A Conundrum About A Gilded-Age “Otis Campbell”

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If you are a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, you know who Otis Campbell is: The lovable town drunk who has access to Mayberry’s jail cell after his usual Saturday night spree.

Otis Campbell, doing penance. Source: mayberry.wikia.com

Otis Campbell, doing penance. Source: mayberry.wikia.com

He lets himself into the jail on Saturday nights if Andy or Barney isn’t around to ‘check’ him in.

He even locks himself up, hangs up the key afterwards, and sleeps it all off, to wake up the next day a bit disheveled, a bit unkempt, slightly remorseful.

Modern Drunkard Magazine, which features a great article about the drinking adventures of Mayberryites, says this about Campbell: “…Otis only drinks on the weekend. What kind of an alcoholic is that?”

Otis riding a cow. Source: Mayberry.wikia.com

Otis riding a cow. Source: Mayberry.wikia.com

Really.

For someone who imbibed so heavily and regularly (even if only on the weekends), you never hear about Otis punching out a cop, or cursing out a neighbor, or puking in the street in beautiful downtown Mayberry, or wrapping a car around a telephone pole. He didn’t have a car, so no DUIs, but he did try to ride a cow once while he was drunk. No one was hurt or killed because of Otis’ alcoholism; his marriage wasn’t destroyed, and Otis never developed cirrhosis.

If the writers of this show had treated Otis realistically, he’d never have made it past the first season alive.

(To answer the magazine article’s question: In AA lingo, Otis would be considered a binge drinker.)

What’s the Otis Campbell connection to Emmett Wilson?

Emmett had an “Otis Cambell” in his boyhood home, and I have identified the person. I’ve met one of the descendants of the Gilded-Age Otis Campbell (GAOC). Other family members still live in the vicinity of Emmett’s childhood home in Chipley.

The GAOC was named in the old newspapers, and his drinking adventures were mentioned, too; presented as humorous anecdotes, but as I read the information, over 100 later, I found the little writeups offensive. Sad, even. It is like this otherwise gentle, kind, and hardworking person (which is what this GAOC was) was also the butt of jokes when he was incoherent.

Dr. Wilson and his buggy, probably the same one Emmett drove.

Dr. Wilson and his buggy, probably the same one Emmett drove.

Here’s the interesting connection I dug up: Emmett, as a teenager (about 14 or 15), had to drive the GAOC home in his father’s buggy after Dr. Wilson gave the GAOC medical treatment in his home office. Emmett (and his brothers) had to take GAOC home more than once.

I’ve been wondering what Emmett must have thought about taking the GAOC home. Emmett was not drinking yet; and, there were other family members (specifically, two brothers) who were also powerless over alcohol. Seeing the negative effects of booze on the GAOC (and other family members) apparently did nothing to keep Emmett from drinking. Maybe Emmett didn’t think drinking was a big deal.

My conundrum was whether or not to name the GAOC. I need to mention this person in the story in two small places, because the examples I have of Emmett’s interaction with him, as a teenager, and later, as a grown man, are important.

I’ve decided not to publish his real name in Emmett’s book, out of respect to the current family members. I’ll give the GAOC an alias. The GAOC’s descendants are very nice folks; they know what I’m doing writing Emmett’s story, and they haven’t asked me to keep the name out of the book. I don’t think they would. I believe they think I would handle the GAOC respectfully in the story. I think the man deserves his own, separate story. He’s another person who deserves to be remembered for more than he was — an end-stage alcoholic — when he died. Like Emmett, he was more than that.

Still, I feel that the GAOC story belongs to that man’s descendants. It is their story to tell, if and when they want to do it, not mine.

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