The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Spirit wells

Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Credit: Library of Congress.

Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Credit: Library of Congress.

In the 150 odd years since Americans first discovered how to get oil out of the ground, we have come to rely on the stuff in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. We’re extraordinarily dependent on a steady supply of it, but you only have to look to the recent huge drop in oil prices to see that oil isn’t as stable as we’d like it to be.


But in the early days of the oil business, it was even less certain than it is today. After oil was first struck in Western Pennsylvania in 1859, prospectors rushed to the region hoping to strike it rich. With understanding of oil geology still in its infancy, though, only about half of the wells dug in those early days became productive. So, some prospectors turned to the supernatural.


One of them was Abraham James, a man who arrived in Western Pennsylvania in 1866. On October 31 of that same year, James and three other men were riding in a buggy near Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, when James suddenly and without warning was thrown out of his buggy. For James, a spiritualist who believed that it was possible for the living to communicate directly with the spirits of the dead, this was a clear sign that the spirits were sending him a message. And what they were trying to say, thought James, was that this was the perfect spot for an oil well.

James heard the message loud and clear. He soon sunk a well on that very ground, a well he called “Harmonial No. 1”. It was a solid hit: the well eventually produced more than 100 barrels a day. While today we might chalk James’ success up to pure luck, this was a time when spiritualism was taking off in America, and a time when there were no real oil experts to counter his beliefs.

Letting down into well shell loaded with nitro-glycerine - oil field in Pennsylvania. Credit: Library of Congress.

Letting down into well shell loaded with nitro-glycerine – oil field in Pennsylvania. Credit: Library of Congress.

So, instead of being dismissed out of hand, his story captured the imaginations of oil men and sparked yet another wave of speculators. Many of these speculators turned to spiritualism to divine where the oil was. Rochelle Zuck, a professor at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, explains why oil prospecting and spiritualism were such a good match for each other:

“Accounts of James suggest that the spiritualists were looking to demonstrate spiritualist’s practical applications. And spiritualists felt that with their potential for understanding the unseen aspects of the natural world… they had unique contributions to make to the oil industry, whose success depended on the location of unseen oil reserves. And so the oil industry and spiritualism, to an extent, one could argue that both are invested in a belief in the unseen, whether that unseen represents deceased loved ones or these underground oil reserves.”

The oil industry helped spiritualists showcase the real world usefulness of their beliefs, but spiritualism also did its part for the oil industry. For one, the established network of spiritualist publications promote the oil business by spreading the word of James’ success. Spiritualism also took the edge off perceptions that industry was corruptive and immoral. The oil business had to combat not just the reputation of the robber barons, but also the Jeffersonian idea that civic virtue was closely tied to agrarian lifestyle. Says Zuck,

“Spiritualism…offered a kind of guiding morality to the oil industry, in the sense that someone like James is framed as a synthesis of the spiritual, the industrial, and the scientific. And so it is a way, I think, for the oil industry to frame itself as not antithetical to people’s moral and spiritual lives.” 

As the oil business and science of geology became more sophisticated, though, spiritualism got left behind, says Zuck.

“James and his “harmonial” well become a kind of amusing footnote in the broader story of the oil industry, as this industry seeks to present itself as cutting edge, modern, scientific, and professional.”

This story comes from our episode Black Gold: An American History of OilYou can listen to the whole show here.