Since today is President’s Day, our first story, in a more serious vein than usual, relates to that commemoration. No one likes war, yet some wars need to be
waged and someone has to lead. The citizenry and the congress are often opposed to any given conflict and George W.’s war awhile back was no different. He had
to lobby hard for congressional agreement and finally got it. He then lobbied foreign governments for support but only one helped us. After an apparent quick
victory, things started to stall. Casualties mounted and it became apparent our forces were too small. Many in congress who had supported the war just a few years
earlier turned against it and accused the commander in chief of misleading them. Many critics called him incompetent, an idiot and even a liar. The press joined in
the chorus with a vengeance and his popularity plummeted. But he stood firm, supporting the troops and endorsing the struggle. More troops were added, advisers were
shuffled, new generals appointed and things began to improve. The critics said that was just George W.’s good luck and a temporary condition. Then, unexpectedly, the
enemy collapsed. So on that historic day, Oct. 19, 1781, in a place called Yorktown, George Washington, who had been reappointed Commander in Chief of the Continental
Army by the Continental Congress in May 1775, accepted the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, ending the Revolutionary War. This is a reminder of how little things have
changed since 1781; and also a reminder of George Washington’s birthday a week from today.
Today’s history returns to the raucous early days of the oil industry in Mexico, circa WW I, when banditry was rampant and riff-raff from the U.S. flocked to the
oil fields. One of these was “Monte” Michaels, a tall handsome, blue-eyed, Pennsylvanian with a mop of curly brown hair, a standout wherever he went. In his early
20s, he appeared in Tampico shortly before WW I. He was a competent driller at that young age, having worked in the Texas oil fields, a hard man and destined to become
the leader of the most feared bandit gang in the country. For a time he led a quiet life working as a driller around Tampico, drifting from one company to another.
Falling into bad company, he began frequenting cantinas and gambling halls where he became expert at scamming suckers via 3- Card Monte, from which he drew his nickname.
There is no record of his real given name. His work was satisfactory, but he was constantly in trouble with his crews and management. And wherever he worked, oil field
equipment had the habit of disappearing virtually overnight.
After a year or so, Monte showed up one day as a drilling contractor with a full complement of tools, rig, boilers and a crew. An independent operator hired him to
drill on a lease adjoining that held by a major American company. Following rig up, the major moved a rig in and spudded an offset well and a rivalry developed between crews.
Michael’s pirated rig ran into trouble at 3,000 ft, when his boilers leaked steam so badly, they couldn’t maintain pressure. Now Monte was to get a bonus if his hole got to
TD first, which he needed to keep his tough crew in line, so he tried to get the competing driller to slow down, but with no success. The offset rig reached the top of the
limestone pay several hundred feet ahead of Monte’s and shutdown to switch from rotary to cable tools to drill into the pay zone. During such a switch, it was customary for
crews to knock off for lunch and the competing crew went to their camp a half-mile from the location to eat. As it was a hot day, they had a long, restful lunch period.
When they returned to their rig, they found Monte had skidded their hot boilers, connections and all, over to his rig and was drilling away. The outraged crew protested
vigorously, but Monte stood his ground, with his hands on two six-guns, and dared them to come and take back what he called their “abandoned” property. He kept their boilers
until his hole was down and left them standing for them after he completed his well. The law never caught up with Monte for that stunt, but he was blacklisted and could get no
further work from reputable companies.
The hot boiler caper was his last effort to work for others, so he went into business for himself. Claiming title to a town lot at Zacamixtle, he proceeded to drill a
60,000 bpd gusher, from which he didn’t make a cent, because he couldn’t sell the oil. The International Petroleum Co., Jersey Standard’s Mexican affiliate, and other
majors wouldn’t buy his crude and his property was quickly drained by their production from adjacent lots. Subsequently, it was learned that Monte had no valid title to
his lot and that it was actually federal land.
Always envious of the majors and their power, that was the trigger that turned Monte Michaels into a full-time renegade. Organizing a mixed Anglo/Mexican gang, he began
to raid and rob, striking at oil camps and paymasters, particularly those of International Petroleum Co. He used his fists and guns freely in the camps, since the police
and local authorities were afraid of him and wouldn’t interfere. He also got into cattle rustling, particularly those owned by oil operators. For example, he and his gang
stole many cattle from the ranch of E. J. Doheny, the California oil producer who had also been very successful in finding Mexican oil. Finally, he went too far and dynamited
a special train carrying the payroll of the International Petroleum Co., which killed seven people. This finally spurred the government to action and troops attacked the gang’s
hideout scattering them and recovering a large store of loot, but Monte was not there at the time. Then he made a final big booboo — he attempted to rob the home of Ed Watt,
superintendent of E. J. Doheny’s ranch near the town of Ebano. Watt happened to be home and shot Monte smack through the head. Monte took unbounded joy in his work and always
wore a smile. According to Watt, he had a big smile on his face when he collected that fatal bullet.
Monte did have some Robin h\Hood qualities that won him the respect and loyalty of poor peons and Indians. He gave them money and helped them in other ways, and he always
claimed never to have robbed anyone but the rich oil companies or their representatives. Nevertheless, even some of his victims found him a likeable cuss. He was thus
able to visit villages, towns and even the city of Tampico with impunity, without fear of being turned in for the sizeable price on his head. That heroic image was shown
by the signal honor paid him on his death. His body was taken to Tampico and placed in a box in front of city hall, where thousands came to pay their last respects.
Americans living in Tampico, some of whom Monte had robbed, even raised a purse and he was given a first class funeral equal to that which any member of their colony might
expect at the hands of its members.
Investor’s Business Daily (internet), George W.’s War, June 20, 2008
Hamilton, Charles E., Early Day Oil Tales of Mexico, Houston, Gulf Publishing Co., 1966, 172-176
St. Louis Post Dispatch, Monte Michaels, Recently Slain, No Ordinary Bandit,
May 28, 1922 New York Times, American Bandits to Die, June 7, 1922