The Oilwell Ghost
This historical ghost story is fiction, but based on a legend that incorporates Union City and Titusville oil well activity and people.
by Kathy Warnes
Abram James whistled as he drove along in his buggy between Titusville and Union City. Pennsylvania.
“It’s such a daisy dancing spring day, I could dance like a daisy!” he told his three friends riding with him. “And Lalah’s here and he told me something important is going to happen today.”
“Abram, when are you going to give up this Lalah nonsense,” scoffed his friend Joshua. “It’s impossible to have a spirit guide watching over you like a guardian angel. This is 1867, not the Dark Ages!”
“Joshua, listen to me. Lalah is my friend and he watches out for me. He wants me to have good things in my life and he helps me find the oil to pay for them.”
“But Abram, Lalah is a dead Indian. That’s what you told me.”
Joshua looked at Abram and his friends nodding in agreement. Joshua scowled. “Abram, you’ve got to quit this nonsense. If you talk about it long enough, your mind’s going to come unhinged. I’m worried about you and so are Daniel and Caleb, aren’t we boys?” Joshua glared at the others and they nodded.
“I want you to know for once and for all that Lalah is real,” Abram said. “He was an Indian Chief who lived in these parts. He killed a homesteader’s family and then the homesteader killed him. Then he went to a world beyond ours and found out killing was wrong. He vowed to befriend a whiteman to atone for his sin in killing that homesteader’s family. I happen to be the whiteman he befriended. He’s been kind to me and I’m proud to call him my friend, even though he’s a spirit.”
“If this is true, where is he now?” Josha demanded. “Why are you the only one who can see him and talk to him? And why would he want to make up for killing a whiteman’s family when the whiteman killed him?
“There is no need for vengeance in his world,” Abram explained.
“Abram, I fear you’re imagining all of this,” Joshua said. “Indian spirit guide indeed! Your mind is slipping away from you!”
“Joshua, I tell you my mind is not unhinged. I’m not imagining Lalah, he’s just as real as you are.”
“Abram, why don’t you…” Caleb began. Suddenly, Abram jumped up from his seat, tossed the reins to Caleb and leaped out of the buggy.
“Abram, where are you going?” Caleb shouted.
Abram didn’t answer. He didn’t even turn around. He jumped over a wooden log fence that wounded around the field and danced up and down in the grass like devil’s were tickling him.
“The devil indeed has a strong hold on him,” Joshua murmured as he watched his friend dancing.
“We must get to him before he hurts himself,” Caleb said. “Whoa!” he shouted, pulling back on the reins. He tied the horses to the fence and the men jumped out of the buggy and ran after Abram. By the time they caught up with Abram, he was dancing in the middle of the field close to a grove of trees growing on the far side of the meadow. Puffing and panting, the three men ran across the meadow to Abram. As they got closer to him, they saw him jerk and fall to the ground. When they finally stood over him, he was pale and stiff as a corpse.
“We’d better get him to Dr. Johnson right away,” Caleb said. “Joshua, you take his feet and you and I will take his head and shoulders, Daniel. Let’s get him in the buggy.”
The men moved to pick up Abram, but he pulled away from them. “Don’t touch me! I must dig here. Lalah says to dig here!”
Abram wriggled out of his friend’s arms and clawed frantically at the ground. “Shovels and picks. I have to get shovels and picks and start digging here. Lalah says there is oil here.”
Caleb grabbed Abram by the arms and Joshua and Daniel held his shoulders. “Abram, it’s time you see Dr. Johnson. You’re going to hurt yourself jumping around like that,” Joshua said.
“It seems like he already did . There’s blood on his hand,” Caleb said.
Abram threw out his chin. “It’s only a little scratch I got clawing at the ground. Lalah says to dig here and find oil and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
Joshua put his hand on Abram’s arm. “Abram, please come with us peaceably to Dr. Johnson’s office.
Abram threw Joshua’s hand back at him like it was a hot coal. “I don’t need Dr. Johnson and I sure ain’t coming wit you. I’m going to do exactly what Lalah told me to do.”
Abram dug around in his pockets.
Caleb sighed. “Abram, what are you looking for now?”
“A penny. I know I have a penny in my pocket,” Abram said.
Caleb held out a penny. “Here Abram, if you need a penny I’ll give you one.”
“I need my own lucky penny,” Abram said. He fished around in his pocket a while longer and pulled out a worn copper penny and put it on the ground. “Here’s where I’ll dig my first oil well!”
“Right here on this spot? Why here?” Joshua demanded.
“Because Lalah says this is where there is much oil and Lalah knows what he’s talking about.”
“Abram, please come to Dr. Johnson’s with us. Just let him take a look at you to make sure you’re in tiptop shape,” Daniel begged.
“Nope, ain’t got no time. I got to borrow the money to buy this land from the owner. Got to go see him right now. That oil’s just waiting to come bubbling and gushing out of the ground and I’m gonna be there to throw my arms around it as soon as it comes.”
Abram gestured towards the buggy and his friends got back in and hurried to town in a cloud of dust. Abram walked back, thinking every step of the way. He spent the next few weeks mortgaging his soul. He bought the land from the farmer who owned it and he borrowed money from the bank to build an oil well at the spot that he marked with the penny. And all the while Abram was busy arranging, Daniel, Caleb, and Joshua were busy scoffing and shaking their heads.
“You’re going to go bankrupt because of this fool notion in your head that your ghost friends knows where there’s some oil. You need to see the Doc,” Joshua told Abram.
“We’re going to drag you there yet,” Caleb warned with purpose in his eyes.
But his friends didn’t actually drag Abram to Dr. Johnsons until the day he put the word out to the saloons of Titusville that he was looking for a drilling crew. That was the last straw for Joshua, Daniel, and Caleb. That night, they banged on the door of Abram’s shack. He stuck out his head to see who it was and Joshua threw a horse blanket over his head. Daniel and Caleb hoisted up his legs and they loaded him into the wagon. Caleb tied a rope around the blanket for good measure and they dumped Abram in the corner like he was a sack of potato seed.
“This is for your own good, Abram,” Joshua told the squirming figure as they bounced and jounced over the dirt path to Dr. Johnson’s house. “It was all right when the foolishness was at the talking stage, but now the money’s starting to get away from you. That’s when things get messy, that’s when friends have to do something for you if you won’t do something for yourself.”
“MPPPP,” Abram said as he twisted and turned, trying to escape the blanket.
“I’ll take the blanket off your head if you promise to be still,” Caleb said. “Promise?”
“MPPPP!” said Abram.
Caleb loosened the rope and peeled the blanket from Abram’s head.
“You..you varmits!” Abram shouted. “Does this friendly caring of y ours have anything to do with the fact that I owe you fifty dollars? You know what I’m talking about, the fifty dollars you kicked in towards the farmer’s land.”
“I had to be crazy to loan you money for a wild goose chase,” Joshua moaned. “Oh, it ain’t that I don’t care about you Abram, but I care about my part of that fifty dollars too and I wanna stand a fair chance of getting my money back. And so far, there ain’t no oil, Abram.”
“Joshua, you gotta trust me. I aim to pay you back all of your money and interest to boot. You just gotta wait until my oil comes in. It’s going to, I just know it is.”
Caleb tightened the rope around Abram’s arms. “You gotta quit this wild goose chase right now. Just because you think this Indian tells you there’s oil in a spot, do you think there really is? You’re going into debut up to your eyeballs and what do you got to show for it besides nothing?”
“Caleb, you turn me loose from this hogtie right now!” Abram shouted. “I’m gonna show you that Lalah knows what he’s talking about. And just as soon as I pay my crew we’re gonna start drilling and we’re gonna find oil, lots and lots of oil.”
Daniel patted Abram on the shoulder. “Abram, we’re gonna go see Dr. Johnson. I hear tell he’s a real good Doc and maybe he can talk some sense into you. You’re just a little crazy in the head, nothing that can’t be fixed.”
“I ain’t crazy in the head, Joshua. I’m sane and onery enough to wring your neck if I get my hands around it. And yours!” Abram glared at Caleb. “And yours.” Abram glared at Daniel. “Now turn me loose from this hogtie or you’ll never get your money back.”
“We’re at Dr. Johnson’s so you might just as well come in with us!” Joshua said. He and Caleb and Daniel hauled Abram out of the wagon and dragged him to Dr. Johnson’s front door. Caleb knocked and the cabin door was opened by a man who was as tall and skinny as a telegraph pole. The man looked at them questioningly. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
Joshua shoved Abram forward. “It’s our friend Abram, here, Doc. He’s a little mixed up in the head.”
Dr. Johnson scratched his chin. “Why do you say that?”
Caleb cleared his throat. “He’s hiring a crew to drill an oil well on old man Brown’s property. Everybody knows there’s no oil there, but he’s still fool enough to try to drill.”
“That’s it, Doc,” Joshua said. “He’s being a fool with everyone’s money but his own. He’s being a fool with MY money. I want my fifty dollars back. Can you talk some sense in his head?”
Dr. Johnson scratched his chin again and gazed at Daniel. “And what do you have to say about this?”
“Doc, what if Abram told the crew it was just a bad joke and paid them for a few days’ work. What if he did that?”
Dr. Johnson scratched his chin a third time. “There’s no reason why he can’t if you can convince him to do that.
“We was counting on you to convince him of that, Doc. You being a doctor and all, we thought he’d listen to you.”
The doctor looked at Abram. “What do you have to say about all of this?”
“I say there’s oil out there and these danged fools better let me loose so I can help find it. Then I’m going to boil them in a potful of oil, every single doubting Thomas one of them!”
“He’s going to boil us in an empty pot of oil!” Joshua scoffed.
“Why don’t you men come inside and we’ll talk about it more, “ Doctor Johnson said.
“We can talk to his Indian friend too,” Caleb said.
“We can do that,” Dr. Johnson agreed, smiling.
“I’ll show all of you. Let’s go in and talk to Lalah,” Abram said.
Doctor Johnson held open the door for the men.
“Git me out of these blankets!” Abram shouted. “You varmits know I can’t walk when I got blankets wrapped around me like bacon on a stick.”
“I’ll untie you if you promise not to punch me when you get loose,” Dr. Johnson said.
“I won’t punch you,” Abram promised. “I got to save my strength for digging. I might have to dig the entire oil well myself if I don’t have a crew.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Dr. Johnson said. “You conjure up Lalah and I’ll loan you the money to pay the crew for one week. Does that sound fair to you, Abram?”
“Sounds fair square to me,” Abram said. “Let’s get started.”
The men pulled chairs and wooden kegs in a circle by the stove. Dr. Johnson pointed to the kerosene lamp sitting in the window. “Should I blow out the lamp or does Lalah like lamplight better?” he wondered.
“Lalah can move whether it’s light or dark,” Abram said.’” This is a plumb foolish notion if I ever heard one,” Caleb complained. “Here we are, five grown men sitting around in a circle trying to talk to a dead Injun.”
“Let him talk to empty air!” Joshua scoffed. “Maybe he’ll learn his lesson when the empty air don’t talk back.”
“You can call Lalah anytime now,” Dr. Johnson said.
Daniel looked over his shoulder. “H-how do you call him?”
“I have a certain poem I say and then he comes,” Abram explained.
“Go ahead and say your poem. Let’s get this over with so we can get back home,” Joshua said
Abram closed his eyes and held his arms straight out in front of him. “Ohh,oooo,” he moaned. “Lalah, Indian spirit of the Great Spirit, come into this humble place. Tell me where the oil will come through…tell me because I believe in you. Ooo, ooooo…”
The flame in the kerosene lamp flickered and shrunk to a pinpoint. Then it went out.
Daniel looked around the room with round, frightened eyes. “The lamp’s going out. Does that mean your friend likes the dark, Abram?”
“It was just the wind. The wind always can blow out a kerosene lamp and it’s windy tonight. So what’s so scary about that?” Joshua scoffed.
“Nothing. So why are you shivering?” Caleb asked him.
“The same reason you are,” Joshua chattered.
Caleb, Joshua and Daniel huddled together in the middle of the circle. “Go away, whatever you are!” Daniel shivered, hiding under the woodbox by the stove.
“Joshua, you said it’s just the wind,” Abram said.
A cold breeze blew across the backs of the men’s necks and a rushing hollow sound like a seashell noise filled the small cabin.
“I’m glad you could visit us tonight, Lalah,,” Abram said. “How are things going in your world?”
“Many council fires…buffalo…dancing and powwow. Why do you call me from powwow?”
“Lalah, will you appear in front of my friends and Dr. Johnson here so they’ll believe you are real? They think I’ve been hitting the whiskey too hard.”
“I will show them how a brave prepares himself for battle.”
An arrow whizzed past Abram’s ear and landed with a smack in one of the logs above the table.
Joshua drew a gun from his holster and fired in the direction of the arrow.”
“Wheeping whiskers!” Joshua exclaimed. “I drilled that Injun standing in front of you clear through and the bullet didn’t stop. It went right smack through him and came out the other side.”
“Why did you shoot him? “ Abram demanded.
“He had his bow and arrow pointed right at my gizzard!” Joshua said.
“Hells bells,” Lalah is standing there with a medicine plant in his hands to take into the medicine lodge. He cures the sick of the village with his potions. He’s not shooting no bow and arrow,” Abram told them.
“What does this Lalah look like?” the doctor asked.
“He’s got black braids down to his waist and he’s dressed in buckskin leggings and moccasins. His chest his bare and painted with red and brown markings,” Abram said.
“Hmm,” the doctor said.
“Is that good enough for you, Doctor? Is the crew going to dig for oil? I kept my promise. I conjured up Lalah for you.”
“That you did,” Dr. Johnson agreed. “I’ll keep my promise to stake you, Abram. Lalah seems like a good risk to me.”
“Yahoo!” Abram yelled. He threw his arms around Lalah in a grizzly bear hug. “Did you hear that Lalah? The doc is going to stake us. Now all you have to do is show us where to drill.”
“Abram, why are you hollering and hugging the door?” Joshua asked.
“You heard the doc. He said he’d stake me for the crew. I can drill for my oil. I can pay you back and maybe I’ll even have money left over!”
“Let’s wait and see,” Joshua said. “I still ain’t convinced this whole thing ain’t another one of your tricks, Abram. Maybe you had somebody dress up like an Injun. Maybe you talked for this Lalah..”
“Now Joshua, how could I have somebody dress up like an Injun when I didn’t even know I was going to be here? You hog tied me, remember?”
“I still ain’t sure,” Joshua insisted. “You show me the oil spouting up out of the ground and maybe I’ll believe you.”
“I’ll show you all the first thing tomorrow morning,” Abram promised.
It was yawning early the next morning when Joshua, Abram, Daniel, Caleb, and Dr, Johnson and the drilling crew gathered in the farm field that Abram had bought from old man Brown. They drilled the entire day and all they got for their work were buckets off sand, sorrre muscles and a mountain of courses and complaints from Joshua.
“Seems to me you’re going to have to figure out another way of paying me back besides striking oil,” Joshua said as the sun sank behind the trees. “Unless you want me and the guys to take it out of your hide. What about you, Doc, wanna help me tar and feather him?”
“I don’t think we should give up on Abram and Lalah yet,” Doctor Johnson said. “Sometimes it takes weeks and months of drilling before a single drop of oil comes to the top. It’s only been a day. Let’s give him some more time.”
“I think this is one of his tricks and I’ll help tar and feather him!” Caleb glared at Abram.
“YEOW! You don’t have to tar and feather me. Look at that well! Look at that well!” Abraham hollered.
Everybody looked at the well. Thick black liquid poured out of it. They had struck oil the very first day of the drilling.
“YEOW!” Abram yelled again, loud enough for the entire town of Titusville to hear him. “You found it, Lalah, you found it!”
“Confound it!” Joshua growled. “I thought I heard an Injun tomtom beating over this racket!”
Abram threw his arms around his friends and Doctor Johnson. “Since this well has retored harmony between friends, I’m going to call it Haromonia Well No. 1.”
The barrel of oil Harmonia Well No. 1 pumped on its first day was only the first of 130 barrels of crude oil abram got from it before it went dry. Harmonia No. 1 was only the first well that Abram and Lalah discovered.
Every time Abram and his friends inspected property containing oil underneath the ground, Lalah threw him into a dance that always ended with him falling to the ground on the exact spot where the oil was located. Abram always marked the spot with the same worn penny he used to mark his first well and this was where the crews drilled. They found enough oil for Joshua to get his fifty dollars back millions of times.
“I wouldn’t have tarred and feathered you ,” Joshua assured Abram.
“Lalah won’t let you even if you wanted to tar and feather me,” Abram assured him. “He needs me too much for his oil prospecting!”