Friday, June 18, 2010

The Legend of Crazy James

Drake Oil Derrick photo from Explore PA

This is one of the more popular and quite possibly true legends of the early Pennsylvania oil fields. The lore doesn't involve any spooks, but rather a spirit guide from the other side.

Abraham James was born in Chester County and went west to California to find gold. Failing there, he headed back east to Venango County, switching his focus to black gold during the nascent oil-rush years.

While riding past a field with some friends in 1868, he suddenly leaped out of the buggy and sprinted to the north end of the lot. He put a penny on the ground, spun around, and passed out. When he regained his senses, he said he was controlled by an Indian spirit that showed him the spot where there was oil. He marked it with the penny.

He was almost immediately and unanimously appointed the village idiot by the townsfolk who gave him the nickname “Crazy James.” They considered him to be even loonier than “Crazy Drake,” drilling down the road.

But he leased the field from its' owner, William Porter, erected a derrick and two storage tanks, and began to drill. For three months it looked like the townsmen were right. But then James hit a gusher at 835' down and the wildcatters rushed to Porter's field and Pleasantville.

The local mockers became James' biggest fans after the strike; their marginal farmlands suddenly became valuable property, thanks to Crazy James and his guide. And for years afterward, dowsers became popular in the area, hoping to replicate his success.

James and his Indian familiar moved on, finding at least four more producing wells in the region and locating artesian wells in Chicago. But by the 1870s they had faded from Venango history. He blew the money on poor investments, but became a hit with the Spiritualist crowd, gaining renown for his seances.

Abraham James joined his Indian guide in the spirit world on November 28, 1884 at the age of 77.

His tale was first presented in an article from the Atlantic Monthly called "A Carpet-Bagger In Pennsylvania" from June, 1869.

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