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

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for A former staff writer for, he's the author of the forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Powering the Dream.]

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....

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....

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....

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....

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.

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