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The Wild Side of Early Oil
Boom Town Vocabulary
Ben Hogan
Oil Country Stories

Boom Town Vocabulary

Under the heading “CRIMINAL ELEMENT and DISREPUTABLE CHARACTERS”, the following “professions” and names are a condensation of a much larger list.

thieves gamblers pickpockets garrotters
gougers pimps sandbaggers shoulder-hitters
cutthroats murderers arsonists panderers

Some of the hoodlums had an entrepreneurial persuasion (ladies too) and opened degraded dives which hosted crooked games and served almost poisoness liquor. Brothel-keepers composed a special category.

The tough ladies and the business ladies had their own descriptive names or situations and a special vocabulay grew around them. There is one that caught the writer’s attention for its sheer graphic punch:

Among the WOMEN (these weren’t cooks or waitresses):

     Molly Moore: Titusville. Ran a “first class” bagnio with 20 girls.
Madame Lucy Hart: Petroleum Centre. Faro dealer.
Owley Joe: Petroleum Centre. Named for her facial configuration.
Cranky Nell: Petroleum Centre. Alcoholic at Mickey Mike’s.
Whiskey Lee: Petroleum Centre. Alcoholic at Mickey Mike’s.
Shoo-Fly: Petroleum Centre. Alcoholic at Mickey Mike’s.
English Jennis. Ran a brothel in Petroleum Centre.
Frankie Gavin. Ran a brothel in Petroleum Centre.
Split Lip Johnson: Oil City.
Silver Heels: Oil City.
Buckhorn: Oil City. Said to be a ferocious strumpet.

The names (or nicknames) of a few of the TOUGHS, card players and brothel-keepers (Asbury, 1942) are:

     Dan Cotter: Titusville. Rough and tumble fighter.
Stonehouse Jack: Titusville. Arsonist.
Mike the Stonecutter: Petroleum Centre.
Big (that’s it, just Big): Petroleum Center.
Mickey Mike Buckly: Had the worse joint in Petroleum Centre.
Old Dupre: Petroleum Centre. Crookedest card player in the U.S.
Jimmy the Gun: Oil City.
Tan Yard Cornelius DeWitt: Oil City

There are many more. Names of regular gang members are too numerous to mention.

Washington Street, the main drag in Petroleum Centre on Oil Creek in 1868. The notorious Centre was already turning quiet.

The names of BARS, GAMBLING DENS, BROTHELS and the like didn’t lack for color while some were even elegant in name (most were not). Sometimes just the name of the owner or keeper was all that was needed (everybody knew where the back street was and all establishments were usually built in a row there). When the word elegant was used, it probably meant that there was a throw rug on the floor.

     Hinges of Hell: Clarion County.
Pig’s Eye: Clarion County.
Pig’s Tail: Clarion County.
Big Turkey: Clarion County.
Steel Trap: Clarion County.
(The above were in a short-lived boom town known as Stand-Off City according to Asbury (1942)).
Jimmy McCue’s Blue Ruin Shanty was a popular watering trough and brothel in Titusville.
Carrie Hill operated a busy and elegant brothel in Oil City.
Nelson Cornell's Free Concert Saloon: Pithole. Murder site.

CONCERT SALOONS were numerous, but they offered only bad music, if that. They were back street joints and lowest of the low, but you wouldn‘t know it from the fancy names:

      New Idea Concert Hall. It was a dive in Petroleum Centre.
New Metropolitan Theatre. Everything but a play.
Temple of Fashion. Bully Tom Quirk's dump in Petroleum Centre.
Gus Rheil’s Palace of Pleasure. Petroleum Centre.

Petroleum Centre. The railroad was built into Petroleum Centre in 1866. The Central House was the best hotel in town during the boom. It burned. Its location is indicated today by a cellar. Mather photo.

According to Asbury (1942) the following OIL TOWNS in Northwest Pennsylvania joined the already impressive ranks of the wild ones in the 1860’s-70’s and on (however, many became ghosts in a short time, *).

      * Antwerp       Union
Parkers Landing * Triumph City
Millerstown * Triangle City
Tidioute * Funkville
* Red Hot St. Petersburg
* Tip Top Greece City
* Cash-up * Pioneer
Corry * Pithole
(and a “hundred” more)

The above names of participants, their "calling" and the places where they performed give the reader a view of this subculture. Fortunately Oil Creek Valley and the rest of oildom was full of legitimate oilmen who either had venture capital or rolled up their shirt sleeves and drilled for others. They made the boom and the industry. The bums didn’t leave a monument other than some of their episodes became oft-told stories, and by that route they came to be in the oil literature, deserving or not.

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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