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Ben Hogan
Oil Country Stories

Ben Hogan

In his time and place, Ben Hogan was the “Wickedest Man in the World”, a title he gave to himself.

Ben Hogan, shown here in his black sartorial period which took place in late 1866 at Babylon Hill and Tidioute. He even posed as a preacher and married a couple there, but his main endeavor was taking care of business at the Babylon brothel with the considerable help of French Kate. Hogan was a man of legend and capped his energetic career by becoming a mission preacher in the slums of Chicago. He wasn’t a saint, except at the end, but, more than others, he created the “wild days of early oil”. Illustration from Trainer, 1878, Life and Adventures of Ben Hogan.

Already a thief (and much worse), young Ben Hogan left New York City at age 14 with his parents. They settled in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hogan soon returned to his burglary “business”, this time using a peddler’s wagon so that he could cart off the loot.

At age seventeen, Hogan went to sea as cabin boy on the sailing ship Humboldt and thus began a series of incredible adventures. According to Asbury (1942) they unfolded as follows:

      Won the LOTTERY in 1860.
SPREE in New Orleans.
Civil War. BLOCKADE RUNNER Sphinx in Charleston, South Carolina.
Became a COASTAL PIRATE for six months.
Collected his share of the LOOT, $50,000.
Spent the money on a huge BINGE in New York.
Joined a strong-man act in the Mid-West.
Then it gets really bad. We’ll skip a couple of years.

Hogan entered the Pennsylvania oil region in 1865, a year of great events in the oil industry (such as the first successful pipeline and railway tank car). He went to work as a bouncer at Heenan’s Cottage in the new boom town of Pithole. At the same time he polished up his strongman act and gave boxing lessons. Not content to hold any job for long, Hogan moved around and made appearances at various concert halls (bars) in Oil City and elsewhere, usually signing on as a bouncer and card dealer. When serving as a dealer, he ran a good table, usually profitable to the owner. However, cards were his personal nemesis on occasion, especially big games when he was on the road. He often lost all his money, but took it in stride and could be seen working at another brothel or bar the next day, if there was one.

Hogan had plenty of bare knuckle fighting experience (brawls and strongman acts), but he hadn’t been in an organized prize fight in the oil region until April 1866 when he fought Jack Holliday at Ball Town and won due to a foul (Asbury, 1942). Ben collected the purse of $200. Many fights and exhibitions by Hogan followed in the oil region and elsewhere in the United States.

A glimpse of Pithole with construction taking place on Holmden Street in 1865. The town disappeared in 1867 due to depletion of commercial oil. Hogan was associated with several bars and brothels in this short-lived boomtown. Illustration from a postcard put out by M.A.M.
For the first official fist fight in the oil region both boxers wore tights which fastened just below the knee. The fight took place in Ball Town, a suburb of Pithole. Ball Town (there were two of them) is a hayfield today, no sign of the little town. Illustration from Trainer, 1878, Life and Adventures of Ben Hogan.

Ben Hogan was a handsome fellow. According to his biographer, George Trainer (1878), “Hogan’s face is one which attracts the beholder, and it is extremely doubtful whether anybody would select its owner for a prize fighter”. He stood only five feet eight inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds. However, he had a broad and deep chest, very broad shoulders, steel-like muscles, and compact and trim limbs, all serving him well as a fighter. These features were not apparent to the casual observer until Hogan stepped into the ring. It’s amazing how he maintained his physical fitness considering all the booze and cigars that he supposedly consumed (according to some). Trainer (1878), on the other hand, claims that he was nearly abstemious. Maybe his fighting success and fine body was due to the raw meat which he regularly ate.

One could get “carried away” in writing about Ben Hogan. He had executive abilities, great energy and determination (Trainer, 1878). He would give anything a try as long as it might pay well, be dubious and on the wrong side of the law. He loved excitement (and created it), but why he never got involved in oil except by filching other people’s royalties, is hard to figure out. It was almost like he waited for a driller to make a strike and then would open an emporium as soon as Main Street (or the back street) of the new town was clapped together.

French Kate had stunning looks which captured Ben Hogan at first sight. At the time (1866) he was managing Madam Fenton’s Dance House in Pithole and French Kate was a young prostitute there. She became his mistress and business partner. They left Fenton’s and worked their way to ownership of a big house on Babylon Hill near Tidioute. Oh, the fights they got into! Illustration from Trainer, 1878, Life and Adventure of Ben Hogan.

Then there were the ladies. Ben’s ladies. He was known for his fair companions who were also business partners. Sometimes they happened to be present at the same time, and this led to terrible problems. FRENCH KATE was the most celebrated. Hogan and French Kate became a notorious pair, established bawdy houses hither and yon, ending up in Babylon near Tidioute where they put up a big brothel and dance house. They jointly made 27,000 dollars in gold at that place, but Hogan lost it gambling in New York. French Kate was really mad and shot at him several times, taking off a piece of his ear. They went their ways, but Ben found other mistresses such as Kitty Bowers who stayed with him for several years and, finally, English Jennie.

After Ben’s ruckus with French Kate in New York (she shot at him), Kitty Bowers became Ben Hogan’s second mistress. Ben and Kitty opened brothels at Parker’s Landing and Petrolia City (his latter establishment was called “Hogan’s Ranche” and rated as the worst in town). He and Kitty opened more bars, did a tour of the mid-west, but returned to the Pennsylvania oilfields in 1876. Kitty ran off with a bartender and spent money entrusted to her by Ben (to buy prostitutes for a new bar) to finance her wedding and honeymoon. Illustration from Trainer, 1878, Life and Adventures of Ben Hogan.

After a brilliant career in sin, BEN HOGAN GOT RELIGION. In 1878 he accidentally wandered into a revival meeting taking place at the Park Theatre on Broadway where a restored sot was holding forth on the evils of a wayward life. Ben was actually saved at that instant. With his wife (he married a mission worker), he tried assisting in revivals and became a humble worker in a mission in the Bowery. According to Asbury (1942) and Trainer (1878), he returned with his bible to the oil regions, but nobody wanted to listen to this converted soul. In the minds of his previous clients religion had ruined his reputation. Hogan and his wife then went to the slums of Chicago and ran a lodging-house and a mission. The Reverend Dwight L. Moody, a well-known evangelist, helped them get established. Ben Hogan was asked to give a lecture in the famed Cooper Institute which in itself is a mark of ascendancy (he had arrived in mission circles).

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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