protect Palmer from those who wanted to unshorn him – twice other prisoners and jailers attempted to shave his face. Palmer wrote letters from jail publicizing the case, and he was eventually released. His tombstone features a man wearing a long beard and the words “Persecuted for wearing the beard.”

A transcendentalist, reformer, and utopian, Palmer’s beard marked him as immoral and suspicious, clearly an outsider. Beards, mustaches, and goatees had been out in the United States since at least the 18th century. During the Enlightenment, a clean face signaled a mind that was open to new ideas. The nation’s founding fathers wore no beards – think of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and George Washington. In fact, no president from Washington through James Buchanan had facial hair.

During the American Revolution, soldiers were expected to keep themselves clean shaven, though judging by the number of times orders to do so appear in wartime records and letters, the men were not listening.

Views on facial hair began to change by the mid-19th century, though. As the nation became more urban and industrialized, many Americans worried about what all of these transformations would do to men and women’s characters, their essential natures. Not to mention the fact that women were gaining more of a public role. Beards were one way men could clearly demonstrate their difference from women. By the Civil War, beards signaled virility, strength, independence, and masculinity. Look only at photos from the Civil War to see a whole range of mutton chops, mustaches, and wooly beards (Smithsonian had a great feature on the facial hair of the Civil War). All the winningest generals had facial hair: Grant, Lee, Sherman, Jackson.


And look to the Oval Office where the first bearded president, Abraham Lincoln, took office in 1861. Lincoln, it should be noted, did not have a beard during the majority of his campaign. He supposedly grew one in the weeks before the election at the suggestion of 11-year-old Grace Bedell who suggested he might look better with a little hair on his face. By the time of his inauguration, Lincoln’s famous bearded face had taken form.

Beards remained popular for the next several decades but the winds of fashion changed course again by the 20th century. Beards gave way to mustaches in the early 20th century and finally the clean shaven face reappeared. No president has had facial hair since William Howard Taft.