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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Oilfield Voodoo

by Clay Coppedge

In the 1930s, a Travis County farmer named Charles Rolff invented something he called a doodlebug machine to locate large underground deposits of oil. His gadget consisted of a "secret" tube, sealed at both ends. At the bottom end of the tube was an opening to insert a 15-inch fork. At the top end were two whalebone handles which the operator used to point the fork at the land to tell whether there was oil or not. Only certain people were supposed to possess the "requisite attributes" to operate a doodlebug.

The doodlebug worked on generally the same principles as a divining rod, which consisted of a Y-shaped twig, or sometimes two wires, that "water witchers" used to find underground water. Some people called them "wiggle sticks" because they allegedly wiggled, or vibrated, when they sensed underground water.

Rolff and a group of investors sued the Pearl Oil Company for proceeds and royalties in 1935, claiming that the company used his doodlebug to find oil on a two-hundred-acre tract of land in Rusk County. A Williamson County jury decided that the presence of a doodlebug was irrelevant. The jury didn't say the doodlebug didn't work, just that it didn't matter whether it did or not in that particular case.

An appeals court ruled against Rolff. In his written opinion, chief justice James McClendon said, "We take judicial knowledge of the scientific fact that there is no virtue whatever in the 'doodle bug' in locating oil or other substance underneath the earth."

In the early days of oil exploration, a doodlebug or divining rod made as much sense to some people as geology and seismology or any of the other emerging oilfield technologies. In establishing the Rule of Capture as the water law of the land, the Texas Supreme Court in 1904 had deemed that underground water is too "mysterious, secret and occult" to regulate. If underground water smacked of voodoo, so did underground oil.

Around the same time that Rolff was promoting his doodlebug, two men named Ralph Malone and Vivian Buie were hawking a gadget that operated on the same occult principles as Rolff's. They ended up in court in 1935 as defendants charged with swindling Houston investors out of $20,000. Buie, described in one newspaper account as the "brains" of the operation, was sentenced to five years for mail fraud. Malone, who supplied something other than brains, got three years.

Their lawyers, Arthur Heemann and C. Ray Smith, not only lost the case but they also ended up as defendants on mail fraud charges. The losing and indicted lawyers hired some fellow lawyers who said their clients were ethical and hardworking attorneys, not swindlers, even though one of them, Heemann, had been charged five years earlier for promoting a bogus outfit called the Oil Investors Company. The judge dismissed all charges.

By the late 1940s, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating Malone for hawking a device he called "a Magnet Logger." The SEC concluded: "The claims made for its efficacy in discovering oil were the usual ones and were false." A 1951 injunction put an end, once and for all, to Malone's shenanigans.

But oilfield fraudsters changed with the times. When America became fascinated with UFOs, two men named Silas Newton and Leo GeBauer claimed to have a machine the government had developed-in secret, of course-that "operated on the same magnetic principles as the flying saucers."

Newton and GeBauer allegedly came across this device after an alleged spaceship allegedly crashed in Aztec, New Mexico in 1948, a year after the Roswell incident. Newton and GeBauer convinced author Frank Scully they were telling the truth, so he wrote a book called Behind the Flying Saucers that sold sixty thousand copies, making it one of the best-selling "science" books of the year. True magazine checked out the book's claims in 1952 and deduced that Newtown and GeBauer were "oil con artists who had coaxed a gullible Scully."

In October of 1952, the FBI arrested Newton and GeBauer after a Denver industrialist filed suit against the two alleged scientists. A headline in the October 14 Denver Post announced the news: "Saucer Scientist in $50,000 Fraud." They went to trial in November of 1953 and were found guilty of fraud and conspiracy. The UFO-inspired oil-finding machine turned out to be nothing more than a box with a bunch of cool looking dials and switches made from surplus radio parts. They received probation but were ordered to make restitution to their gullible investors.

More than twenty years before that, in 1936, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) published the inaugural edition of its journal Geophysics. The lead article warned young geophysicists about employing "black magic" or "doodle-bug" methods based on unproven properties of oil, minerals or geological formations.

However, authors Charles C. Bates, T. F. Gaskell and R. B. Rice "in their 1982 book, Geophysics in the Affairs of Men, noted that the term "doodlebugger" had taken on a new meaning by the 1950s.

"Twenty years later, it was a badge of honor to be known as a doodlebugger, i.e., the field personnel of geophysical crews," the authors noted. "Still later, the term was applied to everyone who worked in exploration geophysics."

Doodlebuggers, after a scandalous beginning, were finally legit.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" November 16, 2020 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Apocalypse on the San Saba 10-16-20
  • The Real Texas Jack 9-16-20
  • Edgar Davis: Visionary Wildcatter 8-16-20
  • Casner Cold Case 7-11-20
  • The Fleeting Fame and Lasting Legacy of Bobby Morrow 6-10-20

    See more »

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