Coal Oil Johnny

Raised in this house, Coal Oil Johnny grew up to be one of the most notorious examples of the get-rich-quick lifestyle made possible by the oil boom.

Born John Washington Steele in Sheakleyville, PA in 1843, he and his older sister Permelia were adopted by Culbertson and Sarah McClintock when he was a year old. Johnny’s childhood was fraught with tragedy, with Permelia’s death in 1854 and Culbertson’s the following year. But, after Edwin Drake struck oil in 1859, Sarah McClintock made a small fortune by leasing her property to oil miners. In 1862, Johnny married Eleanor Moffitt with whom he had his first and only son, Oscar. Two years later, Sarah McClintock died suddenly after being badly burned by an oil fire. In her will, she left Johnny the farm as well as $24,500 saved from oil leases. It wasn’t long before word got out that “Coal Oil Johnny” had inherited a fortune.

In 1864, Johnny moved his family out to Philadelphia after Eleanor took ill. There, Johnny met Seth Slocum who offered to act as his guide in the big city, for a small fee. Johnny agreed, and so began Slocum’s mission to help separate Johnny from his money. In June 1864, William Whickam haggled with Johnny to sell the farm for $1.2 million, but paid only $30,000 upfront as a preliminary six-month lease. Convinced that he was soon to be a millionaire, Johnny began a spree of extravagant purchases, excessive spending, and wild living that made “Coal Oil Johnny” a household name across the nation.
Unfortunately, the nonstop joyride came to a screeching halt on January 9, 1865, when the lease ran out and Whickham backed out of the deal. Johnny’s promised million was gone.

It wasn’t long before that his creditors took their chance to cash in. Dozens of lawsuits were filed against Johnny, by from everyone from corporations to individuals, for well over $65,000. By the beginning of March, he lost possession of the farm entirely. Realizing Slocum’s true nature, Johnny dissolved their partnership and never saw Slocum again. In the course of just one year, Johnny is back in rags after squandering his riches.

Unable to face his wife and son back in Oil City, Johnny began his career as a vagabond. While in Kansas City, Johnny was reunited with the traveling Minstrel group he financed in Philadelphia. Johnny joined the troop, performing from the east coast to Chicago. But after receiving a letter from his wife begging him to come home, Johnny finally returned to Oil City in 1867.

In Oil City, Johnny is reunited with his wife and son and filed for bankruptcy, freeing him from the multitude of suits against him. For the remainder of his life, Johnny moved his family around, taking up various odd jobs before settling in Kearney, Nebraska in 1881 where he worked for Burlington Railroad. Johnny attempted to repair his reputation, publishing his autobiography in 1902. He died in Fort Crook, Nebraska in 1920.