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Barroom brawls can have heartbreaking results

Alvin Frederick might have lived longer if he’d have just ‘clammed up’ instead of going after Charles Blow and his clams. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Picture the scene as Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling might narrate it: “You’re a blacksmith, and you’ve spent a hard day shoeing horses and pounding on your anvil. You’re tired, hungry and yes, a bit thirsty too, so it’s time to repair to the bar room of J.B. Bromley’s Central Hotel on Johnstown’s North Market Street to eat and drink.”

And that is exactly what Johnstown blacksmith Charles Blow did on the evening of Sept. 16, 1893, hardly expecting he’d end up jailed, charged with murder over nothing sillier than an argument over how many clams he could eat. The Sept. 17 Fulton County Republican related the event.

“A saloon fight ending with the death of one of the participants Saturday night was the news that greeted the ears of peace-loving Johnstown citizens when they awoke Sunday morning. At about 9:30 p.m., blacksmith Charles Blow of Smith Street was sitting with companions, waiting for a steak he’d ordered when Alvin Frederick, a young man residing about eight miles west on the Ephratah road entered the room in an intoxicated state, swinging his arms wildly with an expression on his face that betokened the determination to get into a fight. Mr. Blow had just passed a remark to one of his companions that he could eat one hundred clams if he tried, whereupon Frederick remarked that a man who would do that “was a damned hog.”

According to J.J. Warren, one of many witnesses testifying at the Coroner’s Inquest, “Frederick asked Blow if he was the man to eat one hundred clams and Blow replied that if he wished to, he had the money to pay for them, adding the admonition, ‘Attend to your own business.'”

Frederick replied, “I don’t have to” and both men prepared to fight.

Then, according to Warren, “They started for each other and struck at each other, and then clenched and fell at my feet. Frederick was on top, but Blow worked from under and shoved Frederick off of him. Frederick was then picked up by Bromley and Hogan, his bartender, and set in a chair.”

Proprietor Bromley then testified. “Blow got up, but Frederick appeared to be either dead drunk or unconscious from the fight. Mr. Hogan and I put him into a chair. I got a sponge and put some water on his head, sent for Dr. Miller. Dr. Miller examined him and after a few minutes pronounced him dead. Mr. Blow is a frequent visitor to my house. He does not cause trouble. Had heard earlier that Mr. Frederick made threats he would ‘do somebody up’ that night. Mr. Blow made no threats previous to the scuffle.”

The Republican drew a contrast between the two gladiators. “Charles Blow is thirty-three years of age and resides at 11 Smith Street. He is a long-time blacksmith and is employed by Lewis Smith at his blacksmithing establishment on North Perry Street. He is married and has two children, a boy and a girl. He is of a quiet, peaceable disposition. His physic differs widely from his opponent, as he is a man of medium height weighing only 130 pounds. Alvin Frederick was the son of Nelson Frederick, a farmer residing on the Ephrathah road two miles west of Keck Center. He was eighteen years and ten months old. He was of extraordinary stature, of large frame, and over six feet tall.”

Readers must have immediately wondered how the older, lighter-weight blacksmith walked away from the contest when the younger, heavier farmer’s son didn’t.

Charles Blow was taken to the Johnstown Police Station and arraigned before Police Justice McMartin, but after McMartin reviewed the statements taken at the Coroner’s Inquest held at Wassung’s Funeral Parlor on Sept. 17, he ruled that “nothing had been shown in the evidence that would justify further prosecution of the prisoner.” He ordered Charles Blow released, ruling Frederick’s death accidental, and pointing out that all the witnesses except two told the same story, that the preponderance of evidence proved Frederick the instigator of the conflict in which he met his death, and that medical evidence showed that “Blow had neither hit or kicked the unfortunate man.”

As to the actual cause of Frederick’s death, Judge McMartin characterized Frederick’s “true cause of death as shrouded in mystery.”

Why? While the body remained at Wassung’s, an autopsy was performed in an attempt to answer the vexing question of why a heathy 18-year-old should expire so quickly. Besides Coroner Philips, doctors Beebe and Miller were involved. Their general opinion after examining Frederick’s heart was that the cause of death arose from a previously-unknown heart irregularity, “brought on by the violent exercise during the scuffle.”

This conclusion was arrived at because the doctors discovered Frederick’s “semi-lunar heart valve didn’t close thoroughly.”

Dr. Miller concluded, “A man in his condition of heart, death might result in a struggle of that kind.”

Dr. Beebe agreed, observing that “the valve on the right side of the heart was incomplete.”

Alvin Frederick’s funeral was held at the family home, with internment in Ephratah Rural Cemetery. As for Charles Blow, he continued blacksmithing in Johnstown without further notoriety, served later as an alderman, and died at 79 in 1939. Whether or not he ever did consume 100 clams isn’t known, but he was right about one thing, it wasn’t Alvin Frederick’s business if he could.

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