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Books by
Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Cooking the Books

by Clay Coppedge

Frederick Albert Cook was a doctor, explorer and Texas oil promoter who probably should have stuck with doctoring. He was a surgeon with Robert Peary's Antarctic Expedition from 1897-99 and led expeditions to Mt. Everest in 1903 and 1906.

Today, he's still best known for claiming to have been the first person to reach the North Pole, a claim later disputed by Peary and others. Cook was no stranger to controversy then, and he never lost touch with it for the rest of his life. He claimed he was the first person to climb Alaska's Mount McKinley in 1906, but photographs he took to support his claim didn't. His companion, Ed Barrill, later recanted his corroboration of the feat.

In September of 1909, Peary and Cook returned from the Arctic within five days of each other and announced to their backers and the wider world that they had reached the pole. Peary said he got there on April 6, 1909. Pretty good, but not good enough, claimed Cook — he was there on April 21, 1908. Peary commenced a campaign to discredit Cook, igniting a debate that has never been fully resolved.

The New York Oil Company named Cook its president in 1917, but he resigned a year later and headed west to work as a geologist. He formed the Texas Eagle Oil Company in hopes of exploiting Salt Creek's "Big Dutch" gusher in Wyoming, but the price of Wyoming oil cratered, forcing the Texas Eagle into bankruptcy.

Three years later, Cook convinced a group of Fort Worth investors to finance a new multi-million dollar enterprise, the Revere Oil Company, but the company earned only a fraction of its costs. Investors wanted their money back, creditors wanted the money they were owed, and the company slipped into receivership.

Undeterred by these setbacks, Cook soon launched another company, the Petroleum Producers Association (PPA). PPA took several struggling companies, consolidated them into one, and sold stock to unwitting dupes gleaned from a "sucker list" of investors that Cook purchased from other oil companies for a couple hundred dollars apiece. He offered the designated suckers a chance to trade their failed stock for PPA stock if they agreed to pay a modest twenty-five percent conversion fee. Cook's profits didn't come from the oil fields but from the fees, and from shady marketing tactics. PPA set itself up as a petroleum company but it operated without the expenses of actual oil fields or oil field workers.

Instead, Cook's company employed fifty-three full-time stenographers, two addressograph operators, two printers, and a full-time mail boy. The new "multigraph" machines printed from twenty-four thousand to thirty thousand pieces of literature per day, an early twentieth century version of robo calls.

Cook and his mad ad man, Seymour "Alphabet" Cox, who was already under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and Post Office Department, blanketed the state with brochures and letters. Cox described "a vast secret oil field, a place where many of the big oil sands converge, forming a basin of oil so much larger than anything yet discovered that bringing in the first well will startle the oil men of the world and start a stampede for the district such as had never been heard of."

Cox's hype and hyperbole caught the attention of frontier journalist Don Hampton Biggers. Biggers, who had been reporting and writing about Texas for more than thirty years. After hearing what Cook and Cox were selling and how they were selling it, he wrote a story for the Ranger Record under the headline: "Something is Wrong. Who is to Blame? What are YOU going to Do About It?" even after someone stole his notes and records for the story.

Biggers went on to co-found the Independent Oil News and Financial Reporter, which specialized in exposing fraudulent promotion schemes. When threatening Biggers with violence didn't work, a group of promoters got together and bought the paper, through an agent, for twenty-three thousand dollars. The paper's focus soon switched to promoting the schemes of the new owners.

Biggers turned his evidence of skullduggery over to the federal district attorney in Fort Worth, who had no trouble exposing, charging and convicting Cook and his band of scammers.

The prosecution produced two hundred and eighty three witnesses and gathered voluminous stacks of evidence to support charges that Cook and the others had "cooked the books" and claimed income from wells that never produced a drop of oil.

The defense offered only alcohol — several defense attorneys were said to be drunk during the trial — and slurred insults.

The court fined Cook twelve thousand dollars and sentenced him to fourteen years in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth.

"You have at last got to the point where you can't bunko anybody," District Court Judge John Killits told him.

Cook was paroled in 1930 and pardoned in 1940 by President Franklin Roosevelt as an act of mercy for a man who would die shortly afterwards at age seventy five.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" May 16, 21 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • It Was That Kind of Railroad 4-17-21
  • The Bettina Experiment 3-17-21
  • The Midnight Ride of Bob Slaughter 2-22-21
  • The Many Lives of Ray Bourbon 1-18-21
  • The "Peculiar Emblem" of Texas 12-28-20

    See more »

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