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.”