Ben Hogan
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Ben Hogan

It is unfortunate, no doubt, but none the less true that the worst people are often the most interesting. Remove the villains from literature and you have alas, removed much of the spice also. We who are so good should be very thankful for the evil ones, they do provide us with so much entertainment. Through them we may sin vicariously, and in safety. We all hope for the millennium, but that the drama of life can be interestingly played without a villain is doubtful. There is a bravado in the out and out bad man that wins a little something within us. For the wicked man, sailing under his own colors, taking desperate chances in a desperate game we have a certain sort of respect. He is what he is, and you have fair warning to look out for him.

In the year 1869 there came to Warren County one who called himself "The Wickedest Man in the World" and gloried in the title. Ben Hogan may or may not have had just claim to the title, he took in a great deal of territory. His real name was Benedict Hagan and he was born in Wurtemberg, Germany. But he had it in for the Irish so he called himself "Ben Hogan" and most of the world who knew his fame, and it was not a small world, believed him to be straight from the Emerald Isle. He was, undoubtedly, the most infamous character in the early days of oil.

The Hagan family immigrated to America in 1852 when the promising young Ben was eleven years of age. The fond parents hoped their bright son would soon get into something in the new world. He did, within six years he was in the penitentiary, for burglary, a short term. The Hagans had a coming out party for Ben when his term expired and Ben Hogan, he soon assumed the altered name, was fairly launched in society.

During the Civil War Ben's beautiful character began to flower in all the glory of its fullness. In order not to show any partiality he acted as spy in both Confederate and Union Armies, was credited with killing half a dozen men in the way of business, indulged in the gentle game of bounty jumping, relieved many simple minded citizens of their cash by means of the famous old Shell Game and Three Card Monte. He was sentenced to death for crimes against the government and President Lincoln demonstrated that the wisest and best of men make bad blunders by issuing Ben a pardon.

When Ben Hogan arrived at Pithole with his gentlemanly young friend Bill Burke of Syracuse, a pickpocket and highwayman who had just come from a protracted visit with the warden of a penitentiary, Ben was, beyond any doubt,. one of the worst rascals unhung. Pithole, named for a hole in the earth which emitted heat and gasses has often been said to have equalled in outlawry and wildness any of the mushroom towns of the California gold rush. This, however, was a mistake, Pit-hole, in Venango County was worse than anything in California. His Satanic Majesty had arrived in Pithole with a full executive staff, perhaps his Majesty had come up out of the famous pit hole which many believed led straight to the infernal region. At any rate Satan was there, in full command, his lieutenants including highwaymen, gamblers, confidence men, brothel proprietors had recently reported to headquarters, "We have landed and have the situation well in hand."

Magic, infamous, alluring, millionaire making, heart breaking Pithole had but recently grown from nothing at all to a population of sixteen thousand within three months. Some men had been made wealthy in a week, others who had come to gain the whole world had lost their own souls. Fancy a town in the woods which in ninety days grew to such business importance its post office ranked third in the state of Pennsylvania, with only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh exceeding it.

From New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago speculators flocked to the miracle town seven miles up Pithole Creek, a shallow stream that runs into the Allegheny River eight miles above Oil City. I. N. Frazer had started things at Pithole when, on Jan. 7, 1865 his well, drilled on the Holmden farm broke loose with a torrent of oil, flowing six-hundred-and-fifty barrels a day. With oil at six dollars and fifty-nine cents, Mr. Frazer and his United States Oil Company stepped into immediate prosperity. Many others were perfectly willing to do the same. A half-acre lease on the same Holm-den farm realized bonuses of twenty-four thousand dollars before a well was drilled on the property. The fishing was good and everyone wanted to drop a line in that hole.

Hotels, theaters, saloons, drinking-dens, gambling places and "questionable resorts", about which there was no question at all, sprang up like mushrooms in an old cow pasture in a rainy September. When the morning mail came floundering in through a sea of mud with four hot and bespattered horses lugging the stage, lines of men extending more than a block would await their turns for letters at the general delivery window. Postmaster S. S. Hill had seven picked mail clerks helping him and this force often failed to keep up with the business and the oil lamps would be burning in the Pithole post office till far into the night.

Within twelve months of the time when the first well began to flow on that remote farm, Pithole had sixty-two hotels. The Danforth, standing on a lot subleased for a fourteen-thousand-dollar bonus was one of the most pretentious hostleries, with the Bonta and the United States close rivals. The Tremont, Buckley, Lincoln, Sherman, St. James, American, North East, Seo:ca, Metropolitan, Pomeroy and more than fifty lesser places of entertainment were in Pithole at its zenith, with every room taken and guests glad of a chance to sleep on tables, in the attic, on the office floor. The famous "field-bed" had its birth at Pithole at this time. A field bed was simply a large attic floor, or a large floor of almost any sort, strewn with straw which was, in cases of the more luxurious, fastidious field beds, covered with blankets. There were no divisions or subdivisions in these beds which were often fifty feet long. Men slept in them promiscuously, with their boots on often enough, and on nights when lodging in Pithole was at a particular premium the well dressed speculator who had leased a few acres for fifty thousand dollars slept next to the muddy teamster who exuded the fumes of Old Crow or Monongahela Rye with every snore. There was something very Democratic about the field bed. It was the means of bringing humanity very close together. And in the merry spring time, when boiled leeks, gathered along Pithole Creek, were a favorite dish with the oil men, a field bed must have been something to remember.

Old John Barleycorn was almost as plentiful as oil at Pithole. As the oil barrels were hauled out the whiskey barrels came in. Elaborate barrooms serving every drink that might be bought on Broadway lined the muddy streets with their rough plank walks. Piper Heidsick champagne was sold at five dollars a bottle. The promoter who wanted to mellow his prospects with good wine could buy it in Pithole, the best, at prices half as high again as elsewhere.

Flowing oil meant flowing money, and where the money is there will the gambler be also. With the oil business itself a gamble and every monied speculator accustomed to high stakes, the goddess of chance held high carnival at Pithole. There were as many gambling places as saloons and no hotel proprietor objected to a gentlemanly game of draw poker in his house, even if it lasted all night and kept the bar porter from getting his much needed sleep. At certain hotels the clerk inquired of the arriving gentleman guest, "With or without?", meaning, would he like his room with or without female company. Faro banks, "The Old Army Game", or "Chuck-A-Luck" took thousands of dollars nightly. The stakes at Monte Carlo were hardly larger than those at Pithole. There is a credited story of two "dead game sports" who threw dice all one night at Pithole at one thousand dollars a throw.

With its flimsy pine-board buildings, built with "balloon frames", its heaped rubbish, its oil soaked surroundings, flickering oil lamps in the saloons where bottles often flew through the air; with its wild, hard drinking population the town of Pithole presented the worst fire risk in the world. At night the narrow, muddy streets were thronged with noisy, leather booted men. "Plug" hats moved in the crowd among. the muddy caps of teamsters, from the saloons, came the muffled roar of loud-talking voices. The gaseous smell of oil was everywhere, mingling with the odor, of cigar smoke and the., sour stench of stale beer coming from the sawdust-covered floors of the saloons.

Three days and nights without a shooting in Pithole was unusual, a week without a murder was hardly known. Speculators carried large sums of cash in belts under their shirts. There were dark, narrow alleys into which men disappeared, never to be seen alive again. On Saturday nights the crack of a revolver drew only a small crowd.

The thrill and glamour of sudden wealth was in the air. On the dirty streets with their hurriedly built hotels, stores and houses a man would be pointed out who a month ago had less than a thousand dollars. Now he was worth half a million. More money poured into Pit-hole than ever was hauled out in barrels or pumped away through the pipe lines which were operated only a short time. The value of oil lands was reckoned in millions. Interests in single wells often brought hundreds-of-thousands of dollars.

The working man who came to Pithole without capital shared in the flowing prosperity. A good carpenter who could work fast named his own wages, teamsters received as much as thirty dollars a day. Every time a new gusher shot its oily spray into the sky prices went up with it. Men talked in millions, money madness had everyone in its grasp. A man who came to Pithole to take photographs invested a few dollars, made money, reinvested, became a wealthy oil operator before he knew it. Teamsters gave dollar tips to dining room girls to hurry their dinners. Operators handed ten and twenty dollar tips to boys who hurried them their telegrams. Men slept in hay mows with a thousand dollars in bills buttoned in inside pockets. Energetic newsboys selling New York papers, two days old, were used to receiving a quarter for a paper. Fiddlers in the wild dance halls made twenty dollars a night. Hotel chambermaids who saw that their guests were well taken care of in the matters of clean towels, hot water and fresh bed linen carried rolls of bills in their "dropstitch" stockings. Barbers in the better shops charged fifty cents for a quick shave, and expected another fifty as a tip. Can you imagine Pithole on a Saturday night!

Into the midst of this maelstrom in the year 1865 came Ben Hogan, "The Wickedest Man In The World", and proud of it. He could neither read nor write, nor did he know the alphabet. He was as much at home among the lower element of Pithole as a mud turtle in the bottom of a pond. Ben had no notion of making money from the legitimate production of oil, the operation of a hotel or anything legitimate. Ben Hogan was a parasite who attached himself to the weaknesses of human beings, lust and liquor were his stocks in trade and at Pithole he had brought his talents to a good market.

Ben Hogan, when he arrived in the hectic land of oil was a bull necked brute of a man with fists like bludgeons and arms on which giant muscles stood out in knots. He had fought in the ring; both with gloves and in the good old fashioned bare fisted manner. Hogan fought a number of men considered good and there is no record of his ever having been defeated at fisticuffs. His shoulders were so wide they completely filled a door, his chest protruded like a shelf. He wore a heavy, black, drooping mustache and allowed his hair to grow thick and low at the back, making his bull neck appear thicker than ever.

Hogan's black eyes had a wicked flash, they were the deep set eyes of a pugilist, with heavy cheekbones. Yet the man had a winning smile and a manner that made him friends, or at least softened his enemies. Physically he was the perfect animal of the fighting, predatory type, a cock sure brute with soft, mawkish ways where women were concerned. He was the type of man silly women admire, fall desperately in love with, the sort of man they enjoy having abuse them.

Hogan's first activity in Pithole was a boxing match with Jim Linton, whom he easily defeated. He then joined Diefenbach's show, giving gymnastic exhibitions. A little later he fought Fred Hill, winning the fight in a few rounds.

French Kate, a notorious character was at Pithole. She and Ben gravitated naturally together, being more or less interested in the same lines of high minded, useful human endeavor. With French Kate and Fanny White, Hogan opened a place of entertainment where liquor was served by girls in "Indecently short skirts" according to an old newspaper account. The skirts were four inches longer than those worn by the daughters of the best families in the year 1929.

The most exciting of the many prize fights held at Pithole occurred when Ben Hogan met Holliday, a much touted bruiser from Rochester. French Kate was at the ringside. As a spur to her lover, Hogan, she declared she would forsake him if he did not win. After seven wicked rounds Holliday threw up the sponge. Like most men of his type, Ben Hogan found it more healthful to have a frequent change of climate. Soon after his historic battle with Holliday he came over in Warren County and built a resort on the hilltops above Tidioute. The place was called Babylon and was all the name suggested.


Where there is easy and plentiful money, there also are the dives of sin in varied and alluring form. It has always been so, which is no reason in the world for saying it will always be so. Ben Hogan, having run afoul of the law in the tempestuous town of Pithole, and having worn out his welcome there, bethought himself of Tidioute as a likely scene for operations. There was a day in the history of Warren County when there was more money in Tidioute than in Warren. That time was not far from the date when Ben Hogan came over from Venango County intent on bestowing the beneficence of his presence on the county next door.

So Ben Hogan came to Babylon, in the green hemlock woods above the wealthy, busy river town of Tidioute and with French Kate as hostess and private secretary opened a very disorderly house.

One old gentleman now living in Warren County once visited Ben Hogan's place on Babylon Hill and distinctly recalls the event. He thinks it might easily have been the opening night, at any rate there was a great crowd and plenty going on. This man, who is now well past eighty years of age, claims he got into Hogan's resort by mistake, being on his way afoot to the region of Pithole where he had a job. Climbing Babylon Hill he saw the lights and heard the sounds of merriment. He thought it was an innocent country dance, even when he paid two dollars admission at the door, which was rather unusual for country dances that charged so much per dance after you got in. He tells his experiences.

"I'd heared of Ben Hogan, but I never seen him till that night, and then I didn't know him till somebody told me who he was. He was standin' up by the okestree, smokin' a cigar and smilin' and lookin' around. But every time a little argument started up on the floor he was right there, and things cooled down to wunst, most generally. He wasn't such a tall man as I mind him, but he had an awful pair of shoulders.

I set there watchin' 'em dance and thinkin', these is certainly the friendliest young ladies I ever see, and some of the prettiest too. They was plenty of rivalry, to see who would dance with the girls and it took a lot of coolin' down and fixin' up to keep things going smooth.

I see more'n one man toss a ten dollar bill onto the tray the waiter fetched around and heared him say, `Keep the change'." I guess they didn't have any change at that place, but they was certainly takin' in plenty.

Along later in the evenin' there was some wild carryin's-on on that dance floor, I'm tellin' you. I'd never seen nothin' like it. A man would take and hold up a glass of wine as high as his head and a girl would kick it clean agin' the ceilin' and smash the glass and everybody would just whoop and holler like all git out. Some girls would be flirting with two men to wunst, and that never did work well in this world. You see they was maybe as many as twenty men to every girl there, so it kept things hot and you never knowed what was going to happen."

The exact site of Hogan's house on Babylon Hill is on a bank some fifteen feet above the road, at a point one hundred feet below the old Pine Grove Tavern built and operated by David Wiggins. The old cellar of the house, though partly filled up with stone, is plainly discernible in this year of 1932. As an illustration of how notorious the resort must have been in the time of its hey day, there are a number of old gentlemen who can tell you exactly where it stood, they can tell you the exact location of the bar, the prices charged for dancing and other forms of entertainment, though none of them has ever been there. It just shows how much talk there was about it outside.

The windows of Hogan's house looked out across one of the most beautiful ravines in all Warren County, full of feathery green hemlock and pine. The high hills slope abruptly down to Dennis Run and the Allegheny. The altitude on the hilltops is more than five hundred feet above that of the river valley. The hill road is steep and long and winding, it was a stiff climb up from Tidioute. But Hogan evidently knew that you cannot keep a good man down, when there is entertainment of the sort he had to offer on the hilltops. And then, much of Ben's trade came the other way, across the hills from the region of McGraw and Pithole, not forgetting Red Hot, Cashup, and other oil towns where men and money were plentiful.

Ben came on to Babylon in advance and fitted up the place himself. The building was a good sized one equipped with a bar, a dance floor, private quarters for Ben and his mistress and a cellar completely stocked with a wide assortment of wines and liquors. When an interested resident of the region, coming by on horseback and having no notion who Hogan might be inquired what sort of place he was building the heavy jawed proprietor replied he was fitting up a ladies' seminary.

"Is that so," exclaimed the visitor, all innocent of Ben and his business. "Who is the professor here?"

"Professor Hogan," said Ben promptly.

Ben Hogan's place at Babylon opened that night with the wildest bacchanalia in the history of Warren County. The place had been well advertised. Ben sold tickets of admission till the place was jammed, then stood at the door with a loaded revolver to discourage late comers from attempting to force their way in. It was probably as rough a crowd as ever assembled within the boundaries of the county. Revolvers were plentiful, many a leather boot had a Bowie knife stuck in it. The dance hall reeked with whiskey, cigar smoke, the strong odor of musky perfumes worn by the girls.

Two fiddlers, a trombone, cornet and piano on a raised platform furnished the music. The guests vied for turns at dancing with the short-skirted girls. Along the wall the oil lamps jiggled as the whole house shook under the stamping feet of the dancers. Burly oil drillers picked up girls and danced about with them on their shoulders. Two sturdy bouncers, employed especially for the grand opening, earned their money as they escorted over enthusiastic visitors to the door. Dancing was fifty cents per couple for each ten minute set. It was the modern big city night club of 1932, with the varnish off.

The stage was all beautifully set for a couple of quick murders that first wild night at Ben Hogan's place on Babylon hill. But in spite of the bowie knives, the pistols, the whiskey and the girls no one was killed. Providence often persists in taking care of foolish human beings when they do their best to get into trouble.

It cost money to be a reveler at Hogan's that night. A ten dollar bill faded like a snowflake in the river. Some of the men there didn't need to worry about the price of whiskey or champagne, didn't count the change brought them by the scarlet lipped Lizzie Topley, noted for her good looks and of course tremendously popular. There were men at Ben Hogan's opening at Babylon who would not have liked their names published in the guest list. Some of their names are well enough known in Warren County history today. They were present at Ben's opening party only as investigators, or slummers. They wanted to see how the other half lived. In order to get close-up information it became necessary for the visitors to mingle more or less familiarly with the crowd, especially to drop into converation with the girls. When slumming there is nothing like getting one's information at first hand.

As the Babylonian night wore on and early roosters on scattered hill-top farms began to crow, the yellow glow of the oil lamps still shone forth from Hogan's bagnio. If the roistering at midnight was furious it was frantic now. Above the din which clattered from the dance hall the high squeak of fiddles and the blare of the cornet stabbed the night air. The pounding bass of the piano thumped in tireless rhythm. Exuberent gentlemen outdoors shot off their revolvers in the air, in accord with the general impulse toward gaiety. As the night grew late and the fun grew faster Ben found that square dancing was no longer practicable. The men were too wild, there was too much stealing of partners. So the orchestra played the popular waltzes of the day, and more of the men finished their dances with the same partner they started out with.

Lizzie Topley, Kitty Bowers, Pittsburgh Ann, "Dolly the Swede" with her great bank of blonde curls, black eyed Carrie, Champagne Mamie who would drink nothing but wine, Pearl, Edna and all the other members of Ben's merry band were danced around till they could scarcely stand. And still the fiddlers played, the trombone trumpeted, the piano thumped, whiskey flowed, the crowd shouted, laughed and jostled and the dance went on.

A pearl-green dawn came filtering through the aromatic hemlocks, the woods above Dennis Run was a-chirp with birds, all the sounds and smells of a sweet woodland morning on the hilltops freshened the air. But inside Ben Hogan's house of sin was the sour reek of whiskey and beer and stale smoke. A coming sun paled the still-burning oil lamps on the walls. There is a pure sweetness in the morning air that puts to shame the foul stench of any debauch. It is much easier to be wicked at night than in the morning. Few crimes are committed between five and nine. The fresh face of the dawn calls men away from unseemly revelry. Only lost souls go on dissipating after seven o'clock.

Down in the thriving town of Tidioute, little more than a mile away, church bells were ringing out on the pure Sabbath morning air. The good people of the town were on their way to preaching. Little girls in beautiful white dresses, with ribbons in their hair, their mothers carrying parasols, passed along the plank sidewalks. Men in high silk hats, bearing canes, accompanied well dressed wives. Tidioute was a rich little town, just then growing rapidly richer each day. That morning one of the preachers in Tidioute prayed for "The guilty souls whose habitations of sin are close about us." It was going rather far for a preacher to say that in those days, most preachers would be calling down fiery punishment on such sinners.

From its wild, initiatory night till its closing, nine months later, Hogan's far famed house at Babylon did a money-making business. In the short space of its existence it made a reputation which has survived the exciting days of oil by more than half a century. It was a fungi product of the mushroom days in which it sprung.

Ben Hogan's Lecture in Tidioute

After his brief, but memorable stay in Warren County, Ben Hogan continued in his career of wickedness till September of the year 1878, when he suddenly reformed and made a complete change in his way of living. Ben was in New York, on his way to Paris, to make sure if he really had clear title to the name of "Wickedest Man In The World." He was soon to sail for the French capital when, sauntering down Broadway, he was attracted by singing coming from a public hall. Hogan went in, it was an evangelistic meeting, he was impressed with what the preacher said, carried away emotionally by the songs.

Next evening Hogan went again to the evangelist's meeting, a few nights later he signed a pledge to give up all bad habits, including drink. To the dumfounded amazement of all who knew him, Hogan stuck to his colors, actually reformed. He undertook to learn the alphabet, then attacked the tremendous task of learning to read and write. He dictated his autobiography, which had a wide sale, then took to the lecture platform.

A few years later he returned to Tidioute, hired the opera house, within a mile and a half of his former famous Babylon, and advertised that he would tell the story of his life from the stage. The whole town and countryside flocked to hear Ben Hogan talk. The name of the man was an irresistible drawing card. "Ben Hogan, proprietor of a `free and easy,' prize fighter, supposed murderer, gambler. What would he say! Something interesting, of course." The preachers had received a special invitation. Rev. Marks, Presbyterian pastor in Tidioute for more than thirty years, was present, he had just come to town. Dozens of men now living in and about Tidioute heard Ben Hogan speak that night.

There were some men in the audience who hoped Ben wouldn't go into unnecessary details of his old life, giving a lot of useless dates and names. But nobody knew what Ben would say, so curiosity filled the house to the doors.

Hogan was charitable, if he recognized any faces he had seen within the gates of Babylon he made no sign, just talked about his own sins, which were as scarlet. The fist that had shattered many a jaw now pounded a table to emphasize its owner's sincerity. Toward the finish he asked the preachers present to come up on the stage with him. The preachers wisely declined. Hogan then very unwisely attempted to abuse the clergy, and made a failure of it. There is nothing more pitiable than an ignorant man attempting to abuse a cultured man, the abuse always rebounds to the disadvantage of the former.

Ben Hogan continued to lecture, and sell his books. Later on he did a little preaching. To his credit be it said that Ben Hogan effected his reformation when still a young man, thirty-seven years of age. Reform at fifty is not so difficult, reform at sixty is no less than natural and reformation at sixty-five may be suspicioned of being inability.

But Ben Hogan reformed when yet a young man, with the full-boded passions of young manhood still strong within him. And thereafter his name was not connected with crime or immorality.

He finally went to Chicago, where he owned and operated "Hogan's Flop House," a lodging for the night, for poor men. He died there in April, 1916.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 349-354: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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