The Legend of Coal Oil Johnny, America's Great Forgotten Parable

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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Surely you've heard of Coal Oil Johnny, right?

Before J.R. Ewing, or the Beverly Hillbillies, or even John D. Rockefeller, there was Coal Oil Johnny. He was the first great cautionary tale of the oil age -- and his name would resound in popular culture for more than half a century after he made and lost his fortune in the 1860s.

A penniless orphan growing up, it was said Coal Oil Johnny once spent $100,000 in a day. It was said that he bought a hotel for a night. It was said he rode around in a bright red carriage adorned with a drawing of an oil derrick instead of a coat of arms. He lit cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Diamonds dripped from his fingers. "He one day found his coat so stuffed with greenbacks that it was uncomfortable," the New York Times recounted when he died in 1921. "He ran into a bank threw it at the teller and never came back again."

For generations after the peak of his career, he was still so famous that any major oil strike, particularly like the epoch-marking one at Spindletop in Texas in 1901, brought his tales back to people's lips.

His name was synonymous with lucking into a tremendous fortune -- and then pissing it all away. Coal Oil Johnny was to profligacy what Paul Bunyan was to strength. He even had a steed to match Bunyan's blue ox. She was a small horse named Bess, and she had fine tastes, too. Legend has it that one night in Braddock, Pennsylvania, Johnny rode her right into a bar on his way to a good time.

coal oil obit clip.jpg"He didn't know a soul but that didn't matter," the Perrysburg Journal of Ohio wrote more than 20 years later. "'I'm Johnny Steele. Close the doors and every one make a night of it with me. Give Bess a bottle of champagne to start with.' Bess was the beautiful little mare he rode and immediately interest was centered on the horse whom her owner said drank champagne. Bess, moreover, was the only sober one of the outfit some hours later."

John W. Steele, his real name, disputed the truth of some of these stories, but as in The Social Network, it's not really the facts that matter here. Coal Oil Johnny was a legend and like all legends, he became a stand-in for a constellation of people, things, ideas, feelings and morals -- in this case, about oil wealth and how it works.

Oil made common people rich beyond their wildest dreams. They did some crazy things with that wealth as the whole region got whipped into a frenzy. People spilled out of the oil regions crazed.

"Other misguided beings from the oil regions of Pennsylvania were scattered about the country doing foolish things, and many of their performances were afterwards credited to me," Steele himself wrote in his autobiography. "But as I had played the fool in so many directions, it was not strange that this was so, as possibly I was the 'king-bee' of the oil region spendthrifts."

And why wouldn't they buy crazy things? There was something about oil money that was slippery and dangerous and exciting. And besides, it was free! You could pump money out of the petroleum pools underneath land had been nearly worthless before.

"It was wealth from nowhere," said Brian Black, a historian at Pennsylvania State, who wrote the book Petrolia, about those early oil years. "Somebody like that was coming in without any opportunity or wealth and suddenly has a transforming moment. That's the magic and it transfers right through to the Beverly Hillbillies and the rest of the mythology."

And then the oil ran out, just a couple of decades after the first black gold came bubbling out of the underworld. The first oil region, like Coal Oil Johnny, ended up just as poor as it had been before the strike, even if the oil fat cats made a pretty penny.

"Coal Oil Johnny personifies what the whole country learned from the Pennsylvania oil boom," Black said.

And yet now we've forgotten this important peak oil parable. American crude production has dwindled to about 55% of its early '70s peak -- and the International Energy Agency thinks more than half of global production will come offshore by 2015. The time when striking oil required little more than some gumption is long over. The first oil well in America came from the hard work of a couple of blacksmiths with the backing of some investors. Now, we build offshore platforms, drag them miles out into the ocean, and pin them to the seafloor, so we can grind through thousands of feet of sediment to the oil pools beneath them. It's not the same playing field or the same sport.

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I lucked into rediscovering Coal Oil Johnny. I have a thing for non-musical records, particularly energy-related stuff. So, a couple of weeks ago, when I headed out to an estate sale in Bethesda, Maryland, I couldn't help but purchase the $1 record called "Coal Oil Johnny."

Produced by Little People Records of British Columbia, I haven't been able to find anything about the production of this record, not even a date. Nonetheless, I was sure it would be some thinly veiled morality play, and indeed it is. You can listen to the whole 25-minute play right here thanks to my USB turntable.

 

The record tells the standard Coal Oil Johnny story. An orphan, Johnny was taken in by his aunt, Sally McClintock. They eked out an existence on a farm near Titusville until oil was discovered under it. Unfortunately, McClintock didn't get to enjoy her good luck; she died in an oil-related fire, and left everything she had to Johnny.

He, according to the record's version of the story, made some rather bad business dealings, generally -- according to his autobiography -- when John Barleycorn (i.e. whiskey) had him under his influence. But he lived it up while the money lasted. Which appears to have been something like a year.

It's at that point that he had to return to the oil region with his hat in his hand and get back to work laboring.

"Johnny was penniless. His farm was gone. Bills and lawsuits piled up and swallowed all he had and clamored for more," the narrator tells us. "Finally, he had to take refuge in declaring bankruptcy. He found himself friendless, deserted, despised, sick and in despair. The fruits of pleasure had turned to bitter ashes in his mouth."

And that's actually where the record's morality play kicks in. It's precisely when Coal Oil Johnny's money has run out that he finds real happiness. His wife, who he'd abandoned, takes him back -- and everything turns out OK.

"Money, the devil's glittering stew, that's what it is!" Johnny laments. "I have nothing. I'm done for. I've deserted my wife and son. They'll never take me back. I'm worse off than the prodigal son. He went back home. I can't. I have no home."

And then we hear the most angelic voice ever laid onto vinyl. It's Irene, Johnny's wife. "Hello, Johnny," she says.

Johnny informs her about the bad news, about how he's broke, etc. But she doesn't mind.

Irene: "I didn't come back for money, Johnny. I came back for my husband, and little Johnny's father."
Johnny: "Little Johnny, Where is he?"
Irene: "Outside waiting for you."
Johnny: "I have nothing, absolutely nothing. Not even my self-respect."
Irene: "You'll regain that in time, Johnny."
Johnny: "It'll take a long time. A long, hard, uphill pull."
Irene: "Pulling hard and long together. That's what family unity and happiness are made of."
Johnny: "Let's go tell Little Johnny the good news."
[cue swelling string music]

I'm not sure most Americans living through their own bubble-burst bankruptcies are quite so sanguine about their prospects, but there is something about this sappy but not-quite-happy ending that appeals to me at this time in our history. Namely, it's not such a bad idea to make money the measure of your worth when you live in the richest country in the world -- and the economy's growing. It's harder when you no longer have the expectation that you'll live better than your parents did. There are worse ways to respond to the loss of wealth than tightening up your family bonds and soldiering on.

And I think that's actually a fundamental part of the appeal of the Coil Oil Johnny story. He made and lost this huge fortune  -- and yet he didn't go crazy or do anything terrible. Instead, he ended up living a regular, content life, mostly as a railroad agent in Nebraska. Surely there's a lesson in that for the millions who've lost everything in the housing boom and bust.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/10/the-legend-of-coal-oil-johnny-americas-great-forgotten-parable/64475/