Although his New York Times obituary refers to him as an “odd genius,” that alone doesn’t do justice to the unusual space Abraham James occupies in American history, somewhere between Daniel Plainview and Danny Torrance.
James was a 19th century oilman, who claimed spirits guided him to the sites he placed his wells. Most information about James comes either from a biography written by fellow spiritualist J.M. Peebles, or books and pamphlets about the spiritualist movement and the oil industry. Luckily, Rochelle Raineri Zuck pulled these sources together in an excellent 2012 article on James. After reading James’ story, you’ll want to ask: Was he a charming, manipulative false prophet? Or was he guided by voices that rewarded him with wealth to spread his faith?
Accounts vary, but most suggest that James was born in Pennsylvania on June 16, 1827. Peeble’s biography says James was a twin, born to a mother with “second sight,” which he inherited. It further suggests that James’ mother guided him after her death as a spirit herself. In his early life he may have worked for the railroad, preventing accidents with his powers. Later in New York, he was reportedly practicing vitapathy, a philosophy for improving the body and soul toward immortality.
After Edwin Drake dug the first oil well in 1859, oil spiritualists weren’t that uncommon. There were dousers with “doodlebugs” and men who were said to detect oil purely by scent. Skeptics believed these psychics had other geological knowledge that led them to oil, dismissing their spiritualist claims.
By 1863, James was part of a larger group of spiritualists in Chicago. He claimed that a spirit led him to a location later called “Spirits’ Well” and told him to drill for oil. Some said James’ astral guide was a former Seneca chief. Others claimed it was a Native American maiden name “Lalah.” Instead of oil, the group found water when they drilled. Squabbling broke out among them over whether to continue with the water or to keep drilling until they struck oil. Tensions mounted until another medium reportedly summoned the spirit of Tecumseh to disagree with James’ assertions.
James left Chicago for Pennsylvania, where he wanted to demonstrate how his spiritualist abilities had practical use. Driven by Andrew Jackson Davis’ “Harmonial” philosophy, James hoped to show people how the material world was a reflection of the spiritual world, with both existing in harmony together. His chance came on October 31, 1866 on a buggy ride with some friends in Pleasantville, Pennsylvania.
Suddenly, James jumped out of the buggy, guided again by his spirits, who detected an oil deposit nearby. This time, James’ spirits were right and within 2 years a well there produced over 100 barrels of oil a day. Naming it “Harmonial No. 1,” James placed other dig sites around Pleasantville but never struck the same kind of fortune. He did however continue to spread the word about spiritualism and Harmonial philosophy, suggesting that his spirit guides encouraged his productivity because their work ethic hadn’t left when they died.
James’ obituary says he left Pennsylvania with over $500,000, but that he later lost most of it in “unfortunate investments.” Some say these investments were more oil wells that simply came up dry.
Despite these uncanny stories of James, the oil industry now relies on practical science to make its money. So was James truly touched by spirits? Was he a geological savant, ahead of his time? Or does the real answer lie somewhere in between?
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