Tuesday, May 15, 2007


(News-Herald, February 2003) Today we revisit Ben Hogan, one of oildoms more colorful figures.

According to The Golden Flood by Herbert Asbury (author of Gangs of New York on which the Martin Scorsese movie is loosely based, and actually an interesting story in his own right), Ben was born Benedict Hagan in Wurttemberg province, Germany, in 1841. His parents, a cabinet maker and an acrobat, brought him to the East Side of New York City in 1852; the family’s first lesson in new world economics came when a shopkeeper promised to change their life savings ($800 in gold) but instead stole it. 11-year-old Ben returned with a cohort and asked for the money. When the shopkeeper refused, they beat him to death. According to Ben, they took only the $800 they were due.

At age 17, already an experienced thief, Ben went to sea. It was during this time that he learned boxing. In New Orleans when the Civil War broke out, Ben became a spy and blockade runner for both sides, doing steady trade smuggling drugs and alcohol. He also joined a band of bounty jumpers—men who enlisted for the few hundred dollars bounty and then deserted, cash in hand.

By 1864, Ben was back in the job that brought him to Pithole—brothel bouncer. In Pithole he started out at Emma Fenton’s house, where he met up with French Kate. According to some sources, Kate had been a notorious spy, part of the Surrat circle in DC, and a friend of John Wilkes Booth. No evidence of this has ever turned up, but then, anti-government spy conspiracies are notoriously bad at record-keeping.

Ben and Kate left the Fenton establishment and went into business for themselves (a difficult separation, eventually requiring Ben to beat up Emma). Hogan’s Lager Beer Hall was successful, employing fifteen ladies. Over the door, Ben hung the sign “Ben Hogan, The Wickedest man in the World.”

The bull-necked Hogan could neither read nor write, but apparently could summon up charm when needed. When temperance ladies who attacked his bar were abused by the patrons, Ben said he wouldn’t allow rudeness to ladies in his presence. According to Hildegarde Dolson’s Great Oildorado he said, “Men, remember you too had a mother. Let’s drink to the health of these good ladies.”

In another oft-cited story, Ben, at a court appearance, explained that he was only running a “gymnasium where members of both sexes may enjoy wholesome exercise using the different parts of the body in such a way as to bring all the muscles into play.”

He worked in oil country with a traveling brothel, then in 1870 went that one better in Clarion County with Ben Hogan’s Floating Palace of Pleasure on an old river steamer, which traveled in and out of Clarion, Armstrong and Allegheny counties, depending on which county’s officers were trying to catch him at the time.

Through these years, he supplemented his income with the occasional prize fight and scam. When his brothel at Parker’s Landing burned down, Ben pursued a theatrical career, but became bored. He returned to Elk City in 1876 to set up a brothel, but was double-crossed by his mistress.

In 1877, while in New York City, Ben met and fell in love with a mission worker on Broadway. They married in the spring of ’78. But according to Asbury, Ben remained troubled. He had told her only part of his unsavory past (the part that didn’t involve pimping). Walking on Broadway on August 22, 1878, trying to decide how to unburden himself, Ben heard music coming from the Park Theater. He took a seat, hoping to see a show, and found himself instead in a revival meeting run by Charles Sawyer, famous as “the converted soak.”

According to Hogan’s own book (wonderfully reprinted by Margo Mong and available in fine local historical outlets) Hogan attended revivals for the next two evenings, spent a long troubled night asking his wife to read scripture to him, and emerged a newly converted man.

Did Ben Hogan really see the light? Well, he certainly stayed in the mission business longer than any other line of work he had ever pursued. There is a certain practical sincerity in his book, issued in 1887. His instructions on how to run a mission make it clear that he used his own background to spot men who would try to play missions as a scam. Although he whitewashes his gangland past a bit, he is free of the self-congratulations and righteousness of many new converts.

Ben and the missus staged revivals in the oil region, even preaching at the Methodist church in Franklin, but crowds were sparse and skeptical. So instead they spread the word successfully elsewhere. Famed revivalist Dwight L. Moody helped set them up with a mission in Chicago slums. One of Moody’s great backers was John D. Rockefeller-- interesting to think of the Reverend as a link between two men who captured much of the worst and best of oil country.


Dittman said...

Nicely done! Very enjoyable.

Peter A. Greene said...

Thanks-- this is one of those times I wish I'd kept the rough draft. In 2003 I had to whittle like crazy to get this down to the requisite <800 words.

Asbury's stuff is great, a window on a slice of American history that is largely ignored-- too bad, because it might help us get past the notion that we live in unusually difficult times. Dolson's Great Oildorado owes a rather large debt to The Golden Flood.

There was also a pulp paperback book about Hogan. Nobody can accuse him of having led a dull life.

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