The alcoholic demise of ‘Oyster Charley’

Posted by Tom Camfield

It was early in March of 1891, just a couple or three years after the above photo was taken, that “Oyster Charley” Larsen expired after downing 13 glasses of whiskey in a row. Charley was the operator of a little establishment at Water & Adams Sts., where he dispensed oyster cocktails and other seafoods.

Some weeks prior to his fatal excursion into the bottle(s), Charley’s business premises were ravaged by fire for the third time in 18 months. Damage amounted to $300 after his gasoline book stove exploded. In light of the reputation of the general neighborhood in those times, it is likely the fire was a result of Charley’s drinking—rather than vice versa. In any case, on the date of his demise he had been drinking throughout the day when he entered the Silver Safe saloon in the evening.

Bragging of his capacity, he challenged saloon-keeper Joe Waddington, apparently an individual himself well acquainted with John Barleycorn, to a whiskey-drinking contest. The first to become dead drunk would pay for all the whiskey, served up by bartender J. F. Farrell.

At the coroner’s inquest, it was determined that a half gallon of whiskey had been consumed, 14 glasses by Waddington and 13 glasses by the deceased. Veteran drinkers on the local scene later calculated that Charley had consumed the equivalent of 36 ordinary drinks—not including what he had drunk during the day before entering the saloon. Waddington reportedly suffered no ill effects, other than being stuck with the bar tab after winning the bet.

Charley Larsen, 40, was a native of Denmark. He was found dead a couple of hours after having been carried to his apartment and left unconscious in front of the door when his key could not be found. Giving extreme meaning to the term “dead drunk.”

A local newspaper noted, in the journalistic style of the times. “The liquor consumption bout through which a man yesterday sent his soul pickled in alcohol to kingdom come, is one of those pointed sermons in favor of temperance . . .” The city council promptly revoked Waddington’s saloon license—then at its next session, reversed that and approved a license transfer to accommodate sale of the saloon.

Oyster Charley’s business continued to operate under another Charley, Charles Manson, and became known as the Rockaway Oyster House. Manson continued to be known as “Oyster Charley.” HIs life was fraught with tragedy, including the death by scalding of an infant child and death of a 9-year-old son from successive hits by mumps and measles. By 1900 he was reported living in a room behind the Casino Saloon at the foot of Adams Street, which he set afire with an overturned lamp, threatening briefly destruction of a large portion of downtown. This Oyster Charley the second did not meet his end in the manner of his predecessor. He died when struck by a freight train in Bellingham in 1904.

Life was rife with such vignettes in earlier Port Townsend. It’s hard to believe that, in comparison, my grandfather Camfield had taken his family to the South Dakota prairie to try his hand at ranching there in those same 1890s and moved on to homestead in Alberta in 1903. Neither oysters nor whiskey were part of the general lifestyle. However, in that one-horse town in Alberta, my grandmother’s brother John brewed beer at his pool hall to serve a town about the size of early-history Quilcene.

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Marge Samuelson

This is not a comment on Tom's story. I would like to let people know that the Leader needs to fix their Blog section so people in Jefferson County can give their views on what's happening in our community. I find the Leader out of touch with its readers. Maybe subscribing to the PDN isn't such a bad option.

Friday, May 3