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The Emerald Gang 

While Arcata's William Whaley spent the proceeds of his international smuggling operation with a "lavish hand" on champagne baths and other luxuries in San Francisco, the "thorough scoundrel" and acknowledged "best dressed man on Kearney Street" sent not a penny to his mother in Humboldt, complained the Humboldt Times on Jan. 12, 1894.

The widowed Mrs. Whaley instead struggled alone to raise two orphaned grandchildren in Humboldt.

click to enlarge Arcata's William Whaley, head of the Emerald Gang. - CALIFORNIA DIGITAL NEWSPAPER COLLECTION, CENTER FOR BIBLIOGRAPHIC STUDIES AND RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT RIVERSIDE.
  • California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California at Riverside.
  • Arcata's William Whaley, head of the Emerald Gang.
Well before Whaley came to run one of the largest smuggling operations in the world, opium smuggling had become "quite a business" in San Francisco by 1853. The drug was expensive and sellers could decrease their costs and increase profits by avoiding U.S. tariffs, prompting smugglers to hide the opium in food tins, mail ships and even the fake bellies of Chinese immigrants.

Custom officials focused efforts on stopping illicit trade as legal imports brought in millions of dollars in duties annually. Just one legal shipment of opium coming into the San Francisco port in May of 1883 brought $98,000 to the U.S. Custom House, the equivalent of about $2.7 million today. By December of 1890, Special Agent Tingle of the U.S. Treasury Department urged officials to reduce the duty on opium to disincentivize smuggling, but his recommendations went unheeded. Perhaps because even when illegally seized drugs failed to generate the usual customs duties, the government still took its cut. On June 17, 1864, the Sacramento Daily Union reported on the seizure of 35 boxes of opium in San Francisco, which were then sold at auction at $8 apiece. 

In 1881, the U.S. entered into a treaty with China to restrict opium imports into either country, ostensibly to help address prolific smuggling and better control the drug. This prohibition "extended to vessels owned by the citizens or subjects of either country, to foreign vessels under their control." In February of 1887, the right to import opium was restricted to Caucasians, and Chinese agents were forbidden from bringing opium into the country. This likely led to even stricter monitoring of ships coming in and out of China, and drove at least some opium smugglers, including Whaley and Louis Greenwald, to land their goods in Victoria, British Columbia, smuggling them into the United States from there.

Whaley grew up in Arcata and, after losing his job as a customs inspector in San Francisco in the late 20th century, used all he learned from catching international smugglers to become one. He convinced Greenwald, a childhood friend and another Arcata native, to become one of his "lieutenants" and the two worked with corrupt custom agents and others to smuggle opium into the U.S. The men also forged and sold Chinese certificates, which were used to bring Chinese citizens illegally into the country. According to a story published in the Humboldt Times on Jan. 12, 1894, Whaley's Emerald Gang became "the most successful smuggling ring that ever operated on the Pacific Ocean," stretching from China and Japan to British Columbia, the California coast and the Hawaiian Islands. It was rumored that Whaley had a relationship with the Hawaiian queen and that "the intimacy might terminate in matrimony."

click to enlarge Newspaper illustrations depict members of the Emerald Gang. - CALIFORNIA DIGITAL NEWSPAPER COLLECTION, CENTER FOR BIBLIOGRAPHIC STUDIES AND RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT RIVERSIDE.
  • California Digital Newspaper Collection, Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, University of California at Riverside.
  • Newspaper illustrations depict members of the Emerald Gang.
Instead, in 1895, Whaley's operations began to crumble, precipitated, in part, when alleged gang member O.P. Stinger of Ferndale turned informant. Other gang members, including Greenwald, then fell one by one as they turned state's evidence and began to testify against each other. Whaley, the Blue Lake Advocate later reported Aug. 24, 1907, was then "forced to flee to the Orient where he spent his illicit coin so lavishly that he earned the title of the 'Diamond King of Monte Cristo.'''

After traveling around the world, Whaley landed in Manila, where his money eventually ran out. In 1907, "penniless and friendless," Whaley headed home to California on the transport ship Thomas. He died at sea.

Greenwald, meanwhile, spent six years in San Quentin for his participation in the Emerald Gang. In 1904, after being out less than six years, Greenwald was again wanted by authorities, who believed he was again creating fake certificates. Greenwald, an informant told authorities, had recently gone to Victoria, and returned "with a shipload of Chinese, which were to be smuggled into the United States and supplied with certificates at $100 per head."

It is unclear if Greenwald was ever convicted of the offense. Greenwald died in 1930 at the age of 68, while renting a room in a Seattle lodging house and working as a clerk in a local mercantile.

Lynette Mullen (she/her) is a Humboldt County-based writer and historian. Visit www.preservinghistories.com to learn more. 

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