P. T.’s killer editor

Posted by Tom Camfield

P. T.’s killer editor

My first book of local history in 2000 now is finally “out of print” with no surviving files from which to reprint, so I will occasionally be reviving abbreviated versions of some of the original stories here on ptleader.com

The official U. S. census for 1860 listed only six newspaper editors for Washington Territory. One of these was Port Townsend’s Henry L. (“Harry”) Sutton. Early Port Townsend historian James G. McCurdy (“By Juan de Fuca’s Strait”) was among those tossing off an unsubstantiated early history of Sutton, saying he had arrived in Port Townsend in 1862 after having killed two men in Boston.

Actually, Sutton (who did kill a man locally) was actually here serving as editor of Port Townsend’s earliest newspaper, the “Register,” after it had folded then resurrected itself to publish again briefly in 1860-61. He later is documented as editor of the “Port Townsend Weekly Message” from late 1869 to at least mid-1871.

But Sutton was not a role model for modern journalists despite his drive and mental competence. Apparently it was after the demise of the Message that Sutton opened the “Blue Light” saloon in a small building on Union Wharf. It was an era when about every other building in the central district was a saloon and a fair number of others were brothels. It was at the Blue Light in May of 1877 that he killed a man.

Bad blood had developed between Sutton and a Puget Sound maritime pilot named Charles Howard, whom Sutton had threatened to shoot on various occasions. On the fatal afternoon, Howard came ashore and headed for Sutton’s convenient saloon, laughing off the protests of his friends. Sutton appeared in the doorway with a pistol and opened fire when Howard ignored his command to halt. Howard died on the spot.

Sutton provisioned a boat and made his way down-sound to Pysht, where he was later captured by Sheriff Ben Miller (see my March 13 blog). He was tried and found guilty and confined to the city’s old jail on lower Monroe Street (see my March 3 street-map blog). He escaped by cutting through the floor with tools smuggled into his cell—then tunneling to freedom out under the foundation. He never was recaptured. Speculation regarding Sutton’s eventual fate in subsequent years, including an item in a 1925 issue of the Leader, were varied. One account had him hanged; another had him too slow on the draw in a shooting scrape.

I built my personal picture of Harry Sutton from a lot of things I encountered over decades of research. Plus my own experiences with the vestiges of old-style journalism almost 100 years after him—including being a veteran of old-style printing and having been editor-publisher of a basically one-man newspaper in a small non-elite town in California, populated largely by gypo loggers, back in 1958-’60. I never owned a saloon like Harry and never shot anyone, but I was familiar with a few bars/taverns over the course of my career. I can spiel off without thinking hard 12 bars or taverns right here in Port Townsend at the same time during my young adult years (including even the old F.O. Eagles hall).

The first local tavern with which I had experience was, I believe, the old Pacific Bar around 1934. A visiting beer-drinking uncle took me with him on a trip to downtown and bought me my first-ever carbonated drink—likely Coca Cola. I sat next to him on a bar stool. That bar is seen in many old photos from the same era as the illustration here above and survived for many years—on the west side of Union Wharf in the same general area of Sutton’s earlier Blue Light saloon. It’s a small world, and I cling to such vestiges of history.

Being an animal-lover, I have to give some points to Harry Sutton for a news item in a Leader issue in 1901. It recalled that when he escaped from jail, Sutton left behind a pet dog. He later wrote to Sheriff Miller from Texas, requesting him to take good care of the dog.

Sutton was an articulate individual, and I once had access to a single issue of the “Northern Light” published in 1860, while preparing the printing plant for the revival of the “Register.” One of the lines from that paper I saved and published was, “The news brought by the ‘Oregon’ [ship provisioning this area via San Francisco] shows that the New York fusion has been effected—all the parties uniting to prevent the country being disgraced by the election of such a man as Abe Lincoln.”

A better example of his writing probably was a brief account reading: “Seven sailors who were not especially fascinated with the discipline of a British man-of-war, or the prospect even in old age of a competency wherewith to comfort their declining years, retired quietly from the ‘Topaz’ one evening last week without obtaining a furlough. They landed safely on the American side and soon after their arrival sped away to the interior to try their hands at ploughing something besides the water of the ocean. We wish the poor fellows every success.”

James Swan, long prominent locally in many capacities over subsequent decades, was Sutton’s associate at the Register for a time, and a type compositor was pioneer C. H. Hill. Swan had assisted as a reporter with the Register when it appeared as the town’s first newspaper in 1859, lasting only eight issues in its first life. He was in charge of the commercial department during the paper’s reincarnation under Sutton.

Swan left the paper early in 1861 because of Sutton’s erratic behavior and violent nature.

Despite Sutton’s earlier comment on Lincoln, history says the Register remained a Democratic newspaper throughout its existence. Sutton found it hard to believe when news of Lincoln’s election was received, contradicting earlier reports. He concluded that a special dispatch received via the Oregon exposed “the counterfeit character of intelligence by the Pony Express”—news from the eastern states via Sacramento.

The Register bowed out for good Sept. 18, 1861, after Sutton attacked a man in Billy Bowen’s barber shop and fled for a time to avoid arrest. yielding the newspaper field to John Damon’s “North-West,” a Republican paper. William B. Bowen may have been the town’s first African-American. It was Hill (mentioned above) who reminisced briefly in later years that “Bowen’s wife will be well remembered by the old crowd.”


2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Marge Samuelson

William and Lucy Bowen were from New York. In the 1860 census William was 32 and Lucy 27. There were also two other black men from NY living with them. Lucy ran the restaurant and William was a barber at Bowen's Restaurant & Barber shop. Lucy sold the contents of the restaurant February 15, 1862 to William Hubbreth for $1,872.

There were others in Jefferson County, William Ross, a 26 year old from New York worked on the Revenue Cutter, Jefferson Davis. Two men lived in Discovery Bay working as cooks. William Little, 55, born in Pennsylvania and John Cook, age 39 also born in Pennsylvania.

Harry Sutton was an interesting character, one of many in Jefferson County.

Saturday, March 23, 2019
Tom Camfield

I don't recall a single African American through my school days and earliest adulthood here in Port Townsend--until my friend Willie Bynum, who worked at the local hospital back in the '60s—and later good friend Lamont Thornton who appeared by way of Chicago. Makes one wonder about how Blacks fit in socially over the years around here. I think there still must be at least mental discomfort, if not lack of small-town opportunity, on their side of things in this still-tribal society. Hispanics are leading the way toward diversity in our county neighborhood these days. More power and thanks to them.

Abner Spates ("Spades") who died in 1900 (allegedly during a poker game at the Milwaukee Saloon) at age 58, was another interesting Black during the last several decades of the 19th century. The Leader reported he came here from a wrecked whaling vessel in the Arctic and was "perhaps the best-known Negro on Puget Sound." Apparently a true jack of all trades, including cook, town crier, pound master.

There also was Jerry Stancliff, better known as "Jerry the Bootblack" and also in the springtime was a carpet cleaner, who spent some 30 years here "off and on" and died in 1905. Said by some to be better known around town than Abner Spates. The Leader wrote: "During his earlier life he was a sailor and had visited every portion of the globe and was able to converse in several languages . . . The fact that he was so well known here got him clear of a number of scrapes that might have otherwise ended disastrously for him." I'd like to have known him.

I wrote about these people in my books of local history, and mention them here, because I feel everyone is worthy of a place in history and should be there waiting for future researchers. I, myself, am fascinated by one and all—and have pursued that goal also in a half-dozen published volumes of genealogical history. Newspapers including the Leader do much more over the long term on the local side of things.

Saturday, March 23, 2019