Sunday, September 24, 2006


Herman K. Trabish

ABSTRACT: Sometime in the late nineteenth century, There’s GOLD in them thar hills!” transmuted into There’s OIL out there! As the oilfield pioneers left the Pennsylvania and Baku regions and took the industry to the farthest corners of the world, they created their own legends and lore. The premier chronicler of oil’s lore was historian and folklorist Mody Coggin Boatright. Building on field research which recorded the realities of oilfield life, he documented the tales that grew around the realities and how they grew taller as time passed. If not every well came in, each had its story. Real people transmuted into indelible character types. Finally, the real life of Gilbert Morgan of Callensburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, gave forth Gib Morgan, the greatest oil industry hero of them all.

Sometime in the late nineteenth century, There’s GOLD in them thar hills! became There’s OIL out there! Dreams of success turned ordinary men into oilmen ready to roam where ever they thought they might find a producing well. There is a tale about an oilman who arrives at a small isolated town where there is an oil boom. It might be Texas or California or Sumatra. He can find no accommodations. Not wanting to sleep outside, he begins making the rounds of the public houses, asking everyone if they have heard about the strike elsewhere. Eventually, his invented rumor takes hold and he encounters men who ask him about the elsewhere strike. By midnight the public houses are clearing and there is a lot of traffic leaving town. Accommodations become available. But our oilman does not take a room. Unable to resist even his own invented rumor, he is off to see about the strike elsewhere.

Eventually, that story turned into one about an oilman who, on dying and going to heaven, is told by Saint Peter at the Heavenly Gates that he will have to go to Purgatory and wait because all the oilmen’s places in Heaven are filled. The oilman smiles sadly and accepts this dictate but requests and is granted temporary admission for a visit with his friends. While chatting with the oilmen in Heaven, he casually mentions rumors of oil discoveries in Purgatory. Soon, his invented rumor spreads and eventually comes back to him. He notices movement in the crowd and, then, space clearing. Finally, he decides it is time to move on. At the Pearly Gates, he meets Saint Peter, who tells him there is now room for him. Sorry, the oilman says, I’ve heard a rumor and I think I’ll go Downstairs and explore. (Boatright 1963, p. 196).

As the oilfield pioneers left the Pennsylvania and Baku regions and took the industry to the farthest corners of the world, they created their own legends and lore. The premier chronicler of oil’s lore was historian and folklorist Mody Coggin Boatright (Fig. 1) of the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Folklore Society. He built on field research done in the 1920s and 1930s by numerous folklorists and colleagues. They took notes and audio taped the recollections of men who had worked the oilfields all the way back to the days of Colonel Drake. Amid a storehouse of oilfield tales, characters, themes, types and lore, Boatright found and chronicled oil’s greatest hero, Gib Morgan (Fig. 2). He called the Gib Morgan folklore:

…equal to the best in the Crockett Almanacs and superior to the best in the Paul Bunyan legend. This lore, richly imaginative and often satirical, is known…wherever oil is produced in the United States. It is known…wherever American oil crews and technicians have gone. (Speck 1973, p. 62).

In the Gib Morgan lore, oil region humor was transmuted. The difficulties of finding a place to sleep in a boomtown oil

camp, for example, turned into the tall tale about Gib Morgan’s hotel. In Beaumont to drill at the time of the Spindletop boom, Gib Morgan finds beds so scarce men rent them in 8-hour shifts. So Gib builds his own hotel:

The building was forty stories high with ten high-speed elevators…[On each floor] there was a narrow gauge railroad with a train waiting to take them to their rooms. In each room was a number of taps—one for ice water, one for Bourbon, one for rye, and one for Scotch, one for Tom Collins, one for old fashioned, and so on…Every guest would go to bed with a [highly valued] south or east exposure. But when those who had gone to bed first would wake up in the morning, they would look out through [chillier, shadier] north or west windows…Gib’s hotel was mounted on a turntable, but by the time his guests found out, they were so pleased with the service, especially the spigot service, that they didn’t mind. (GM, #40).

Boarding house food in places like Titusville and Beaumont was not always as satisfying or plentiful as home cooking. Familiar jokes about it emerged. For example, they told one about a driller who, cautioned by his landlady that the butter he was slathering on his less than delicious biscuit was expensive, smilingly replied, And worth every damn penny you paid! (Boatright 1963, p. 197). Another driller was wearily napping on the porch until his landlady’s supper was ready. At the ringing of the bell, he startled awake and the boarding house hound began howling: What are you howling at? the driller growled, You don’t have to eat it. (Boatright 1963, p. 197).

In the tall tale transmutation, Gib builds his own boarding house in West Virginia in which he serves delicious buckwheat cakes, keeping the recipe …a trade secret… He draws so many oil field workers he is forced to develop mass production methods:

He bought a dozen of the largest concrete mixers and steam engines to turn them…Into these mixers his workmen dumped flour and milk and eggs…[the batter] was turned into a pipe line leading to the kitchen. The griddles were bottoms of 43,000-barrel oil tanks, each heated by a gas well underneath it…Seven big strapping men skimmed over the hot surface of each griddle continuously [on sides of bacon fat under their feet]…followed by another crew who handled the batter hoses…Another crew with shovels turned the cakes…a fourth took them up and tossed them to the waiters…Melted butter and maple syrup flowed through pipes along the half-mile counters, and at each seat were spigots from which the customer drew…Gib fed twenty-five thousand oil field workers at a time…[He] had to put up a sign: ONLY DRILLERS AND TOOL DRESSERS FED HERE. (GM, #39)

According to Boatright, a myth in very general terms may be taken to be a story whether true or not that is …associated with the most cherished values of the believers. (Speck 1973, p. 108). The singular myth of the oil industry, around which all the others grew, was the myth of the man and his well. Remarkably, it was sometimes a true story. After many retellings, it was essentially the same story, whether told of Drake in Titusville (Fig. 3), of Patillo Huggins (Fig. 4) and Captain Lucas at Spindletop (Fig. 5), D’arcy in Persia (Fig. 6) or Dad Joiner (Fig. 7) in East Texas: An unlikely man falls into a search for oil. (Drake was a retired train conductor drafted because he had a free railroad pass. Huggins was a Sunday school teacher who observed gas vents on picnics. D’arcy (Brice 2004) was a patriotic gold miner drafted into the service of Great Britain. Dad Joiner was a gigolo.) Fate taps the man on the shoulder. He becomes convinced and then obsessed, yet he finds no oil. Time and funds are expended. Those who hold the power and the purse call off the search. Just past the eleventh hour, the obsessed hero brings home the gusher. It is the stuff of

melodrama, but it really happened, in Pennsylvania, in Texas, in Persia and in oil country all over the world. Tales grew around these realities and they grew taller as time passed. Indelible character types were born: the Geologist and the Doodlebugologist, the Promoter-Trickster, the brave Shooter, the cowboy Driller, the newly rich Landowner, the Oil Field Dove. And from the real life of Gilbert Morgan of Callensburg, Clarion County, Pennsylvania, came the greatest oil industry Hero of them all.

Tall tales often begin as jokes and often these jokes remain in the tale. An example would be an episode from Texas tall tale character Pecos Bill’s infancy. His parents had to leave him alone in the cabin while they plowed the fields. From a distance, they saw a panther go into the cabin. Bill’s mother wanted to run to the cabin. Dang panther, Bill’s father calmly said to her without reacting, Ain’t gonna get any help from me. Ought to have more sense than to go in there when Bill’s there. (Speck 1973, p. 8)

The tall tales about Casey Jones (Fig. 8) might have begun as jokes among rural passengers about how slow the trains were: This train is so slow I should walk, a man remarks to his fellow passenger. Why don’t you? asks the fellow. My family isn’t expecting me until train time, the man answers. Or: A conductor is summoned to a female passenger exhibiting labor pains. You should not have got on the train in that condition, the conductor tells her. I wasn’t when I got on, she answers. (Speck 1973, p. 59)

There is a present-day story that comes down from the early days of oil about a bumbling roughneck who finally aggravates the driller beyond tolerance when he accidentally drops a tool deep into the well. After a long shut down, the driller finally fishes the tool out and hands it to the bumbler. Here’s your tool, you’re fired. Angry at the driller’s intolerance, the roughneck takes the tool, walks to the well, drops it back in, turns to the driller and says, You can’t fire me ‘cause I quit! (Bartlett 1979, p. 210-211)

Such humor was common in early oil industry stories and tall tales. The many phrases commonly used to describe the enthusiastic promoters and unscrupulous profiteers who plagued oil discoveries were gathered into a popular song lyric, FAMOUS OIL-FIRMS by 'E. Pluibus Oilum':

There’s Ketchum and Cheatum,
And Lure ‘em and Beatum,
And Swindleum all in a row,
Then Coax ‘em and Lead ‘em,
And Leech ‘em and Bleed ‘em,
And Guzzle ‘em, Sink ‘em and Co.

There’s Gull ‘em and Skinner,
And Gammon and Sinner,
R. Askal and Oil and Son,
With Spongeum and Fleeceum,
And Strip ‘em and Grease ‘em,
And the Take ‘em in Brothers and Run.

There were more verses. (Boatright 1963, p. 93)

Three jokes became a tall tale about Gib Morgan’s three hunting dogs. In a terrible collision with a splintered tree while chasing a rabbit, the very swiftest dog is split in half. Gib:

…grabbed up the halves, rubbed them with Kier’s Seneca oil, a bottle of which he always carried in his pocket for such emergencies, slapped them together and put them down. The dog ran on after the rabbit and soon caught it.

Unfortunately, as Gib quickly notices, …he had put two legs up and two legs down. But the dog is even faster than before:

He simply spun around like a cartwheel with such momentum that he could overhaul any rabbit in the Allegheny valley…Gib neglected to take out a patent, however, and it wasn’t long before his neighbors began splitting their dogs open…

When Gib attempts to help his coon dog by axing a groundhog the dog is endlessly chasing in and out of its hole, Gib accidentally axes the dog.

Gib was awfully blue about killing his faithful coon dog but he had one comfort: it happened so quick that he was convinced to this day that the dog never knew for sure whether it was Gib or the groundhog that killed him.
Gib’s greyhound is the only animal that can keep up with Torpedo, Gib’s fantastically swift horse. Once prevented from bringing his greyhound into the passenger car on …the fastest [train] on the Pennsylvania line… Gib decides, rather than stow the dog with the baggage, to leash it to the rear car to run alongside the track. When the train is traveling at 150 miles per hour, the conductor suggests Gib check on the dog. Gib can’t see the greyhound until he looks under the coach, where he sees it running along on three legs. He hadn’t been crippled. One of the wheels had developed a hot box and the dog was trying to cool it off. (GM, #48).

Long after the originator of the Gib Morgan stories had died, journalist Harry Botsford heard a modern-day Gid Morgan in a bar telling a yet wilder tall tale. This Gid allows his female canary, Jen, to escape and mate with a bumblebee …almost as big as a hummin’bird… For a while there are no consequences.

Then the wells started to go dry, alarmingly. One day I heard buzzing and the beating of thousands of wings. There they was—whickles, thousands of them. A whickle is a cross between a bumblebee and a canary. Two divisions of the critters was streaming out of the casing head of an old well. Then I remembered my history. Whickles, unlike birds or insects, live on oil, and that was why the wells had been goin’ dry. Fact! They had been sippin’ thousands of barrels of oil right out from under our noses.

He spots the canary and the bumblebee, remembers Jen’s fondness for applejack and spills some, trying to lure them to capture. They escape. That night six horses, three cows and a travelin’ evangelist was stang to death. He goes to Harrisburg, gets a bounty put on whickles and sets out to

…save this great industry from further depredations of these dastardly whickles…All I need is a gallon of applejack, which I sprinkle on the bushes. As a rule, I get a dozen or so whickles. Of course, I lose some of the applejack. I scalp the whickles and mail the scalps to the governor, and right now he owes me round eighty thousand dollars. (Botsford 1942, p. 72)

This may or may not constitute real literature. …[T]he westward-moving men of action, Boatright wrote, unhampered by any high-falutin' theories of art, created their own literature. (Speck 1973, p. 70). If what we find in what comes down to us of oil industry humor and legend is not a sophisticated literature, it is a kind of lore. Like the pioneers before them, the early oilmen were primarily interested in the facts surrounding them. The shortcomings of the stories were due less to mean-spiritedness than to self-centeredness. As an academic, Boatright wrote books and essays, as have others, finely defining mythology, folklore and legend. But he left no doubt that there was something intrinsically valuable in what his research discovered. Each occupation he observed, has its lore—partly belief, partly custom, partly skills—expressed in anecdotes, sagas, tales and the like…Our culture is the richer for this… (Speck 1973, p. 118-19).

Like their lore and legend, the workers developed a language all their own. Folklorists have collected lists of oilfield terms that named tools of the trade, like bull wheel, Christmas tree, headache post and thief. Other words that came out of the oilfields are more familiar. From the prevalent felines of the northwestern Pennsylvania forests may have come the word often used to describe those bold enough in life to strike out on their own: Wildcatters. Roughnecks and roustabouts may have been epithets invented as oil business slang but eventually named any vigorous, multitalented workers:

Today’s oil rig roustabout, clearly distinguished from the roughneck and lower in the pecking order, is told, 'Just keep your head down and your ass up and push, you’ll do all right.' (Bartlett 1979, p.61).

Doodlebuggery (a.k.a. doodlebugology) was the use of any unscientific process to find the buried treasure. Before science became reliable, random chance made it seem a viable option. Oilman O.W. Killam told Boatright, Understand, I don’t recommend doddlebugging to anybody, but it just seems to work out for me better than anything else, and it’s very inexpensive, except the expense you use in drilling dry holes. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 160).

Tales of Strange Technology
Equally ephemeral means of discovery made magic of the search for oil. Repeated many times and places is the story of the landowner who has psychic dreams predicting the place to drill and will not grant the oilman his lease until he commits to drilling that place. After getting dry holes at more likely sites, the oilman drills and gets oil where the dream promised he would. Every oilfield had its psychics and seers. The divining rod (a magic stick or twig, usually Y-shaped), used to “witch water” in the rural American west, transmuted into many types of devices promising to find oil (Fig. 9). One was a rod attached by string to a receptacle filled with a secret potion purported to magically spin if held over oil-containing earth. Oilman Alexander Balfour Patterson recalled Dr. P. S. Griffith’s wiggle-stick:

He had little lugs that looked like the size of a silver pencil and it had a plate that would fit the palate, the roof of his mouth. And from each side of this plate that protruded from the mouth were coiled, highly coiled, springs of six or eight inches long, on the end of which had little silver looking plates that he could take between his forefinger and thumb of each hand…He would thread-screw one of these little lugs marked silver, or gold, or iron, or oil, or gas, or sulphur, and then he would walk. This would be pointed vertically, and sometimes he would start and tremble and you’d see this lug draw down toward the ground. There he’d make a mark… (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 17).

With this mark and some fancy geometry, Dr. Griffith indicated a drilling location. One experienced oilman who watched Griffith carefully thought his successes were more from surface observations than the wiggle-stick.

There were battery operated devices of many kinds which sounded horns, rang bells or moved a display needle when detecting the presence of vibrations, magnetic pulses or the like. There was a truck bearing a radioscope, a low tech, pseudo-scientific take on seismic equipment. There were photographic plates, sensitized to detect the presence of indicative minerals. (Boatright 1963, p. 35-45) There were people who claimed to be able to smell the oil and those who claimed to have x-ray eyes and could see it. All these methods claimed to have located producing wells, and some did. But the verifiability of previous successes was sometimes elusive and often success was obtained in oil regions where most any method had some success. One oilman reportedly tied a tin can to a dog’s tail, set the dog running and drilled where the tin can came off. Another drilled where a blindfolded man’s throw of a silver dollar fell. Both reported finds.

Where science had no explanation, luck was sought. Even Everette DeGolyer, instrumental in turning oil exploration into petroleum geophysics, said the search required both skill and luck and added, In case of doubt, weigh mine with luck. (Knowles 1978, p. 300). DeGolyer loved to relate what Geologist W.P. Cummins said when asked how he found the rich Panuco field of northeastern Mexico:

The Professor looked up at the ceiling and shook his head. Then he looked at me seriously…‘Been asked that question many times. Never made any answer—too technical!’ His eye gleamed. ‘Goin’ to tell you, though—you c’n understand.’ A long pause. With a triumphant snap of the end of his beard, he leaned forward and whispered, ‘Little bird told me.’ (Tinkle 1970, p. 188-89).

In a 1953 essay, Boatright described the lucky breakdown and the million dollar drink as two specific motifs in oil discovery stories and traced actual and legendary examples of each. Perhaps the most famous incident of the lucky breakdown—where drilling is assigned at one location but inadvertently, though successfully, done at another—is associated with Dad Joiner. But Boatright chronicled many examples, affirming Samuel W. Tait’s remark that it had been told about: …every oilfield I know, whether it be sandy desert, boggy swamp, muddy prairie, or rocky mountain, and it has probably happened in every one of them. (Speck 1973, p. 96). Boatright chronicled an equal frequency of the lucky drink, from which results inebriation and a gusher. In the Big Lake Field, the proceeds of which funded the University of Texas, the drilling supposedly would have stopped too soon had not the supervising executive been out for a drink long enough for the crew to bring the well in. (Speck 1973, p. 102-03).

In the Gib Morgan tales, there are many lucky breakdown events. Though the stories’ primary focus is on Gib’s heroic ability to get the well drilled, his biggest piece of luck contributes to the science of geology:

During the early days of the oil industry there was a lot of discussion about the nature of oil deposits. One school of learned men said they were reservoirs; another school of equally learned men held they were veins. All of which shows that nobody else knows as much about oil as the practical man. For Gib Morgan demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that all the learned men were wrong. Oil deposits are running streams…It began back in the seventies when he was working in the Bradford field…his watch slipped out of his pocket and fell into the well…Fourteen years later he was drilling in West Virginia. One time when he emptied the sand bucket, he saw something shining in the slush pit. He fished it out and there was the watch…But what was more remarkable it was still running…The watch hadn’t lost a second in all those fourteen years in the bowels of the earth…It was a stem winder and as the current of oil had carried it along, the stem had scraped on the bottom and the sides of the passage and this had kept it wound… (GM, #45).

For Gib, there could be no million dollar drink because, like John D. Rockefeller (Fig. 10), the other great oilman of the late nineteenth century, the Gib of the tales is a non-drinker: When he and John D. agree to put up the biggest rig ever drilled, they …shook hands on it, but they didn’t drink, both being temperance men. (GM, #9) This variation on the common motif probably reflects the fact that in the life of the tall tales’ creator there were probably no million dollar drinks. Of the real Morgan, O.G. Lawson told Boatright:

…[W]hen he come back from the war he got started working in the oil fields in Pennsylvania, but drink soon got the better of him, and he became an oil-country tramp. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 144-45).

The Tales Move West

The boomtowns in Texas, Oklahoma, California and around the world after the turn of the century gave a new flavor to oil industry legend and lore. Each of the great booms had its own circumstances, its own personalities, its own distinctive
Ruth Sheldon Knowles wrote. (Knowles 1978, p. 120). But the makeshift towns where they boomed had many similarities. They were tough, rugged places, famous for a plenitude of hard drink, bad water, muddy oily streets, few toilets and fewer rentable places to sleep. And the stories moved from town to town with the men and the booms.

In the absence of law and order, oilmen made their own justice and told stories about it. W. H. (Bill) Bryant told a tale of boomtown justice when remembering a saloon that incurred the wrath of the oilfield workers:

If they could get your money, they’d get you drunk…So then we got tired of that. There was a railroad running beside of it where they hauled logs. And one night we got a bailing line and put it around it and put a clamp on it, and when the log train come by, we hooked it on to the log train and scattered that slab saloon about four hundred yards right down the railroad track. That’s the way we tore that one up, because it was trimming the roughnecks. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 71).

Batson, Texas, undertaker Plummer M. Barfield remembered a grimmer instance of boomtown justice:

It was dark and had been raining…There was a roughneck killed in the field. I forgot now how…I went in the field and loaded the body…halfway back, why I met a bunch of men with lanterns…Says, ‘Well, throw him out. We got some more work for you to do.’ Well…there was a dead woman and a baby. I loaded them up and went on and unloaded them…

About the time I got that done, why, a couple of roughnecks come in and…says, ‘you can go back down there in the bushes about one hundred yards from where you were and…you’ll find two more.’

…And in the meantime I’d learned why there were two more down there. This lady’s baby had taken sick, and she’d got up to give it a dose of medicine or tend to it, and some rattlebrain drunks shot at the light, see, through the tent. Killed her and the child both. And these roughnecks and rig runners around there, they caught those two guys and hung them to a sweet gum tree. And them was the two men I went back and got…
(Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 75).

According to Boatright, oil industry types emerged and with them came tales that grew ever taller.

1. The Geologist: Probably one of the earliest frequent confrontations between unschooled citizens and academicians was when geologists went out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to inspect rural landowners’ properties. Although nothing, as Mark Twain famously observed, hurries geology, folks in boomtowns were in a hurry to hit the oil jackpot. The geologists were not liked because science is not easy and geology, especially the creekology of the boomtown days, was not faultless. Maybe Boatright was correct that rock hound might be a somewhat respectful epithet if it came from rural folk who knew hounds were smart hunters. But the legends of the big discoveries often portrayed the geologist as the heavy, the egg-headed guy who said the dreamer was wasting his time drilling until, eventually, the gusher came in. Despite research suggesting there were geologists offering positive reports to dreamers like Captain Lucas and Dad Joiner, the one-liner that emerged as oil-industry lore was John Galey’s: …the only infallible geologist is Dr. Drill (Boatright 1963, p. 83-90).

One of Gib Morgan’s greatest feats comes because of a geologist’s foolishness. The head geologist for Standard Oil of New Jersey …had located a well just by putting a cross on the map… and …the rockhound had put the cross right smack dab on top of Pike’s Peak. Though his crew tells Gib if he moves the well to a more convenient location, the…brass hats back in New Jersey wouldn’t know the difference anyway…Gib said no. Against the fabled enormity of the Rocky Mountains in general and Pike’s Peak in particular, Gib performs legendary feats. He gets a derrick up on the peak, hooks up an engine and boiler twenty-three miles below on the nearest piece of level ground, and rides a mule on the almost vertical territory between, overseeing the operation. The punch line: While riding the mule straight down, Gib feels something wet and warm on the back of his neck that …didn’t smell like Hoyt’s Cologne. So he sells the mule, throws his saddle on the belt between the engine and the derrick and …rode it up or down. (GM, #7).

Gib builds his biggest rig ever because the rock hounds say there is oil in a certain Texas sand and leave it to him to get it out. Gib’s derrick covers an acre and is …hinged in two places so that he could fold it back to let the moon get by. The rest of the story is a working out of drillers’ details in legendary proportions, with twenty thousand barrel oil tanks for the first casing, huge bits and bunkhouses up on the derricks two weeks off the ground for toolies climbing to service the crown pulley. As the oil sands collapse inward, Gib finally …brought in the well with a needle and thread.

2. The Oil Promoter: In a 1961 essay, Boatright described the oil tale promoter as folklore’s trickster archetype, …the one who prevails, or sometimes fails to prevail, by his wits. (Speck 1973, p. 145). The promoter was the Brer Rabbit of the oil business, though not always so successful:

There were and are legitimate and ethical means of promotion…let us say a promoter secures a lease…He estimates that he can sink a well to the producing sand for $50,000. He sells seventy-five one-percent interests in the well for $1,000 each. He has $25,000 above the expected cost of the well, and if he finds oil, one-fourth of the seven-eighths remaining after the landowner’s royalty has been deducted is his. He hasn’t deceived anybody.

He becomes a trickster…[however]…if he sells interests totaling more than 100 percent…two men operating under this plan had the misfortune to strike oil…they plugged up their wells and left in a hurry.
(Speck 1973, p. 147).

Elaborating on techniques of those who had salted gold mines before them, oil field tricksters invented ways of enhancing the value of their leases. Maybe the smell of gas or sprinkled or tracked oil would be enough to make a sale. They might bury oil and then claim to discover it, or arrange a nearly dry well’s pumps so that oil flowed out and then surreptitiously back into it, a continuous fountain to entice investors. Or buried pipes might bring oil into the well from a nearby tank. As modernity emerged with the oil industry, the trickster appeared in newspaper and radio advertising. In their ads, promoters promised to go to burning Hades or a cellblock in Leavenworth if their promotions turned out to be misrepresentations. There is no documentation regarding Hades but Leavenworth apparently did receive at least one promoter.

Statistics from the first half of the twentieth century reflect the success of the trickster (see Boatright 1963, p. 103-04, for sources):

-Within eight months of the Spindletop strike, Texas oil company capitalization was at $231,000,000 although actual investment at Beaumont was only $11,000,000;

-Of 1050 oil stock companies formed in Oklahoma in 1918-19, only seven paid dividends; one dollar was paid for every $550 invested;

-In Kansas, in 1916-17, 12 of 1,500 oil companies showed profits; there was $555 of capitalization for every barrel of oil;

-Aggregate defunct oil company capital in 1924 was $500,000,000;

-Through 1947, total accumulated oil investment of $102,000,000,000 produced $61,000,000,000 return;

-One promoter in 1918 fleeced 25,000 people for $2,500,000;

-In the five years preceding 1923, $100,000,000 was lost to fraudulent oil promoters in Texas;

-In 1924, there were 63 cases pending against Texas oil companies, representing $140,000,000.

Even Gib Morgan falls afoul of oil industry arithmetic. When Gib decides to go into the oil business for himself in West Virginia, he takes leases, sells interests to raise capital and sets up drilling projects. He runs into trouble:

…the hole caved and had to be cased. Then it wasn’t long until it had to be cased again. He had to sell more interests to buy casing. Then he struck a hard slanting formation and got a crooked hole. It took two weeks work with a side reamer to straighten it up. He had to sell more interests to meet his payroll. He lost his tools and had expensive fishing jobs and had to sell still more interests.

Finally, Gib realizes that despite the best of intentions he has sold 150 percent of his investment:

Gib thought it over and decided he’d better leave the country for a while. He left between sundown and sunup. He went to the South Sea Islands, to Russia, to South America and to many other places where he had many remarkable adventures… (GM, #6).

3. The Shooter: Perhaps the boldest of the types Boatright described was the shooter. This was a man who put nitroglycerin into promising but non-producing wells to create an explosion intended to activate the oil. It was hazardous duty. Accidents occurred. Shooters were not merely injured or killed but were blown to bits. From the utter mayhem came real life accounts almost as astonishing as tall tales.

1871: Parts of the face, with mustache and four teeth attached, was the largest portion of the driver recovered from the debris. The horse was disemboweled, and to numerous trees bits of flesh and clothing were sticking. From the ghastly spectacle the beholders turned away. (Boatright 1963, p. 107).

1919: Two men were blown to pieces, a woman slightly hurt, a bridge demolished, and a garage badly damaged when a cargo of nitroglycerin being transported in an automobile blew up…One of the persons killed was the driver and the other was a passenger he had picked up…Both men were blown to atoms. Human fragments were picked up along the road and in the fields for a distance of several hundred yards…Pieces of the car were scattered to the four winds…In the edge of the ditch skirting the roadway probably 600 ft. from where the mishap occurred, searchers found the exterior skin of a man’s face. It looked as if it had been removed with a knife and resembled a mask made of human flesh. (Boatright 1963, p. 107).

At the well, the nitroglycerin charges, in containers, were lowered into the hole to be exploded. One of the worst dangers of the job was that occasionally the charges were unexpectedly pushed back up out of the hole by venting gases. The shooter then had to choose either to run or to gently catch the nitro container:

Tom Mendenhall came out to shoot it…and we lowered a six foot bucket with liquid nitroglycerin and…the gas caught it and began to push it back up…I never was a speed demon but I figured I’d try to make a new track record. And Tom was standing right by the well. And he could hear the glycerin bucket scraping off the side of the casing as it came up and he said, ‘Don’t run off, Walter. I’ll take care of it. And so foolish me, I stood there…He just spread his legs on each side of the casing and waited until the gas pushed this bucket of liquid nitroglycerin right up. And when it got up about waist high, he just reached out and hugged it like he was coming home to mama, and picked it up the rest of the way and took it over to the corner of the derrick…( Boatright 1963, p. 109).

When a blockage seemed to require a series of nitro blasts, multiple shells were used. One oilman liked to tell a tale of catching five shells:

…I was just letting the fifth one down when I felt the line slacken…the fellows started to run…The gas was sending it up like it was a feather floating over a hot radiator, and the odor was almost enough to knock a man down.

“I couldn’t run. There was only one thing I could do. When that shell stuck her nose above the casin’, I grabbed her. She was all covered with mud an’ oil, naturally, an’ it was like tryin’ to catch a slippery fish.

“I set her down as polite an’ gentle as I could, and started to wipe the sweat off my face when along came another one. I grabbed that one, too. I just had time to lay her back down, when the remaining three shot up, so close together that I was afraid they’d bump one another. By the time I laid the last one down, my helpers were all a hundred yards away, an’ they’d done the distance in a little over ten seconds.
(Boatright 1963, p. 114-15).

From the amazing but true tales told by longtime oilfield fireman and shooter Ward A. Tex Thornton (Fig. 11), Edna Ferber (Fig. 12) constructed a spectacular if improbable scene in her famous novel about Oklahoma, Cimmaron, in which her tragic hero catches a charge like a football pass, saving everything and everyone around the well. (Ferber 1929, p. 387). That is a perfect example of how life gives way to fiction and, eventually, legend. Even more improbable and yet due its own status in oil industry lore is how Thornton, the king of the oil-well firefighters, died. After using special asbestos suits and nitroglycerin explosions to put out massive oil fires for three decades, this daring man was beaten and shot by hitchhikers for whom he had thoughtfully stopped on a Texas highway.

4. The Driller: The driller was the quarterback of the oilfield. Nothing else mattered if the driller and his crew didn’t get oil out of the well (Fig. 13). In oilfield lore, therefore, the driller was portrayed as the classic American hero type, the cowboy of the oilfields. Legend has it he was a commanding presence, a leader. He did not allow his decisions to be questioned. He faced dangers without fear. He always wore the finest in clothing and boots. He was idiosyncratic and independent. He was taciturn. He was the best fighter and the hardest drinker on the crew, the roughest of the roughnecks, the rowdiest of the roustabouts and the wisest of the wise.

For wisdom, there was driller Dad Titus, of the Titusville Tituses, who—when asked why he always ate something from his lunch pail at the start of his shift—said:

I’m a good deal older than you are, and I’ve been around drilling rigs longer than you have. You’d be surprised how many things can happen to your lunch. The rig can burn down and you won’t have anything to eat. The ants can get into it. It can fall off the nail and a stray dog or hog can get it. There’s so many different things that can happen to it that when I get out to the rig, I look through my pail and see what’s in it that I know I would like to have if I could save it until breakfast time next morning. But I just can’t afford to take the risk so I eat it right then.( Boatright 1963, p. 122).

For taciturnity, there was Hard-boiled Jim, who answered, Not putting out a damn thing, in response to any stranger seeking information about any well he was drilling. In response to a stranger’s remark that it looked like rain was coming, Hard-boiled Jim replied, Yes, but I’m not putting out a damn thing. Driller Cotton Young answered a remark about a coming storm with, You talk too much. (Boatright 1963, p. 125).

A note made by an Oklahoma driller told the whole story on drinking and fighting:

11:00A.M. Get up
11:00-11:30 Sober up
11:30-Noon Eat
Noon to midnight Work like hell
Midnight-3 A.M. Get drunk
3:00-3:30 Beat hell out of them that’s got it coming
3:30 Go to bed
(Knowles 1978, p. 114).

Big Hole Bill (or Jack, the story has variants) would only drill down until the hole got small and required precision. He then drew his pay and went on a drunk, leaving the detail work to someone else. When all his drinking money had been guzzled, driller Grant Young frequently sent his crew to other oilmen to report him dead and collect donations for a funeral. A fellow once told a pair from Young’s crew, The first time Grant died, I gave you twenty dollars. This time I’ll only give you ten.

But there never was a driller like the Gib Morgan of the tall tales. Drilling in West Virginia and about five hundred feet down, …he broke a pin and lost his bit. The only thing to do was to rig up a string of fishing tools and go to work. He put a pair of long stroke jars below the drill stem and below the jars a horn socket… As he is about to fish in the well, a hoe handle on which a farmer leans beside a nearby cliff snaps. The farmer falls. Thinking fast and heroically, Gib uses the fishing string to catch the farmer before he hits the ground below the cliff.

Drilling in South America, Gib demonstrates Yankee self-reliance in the jungles. To deal with malarial mosquitoes, he goes after medicine wells. He …geologized around a while and made a location on an anticline… He hits a vein of quinine, moves his rig, drills again and brings up whiskey. Then, medicinally prepared by the quinine and whiskey combination to deal with the next mosquito attack, he sets his crew to what they are there to do, drill for oil.

Called to the well while resting after taking his quinine and medicinal whiskey, he and the crew see tools coming up out of the well and then going back in and then …the rope socket was coming out of the well, then the sinker came, and then the jars. After the jars, the drill stem and then the bit. Gib just stood there watching. The tools would go up into the derrick and when they came down, he would guide them back into the hole… Out they come again. Finally, he realizes …he had struck a vein of rubber.

The tools go higher and higher over the hole and take longer and longer to come out. When Gib sees the tools come out with a piece of shale attached, he knows the rubber has been penetrated and has his crew grab the tools and restart the drill …as though nothing had happened. It wasn’t many days until they brought in a good well.

Drilling on another well, Gib hits a thicker vein of rubber and the tools never penetrate it. There is a rumor that the tools are still going up and down. Because of this, Gib invents:

…his famous, double-action, compensating jars…A steel spring compensates for the elasticity of the rubber and enables the driller to go right on through…just as he would a stratum of shale or limestone or any other formation.

5. The Landowner: Two themes in oil industry lore typify the landowner. One is the landowner’s distrust of the promoter. The other is the landowners’ remarkable uses of unexpected newfound wealth. With the record of the trickster-promoter, the landowner’s distrust should not be surprising but the legitimate oilman tended to be impatient. More than one story tells of a driller’s offer to lower a landowner into a well with a lantern to prove it had yet to produce.

As to the odd habits of the newly wealthy, television’s Beverly Hillbillies were perhaps the standard by which all Coal-Oil Johnnies might forever be judged. The original Coal Oil Johnny was John Washington Steele. Steele’s aunt, Sarah McClintock, had purchased an oil burning stove with newly acquired oil wealth and then died in a fire started while cooking on the stove in March 1864. She left to her nephew John:

…about $200,000 in gold and currency locked up at home in an iron safe and about $100,000 on deposit in the bank, and a farm upon which oil royalties were yielding between two and three thousand dollars a day…In less than a year Steele had parted with his inheritance and was selling tickets for a traveling minstrel show for his board and keep. He had signed various documents while under the influence of brandy. He had played angel to the minstrel show that afterward maintained him. He had rented a hotel and entertained all comers. He had given away horses and carriages. He had walked down the city streets with ten-dollar bills stuck in the buttonholes of his coat, enjoying having them snatched by any passerby who could grab one. These are only some of the means by which he got rid of his fortune…Steele was an exceptional man, but his pattern of behavior has been repeated with sufficient frequency to establish his nickname…A Coal-Oil Johnny is anyone who squanders an oil fortune, large or small. (Boatright 1963, p. 144-45).

Lore recounting odd reactions to newfound oil wealth spread far and wide. There was a very famous Mrs. McClesky of Ranger, Texas, who was supposed to have indulged only in the purchase of a new ax with which to go on chopping kindling for her old wood-burning stove. Variations on the new ax story were found by folklorists in the Gib Morgan regions of Pennsylvania as well as in Desdemona, Beaumont and Vann in Texas (Boatright, 1963, p. 142). Then, there was the East Texas farmer who only bought a new Stetson and five dollars worth of bananas; and the coon hunter who only bought his thirteen hounds fresh red meat and a car to drive them in; the farmer’s widow and her sister who only bought new linoleum for the kitchen; and the newly rich old blind man who only bought cars for his nephews to drop him off and pick him up at the corner where he once begged but now could sit around and tell stories.

On the whole, oil wealth has actually been, for responsible people, just the delight our fantasies wish it to be:

A retired oilman, after thirty-five years’ activity in all parts of the United States, declares that the men who have shown the best judgment in the handling of their oil money are the bankers and the landowners. The banker invests conservatively in stocks and bonds. The farmer or ranchman, he says, pays his debts, builds a house, and buys more land. (Boatright 1963, p. 149).

A story told about Tom Wheeler turned up in variations quite often. Wheeler was an achingly poor farmer until his Oklahoma land brought him great oil wealth. Though he moved his family from that barren, oil-rich land, he saw all his children through Agricultural College and gave them farms as graduation gifts. (Knowles 1978, p. 124-25).

6. The Oil-Field Doves: There were few examples of women doing actual production work:

If it was, reported oilman H.C. Sloop, it was only an isolated case of a woman coming on the job to help her husband when he wanted to go to rest…I remember one or two women who ran boilers. But their husbands were working, running these boilers, and the women folks would come down and bring him lunch or bring him a change of clothing or something of that kind. And they had been there often enough for him to tell them how to handle the boiler and how to look after it. And he could go home and lie down…And outside of that I don’t know of anything. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 113).

You’d have what you called these oil-field doves—the gals that hung around the oil fields, recalled oilman Landon Haynes Cullum, and there was plenty of them around…there were really some woolies, and they had all kinds of names for them. Some of them wouldn’t be very good to repeat. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 162).

One female name that was repeated so often it became a slang expression was Ruby Darby. She began in a Dallas chorus line, honed her act in World War I army camps and made her mark as one of the first to sing the blues in the southwest boomtowns. Known in the 1920s as the toast of the oil-field workers, this brazen sensuous showgirl toured the oil camps in a big red flashy chauffeur-driven automobile, coming in wearing only a fur coat and a smile to guarantee a packed house for the night’s performance. Her trademark song was W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues but more popular than her sultry voice was her exotic dancing. They said she would strip at the drop of a driller’s hat; had ridden a hoss completely nekkid down the mud- and oil-splashed streets of Keifer, and had danced bare-skinned on a tool shack roof as men tossed silver dollars at her feet. She packed a pistol, wore silk stockings and would try anything once… and an acquaintance called her a natural adventurer. There was a popular couplet warning, If you’ve got a good man keep him home tonight/for Ruby Darby’s in town and she’s your daddy’s delight. (Wallis 1988, p. 187).

She was so highly loved in some of the Oklahoma oilfields that when a gusher came in the men would call it a Ruby Darby. Eventually, to call something a Darb was to say it could get no higher praise. In Ernest Hemingway’s (Fig. 14) The Sun Also Rises, the main character suggests his companion has some excellent acquaintances: You’ve got some fine ones yourself. The listener agrees that his acquaintances are good ones. Oh, yes. I’ve got some darbs. (Hemingway 1926, p. 107).

As Cullum pointed out, not all the women in the camps were so highly thought of, though many were respected for unique qualities:

There were women of every type, all types, from the smallest to the largest, and from the tenderest to the toughest, and we had lots of fighting among the women; of course, I don’t remember any women getting killed, recalled W.H. (Bill) Bryant. They generally got beat up, somebody would separate them. I believe Nella Dale and Grace Ashley put on the best bout I ever seen. I think they fought an hour and fifteen minutes before they were separated. And when they quit fighting they didn’t have on enough clothes to wipe out a twenty-two.

This fight taken place here in Sour Lake, and that woman was the best fighter I ever saw. I never did know what her real name was. We called her ‘Mooch.’ And she was from Cripple Creek, Colorado, and she was kind of every man’s pet hero because she could always come out under her own power when she was drinking, and she was a good fist fighter. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 70).

…And I want to tell you something, Bryant was elsewhere quoted, the best hearts I have seen in people is in the underworld. I seen prostitutes after they commit suicide and maybe the girl didn’t have anything much. I’ve seen the other women take off their diamond rings and sell them…and help bury this particular woman…some of the women were taking care of their mother back home, and some of them was probably taking care of a baby where a sorry husband had walked out on them, and when you get right down she had a clean heart…some of them was tough as a boot and don’t you think they wasn’t. Some of them would pick your pocket, and they were just as low as they ever got, and others had lots of pride left. Now I know one woman—she was a fine-looking woman and she killed her husband and later married a field man. That woman straightened out and I believe she lived a clean life from then on. (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 118).

Oilman Frank Hamilton remembered more about Mooch:

Mooch was a gambler’s—supposed to be his wife. She’d sit up there with him at all times…And a low bunch was following so that you had to watch them. But this Mooch…was very pretty at the time that I first saw her in Sour Lake, Texas…The reason she got that name…was because if any roughneck or pipe liner would get sick, didn’t have any money, anything like that, why she’d go out and mooch all the oilmen…if a boy got sick or anything, why Mooch would start out. Wouldn’t be long until she’d have a quack doctor there, medicine, and plenty to eat.

Well, Mooch, she died in jail in Shreveport, Louisiana…She had a heart—a big heart—so they give her a respectful good burial…
(Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 118)

Corsicana boomtown veteran Carl F. Mirus thought Bob from Fort Worth got it right when he told an attorney from Corsicana who confirmed to Bob that the respectable Fort Worth woman he had married had indeed been a prostitute in Corsicana:

‘Well,’ he says, ‘you know people talk about me marrying a whore.’ Says, ‘I think it’s something to be proud of.’ He said, ‘Any man can go out with a girl that’s never been married and never had a sweetheart and persuade her to marry him, but,’ he says, ‘you take a man that takes a girl that has had ten thousand sweethearts and gets her to pick him out of all the rest and marry him,’ says, ‘now that’s really doing something.’ (Boatright and Owens 1970, p. 119).

In any pantheon of oil industry angels, a special place must go to Daisy Bradford and the many women who wittingly or otherwise funded Dad Joiner’s drilling venture. Joiner, it is said, obtained investments by reading the newspaper obituaries and courting widows of means. Using their money, Joiner drilled, on Ms. Bradford’s farm in 1931, the first well in what became known as the East Texas Black Giant. Playing the other side of the fence were the psychics and fortune tellers always in and around the boomtown camps, such as Zara of Beaumont, Madame Virginia of Abilene and Annie Jackson of Mexia. These were women who, like Dad Joiner, used what they had of insight and persuasiveness to induce oilmen to share their wealth.

Contributing to legend and lore in ways that require separate research essays were two other women. Ida Tarbell (Fig. 15) was a journalist and novelist who grew up in the mid- and late nineteenth century Pennsylvania oil regions, the daughter of an unsuccessful wildcatter. Ms. Tarbell was among the progressive journalists at McClure’s Magazine dubbed muckrakers by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Perhaps motivated by her father’s failure or perhaps by what she saw around her, Ms. Tarbell wrote a series of articles for McClure’s in 1902-03 which eventually became The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in book form in 1904. It was instrumental in rallying public and political sentiment for the legal reorganization of Standard Oil in 1911. Arguably, Daniel Yergin wrote, it was the single most influential book on business ever published in the United States. (Yergin 1991/92, p. 105).

Lydia Bragatouni (a.k.a. Lydia Pavlova) was another kind of woman entirely. A White Russian princess living in post-World War I Paris and working with other anti-Leninists to take back control of her country, she became a mistress of both Royal Dutch/Shell’s Henri Deterding and Turkish Petroleum’s Calouste Gulbenkian. She was perhaps the only neutral ground as these men wrestled for control of Mesopotamian oil in the 1920s. Eventually, as her political hopes faded, she rejected Gulbenkian and became Mrs. Deterding. Though the men reached a Red Line Agreement in Mesopotamia, there remained ever after a personal enmity between them over Lydia Pavlova. As Mrs. Deterding, she inspired a strong anti-Communist stance at Royal Dutch/Shell. (Yergin 1991/92, pp. 202 & 242).

Women essentially do not appear in the Gib Morgan tales.

Paul Bunyan (Fig. 16), Pecos Bill (Fig. 17 and Davy Crockett (Fig. 18) are today thought of as Disney characters but they came out of regional oral traditions and lived for decades before Disney. They probably emerged into the national consciousness because academic chronicles in the 1920s bridged their passage into the popular media that emerged in that same period. Because they did transition

from folklore to Disney, they remain famous. As chronicled in Boatright’s work, Gib Morgan was to the oil industry what Crockett was to the frontier, what Bunyan was to logging, what John Henry was to railroad building, what Casey Jones was to railroading and what Pecos Bill was to cattlemen. Because post-World War I academics did not bring the Gib Morgan oral tradition into print in that era, it was not widely heralded and remains folklore almost forgotten to today’s popular culture.

Boatright, who died in 1970, described the tall tale as a kind of everyday art. He went to great lengths to precisely define tall tales with academic rigor. Gilbert Morgan was merely a practitioner of tale telling. As Boatright wrote in the The Art of Tall Lying …[I]n any group there will be those who know a good story when they hear one, and are not too strictly bound by facts to alter them if it makes the story better… (Speck 1973, p. 105). In the same essay, Boatright used the example of a character called Pie Biter to show how the Gib Morgan tall tales grew out of a familiar frontier style of storytelling. Pie Biter really was a Texas ranch cook named Jim Baker who won a bet by stacking five pies and eating them. Eventually, tales made Pie-Biter a cook for the Texas Rangers who could not only hunt buffalo from his chuck wagon, but also, in the absence of kindling, chase down prairie wildfires to cook the buffalo meat (Speck 1973, p. 78).

The Real Gib Morgan
The real Gilbert Morgan was born July 14, 1842, in Callensburg, Clarion County, in western Pennsylvania. With his family, Gilbert—like his fictional hero nicknamed Gib or Gid—moved to Emlenton in 1848. It was a pre-Civil War village life, mostly handmade and homegrown. Entertainment was primarily storytelling and prank-playing. Think Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn except that, forty miles away in Titusville in 1859 when Gilbert was seventeen, Colonel Drake brought in the first commercial oil well in the United States. Before Gilbert Morgan could derive personal benefit from the boom in the region, the Civil War began. From 1861 to 1864, he served in Company C of the Tenth Pennsylvania Reserve Infantry. They fought and suffered casualties at, among other places, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.

After the war, Gilbert worked in the oil industry of northwestern Pennsylvania. He probably started as a tool dresser’s apprentice, became a tool dresser and, eventually, a driller. He married Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Richey in Emlenton in 1868 and they had three sons, Ed (born approximately 1869), Charles (born 1870), and Warren (born 1872). When Mollie died in 1872, Gilbert left his boys with the Richey family and went to the oilfields. He roamed the Ohio-Illinois-Pennsylvania-West Virginia region between 1872 and 1892, lived with his son Warren in Eau Claire, Pennsylvania in 1893-94, and finally resided in the National Home for Disabled Soldiers, with intermittent wanderings, until his death in 1909.

Probably garrulous and sociable from his youth, Gilbert Morgan took up drinking and storytelling with a vengeance during his itinerant years after Mollie’s death. Boatright’s authoritative speculation was that during time spent on drilling sites, in oil worker haunts and in public houses, Gilbert’s pranks and jokes evolved into the persona of Gib and a repertoire of tales growing ever taller. Acquaintance W.M. Kennedy of Franklin, Pennsylvania, summed Gilbert up in a letter to Boatright:

They used to say that he was ‘the biggest liar in the oil country.’ I don’t think this is the proper title for him. I would say that ‘the best entertainer in the oil country’ would have been a much better title. (GM, #36).

Even in his last decade, he was able to obtain room, board and drinks at inns where he stayed with his entertaining, imaginative tall tales.

The Tales of Gib
Gilbert Morgan’s hero, Gib, was a practical man. His concerns were the pedestrian and the earthy. His doctoring was for tapeworms and bee stings. He took notice of hog markings and the lay of farmland. He reacted to fog and mosquitoes. This is not the stuff of Odysseus and Achilles, or even Paul Bunyan. Everything in the Gib stories comes from the everyday life of the working oil man in the late nineteenth century: corn crops and dairy cattle, horses and hunting rifles, boots and boarding house food. Many of the stories turned around Gib solving a technical problem for himself or his drillers, sometimes fancifully but almost always using the nuts and bolts of the driller’s trade. In Rome, he built a chariot with bull wheels. When he lost something in a well, he invented a new way of getting it out with standard fishing tools. In the jungle and in need of cable and pipe, he learned how to make use of a boa constrictor as a bullshaft cable and a fishing tool and used its shed skin for pipe.

Maybe Gib’s was the kind of attitude that sees a man through four years as a foot soldier in the Civil War. He did not rail against the things he found along the way but laughed at the way they were and invented fantastic and funny ways they might otherwise be. The stories were very much the work of a man who had seen too much of war. Loud noises were described as being like the sound of musketry in battle. The only fight in the tales was a fantastic one that ended abruptly when the combatants realized they would rather eat, drink and be friendly. Maybe Gilbert Morgan’s war experiences, coupled with the death of his wife not many years later, explain his alcoholism and why he did not leave a significant written record of his work.

In the 1940s, Boatright collected, organized and edited the brief tales from oral recollections. He grouped them in something like a chronological order. Each subsequent story added a unique facet to the legend. The collected tales start with a series about Gib as a slightly bemused and condescending Pennsylvanian drilling in West Virginia. Next comes a long series of stories recounting Gib’s adventures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century oil regions of the world, invented despite the fact that the real Gilbert Morgan probably never left the northeastern fields. In his travels, Gib meets:

…the Noble, Grand, Worshipful, Master, Chanceller, Commander, Exalted Ruler and Jibbonancy of the [Fiji] Islands…who spoke Oxford…and entertained him so royally that he forgot all about the well…(GM, #10).

In the South Pacific, Gib gets a fitting companion, Big Toolie.

…[T]wenty-eight inches between the eyes and so tall that he could grease the crown pulleys without taking a foot off the ground…Big Toolie was a good-natured, playful giant… (GM, #12).

Like the cowboy hero who is the only one who can ride his faithful stallion or the baseball hero who is the only one who can swing the big bat, Gib masters Big Toolie and wins his loyalty. When Big Toolie gets a Dear John letter from his woman in the States, Gib tries to help him by sending him back to the States through the pipeline they have laid between the South Pacific and the East Coast:

So Gib…put him in the pipe line and started the pump…[Big Toolie] went through as slick as grease until he got to the Y at St. Louis. There his right foot started to New York and left foot to Chicago…He never lived to know that his woman married the other man. (GM, #19)

In a series of stories set in the jungles of South America, Gib tames Strickie, a giant boa constrictor, to oilfield work. They work together until the snake decides to retire …in the Bronx, where he would have plenty of company. (GM, #27). In India, Gib invents rubber boots. Sent there to drill, Gib does not take extra boots because he expects it to be a civilized country but finds the natives all wearing sandals or barefoot. As their boots wear out, his men, ...were getting madder and madder and were threatening to quit and go back to [the Lord’s] country where a man could buy a pair of Wisconsin boots if he had the money. From nearby rubber country, Gib got some pure para gum and molds rubber to his men's feet. The men were pleased and went about their work with a new will…Then just as everybody was feeling happy a most unfortunate accident occurred. A toolie falls from the crown pulley at the top of the derrick:

He hit the ground rubber boots first and bounced up twice as high as the derrick. When he hit the ground the second time, he bounced out of sight and didn’t come down for two hours. When he went up the third time, he didn’t come down for two days. Gib got to figuring, and he figured it out that if he went up again, he wouldn’t come down in less than twenty-four days, and Gib knew that no man could live for twenty-four days without food or drink. So as much as he hated to do it, Gib had to shoot him to keep him from starving to death. (GM, #30).

Back in Texas, the same thing happens to another of Gib’s tool dressers. But this time, Gib uses a Texas technique to save the man. He lassoes him on his first bounce and uses a drilling engine and wheel to reel the man in. (GM, #31).

A few stories return Gib to the oilfields of the northeast, where he displays his talents at handling drilling equipment. Next come a more fictionalized series of stories. Gib drills in England and hammers shingles to fog, he logs, he farms humongous produce, he dairy farms (and blasts dry milk cows with nitroglycerin to produce copious amounts of milk), and he runs his boarding house and his hotel. There are then three stories about Torpedo, Gib’s magnificent horse: He was no ordinary horse. He weighed twenty tons and was twenty-two yards long if he was one. On Torpedo, Gib rides out from Oil City, Pennsylvania, at nine a.m., inspects wells in progress in Louisiana, oversees the drilling and capping of a Kansas well, and got back to Oil City for a late supper. (GM, #42). In Rome to drill, in the second Torpedo tale, Gib and Torpedo win a chariot race.

In the last of the collected tales, Gib makes his discovery about petroleum geology in Pennsylvania, cures a monstrous tapeworm, invents a marvelous twenty-four-barrel shotgun for pigeon hunting, raises his hunting dogs and lands a huge catfish in Louisiana. Drilling in Russia and enduring a Russian winter, Gib is snowed in for a week. He decides he must go for supplies. He hitches a sleigh to a pair of ponies, covers himself in furs and sets out. Half way, he spots two huge ferocious Russian bears chasing him. Despite whipping his ponies, the bears draw to within three feet. He begins whipping at the bears but they poise to leap. He ducks down under the skins and covers his head. Nothing seems to happen. He peeks out:

The bears were drawing the sleigh. They had leaped over him and eaten the horses right into the harness and the Russian yoke…Gib picked up the lines, drove them into town…and drove back to camp. By that time the bears were as gentle as ponies. He drove them all winter. (GM, #49).

Finally, Gib has the only fight found in the tales. Gib Morgan was a peaceful and law-abiding man whose motto was Live and Let Live. Drilling along the Ohio River with a crew of African-American workers [Boatright used the pejorative n-word which was undoubtedly used in the original version], Gib feels it necessary to discipline one rambunctious man. They fall into the river, fighting. The worker pulls a knife and, defending himself, Gib pulls his own. A crowd forms on the bank:

The news spread and more people came. The railroads ran excursion trains to the scene, and all the steamboats stopped and tied up. The farmers on both sides of the river charged for standing room and cleared over fifty thousand dollars. Tens of thousands of dollars were bet on the outcome of the fight.

The only evidence of the fight is pieces of bloody flesh coming to the river’s surface. The odds shift according to whether there is more Caucasian or African-American flesh emerging:

They fought and they fought until finally their knives got so dull they wouldn’t cut any more. They agreed to a truce so they could come up and grind their blades. When they came out they discovered they had been fighting for two weeks, and they were powerfully hungry. They went to a restaurant and each ordered a beefsteak four inches thick. When they had finished eating, they felt so good they called off the fight. (GM, #51)


Boatright and others have compared the best of the Gib tales to some of Mark Twain’s work. Like the tales of Twain and other of Gilbert Morgan’s more well-known contemporaries, there are instances of xenophobia, naïvete and cliché here. But at their best, they are imaginative and funny. They have the frankness and playfulness of the storytelling tradition out of which they grew and they remain an essential part of an invaluable record of a time and an industry.


BARTLETT, Kim, 1979, Gulf Star 45, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 224 p.

BOATRIGHT, Mody C., 1945, Gib Morgan, Minstrel of the Oil Fields, Southern Methodist University Press, El Paso, 104 p.

BOATRIGHT, Mody C., 1963, Folklore of the Oil Industry, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, 220 p.

BOATRIGHT, Mody C. and OWENS, William A., 1970, Tales From The Derrick Floor, A People’s History of the Oil Industry, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 268 p.

BOTSFORD, Harry “Oil Field Minstrel” in Saturday Evening Post, October 3, 1942

BOUGHTON, C. W., 1920, The Elk City Gas Field: Kansas Geological Survey Bulletin, No. 5, 30 p.

BRICE, William R., 2004, Editorial and Mount Morgan: Oil-Industry History, v. 5, no. 1, p. 1-2

FERBER, Edna, 1929, Cimarron, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York, 388 p.

HEMINGWAY, Ernest, 1926, The Sun Also Rises, Scribner, New York, 251 p.

LONGHURST, Henry , 1959, Adventure in Oil – The Story of British Petroleum: London, Sedgwick & Jackson, 286 p.

KNOWLES, Ruth Sheldon, 1978, The Greatest Gamblers, The epic of American oil exploration, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 376 p.

SPECK, Ernest B. (Editor), 1973, Mody Boatright, Folklorist: A Collection of Essays, for The Texas Folklore Society by The University of Texas Press, Austin and London, 198 p.

TINKLE, Lon, 1970, Mr. De: A Biography of Everette Lee DeGolyer, Little, Brown and Co., Boston and Toronto, 393 p.

WALLIS, Michael, 1988, OIL MAN: The Story of Frank Phillips and the Birth of Phillips Petroleum, Doubleday, New York, 480 p.

YERGIN, Daniel, 1991/92, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power: New York, NY, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 885 p.

Websites Consulted (accessed December, 2005)

Texas Folklore Society Web Page, s.v. “TFS HISTORY,” (accessed October 11, 2005).

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "BOATRIGHT, MODY COGGIN,"
(accessed October 11, 2005).

Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "THORNTON, WARD A [TEX],"
(accessed October 25, 2005).

Boatright’s Gib Morgan stories (from Boatright 1945):

1. Hogs in the hills
2. How Gib paid a board bill
3. How Gib saved a famer’s life
4. How Gib nearly got a bit
5. How Gib Got a bit
6. Gib as operator
7. How Gib drilled on Pike’s Peak
8. Gib on a Texas ranch
9. Gib’s biggest rig
10. The buttermilk sand
11. The champagne sand
12. Big Toolie
13. How Gib lost a fortune
14. How Gib lost favor with the exalted ruler
15. How Gib solved the fuel problem
16. The shrinking hole
17. One screw too many
18. How Gib laid a pipe line under the ocean
20. A night in the jungle
21. Medicine wells
22. How Gib discovered Strickie
23. How Strickie bailed out
24. How Gib recovered his tools
25. More cable
26. Strickie delivers again
27. Strickie’s last days
28. The self-drilling well
29. Perpetual motion
30. How Gib invented rubber boots
31. How Gib saved his tool dresser
32. Gib’s hardest fishing job
33. A simple solution
34. Gib’s narrowest escape
35.Gib as manufacturer
36. Gib as farmer
37. Cucumbers in India
38. Gib as dairyman
39. Gib’s boarding house
40. Gib’s hotel
41. Trouble with the crown pulley
42. Gib Morgan’s wonderful horse
43. Torpedo’s chariot race
44. Torpedo in danger
45. Gib Morgan’s contribution to geology
46. Gib as doctor
47. Gib’s guns
48. Gib’s dogs
49. Gib in Russia
50. Gib as fisherman
51 Gib Morgan's fight.

About the Author: Herman K. Trabish, D. C., owes his fascination with all things oil to the reading of Daniel Yergin’s The Prize and his discovery of Samuel T. Pees’ web site. He has recently completed a historical novel about the oil industry, OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, The Story of our Addiction. It is available at his website, (and through on-line booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble). He is currently at work on the sequel, OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, The American Decades. He also edits NEW ENERGY NEWS (, a daily news blog.

Orignally published in the Petroleum History Institute's OIL-INDUSTRY HISTORY, Volume 7, Number 1, 2006.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


My historical novel about how we became addicted to oil is now available at

and here is the first review:

Review: OIL IN THEIR BLOOD by Herman K. Trabish

Reviewer: Mark S. Friedman

In THE END OF OIL, Paul Roberts said “…ours is a culture of energy illiterates.” OIL IN THEIR BLOOD, a superb new historical fiction by Herman K. Trabish, addresses that illiteracy by putting the development of our addiction into a story about real people, giving them a sweeping historical context and giving his readers a chance to think about how our addiction happened. Owning and controlling oil, the center of the modern political and economic endeavor, is the context. Trabish’s prose restricts itself in the finest way to simple, straightforward storytelling and he tells his stories through his characters.

The book is the answer a matriarch gives to an interviewer who asks her to pass judgment on the oil industry because her family was in it from the beginning. She clearly speaks for Trabish when she suggests the oil industry, like history itself, is easier to tell stories about than to judge. Her presence is a unifying device for the book but the construction of the device focuses attention on the stories, making them symbolic even while they are literal. Instead of simply judging the oil industry, she and Trabish let the reader experience it and come to their own conclusions.

She begins by telling the story of her parents in western Pennsylvania in the post-Civil War era when oil first became big business. We see teamsters and farmers and drillers fighting each other while big money interests work behind the scenes to take control. We see a fictional version of the first pipeline being built and the first race to market between competing refiners. We also see an amateur baseball game played by 1860s rules, a paralleling mechanism recurring throughout the book. Trabish tells this part of the story like a John Ford western and his characters are classic American melodramatic heroes, heroines and villains.

In the second part of the book, Trabish’s matriarch tells the tragic story of the second generation and reveals how she came to be part of the tales. We see oil become an international commodity, valued as a lubricant and illuminant, traded on Wall Street and sought from London to Baku to Mesopotamia to Borneo. Trabish’s baseball subplot compares the growth and organization of the oil business to the growth of baseball from an amateur competition to a professional sport and cutthroat business, a fascinating reflection of our current president’s personal career. There is an unforgettable image near the center of the story when a group of international oil entrepreneurs are talking on a Baku street:

“What is the point?” demanded Abrams, in a low quiet voice that demanded they listen. “Big money has this tied up.”

Rhoades stopped them, held a finger to his lips to silence them and waved for them to follow him into a muddy alley. There, he grabbed a splintery shaft of a broken two-by-four and drew a big circle around them in the mud of the alley. “This is the world.”

Completing the circle, he shifted the others out of his way, to the world’s edge, walked to near its center and made an x-mark. “Here is Baku, the capital city of the greatest oil deposits outside of Pennsylvania.”

He took a tiny step toward them. “Until a few years ago, it was more expensive to get oil from here to here…” He made another x-mark beside the first one and looked up at them in the dim light, “…that is, from Baku to Batum, than to bring it all the way from here.”

He walked to them and positioned Henry at a point just inside the outer edge of the circle. “This is Pennsylvania.” He grabbed Sidney by an arm and pulled him to halfway between Henry and the x-marks. “This is Europe.” He grabbed Abrams, pulled him along, went back to the center and drew two lines between the x-marks.

They go on talking out plans to build petroleum empires. This Trabish at his best, portraying good and bad men, some good men who will do bad and some bad men who will do good, all laying plans for wealth and power in the muddy, oily alley of a tiny ancient town in the middle of everywhere.

There is a major change in the storytelling pace as Trabish takes his story into Persia and Mesopotamia for the first time. He offers descriptions of places and prayers. It is as if he is telling the reader to take a good look because something is going to happen here. As his flawed, driven protagonist becomes an expression of American oil’s worst imperialist intentions, he moves ineluctably toward a tragic end. Because Part I was about triumphant American heroes, the tragedy here is entirely unexpected, despite Trabish’s repeated allusions to other stories that do not end well, from Casey At The Bat to Hamlet.

In the book’s third and final section, World War I looms. Baseball takes a back seat to early auto racing and the modernity, born of oil energy, is about to explode. This section opens with an exciting account of the French Grand Prix of 1914, one of the most exciting races of all time:

The sound of the engines neared. First, there was dust, then the Peugeot, then Boillot, bent half dead and burning like an irrefutable force at the wheel of the rattling, grunting, roaring car. The grandstands erupted. It was as if the spirit of the French driver and the French people were willing the car forward.

And, then, Lautenschlager’s white Mercedes came roaring into the stretch right behind the Peugeot. Both cars hurtled down the roadway between the grandstands. To Sam, the noise was enormous, almost intolerable, the French masses, thousands, tens of thousands, screaming for Boillot, the few in the Mercedes pit screaming for Lautenschlager.

While Part 1 was a tale of true love and Part 2 was a tale of tragic love, here modern love struggles with lust just as it seems overwhelmed by cynicism and violence:

They made a Christmas Eve feast surpassing Thanksgiving. Afterwards, the dark sensuous Ida Rubenstein again gave Sam the gift of her wantonness. Together the two of them spent the night shaming Santa and, on Christmas morning, she gave him the gift of promise by inviting him to join her for New Year’s Eve. Together, they rang out 1914 and rang in hopes for a happier 1915. They began with an entertainment extravaganza of hilarity and decadence at the Moulin Rouge and ended with an erotic escapade that included a dancer friend of Ida’s and taught Sam adventurous new possibilities of polyamorous delight.

In the last unfoldings of Trabish’s epic tale, there is a literal and unforgettable collision between a cavalry troop and an army troop in a truck. It is an unforgettable image of the greater tragedy that defies elaboration. But Trabish has something more than tragedy to offer in this book and so his story moves beyond the horrible destruction of the Romanian oilfields, the worst manmade ecological disaster in history before Saddam Hussein burned the Kuwaiti oilfields in 1991. His lonely, confused young protagonist suffers worse and worse horrors, until—unexpectedly—he finds a reason to go on, something a review cannot reveal.

Finally, as if the question of oil and its meaning to the protagonist and to us as readers and citizens of western society must be settled, the oil industry comes back into the story in a way that is beyond good and bad, beyond melodrama and tragedy, just simply is. Trabish resolves the fate of his characters but leaves it to his readers to decide if there is a reason for faith, if there is something the oil industry offers western civilization and democratic liberalism.

Along the way, Trabish offers his readers a much greater awareness of oil industry history and how we became addicted to oil. And awareness, Paul Roberts said in THE END OF OIL, “…may be the first tentative step toward building a more sustainable energy economy. Or it may simply mean that when our energy system does begin to fail, and we begin to lose everything that energy once supplied, we won’t be so surprised.”

Oil In Their Blood by Herman K. Trabish, 498 pages, Lulu Press. Available as a print on demand trade paperback for $20.78 plus shipping or as a downloadable E-book for $6.25 at and at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders and other on-line booksellers. Not available in retail bookstores.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Scandal: A Short History of the Teapot Dome Affair

August-September, 2005


In the Roaring Twenties, the Teapot Dome scandal was infamous. Albert B. Fall, Republican President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, allowed drilling of oil reserves in the Elk Hills of south-central California and on the central Wyoming high plains near a curiously teapot-shaped rock formation. These lands were legislatively protected during the preceding Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson administrations. Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt’s Forest Service chief and the father of modern environmentalism, prodded Democrat and progressive Senators into an investigation. Thorough Senate and legal inquiry exposed Secretary Fall, a colorful Westerner, and those involved in the drilling deals, millionaire oil industry pioneers Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny. Unmatched until the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky affairs, the Teapot Dome hearings and trials, with notorious personalities, nefarious events and racy revelations, made headline fodder for a decade. Procedurally, the Teapot Dome investigations stand as a landmark in the use of congressional and special prosecutorial power.


In the Roaring Twenties, when Al Capone and Babe Ruth reigned, when World Series fixing and Darwinian evolution had their days in court, the Teapot Dome scandal held a unique and infamous place. Grave questions about government integrity arose, questions with which we continue to struggle. In our ongoing debate between the forces of business and environmental conservation over the use of natural resources, still binding parameters were established.

It began when drilling was allowed by President Warren Harding’s administration of oil reserves in the Elk Hills of south-central California and on the central Wyoming high plains near a curiously teapot-shaped rock formation. These lands were legislatively protected during the preceding Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson administrations. A Senate inquiry followed. The debate that emerged questioned both geologic evaluation of the oil reserves, which was the administration’s excuse for its actions, and the motives of those involved in the business transactions allowing the drilling. Thorough Senate and legal inquiry spanning nearly a decade exposed Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, a colorful Westerner and one of New Mexico’s first senators. Similar investigations exposed millionaire oil industry pioneers Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny and led to costly dream-team style legal defenses.

Unmatched until the Watergate and Clinton-Lewinsky affairs, the Teapot Dome investigations and trials were fodder for headlines from the early 1920s to the early 1930s. The scandal “…picked up where the Standard Oil Trust had left off in ingraining in the public mind a nefarious image of the power and corruption of ‘oil money.’ ” (Yergin 1991/92, p. 218) Personalities such as Harding’s successor, “Silent” Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Theodore, Jr., and Archie, and Fall’s New Mexico cowboy crony, Oliver Lee, who once rode with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, lent celebrity and notoriety. Events such as the suicide of Jesse Smith, housemate and associate of Attorney General Harry Daugherty, and the mysterious Hollywood Hills murder-suicide involving Edward Doheny, Jr., the oil baron’s son, lent mystery and threat.

Procedurally, the Senate committee investigations of President Harding’s administration stand as a landmark in the use of congressional powers. President Coolidge’s appointment of special prosecutors was simultaneously a political masterstroke and a legal precedent and remains a guidepost whenever there are allegations of governmental corruption. Very definite conclusions about the use of oil and other mineral resources emerged which continue to inform national policy. But questions remain.


a. Albert B. Fall (1861-1944)

New Mexico Senator Albert Bacon Fall (Fig. 1) liked to attend Washington, D.C., poker parties with his Senate compadres and tell yarns about the southwestern frontier. Fall had migrated west from his native Kentucky to the New Mexico territory in the early 1880s to benefit his sickly wife’s health. Always looking for opportunities, Fall was a bookkeeper, then a cowboy, then a miner and, eventually, found his way back to the law and into New Mexico politics. He acquired land near Las Cruces in Dona Ana County and ranched. He developed a reputation as hot-tempered and fearless.

Politics in Fall’s territorial New Mexico was a brutal struggle for land and power fought in dusty saloons and dirt street shootouts. He began as a Democrat and eventually became a Republican. Both sides operated the same way. “On the night before an election party workers customarily primed unsuspecting residents with liquor, held them in a well-guarded corral…and then herded them to the polls the next morning…one side might flush the other party’s captives from the corral and scatter them into the mesquite thickets surrounding the town.” (Stratton 1998, p. 31) Fall once testified on behalf of the man who shot John Wesley Hardin, telling the jury that anyone who killed a man like Hardin “…should be acquitted automatically.” (Stratton 1998, p. 63-64) The man went free. Because of his testimony, Hardin’s nephew twice tried to shoot Fall, before being killed under suspicious circumstances.

Fall took on the legal representation of Texas cowboy and gunman Oliver Lee against the Tularosa Land and Cattle Company. His political rivals accused Fall of being “attorney for a gang of Texas rustlers” (Stratton 1998, p. 44) but Lee, rumored to have killed eight men and ridden with Billy the Kid during the Lincoln County wars, became a fast friend. In the 1892 election, Fall won for territorial Senate despite the Las Cruces polls being “guarded” by forty armed marshals, headed by rival William H.H. Llewellyn. “As Fall confronted Llewellyn outside the polling place, he saw seventeen men with Springfield rifles backing up his adversary and the muzzles of double-barreled shotguns protruding from the building’s windows…One version of this incident has Fall shouting from the street, ‘Llewellyn, get the hell out of here with that dam’d militia inside of two minutes, or I will have you all killed.’ Then he supposedly pointed to the flat rooftop of a nearby adobe store where Oliver Lee and several armed cowboys were stationed.” (Stratton 1998, p. 45)

In 1896, Colonel Albert J. Fountain, Fall’s power-wielding Republican rival, traveled by carriage with his eight-year-old son to the Lincoln County courthouse where Billy the Kid had made a legendary escape in the ‘80s. Fountain’s trip was to circumvent Fall’s protection of Oliver Lee in Dona Ana County and have Lee indicted for rustling. On the return trip, Fountain and his son disappeared and were never seen again. Pat Garrett, sheriff of Dona Ana County, eventually charged Oliver Lee with Fountain’s disappearance. Unwilling to chance the fate of Billy the Kid, who Garrett supposedly shot in custody, Lee became a fugitive. Fall’s complicity in Fountain’s disappearance was rumored but never charged.

After the Spanish-American war, during which Fall formed a New Mexico company like Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and became a Captain but never saw action, he returned to New Mexico. Oliver Lee had surrendered for the Fountain crime in a newly formed county where Fall could assure a fair trial. Fall’s defense of Lee was impassioned. He closed by telling the jury, “…You would not hang a yellow dog on the evidence that has been presented here…” The jury deliberated for eight minutes and found Lee not guilty. In 1908, Fall won family friend Wayne Brazel a verdict of self-defense in a one-day trial for the shooting of Pat Garrett.

b. Warren G. Harding (1865-1923)

One colleague who loved Fall’s yarns was Senator Warren G. Harding (Fig. 2) of Ohio. “They spent many pleasant evenings together in this potluck, deuces-wild, whiskey-and-soda fellowship where they got to know each other on “Albert” and “Warren” terms…” (Stratton 1998, p. 87)

Warren Gamaliel Harding, an Ohioan from the small town of Marion, was elected to the Senate in 1914 after lengthy service as newspaper editor/publisher and local politician. His early career was one of business-as-usual politics. Harry Daugherty, Harding’s presidential campaign manager in the 1920 race, cleverly positioned his man as the compromise candidate at the national convention and convinced party powers in a “smoke-filled room” at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel that Harding was available, pliable and looked presidential. (Noggle 1962, p. 5)

Venality was in the air at the 1920 Republican National convention. Oil interests approached General Leonard Wood, the Republican frontrunner, suggesting they could facilitate his nomination if he promised them the opportunity to choose three cabinet positions. “Wood rejected any such proposition.” (Bates 1978, p. 209) Rejected, the oilmen turned to Daugherty’s dark horse. “…[C]orruptionists were busily at work, cynically dispensing their money in the expectation of quick rewards. [Wealthy oilman Jake] Hamon…hoped to control the Interior Department in return for large contributions... [Wealthy oilman] Harry Sinclair and other oilmen harbored the same ambition. Hamon later told one of his friends that Sinclair had 'beat him to the goal,' that [Albert Fall, the soon-to-be Secretary of the Interior] had been 'bought like a steer.' Sinclair, according to one of his employees, said that [the] nomination had cost him $600,000." (Bates 1978, p. 210) When Daugherty cleverly brought in entrenched Republican power brokers and independent southern delegates, Harding won the nomination.

Americans were ready to turn away from the Democrats and Wilsonian idealism. “Harding was shunted into the White House as a passionate protest…For the first time in twenty years, we were tired of men with burning convictions, curative or palliative panaceas or reforms; ideas that might develop into causes…The land was more or less afflicted with moral shell-shock…” (White 1928, p. 410) In the election, the country gave Harding the biggest post-Civil War victory in U.S. history except for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election.

Current revisionists argue that Warren Harding deserves better from historians than he gets. There were many noteworthy accomplishments, though his detractors would ask how involved Harding was with them. He appointed men of distinction to some cabinet posts, though they were tainted by subsequent events. Daugherty became the Attorney General. It is hard to study the Harding administration and not come to the conclusion that the Attorney General was aware of, and a participant in, at least some of what it was his job to prevent, eradicate and adjudicate. In the Alien Property Custodianship improprieties, sensational allegations touched Daugherty through his roommate and unofficial assistant, Jesse Smith. In the Veterans Bureau scandal, illegalities were not attached to the Justice Department, only the failure to act against gross misappropriation of hundreds of millions in government funds.

The Volstead Act, passed in 1919 over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, turned the hipflask, the speakeasy and the flapper into national icons. Some statistics suggest an actual decline in overall drinking but somebody was buying illegal liquor. In the mid 1920s, bootlegging kingpin Al Capone purchased with cash a million-dollar vacation mansion in Miami Beach, Florida, put on the market by a member of the beer baron Busch-family, out of business and down on his financial luck. D.C. society was certainly not dry and booze flowed freely at White House parties. With Daugherty at the Justice Department, however, there was another, more infamous on-going party in town. Even President Harding was there. At the notorious Washington, D.C., residence shared by Attorney General Daugherty and procurer Jesse Smith, the business of the government was done over poker. Smith reportedly provided good cigars, female entertainment and the best booze, possibly because he was alleged to have attended meetings between Daugherty and William J. Burns, Head of the Bureau of Investigations (the predecessor of the FBI), when raids on bootleggers were planned. There were anecdotal reports, from not entirely reliable sources, of wild, Hollywood-style parties. Lurid, sensational stories were told. Most historians discount the many tales of sex, violence and intrigue, but some allegations of irresponsible dalliances by President Harding were eventually substantiated.

Incontrovertible was an affair Harding had from 1905 to 1920 with Carrie Phillips (Fig 3), the wife of a close Ohio friend. Harding admitted the affair to Republican Party leaders in preparation for the 1920 presidential race. His letters to Phillips came to light in the early 1960s, documenting the passionate relationship and revealing Harding’s poetic sensibility: “I love your poise of perfect thighs/When they hold me in paradise…” (Anthony 1998) Phillips, a German sympathizer, threatened to make their affair public if then Senator Harding voted for U.S. entry into the European war. When he defied her, she backed off until 1920 when, in exchange for her silence during the presidential race, Phillips obtained for herself and her husband a trip to the Far East and a large annual stipend. She is frequently mentioned as the only woman known to have successfully blackmailed a U.S. president.

Nan Britton (Fig. 4) was a girl Harding knew slightly from Marion. Arriving in D.C., she went to see her hometown hero. Harding helped her find work. According to her 1927 best selling kiss-and-tell book, The President’s Daughter, they ended up lovers, trysted in hideaway hotels, made a baby in a late night fit of passion in his Senate office, and had carefully secreted assignations in the infamous oval office cloakroom after Harding won the White House. The child, Elizabeth Ann, would be Harding’s only offspring. Harding’s descendants and some contemporary Harding biographers today doubt the validity of Britton’s claims. Against their research goes Harding’s own testimony: “It’s a good thing I am not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no.” (ANT) There are also allegations that Jesse Smith and Edward McLean, publisher of The Washington Post (Fig. 5) and a regular at the poker parties, working in conjunction with the Bureau of Investigation, squelched—by providing fees in exchange for written affidavits—the claims of several other women. (ANT) Such allegations come mainly from questionable sources but fit the Harding legend.

In the post-war period, Fall reached the apex of his Senate career. His Senatorial compatriots literally cheered his appointment as Secretary of the Interior. Harding made a surprise visit to the Senate chamber right after taking his oath of office and read out the names of his cabinet nominees. Fall had not yet resigned the Senate to assume his new duties and was present. “A spontaneous round of applause arose when the president read his name. After Harding left, Fall stood up and, in the midst of cheering, submitted his resignation…Senator Lodge [proposed] his immediate confirmation. Lodge’s motion passed unanimously…” (STRATTON 1998, P. 202)

Harding came to office with an impulse and a mandate to reorganize and streamline government. Fall saw opportunity in reorganization. On assuming control of Interior, he embraced Harding’s governmental reforms. One of the first things he did was to propose moving the Forest Service from the Department of Agriculture to his Interior Department.

c. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946)

Gifford Pinchot (Fig. 6) is called the founder of modern environmentalism. Born to wealth, he was a pioneer in the study of ecological interdependencies and in the selective harvesting of forests. Chief of the Division of Forestry in the Agriculture Department of President McKinley, Pinchot’s concept of “conservative use” appealed to McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, more than John Muir’s concept of “preservation.” When Roosevelt created the Forest Service, he appointed Pinchot to head it. T.R. came to think of Pinchot as the keeper of his conscience. (Miller 2001, p. 150) Together, these passionate outdoorsmen popularized the term “conservation” to describe their insight that planned management must replace exploitation for profit if resources were to be available for future needs. Under T.R. and Pinchot, millions of acres were added to National Forest lands and, despite opposition from ranchers, miners and loggers, controlled harvesting replaced indiscriminate logging.

In Pinchot’s time, progressive actions were taken to protect public lands and resources. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt set a landmark precedent by issuing an executive order withdrawing some sixty-eight million acres of National Forest lands, including much of Alaska, from unapproved, unremunerated private development. This produced a heightened awareness of public lands and resources and a national debate over how to balance development with conservation.

In those wide-open days, oilmen were desperate to get control of as much land as they could before the conservationists got it withdrawn. Observing the unrestrained development of U.S. oil lands, leaders began to worry that oil would not be available for the military, should there be a war or national emergency. Hostilities were growing in Europe. England and Germany were aggressively seeking and developing fields. “…[N]ew policy evolved…from the pressure of petroleum discoveries and from a growing realization of the tremendous importance of oil products.” (Bates 1978, p. 17) In 1909 and 1912 President Taft issued executive orders, meant as compromises, withdrawing specified California and Wyoming oil lands. The government would no longer sell or lease these lands. On already privately owned or leased parcels within the boundaries of these withdrawals, exploration for and development of mineral resources was prohibited. Conservationists were vindicated. Oilmen went to court to have the withdrawals overturned.

Between 1908 and 1912, serious differences developed between Theodore Roosevelt and Taft, his personally selected replacement in the presidency. One was a controversy involving Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot and conservationists accused Richard Ballinger, Taft’s Secretary of the Interior, of improperly approving coal mining on protected Alaskan lands. Taft fired Pinchot. Pinchot’s backers brought public opinion down against Ballinger for violating Roosevelt-Pinchot conservationist ideas. Ballinger was hounded from office. A Pinchot conservationist replaced him.

In 1910, Gifford Pinchot became president of the newly formed National Conservation Association. He brought together a large group of dedicated conservationists to continue working on the Roosevelt-Pinchot progressive agenda. One of his strongest allies was Wisconsin progressive Republican Senator Robert M. La Follette. His Association Secretary was Harry Slattery, a Washington attorney as passionate about environmental and progressive issues as Pinchot. These were the men of what a journalist called the “Gifford Pinchot School of Crusaders.” (Miller 2001, p. 276)

d. The Wilson Administration (1912-1920)

Differences between Roosevelt and Taft produced the momentous election of 1912 and brought Democrat Woodrow Wilson into the White House when T.R. formed the Bull Moose third party and drew off progressive Republican support for Taft. Wilson named Californian Franklin K. Lane as Secretary of the Interior. Lane was a progressive Democrat, but also a westerner sympathetic to oil producers’ pursuit of leases for exploration on publicly held lands. Josephus Daniels, Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy, opposed Lane.

Oilmen already owned, were negotiating for, exploring on, or drilling on parts of the withdrawn lands not in the public domain. And they were pursuing activities in some of the lands withdrawn in the belief their legal claim to them would be upheld by the courts. In 1915, in the landmark Midland Oil Company case, the Supreme Court validated all government actions to control indiscriminate exploration. Judicial support had now been added to policy originated in the executive branch during the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Wilson immediately issued another executive order, adding the Wyoming salt dome tract with the curious teapot-shaped rock formation to the withdrawn lands. Oilmen and western politicians were outraged. The struggle intensified.

In Wilson’s cabinet, Daniels and Lane fought. Lane pushed hard in anticipation of a pending Supreme Court judgment in the Honolulu Consolidated Oil Company case, which he expected to validate oil industry contentions. But Daniels won the favor of the conservationists and the president.

During the Great War, the struggle between oilmen and conservationists went on uninterrupted. Progressive Democratic Senator Thomas J. Walsh of Montana emerged during this period as an important figure because he straddled the divide between Eastern conservationists and Western oilmen. Walsh and the Wilson administration found an occasional ally in Democratic oilman Edward L. Doheny.

One of the key arguments in favor of development of the Naval Reserves was drainage. Terrains varied. “Strata were not uniform as to dip, thickness, gas pressure, porosity, gravity of oil, and surrounding water.” (Ferrell 1996, p. 107) With “Right of Capture” as the law of the land, any working well might draw off oil in lands set aside as reserves. Oil for the war effort and the home front was becoming more vital than ever. Doheny, as much in service to his own ends as to the needs of the country, vehemently made the case that the oil “…could not be saved by the Navy and ought to be developed for wartime production…this was the best source for new supply.” (Bates 1978, p. 108-09) If there was surplus, Doheny argued, it could be stored in tanks against future need.

But the Navy protected its reserves. “Josephus Daniels…would not surrender his reserves. He would not consent to any leasing bill…Before 1917 was over, he seized the offensive… For better or worse, Daniels had elected to fight this matter through to the end.” (Bates 1978, p.128)

As the Great War wound down, House and Senate Public Lands Committees undertook with renewed commitment mineral lands legislation that would resolve all the questions. The war-weary, idealism-weary country began, though, to turn away from Wilson and progressives. Legislative policies began turning in the favor of the oil industry and expansion. By the time Theodore Roosevelt died in early 1919, the previous November’s Congressional elections had signaled a shift in the political winds, repudiating Wilson by giving control of both houses to the Republicans. Only filibustering and clever political wheeling and dealing by Senator La Follette prevented a leasing bill Democrats and progressives abhorred from being passed by the lame duck Congress in early spring, 1919.

Throughout the postwar period, legislators hoping to end the struggle watched for a legal decision in the Southern Pacific cases. The railroad controlled the single biggest amount of non-public property in the withdrawn lands and its land was checker-boarded throughout the withdrawn regions in such a way as to complicate the drainage question beyond compromise. In 1919, a Supreme Court decision validating Southern Pacific mineral rights was handed down. In the same period, legal matters involving Midwest Oil Company and Honolulu Consolidated Oil Company were decided in favor of the oilmen. “All in all, the outcome was a major setback for the policy of public control...a precedent for later decisions sympathetic toward private claimants.” (Bates 1978, p. 179-80)

With the handover of control in Congress to Republicans in May 1919, all parties were ready to legislate. A coalition of conservationists, among them Gifford Pinchot, Harry Slattery and Robert La Follette, reached a compromise law with Republican westerners, such as New Mexico Senator Albert Fall, and Democratic westerners, such as Montana’s Thomas Walsh. During the debate, the strange logic of compromise was evident when Senator Walsh quoted Doheny that since legal developments were going to allow Southern Pacific to drain the reserves anyway, they might as well go ahead and approve it legislatively. Some minor controls were left to the Navy but conservationist Phillip Wells damned the legislation with faint praise when he called it “about the least harmful compromise.” (Bates 1978, p. 197) Although conservationists got leasing legislation for the withdrawn lands, the long contentious political process left many lingering doubts and questions. “Had they placed too much discretionary power in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior and the President?” (Bates 1978, p. 199)


a. Fall’s First Moves

Long hostile toward Pinchot’s Forestry, Secretary Fall challenged Pinchot and all that he represented “…There can be little doubt that Fall was reacting strongly against ‘Pinchotism’ and ‘Wilsonianism’ from the moment he assumed his office.” (Bates 1978, p. 234) In the guise of bureaucratic reorganization, Fall had Harding sign an executive order to transfer the Forest Service to the Interior Department. Quickly, Pinchot, through Harry Slattery, heard of Fall’s plans for the Forest Service. As in the Ballinger matter during the Taft administration, they set in motion a public relations campaign to discredit Fall’s reorganization plan. Once again, the Pinchot conservationists swayed opinion in the executive branch. Hearing the full force of the conservationist point of view, Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace took the matter to President Harding in the cabinet and warned the president off. Fall then proposed that Congress legislate the transfer.

But the fight over the transfer of the Forest Service turned out to be a distraction from another transfer Fall was working at the time. Fall may have actually had little real commitment to the Forest Service transfer, telling one associate, “The reorganization plan…seems to have gotten nowhere…Whether it will ever be carried out or not I don’t know, and insofar as I am personally concerned don’t care.” (Noggle 1962, p. 28) Fall was quietly taking up Secretary Lane’s long unsuccessful fight under Woodrow Wilson to move control of the Naval oil reserves to Interior. Fall had two big advantages over Lane. First, while Lane contended with the politically astute and experienced Wilson, Fall contended with his compliant, amicable, trusting old pal, Warren.

Second, the Secretary of the Navy under Wilson, Josephus Daniels, had been dedicated to preserving the oil in the reserves while Edwin Denby, Harding’s man, seemed happy to hand off the whole matter of the naval reserves. Denby, a decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, indicated a policy change for the Navy Department in the spring of 1921. Despite Navy officers’ resistance, Denby saw very real drainage losses. Also, Denby saw leases as a creeping reality since the 1920 legislation and probably liked the pending offers by potential drillers to build oil storage facilities at Pearl Harbor and pipelines to the east coast in exchange for exploration rights.

While the Pinchot forces were waging their publicity campaign against the Forest Service transfer, Fall had quietly obtained, on May 31, 1921, an executive order from the President transferring control of the Naval reserves. Harding heard no objections like those registered by Secretary Wallace over the Forest Service from Secretary Denby.
Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (Fig. 7), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor on D Day in World War II, was Denby’s Assistant Secretary. Washington Post publisher Edward McLean told him about the proposed executive order at a poker party. Roosevelt tried unsuccessfully to convince Denby it was the wrong move, and then went to Fall. Obtaining from Fall a promise that Interior would consult with Navy before making any deals, Roosevelt was satisfied enough to take it himself to Harding. The President “…endorsed the transfer without any other legal or documentary support than the advice of his trusted friend, Secretary Fall…” (Stratton 1998, P. 238)

b. Edward L. Doheny(1865-1935)

Like Albert Fall, Doheny had mined silver and gold throughout the American southwest and northern Mexico with varying degrees of success. In Los Angeles in the early 1890s, he noticed the black muck called brea taken from local tar pits for fuel. He and mining partner Charles Canfield dug down and struck a gusher at what is now Second Street and Glendale Avenue in the city’s downtown. They went on to amass fabulous wealth exploring, drilling and developing Southern California fields from Fullerton to Bakersfield. By the turn of the century, Doheny and Canfield had formed Pan American and were pursuing sources in Mexico’s Golden Lane. The Golden Lane would, by 1921, make Mexico the second biggest oil producing country in the world. But political upheaval made it a difficult place to do business in the post-Great War period and Doheny began looking for other opportunities.

There is a story of a hunting expedition where Albert Fall raised a rifle to shoot a mountain lion and his gun failed. The mountain lion charged. Fall coolly knocked the lion away with the barrel of the rifle, drew a handgun and shot it to death. About Doheny, there is a story that as a miner, he defended himself from a mountain lion with a bowie knife and drove the lion away. In this way, as in others, these men were well matched by time and place and history. Fall’s first use of his control of the Naval reserves was a lease granted July 12, 1921, to Edward L. Doheny’s Pan American Petroleum Company. Open and competitive bidding had been held under Lane. Believing drainage to be a pressing problem, Fall was anxious to begin offset drilling to relieve the losses. That he chose to award the contracts to Pan American was, to Fall, only natural. Doheny was his kind of man.

Too, he and Doheny were in agreement about the Japanese. In the early 1920s some leaders “were nervously anticipating an imminent attack by the Japanese in the Pacific.” (Stratton 1998, p. 240) Following the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921-22, which produced an international agreement limiting military buildups in the Pacific, the strategic value of Pearl Harbor increased. To some, Japan’s threat was merely a “war scare.” (Noggle 1962, p. 65) In any case, Fall and Naval planners wanted to see Pearl Harbor ready for use. Because of his control of the reserves, Fall “had to figure out how to get the oil and the storage tanks.” (Stratton 1998, p. 240)

In exchange for the opportunity to develop oil resources in the Elk Hills and Buena Vista reserves in California, Doheny undertook not only to do the offset drilling preventing drainage and to pay the government a royalty percentage on all the oil, but to build oil storage tanks and associated facilities at Pearl Harbor and to fully stock them. In a later deal for the Wyoming development rights on the Teapot Dome and Salt Creek lands, Harry Sinclair agreed, in addition to paying royalties and alleviating drainage, to build a pipeline to the Midwest, allowing for delivery of Naval oil supplies to the Great Lakes and the East Coast.

c. Harry F. Sinclair

Harry F. Sinclair (Fig. 8) was a Kansan trained as a pharmacist who took more interest in deal making than in pills. He fell into selling lumber, sold to customers building oil derricks, began buying and selling wells and, by 1922, was “a major independent producer with assets estimated at $380 million…” (Stratton 1998, p. 267) Fall had encountered Sinclair casually on previous occasions, such as the Kentucky Derby and business-government colloquies. In late December 1921, Sinclair visited Fall’s Three Rivers Ranch in his private railroad car. “Ostensibly, Sinclair had come to request a modification of his oil lease on the Osage Indian Reservation…but he also asked about the prospective leasing of Teapot Dome...” (Stratton 1998, p. 268) Coincidentally, on the same trip, Sinclair “apparently became enthralled with the primeval setting of Three Rivers.” (Stratton 1998, p. 268) Sinclair bought a one-third interest in the ranch. Because Fall, in anticipation of retiring, had been expanding the holdings of the ranch corporation, Sinclair’s $233,000 purchase price was, curiously, exactly the amount needed to pay off the ranch’s indebtedness. Part of the indebtedness which Sinclair’s purchase was calculated to alleviate was a November 30, 1921, $100,000 loan received in cash from Edward L. Doheny, delivered in an infamous “little black bag” by Doheny’s son, Edward, Jr., accompanied by Hugh Plunkett, Junior’s longtime bodyguard/secretary.

d. Investigations

In early April 1922, Harry Slattery met with Senator La Follette about obtaining a copy of Harding’s executive order transferring the Naval reserves. It had never been published. “The senator…upon reading it decided that it was illegal and that Harding had not authority to issue it.” (Noggle 1962, p. 34) As La Follette began girding for a fight, Senator John B. Kendrick, a Wyoming Democrat, began noticing letters from constituents, independent oilmen among them, asking about the drilling activity begun in their state. On April 7, 1922, the Department of the Interior announced its deal with Edward L. Doheny for development of a portion of the reserves, designated Naval Reserve Number One, in the Elk Hills region of California. There was no mention that the deal for development of Naval Reserve Number Three in the Teapot Dome region of Wyoming had been closed the same day without open or competitive bidding.

The following week, however, a Wall Street Journal front-page article called the Teapot Dome deal “…one of the greatest petroleum undertakings of the age…” and said it was “…a notable departure on the part of the government in seeking partnership with private capital for the working of government-owned natural resources.” (Noggle 1962, p. 36) More attention followed. On April 15, Senator Kendrick called for more information from the Naval and Interior Departments. More information was released, including the details of Doheny’s commitments to develop Pearl Harbor and the royalty percentages Sinclair had promised, ranging from 50% to 12.5%.

None of this satisfied the growing outrage of conservationists. On April 21, La Follette, in consultation with Slattery, introduced a resolution calling for an investigation. After further study and response to what was announced, he amended the resolution on April 28 in a fiery speech calling the Interior Department “…the sluiceway for a large part of the corruption to which this government of ours is subjected…” and asked if Fall and Denby might be “…the real organizers of the Mammoth Oil Company who were to be favored by the government with a special privilege in value beyond the dreams of Croesus?” (Noggle 1962, p. 41) He concluded with evidence from geologists. “…Teapot Dome lay in a geologic saddle and could not be drained by adjacent wells; the excuse of drainage, he argued, was an old and specious plea of the exploiters.” (Noggle 1962, p. 42) A resolution to refer the matter to the Senate Committee on Public Lands for investigation and hearings passed unanimously the next day.

In May 1922, Sinclair delivered the money promised for purchase of one-third of the Three Rivers Ranch Corporation, cash and Liberty bonds, to Fall’s son-in-law and partner Mahlon T. Everhart. It was apparently timed so the fund transfer would take place only after the Teapot Dome deal was closed. Senator Walsh, who eventually took the Democratic leadership of the Senate investigating committee and scrutinized every detail of Fall’s financial activity thoroughly, “…regarded Sinclair’s payment…as nothing but a bribe… ‘a shallow fable.’ But since Everhart was known for his personal integrity and strict business practices, his participation in every phase of the Sinclair ranching transaction tended to enhance the appearance of legitimacy.” (Stratton 1998, p. 269)

In spring/summer 1922, impressive changes began taking place at Three Rivers Ranch. Though Sinclair did not soon return, he did send “six Holstein heifers and a bull, six Duroc-Jersey hogs, and an old prize-winning race horse…” (Stratton 1998, p. 270) Back taxes and debts were settled. More importantly, Fall and Everhart were making many renovations and improvements, things even neighbors noticed. Land was acquired. Cattle herds were infused with blooded stock. “The most spectacular addition was a hydroelectric project costing $53,000…By the time Fall resigned as interior secretary his ranching empire seemed to be running smoothly.” (Stratton 1998, p. 270)

In D.C., Utah Senator Reed Smoot, as Republican chairman of the investigating committee, began a delaying process that would postpone the hearings until October 1923. Secretary Fall contributed to the delay, responding to Democrats’ requests for documentation on the leases by delivering a ridiculous mass of paper, “…between five and six thousand pages of matter…” (Noggle 1962, p. 48) By this time, Senator Walsh had accepted La Follette’s challenge to take the lead for the Democrats. On receiving Fall’s mass of information, he invited Harry Slattery to join him in studying it. In March 1922, Slattery had said there were “…stories about Mr. Fall being quite friendly with large interests of an oleaginous nature.” (Noggle 1962, p. 30) Taking advantage of the long delay, Walsh and Slattery began noticing damning details in the papers proving their suspicions.

During that summer, other oil companies, including Standard Oil and Pioneer Oil, established claims in the Teapot Dome region. In big money deals, Harry Sinclair bought them off. In July, James G. Darden, a Harding insider, made a “meritless” (Stratton 1998, p. 249) claim at Teapot Dome, contracted with Mutual Oil, began drilling operations and would not be bought off. To avoid the lengthy legal delay of filing against Darden, Fall handled it “range war” style. He got Acting Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., to send a marine detachment and evict Mutual. Darden’s appeals to Harding and Daugherty did no good. Fall was in control.

Sinclair must have been pressuring his people to produce in that period. W.L. Connelly, Sinclair’s on-site manager for Mammoth Oil, reported that despite bringing in No. 1, “the biggest well ever completed in Wyoming” and another, “No. 25, drilled on the northeast part of the Dome…[that] came in for over two hundred barrels an hour” (Connelly 1954, p. 88), he had a breakdown getting the job done. In November 1922, Sinclair made his only other visit to “his” Three Rivers Ranch. He discussed the Salt Creek royalty contract in Wyoming with Fall, and then telegraphed his bid on it to the Interior Department. It was eventually the one accepted. “This trip would later be regarded with suspicion because Sinclair’s proposal arrived after the advertised deadline and immediately after he conferred with Secretary Fall.” (Stratton 1998, p. 270) On December 15, 1922, the Wall Street Journal announced further details of the second Doheny deal, but did not report that drilling leases had been extended to Naval Reserve Number Two at Buena Vista, California, near the Elk Hills reserve. It also made no mention of the Salt Creek deal with Sinclair in Wyoming.

e. The Changing of the Guard

On January 2, 1923, the White House announced the resignation of Secretary Fall, effective March 4, 1923. Throughout the rest of the first half of that year, attention went to other matters, such as suicides and the corruption they suggested in Harding’s administration. “The oil cases were the aristocrats…but there were other scandals juicier and more reeking.” (Allen 1957, p. 149) Charles R. Forbes, Director of the Veterans’ Bureau, resigned in February 1923, and immediately fled to Europe. The next month, Charles F. Cramer, his attorney, shot himself. Rumors about Attorney General Harry Daugherty worsened when Jesse Smith was found dead, his head in a bucket and a pistol on the floor nearby, an apparent suicide. Questions were being raised about Smith’s association with the Alien Property matters and Justice Department activities.

With scandals gathering and his health failing, President Harding and a large entourage left D.C. on June 20, 1923, bound for the West Coast. It was a goodwill and glad-handing tour in anticipation of an announcement for a second term candidacy. With typical Harding administration ineptness, before the president’s train had left the station leaks described it as a re-election campaign tour. It was this general characteristic of those around him which led Harding, while on this trip, to make one of his most famous remarks: “In this job I am not worried about my enemies. I can take care of them. It is my friends who are giving me trouble.” (White 1928, p. 432 & Ferrell 1996, p. 111) While the president traveled, geologists poked around at Teapot Dome, evaluating the claims about drainage. Harry Sinclair took an entourage to Europe and Russia to explore new oil deals. His entourage included the newly retired Albert B. Fall.

On August 3, 1923, Harding died. “Apoplexy” was the given cause of death, the common heart attack, or myocardial infarction, then being little known. (Ferrell 1996, p. 1-29) The country, which loved Harding, grieved. Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s Vice-president, succeeded him.

By autumn, the country had returned again to “normalcy.” On October 22, 1923, the Senate Public Land Committee hearings convened. The first testimony was by committee geologists. “They testified that Teapot Dome, originally estimated to contain 135,000,000 barrels of oil, contained less than 70 per cent of this amount and that the existing reserve was draining steadily into adjacent areas.” (Noggle 1962, p. 64) For Fall, it was a brilliant start. Chairman Smoot told his committee these reports justified Fall’s actions. “The New York Times concluded, ‘The hearings will continue tomorrow, but all interest in its outcome has evaporated with the reports of the experts.’” (Noggle 1962, p. 65) Senator Walsh suggested that perhaps the initial estimates of the reserve capacity were in error, and pushed on.

Fall testified, as did Denby, Sinclair and others. Nothing changed. Interest began waning. But the Democrats were determined to use this scandal against Coolidge in the 1924 presidential election. Harry Slattery and Cordell Hull, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, joined forces with Walsh in creating anti-Republican rancor. They said the leases to Sinclair were unlike anything ever perpetrated by Democrats. Then Walsh found Albuquerque newspaperman Carl Magee, who testified to the many sudden physical improvements at Three Rivers Ranch. Walsh brought the ranch manager, who testified about stock acquisitions. The Republicans brought in Doheny and brought back Sinclair. Both denied giving Fall money in return for favors.

f. Fall’s Fall

Walsh kept probing for an explanation of the financing behind the improvements at Fall’s ranch. Finally, Fall felt obligated to provide it. Being ill and unable to attend the hearings, he wrote that he had obtained a $100,000 loan from his friend, Washington Post publisher Edward B. McLean. “Sinclair had come to Three Rivers just after Fall had acquired his additional property; this, said Fall, ‘invited some evil-minded persons to the conclusion that I must have obtained money from Mr. Sinclair.’ He thought it needless to say that he had never approached Doheny or Sinclair for the money to purchase his property. In fact, he found the ‘entire subject…more or less humiliating even to refer to.’” (Noggle 1962, p. 70) At this point, of course, all had lied under oath and Fall had done so in writing.

In pursuit of confirmation of the McLean loan, Walsh went to Palm Beach, Florida, in January 1924, to see the newspaper publisher, who, like Fall, claimed to be too ill to travel. On January 12, Walsh was “dumbfounded” (Noggle 1962, p. 72) when McLean denied having made the loan. There may have been a miscommunication between Fall and McLean. Or McLean may simply have balked at telling the lie. Fall quickly began to qualify his statements and refuse further comment. But the damage was done.

Even Republican sentiment now turned against Fall. Former President William Howard Taft, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, told the New York Times, “they have discovered some real pay dirt apparently…Fall has lied…The Democrats are going to try to embarrass Coolidge with this…” (Noggle 1962, p. 73) Doheny returned to the committee later in January to admit he had provided the $100,000 to Fall. Sinclair admitted making money available to Fall for business expenses on the Europe trip. But Fall had lied and, to his critics, it “…bolstered the rampant suspicion that [he] somehow had been involved in scandal.” (Noggle 1962, p. 75)

Next came the rather notorious involvement of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and his younger brother Archie. On Theodore, Jr.’s advice, Archie testified, on January 21, that while a Sinclair employee he overheard G.D. Wahlberg, Sinclair’s private secretary, say something about a payment of $68,000. He also testified that he had been asked by Sinclair to buy for him a steamship ticket to Paris the day after Walsh questioned McLean. Then Wahlberg was questioned. Uneasy before Walsh’s rapid questioning, “…he explained that Archie had misunderstood him; Wahlberg claimed to have referred to ‘six or eight cows, and [Archie] probably understood that to mean $68,000 in some manner,’ hearing ‘thous’ instead of ‘cows.’”( Noggle 1962, p. 79) The comedy did not lift the cloud of suspicion around Fall.

Politicking attended the unfolding events. Coolidge was attacked for not doing enough. Harding’s cabinet, in particular Attorney General Daugherty, was attacked for doing too much that was corrupt. Editorializing on the topic of Teapot Dome and other scandals was fervent. Democrats seemed poised to inherit great political capital. The inheritor would be the presumptive 1924 presidential nominee, William Gibbs McAdoo (Fig. 9). Son-in-law of, and heir-apparent to, Woodrow Wilson, McAdoo was, in January 1924, everybody’s favorite to beat Coolidge and lead the Democrats back to the White House. Then, on February 1, 1924, Doheny testified to the committee (Fig. 10) that in addition to his relationship with Fall he had employed many former Wilson cabinet members. Among them were Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane, Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory and Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo. Doheny testified that he had paid McAdoo’s law firm “about $250,000” (Noggle 1962, p. 100) for representation in Mexico.

Though Doheny’s testimony was inaccurate and McAdoo was actually guilty of nothing, he became guilty by association and would not be able to rehabilitate himself for the presidential race. The mud wallowing was now bipartisan. The Boston Evening Transcript wrote, “’McAdoo’ll do’ is proposed as the Democratic slogan—but it looks now as it they were ready to make it ‘McAdieu.’” (Noggle 1962, p. 102) There was a struggle between factions of the party, those loyal to McAdoo and those who wanted a candidate untainted by the scandals.

g. Calvin Coolidge

At this moment, Coolidge (Fig. 7) made a very smart move. A taciturn New Englander, “Silent Cal” had been emphatically undemonstrative in trying to finish Harding’s term without becoming entangled in Harding’s mess. On the last Saturday night of January 1924, however, he learned that the following Monday Walsh would ask the president to begin legal proceedings against the Fall leases. Coolidge acted first. He announced, for the Sunday papers, he was appointing bipartisan special prosecutors. “It is not for the president to determine criminal guilt…but when facts are revealed to me that require action…such action will be taken. That is the province of the Executive…I propose to employ special counsel drawn of high rank from both political parties to bring such action for the enforcement of the law…” (Bennett 1999, Sec. II, Pt. A)

During February 1924, Coolidge sought politically acceptable nominees for the special prosecutorial jobs. This was not simple. Washington state Democrat Senator Clarence Dill cautioned, “The case demands the biggest men the country has in its legal profession…Nobody knows the exact value of the properties involved…probably a billion dollars. Mr. Doheny, Mr. Sinclair and Mr. Fall will have the best attorneys their millions can employ…” (Bennett 1999, Sec. II, Pt. B) The president’s first two nominees were both found to have some small association with the oil industry, disqualifying them. Finally, Coolidge won Senate approval, but not without contention from the very demanding Senator Dill, for Republican Philadelphia attorney Owen Roberts and former Ohio Democrat Senator Atlee Pomerene. Not trusting Daugherty’s Justice Department, Coolidge assigned his prosecutors Treasury Department Secret Service investigators and Transportation Department building offices.

Coolidge also decided to confront accusations regarding leftover Harding cabinet members discredited by the scandals. After some hesitation, he accepted the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Denby, leaving only Attorney General Daugherty to tarnish his cabinet. Scandalous new testimony to a Senate investigative committee by Jesse Smith’s ex-wife Roxy Stinson rocked the country. “Roxy, and others who followed her, put together a shadowy tale: mysterious deals and pardons, permits for liquor, speculation in oil stock, illegal transportation of fight films, and a host of other charges and suggestions. Running through the testimony, as a unifying and motivating force, was the name of Daugherty, who supposedly held scheming conferences in a little green house on K street…” (Noggle 1962, p. 126) Prominent Republicans, particularly Senators Lodge and Pepper, demanded the President ask for Daugherty’s resignation. Coolidge finally did. Harding’s Attorney General resigned March 28. Then Coolidge could claim to be clear of oil and scandal or, at least, more so than McAdoo and the Democrats.

In March and April of 1924, in a last ditch effort to hang the oil scandals on the Republicans, Walsh took his investigations farther back in time and began investigating the activities of Sinclair and Doheny at the Republican National Convention of 1920. Hearing rumors about the statements made by Jake Hamon, Walsh sought him out only to discover that Hamon “had been killed in 1921 by Mrs. Clara Smith Hamon, a woman living with him in bigamy.” (Noggle 1962, p. 142) Walsh also subpoenaed the notorious former Oklahoma train-robber, Al Jennings. “Jennings declared that Hamon told him ‘that Harding would be nominated…and it had cost him a million dollars.’…[But according to contemporary writer/humorist Mark Sullivan]…once Jennings’ testimony was in the record, ‘a considerable portion of the male population of Oklahoma had to be called, some to support the tale, others to denounce it as a fantastic yarn…’ ” (Noggle 1962, p. 142) Senator Walsh’s efforts were inconclusive and he was out of options. From this point on, the work done would be by the special counsel appointments of the President.

On March 23, 1924, Harry Sinclair appeared before the Senate committee to answer lingering questions. He seemed imbued with a new hostility toward the investigation. His hostility was aggravated by the committee’s expeditions away from the Teapot Dome specifics, into the 1920 Republican convention and campaign. On the subject of his contributions, he would not answer, using an unusual legal tactic. “He did not, he said, ‘decline to answer…upon the ground that my answers may tend to incriminate me because there is nothing [about] the lease of Teapot Dome which does or can incriminate me.’ Rather Sinclair claimed that the committee was ‘without jurisdiction to question me further regarding the…lease.’ Ten times Sinclair, when questioned, refused to answer…”( Noggle 1962, p. 145) The next day, the committee requested grand jury action. The grand jury indicted Sinclair for contempt of the Senate. Sinclair pleaded not guilty and posted bail. His lawyers began preparing his defense. It would be one of the first items on the agenda of the special prosecutors.

The Teapot Dome Senate hearings had started with hoopla, escalated into headlines, soared into sordid and unsubstantiated speculations and, finally, dwindled quietly. No audience was in attendance at the May 2 final session. Although Senator Walsh had been a “great impelling force behind the Teapot Dome investigation” and served with heroic nobility, he accomplished little beyond carrying the banner of scandal for his party and preparing the way for the legal process. His report “charged Fall with utter disregard for law and with an unwarranted assumption of authority. It denounced the transactions…” (Noggle 1962, p. 154) Reactions to the report varied according to party loyalty. Evidence on the leases was inconclusive. The allegations around Republican money in the 1920 campaign were startling but unproven. Though Fall had been caught in a lie, other Harding administration officials were exonerated or escaped judgment.

h. The 1924 Election

It may have been more than his own satiric candidacy that caused Will Rogers to call it the “Presidential Follies of 1924.” (Fig. 11) Despite opposition from progressive Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot, Coolidge was nominated at the Republican convention on the first ballot in an era when convention battles were the norm. “Teapot Dome had not handicapped Coolidge; it had served him. His austere and taciturn character had become a rock of salvation for Republicans swimming in the wake of the Harding legacy.” (Noggle 1962, p. 164-65) Though convention battles were the norm, the Democratic convention of 1924 was a landmark. Split between delegates committed to McAdoo at any cost and those opposed to him at any cost, it was held in Madison Square Garden, before it was air conditioned, in late June and early July. “The fourteen day spectacle of family bickering was a tragedy for the Democratic party.” (Noggle 1962, p. 163) After twenty-nine sessions and one hundred three ballots, the “acrid and exhausting struggle between William Gibbs McAdoo and Alfred E. Smith ended…when the weary convention finally selected…John W. Davis of West Virginia.” (Noggle 1962, p. 159) Will Rogers once said, “…what hurts our two big Political Parties worse than getting caught, is Party Leaders.” (Day 1962, p. 232) By the end of their convention, many Democrats probably agreed.

There was one other factor in the election. As a result of Doheny’s testimony implicating McAdoo, progressive Democrats defected to a third party, the Conference for Progressive Political Action, and its nominee, Senator La Follette. Capitalizing on his early role in the discovery of, and call for action on, the Teapot Dome affair, La Follette zestfully accepted the nomination in February and quickly took a radical and fervent stance against governmental corruption.

Will Rogers said his party platform “…would be short and simple: ‘WHATEVER THE OTHER FELLOW DON’T DO, WE WILL.’” (Day 1962, p. 232) Each 1924 contender seemed to take that approach to the Teapot Dome affair. Coolidge ignored it. (Noggle 1962, p. 167) Davis told every detail of it and indicted his opponents. (Noggle 1962, p. 166) La Follette crusaded. (Noggle 1962, p. 168) The American electorate demonstrated it did not hold Coolidge responsible for Teapot Dome and the other Harding administration headline scandals, giving him a big victory. In the New York gubernatorial election, however, there was some evidence of the scandal’s potency. Eleanor Roosevelt helped Al Smith upset the frontrunner, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., by touring the state in an auto towing a teapot mounted on a chassis and wheels, speaking out against her cousin. (Teichmann 1979, p. 127) Though the investigations had cleared the former president’s eldest son, as a Republican and a member of Navy Secretary Denby’s staff, the voters of New York found him accountable. Or perhaps it was the way Eleanor Roosevelt handled the matter, more like Will Rogers than Davis or La Follette.


a. Roberts, Pomerene and the Leases

In March 1924, Coolidge’s special prosecutors presented their case against Harry Sinclair for refusing to answer questions at the Senatorial hearings to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. The charge was Contempt of Congress. The judge found Sinclair guilty. Ruling on the appeal of this case in 1929, the Supreme Court affirmed Congressional power to conduct investigations and require witness testimony. Sinclair’s sentence for this conviction was three months in jail, which was served along with another sentence of six months, for another contempt charge arising later.

The first full scale legal action by the special counsels was a civil suit before the United States District Court for the Southern District of California in Los Angeles in October 1924. The objective of this first oil lease action was to cancel the contracts and leases of the Elk Hills and Buena Vista reserves granted by Secretary Fall to the Pan American Petroleum and Transport Company and the Pan American Petroleum Company. A similar civil suit was brought in March 1925 in the United States District Court for Wyoming, against Mammoth Oil, Sinclair Crude Oil Purchasing and Sinclair Pipe, to cancel the Teapot Dome and Salt Creek leases.

Will Rogers playfully offset the opposing legal forces by describing the supposed arrival of the train bringing the Doheny defense team to Los Angeles (Fig. 12). There were three private cars, Rogers reported, the first carrying “…just the little [lawyers]…to carry the Brief Cases…” At the second car of lawyers, “…we were now getting into the Big Money.” In the third car, “…why, then come the real headliners. Just a few big ones that were in real touch with Mr. Doheny personally…Real Lawyers! Men who, on a Case like this which involved perhaps 400 Million Dollars, why, they consider themselves slumming…” (Day 1962, p. 143) Commenting on preparations for the action in Wyoming, Rogers added, “The Teapot Dome Gang went to Cheyenne…Mr. Sinclair unloaded at least 4 cars there.” (Day 1962, p. 143)

Finally, Rogers described the special counsel “legal talent” arriving on a “wheezing” local train. “Who do you think Emerged? … Why Atlee Pomerene and a Mr. Roberts…They came crawling out of a Day Coach where they had been sleeping on the back of their Necks from Cheyenne. They didn’t even have a Caddy to carry their legal papers…Uncle Sam, no wonder you don’t get anywhere…Of course there is one Silvery lining for the Navy’s fuel…That is the other side has so many lawyers, they may get fighting amongst themselves…and we might win Accidentally…But they are well fortified for that…They have Expert Technicality Lawyers…Then there are Postponement Lawyers who could have the Falls of Niagara put back on account of the Water not being ready to come over and who on the last Judgment Day will be arguing that it should be postponed on account of Lack of Evidence.” (Day 1962, p. 143-44)

In fact, Roberts and Pomerene were up against nine lawyers in California and eight in Wyoming. But Rogers (and the popular expectations his humor represented) proved wrong. Although the Wyoming court found for Sinclair, the California court ruled against Doheny, voiding his leases. Eventually, the Supreme Court voided all leases and contracts granted by Secretary Fall pertaining to the Naval reserves. In both cases, the court’s basic rationale for voiding the leases was the unethical relationships Fall had with Sinclair and with Doheny.

b. Bribery?

Next, the special prosecutors took up those relationships in criminal court. On November 22, 1926, the jury trial of Edward L. Doheny, Edward L. Doheny, Jr., and Albert B. Fall for conspiracy to defraud the United States began in a D.C. court. Senators of the Public Lands committee testified at length. Though Fall did not testify, Doheny was on the stand for some two hours, admitting making loans to Fall. After nineteen hours of deliberation, to everyone’s surprise except the cynics, the jury found Fall and the Dohenys not guilty of conspiracy to defraud.

On October 17, 1927, Fall and Sinclair faced their conspiracy to defraud charge in the same court. Two weeks into the trial, Pomerene accused Harry Sinclair of employing agents of the William Burns Detective Agency (the very same William Burns who had been head of the Bureau of Investigation under Harry Daugherty in the Harding administration) for “ ‘close, intimate, objectionable and improper surveillance’ of the jury.” (Noggle 1962, p. 185) Pomerene called for a mistrial. The judge granted it and dismissed the jury. Sinclair was charged with Contempt of Court. Found guilty of the charge, this was the second contempt charge and the cause of the additional six months of his jail term. The United States Supreme Court affirmed both verdicts and sentences in the spring of 1929 and Sinclair went to jail on May 6, 1929.

Albert Fall was frequently ill through the mid and late 1920s and unable to meet court dates. For the Sinclair/Fall bribery case retrial, he gave extensive testimony by deposition from his home in the southwest, yet again declaring he did not take any bribes. The trial began April 10, 1928. The prosecutors made extraordinary efforts to get testimony. They obtained Congressional legislation reducing the statute of limitations for fraud against the United States from six to three years so Mahlon T. Everhart, Fall’s business partner/son-in-law, could testify. They dismissed charges remaining against Edward L. Doheny, Jr., so he could testify. Both were thus able to tell the jury of delivering money to Fall without incriminating themselves and were unable to avoid testifying with a plea of privilege. But the prosecutors’ efforts failed. The jury found the defendants not guilty of conspiracy to defraud. “Roberts and Pomerene ‘appeared dumbfounded’ at the decision and sat in silence…” (Noggle 1962, p. 201) The New York Times quoted Senator Gerald Nye that “this is emphatic evidence that you can’t convict a million dollars in the United States.” (Noggle 1962, p. 201)

The trial of Albert Fall for accepting a bribe from Edward Doheny began on October 7, 1928, in the District of Columbia. Fall, his health deteriorating, appeared quite frail. He was unable to rise for the judge. At one point, his lungs hemorrhaged, he spit up blood and required a four-day recess. He spent the rest of the trial in a wheelchair. One juror was seen weeping with pity during the Defense Attorney’s closing argument. But the merits of the case weighed against Fall, despite Edward McLean’s inability to testify against him due to yet another confinement in a Florida asylum. Whereas the conspiracy trials had depended on the prosecution proving harm done to the United States, in this trial they only needed to prove that Fall, as a government official, had received money. There was no need to take up national security needs or drainage. With testimony already on record, especially in the Sinclair trial, the jury could simply not help but find against Fall. On reporting their guilty decision, the jury’s foreman requested the judge be merciful. Fall was sentenced to a year in prison and given a $100,000 fine. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. President Hoover, under political pressure to distance himself from the scandal, denied a pardon. Fall went into the New Mexico State Prison in July 1931. With time off for good behavior, he was released in May 1932. He was in the prison hospital the whole time.

c. Murder?

In March 1930, Edward L. Doheny was tried for bribing Albert Fall, the same matter on which Fall was already convicted. The jury found Doheny innocent. Merits differed: Offering a bribe is not the same as accepting one. Evidence differed: Fall had questionable associations with both Sinclair and Doheny to explain while Doheny had only to testify to a loan to an old friend. And circumstances differed: Fall had lied about the $100,000 loan, claiming it came from McLean, whereas Doheny in the end admitted he had made the loan. Finally, Doheny had sympathy on his side.

In an incident so grisly and mysterious it became the factual basis for an incident in a novel by former oil industry executive Raymond Chandler, Edward L. Doheny, Jr., died a violent death, possibly related to Teapot Dome, forcing delay of his father’s trial. On February 17, 1929—at a time when the only criminal trial still pending was that of Edward L. Doheny, Sr., for bribery—shortly after midnight, the Beverly Hills police were called to the huge Doheny mansion. The scene was gruesome. Edward L. Doheny, Jr., was on a bedroom floor in underwear and bathrobe, a bullet hole through his head from ear to ear, blood splattered across his face and pooled around his head. Hugh Plunkett, who in 1921 had accompanied Doheny, Jr., in delivering the loan money from Doheny, Sr., to Fall, was sprawled face down in the hallway across from the bedroom, a similar bullet hole in his head.

The Doheny family physician explained that earlier that day he had met with Doheny, Jr. and Plunkett. Under multiple pressures, including that of the approaching trial, Plunkett seemed to be exhibiting a recurrence of his so-called nervous condition and they were trying to convince him to be admitted to an asylum. The meeting had been inconclusive and the doctor had left, only to be called back at midnight. The police ruled that the distraught Plunkett had, in a fit of madness, shot Doheny, Jr., and then shot himself. But their investigation left many unanswered questions, like the ones in the fictional Cassidy case in Chandler’s third novel, The High Window. Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe declared, “…[E]very crime reporter in town and every cop on every homicide detail knew it was Cassidy [i.e., Doheny, Jr.] that did the shooting, that it was Cassidy that was crazy drunk, that it was the secretary who tried to handle him and couldn’t and at last tried to get away from him, but wasn’t quick enough.” (Chandler 1942, p. 119) Doheny’s son might have been relied on not to incriminate his father. The same cannot readily be assumed of Plunkett. It would have been convenient if he, like McLean, were in an asylum at the time of the trial. The imagination leaps, as did Chandler’s, at murder/suicide scenarios. But scenarios involving corruption, violence and despair seem to be constantly bubbling up from beneath the Teapot Dome affair.

d. New Investigations: Following the Liberty Bonds

In 1928, a reporter did as a 1970s reporter was surreptitiously advised to do by Deep Throat half a century later. He followed the money (Fig. 13). For the Teapot Dome affair, Paul Y. Anderson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch traced the Liberty bonds used to make the bulk of Sinclair’s payment to Fall. When he got to the Continental Trading Company, Ltd., incorporated in Canada in 1921 and bankrupt in 1924, all books and papers destroyed, Anderson thought he had something the Senate Public Lands Committee should look into. But Senator La Follette had died in 1925. There was nobody like Harry Slattery’s champion to go to.

The Secret Service men working for Roberts and Pomerene had first uncovered the Continental Trading Company in the fall of 1924 but, for technical legal reasons, the evidence was not used. The agents followed the serial numbers of the bonds paid to Fall. Through Treasury Department records, they traced the bonds to stockholders of Continental. By deposing the recorded president of the company, H.S. Osler of Ontario, the agents learned its formation was the result of a November 1921 meeting at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City. Acting as private individuals and not for their companies, the men at the meeting represented “a large share” (Noggle 1962, p. 180) of Western Hemisphere oil interests. They included: Colonel A.E. Humphreys of Humphreys Mexia and Humphreys Texas Oil Company, H.M. Blackmer, chairman of the board of Midwest Refining Company, James E. O’Neil, president of the Prairie Oil and Gas Company, Harry Sinclair, head of Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation, and R.W. Stewart, president of Standard Oil of Indiana.

November 17, 1921, Continental contracted with Humphreys Mexia and Humphreys Texas Oil Company to purchase 33, 333, 333 barrels of crude at $1.50/barrel. On the same day, Continental sold this contract to Prairie Oil and Gas Company and Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation at $1.75/barrel. Sinclair and Prairie took delivery from Humphreys but paid through Continental. Between January 1, 1922, and May 26, 1923, Continental took profits of more than $2,000,000, investing in Liberty bonds and distributing them to the owners. Albert Fall got $90,000 of these bonds. (Noggle 1962, p. 181)

Roberts and Pomerene tried to question Osler further in 1924. Coincidentally, he was deep in the African interior hunting elephants. Blackmer was outside Paris and O’Neil was in Cannes. When finally summoned by legal means, all refused to testify in detail about Continental and swore they had no involvement in Teapot Dome. Subpoena servers could not catch up with Stewart. The prosecutors gave up this seemingly ephemeral line and returned to concrete legal matters.

When, in 1928, Coolidge announced he would not seek re-election, presidential politics became more serious. Anderson finally got Nebraska Republican Senator George W. Norris to bring a resolution for a new investigation. It is likely the majority Republicans, having triumphed in 1924 by displaying a willingness to confront corruption even in their own party, once again saw opportunity. Though Senator Walsh initially rebuffed Anderson’s efforts, once it became an undertaking of the committee, he again took the lead, bolstering his potential presidential candidacy.

The hearings began in late January 1928. The first witness, Mahlon T. Everhart, confirmed his previous testimony of delivering bonds from Sinclair to Fall. This opened the subject of bonds. Oilmen involved with Continental testified but their memories were conveniently vague. In February, following on research that some of the bonds had found their way to the Republican Party, Will Hays, Republican National Chairman in 1920, and John T. Adams, Republican National Chairman from 1921 to 1924, were questioned. They denied having any tainted oil bonds. A mysterious improvement in Democratic indebtedness, from $600,000 in 1920 to $200,000 in 1924, was revealed. Cordell Hull, Democratic National Chairman, could not explain but proclaimed that it wasn’t tainted oil bonds. Testimony by Sinclair in 1923 stating he had contributed to both parties in 1922 was brought to the committee. Then, people researching the bonds revealed proof the bonds had gone into Republican National Committee coffers. Hays reversed himself, admitting he got bonds from Sinclair. The sensation matched that when Fall’s lie about getting the loan from McLean was discovered.

But there was more. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon testified that Hays had offered him $50,000 in Liberty bonds in exchange for a matching cash donation to the party. Though Mellon testified he did not accept Hays’ offer, the method of moving the money was now known. Other such transactions were uncovered. Republican Senator William E. Borah of Idaho proclaimed outrage and started a campaign for Republican grassroots donations to pay back the tainted money. He was able to raise only about $8,000, which he eventually returned, but it was a noteworthy public relations move, demonstrating Republican antipathy to corruption. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Liberty bond manipulations were finally revealed, allowing the government to reassess back taxes due. Any political ambitions Hays may still have harbored gone, he turned his attentions to Hollywood morality.

The last Teapot Dome hearings closed in May 1928. Though revelatory, they had “…even less influence in the 1928 election than…in 1924...” (Noggle 1962, p. 201) For a while, Walsh was a candidate for the Democratic nomination. But the electorate, satisfied that Republican nominee Herbert Hoover was not one of the corrupt, turned its attention to the questions of prohibition and evolution. The Democrats nominated Alfred E. Smith, who lost big.

Walsh and Republican committee chairman Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota submitted final Teapot Dome reports. Walsh wrote that the Continental Trading Company was “a contemptible private steal, the speculations of trusted officers of great industrial houses, pilfering from their own companies, robbing their own stockholders, the share of the boodle coming to one of the free-booters serving in part as the price of the perfidy of a member of the President’s cabinet.” (Noggle 1962, p. 198) “Conceived in darkness and selfishness,” Nye wrote of Continental, “and dedicated to the proposition that the cause of privilege and the privileged must be served.” He said the committee had uncovered “…the slimiest of slimy trails beaten by privilege…one of dishonesty, greed, violation of law, secrecy, concealment, evasion, falsehood and cunning.” (Noggle 1962, p. 198-99) Then Senator Nye enumerated benefits of the investigation, including oil industry reform, political contribution reform, better natural resource management, the collection of back taxes and proof to the populace that conspirators against the government could be stopped.

5. Remaining Questions

From its roots in progressive and conservationist politics to the closing statements of Walsh and Nye, Teapot Dome was about oil development and natural resource preservation. Thanks in part to Gifford Pinchot, we know only too well how precious are nature’s resplendent wonders. Yet it is most ironic that the conspirators were probably right about how best to protect the oil. Pearl Harbor’s centrality in World War II reflects positively on the plans of Fall and Doheny, just as the losses incurred shipping oil to the East Coast at the start of that war affirm the importance of the pipeline Sinclair wanted to complete. As to drainage, our Strategic Petroleum Reserve makes those who advocated drilling and storing the oil seem almost prescient, though their profit motives were very real and the cost to lands now gentrified in California and Wyoming is not easily remembered or valuated.

As to resource use, Albert Fall once told a National Parks official, “You know something about history…Every generation from Adam and Eve down has lived better than the generation before. I don’t know how [succeeding generations will] do it—maybe they’ll use the energy of the sun or the sea waves—but [they] will live better than we do. I stand for opening up every resource.” (Stratton 1998, p. 9) Such a remark makes Fall either a selfish capitalist or a visionary or, perhaps, fairly representative of his time and place but hardly a role model. But if Edward L. Doheny and Harry F. Sinclair were not guilty of making bribes, how was Albert Bacon Fall guilty of taking one? The answer probably resides in the lesson seemingly learned in every public scandal: It’s not the crime—it’s the cover-up. While Fall always contended he took no bribes, he often said his biggest mistake was lying about the source of the money he used to improve his ranch. It begs the question: If it wasn’t a bribe, why lie about it? Will Hays clearly learned the same lesson.

Finally, it seems curious that such an odd, complicated, multifaceted matter could become so famous and enduring. Maybe it was timing. After the Great War, there were new American public excitements and new images of heroes and villains: Babe Ruth, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Al Capone, Tom Mix, Clara Bow. Fads, fame and infamy happened in the era to an unprecedented national extent in an unheard of national hurry because of “…the modern techniques of information and publicity…” (Mowry 1963, p. 69) exploding in the era. Rebounding from the failed idealism of the progressives, distrust of government, inherent from the time of the founding fathers, was finally justified in the Harding administration. Teapot Dome and Albert Fall became the scandal and the villain symbolizing it.


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Originally published in: OIL-INDUSTRY HISTORY, Volume 6, Number 1, 2005, Petroleum History Institute, Meadville, PA