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



Crime and vice were rampant in the boom towns, at times reaching a considerable threat to the well-being of a town and its citizenry. California in the 1849 gold rush had already shown the way, so it wasn’t with much surprise to the populace when ruffians and rowdies were seen elbowing their drunken way across the muddy streets of the eastern oil towns. Disreputable characters seemed to gravitate to the oilfields where drillers, rig hands, teamsters, promoters and investors had money in their pockets. Unguarded moments at the saloon or brothel were bound to happen and wallets were lifted. There were periods without law and this vacancy was filled by gangs led by toughs such as Stonehouse Jack (attempted to burn down Titusville) and Bully Tom Quirk (frequented Petroleum Centre). The prostitutes had their own code, and the more prosperous among them owned or ran brothels while the recent arrivals might have to start out in shacks no bigger than a crib. The oil region in the mid eighteen sixties and later saw many outrages caused by the criminal element, but there were also colorful events, entertainment (if you call it that) and bars galore all serving the same rotgut.

Many authors and historians of the early oil days devoted some of their pages to these wild times. They’re a part of history. The bigger-than-life scenes perpetrated by these disreputable characters needed no embellishment. One of the best accounts of this era is in the book The Golden Flood written by Herbert Asbury in 1942. He aptly named that chapter “Sin Among the Derricks”. Asbury also wrote Gangs of New York of which a movie was made. For other sources of descriptions of the lawless days of early oil see the bibliography.

How and why did the oil region become a mecca for toughs and criminals? The oil region offered many attractions, excitement, and money. Discharged Civil War soldiers flocked to the oil belt and the boom towns. They swelled the population, and some of them joined the ranks of the gangs while a few preferred to enter the maelstrom on their own. The swill of several big eastern cities like Buffalo found the allure of the oil crowds and towns too tempting to resist. They migrated into the oil belt, but drilling for oil was the last thing on their minds.

© 2004, Samuel T. Pees
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