Rules to live by: Never eat anything bigger than your head. Never shoot pool at a place called Pop’s. Never eat food at a place called Mom’s. To that list let me add: Never, ever, trust a doodlebug.1
During the first half of the 20th century, pretty much everyone knew a doodlebug was a fellow who had a device that could supposedly find oil underground (it’s also been the name for a motorscooter, a go kart-type midget race car and several different insects). Sometimes it was what they called the contraption instead, making the operator a doodlebugger.
Gentle Reader has already met a doodlebug: John W. Frank, the General Manager of the 1908-1910 attempts to strike oil near Petaluma. We don’t know whether he tried to use an oil-finding gizmo here but after Frank left Sonoma County he went to Canada, where he said he had invented just such a device. A 1913 British Columbia mining newsletter described how he scammed two different groups of investors and then found himself pushed out when rival grifters made a better sales pitch:
…Failing at Vancouver Island, Frank came to Vancouver, interested W. Innes Paterson and others in his scheme, went out to Pitt Meadows and located the site for the first well. Frank and the company then had a difference, and another pair of wizards were located…who claimed to have in the “mineometer” a machine that would lick Frank’s machine hollow. These gentlemen appeared on the scene and the work done at the Paterson well has since been based on this instrument. Its record here, however, has shown it to be as big a liar as Frank’s machine.
None of these wacky devices could find oil (of course) and when asked how they worked, the operators usually begged off by mumbling it was a secret or because it was patented or patent pending. Reporters sometimes coaxed a doodlebug into spouting mumbo-jumbo about mixing a compound or discovering a stone which had an affinity with petroleum deposits hundreds or thousands of feet below, such as a guy in 1919 who explained, “all mineral substances give off certain rays which [react] when connecting with a sufficiently sensitive and ‘sympathetic’ substance'”.
Over time the detecting machines grew increasingly elaborate. Early descriptions mentioned wooden boxes concealing an “oil magnet,” or pendulums with something sloshing around inside which supposedly reacted to gravitational shifts. In the 1920s the business was modernized; the old magnets were replaced with electromagnets and the pendulums became more like clockworks, using counterweights and sometimes a proprietary German-made chemical. Bells and whistles were added to impress the gullible, and one of the best account I’ve found involved a doodlebug who popped up west of Petaluma.
Owen Durham, who was a well-known figure in Petaluma’s poultry history (the Petaluma Co-operative Hatchery started in his barn) had an earlier career as an oilfield roughneck in Texas and South America, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when neighbors wanted him to drill a test well. They didn’t find oil, but a bio written by his son described what happened:2
In the early spring of ’36 he was approached by some entrapreneurs who wanted to hire him to drill an oil well. It would go down a couple of miles further out on Bodega Avenue, close to a little settlement known as Two Rock. The financiers had been pulled into the project by a huckster with a doodle bug; a short, bald man with a bulb nose and pursed lips who wore khaki clothes. His conman paraphernalia was built into the dashboard of his model T. He’d stoked their enthusiasm up to a fever pitch. He’d lured them into taking an oil well gamble. His dashboard was lined with a bell, flashing lights, gauges, and switches. From various flashes, ringing sounds, and moving arrows inside the gauges, the huckster derived all kinds of positive information. The model T was parked over a colossal underground lake of oil.
Stroll through online newspaper archives with an eye out for doodlebugs and prepare to stumble over crazy stories like that regularly. In 1952 the Argus-Courier ran a wire service item about a couple of guys who used army surplus radio tuners worth about $3.50 to scam a Denver businessman out of $50k. (They claimed to have found it inside a flying saucer from Venus that had crashed along with the bodies of 34 child-sized aliens, which makes the story ever so much more believable.) A doodlebug in Sherman Oaks said a burglar had stolen a machine he invented; he described it to police as looking like a cash register with a row of dials on the back. Oh, and be careful, should they find it – he boobytrapped it with dynamite caps to explode if tampered with.
Doodlebug inventors were latecomers to the fortune hunting game. Before petroleum became so sought after, conmen were saying they had gadgets that could find metals, precious or otherwise. The ad shown at right appeared in East Coast newspapers when the California Gold Rush was taking off; the “goldometer” cost $3.00. The Press Democrat in 1935 reported someone in Hayward announced he had located the buried treasure of legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta but had yet to start digging, for reasons unexplained. Trying to find investors first?
And before he became an “oil locator” at Petaluma, John W. Frank was in the 1905 newspapers (including the Petaluma Morning Courier) for claiming to find the Pacific Mail steamer Rio de Janeiro, which sank about a mile outside the Golden Gate four years earlier. The cargo was supposedly worth $1+ million and included $80k in gold. He told reporters he had invented a water depth sounding device (the earliest crude experiments with sonar were still several years in the future) and his newly formed company, the Mineral Discovery Co. of San Francisco, had used it to locate the wreck. Before starting salvage ops, however, they would like to sell $75,000 in stock, please. Spoiler alert: Nothing more appeared about the company and the Rio de Janeiro has never been found.
Before and after all those elaborate gadgets became popularized as the “scientific” way to find stuff underground or underwater, there were legions of people who believed they could do the same things just by holding a stick or a simple pendulum. In other words: Dowsers.
The notion that some folks have a special power called “radiesthesia” goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages (this short video covers its history and also why it’s hokum) and is variously explained away as having heightened sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field, radiation, mysterious and undetectable energy patterns, “vibrational frequencies” or being a plain old Divine Gift.
There’s no bonafide survey on how many Americans believe in dowsing (at least, that I can find) but there are internet opinion polls that suggest we’re pretty equally divided as to whether or not it works. That seems plausible to me; it seems nearly everyone or a friend had an Uncle Dave who infallibly found water by walking around with a forked stick. Naturally, he was wed to Aunt Sue, who could predict the gender of a fetus by waving a pendulum over the expectant mother. Yet those family tales never seemed to include how many times Dave’s water-witching was wrong/unproven, or when Sue’s predicted boy wasn’t.
Nor is it often mentioned when dowsers make a swing and miss on a really bonkers claim, such as trying to find missing persons or diagnose diseases. There was a famed mid-century dowser named Henry Gross who boasted of being able to locate aquifers hundreds of miles away by waving his dowsing rod over a map. Likewise in 1942, the Nazis tried to detect Allied battleships in the North Atlantic by holding a pendulum over a map.
In more recent times Sonoma County has continued to embrace doodlebugging and divination. At the Santa Rosa Health and Harmony festivals during the 1990s there was always a wide selection of crystal pendulums for sale and at least one vendor would take a Polaroid photo of your aura. Government workers were also at the ready to provide inexplicable services. The County Farm Advisor dowsed for many land owners in the 1950s and according to a May 9, 1988 story in the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa water dept. trucks still always carried L-shaped brass welding rods so the six employees designated as “water witches” could locate pipes beneath the streets.
Whether or not someone believed any of that was the Real Deal might have depended on what local newspaper you read. Over the last fifty years the Argus-Courier rarely mentioned dowsing; the exception was a 1976 column in Bill Soberanes’ wonderful series, “My Fascinating World of People,” where he profiled a dowser and “pyramidologist.” The photogenic Soberanes sat inside a little pyramid frame with his subject and learned many amazing things, such as how a lock of hair can lead a dowser to find the noggin from whence it came. And that wasn’t all: “Bill Cox also said that the human mind could be the answer to space travel. Today there is no form of energy that could transport us to other galaxies, in less than billions of years. The untapped power of the human mind could transport us through the power of disintegration and then reassemble us when we reach our destination.”
By contrast, during the same time the PD has printed many news stories on dowsing, both written locally and reprints from elsewhere. Often these were front page features, with the most recent appearing in 2021.
Dowsers could count on the credulous newspaper to accept their success stories without verification and advance their pseudoscience theories as to how it works. In a 1977 article a local dowser said, “One out of nine human bodies has enough positive charge in their bodies that it sets up a magnetic field. The rod is merely the antenna to pick up the attraction, a negative charge believed to have been generated by water moving under ground and building up static electricity.” In the same piece, geologists are criticized for being “hidebound by their theories.” (My favorite part of that story is a dowser remarking, “Say the well is 100 feet – it’ll go up and down 100 times and shiver each time before it starts again.” Apparently water is unfamiliar with the metric system.)
And while it didn’t quite rise to old-fashioned doodlebuggery, the PD reported in 1993 a Sonoma County entrepreneur had invented a chemical to inject into grape vines and kill the dreaded phylloxera. Trouble was, he refused to reveal what was in it so viticultural experts wouldn’t deal with him. A Sonoma man had better luck and was charging grape growers $30/hr to wave his dowsing rods in their vineyards and detect which vines had insufficient energy that made them susceptible to infection by the louse. If found to be poorly, he would sell them a wire “French coil” to wrap around the “invisible section of the vine where energy enters the plant.” Each one cost four or five bucks, according to the PD.
1 The first part comes from B. Kliban’s cartoon collection “Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head & Other Drawings” and the following two rules were added by screenwriter Stanley Weiser in his 1987 movie “Wall Street.” And yes, I, too, am surprised I felt compelled to document this.
2 From Kittyhawk to the Moon: The Life, Times and Heritage of a Texas Oilman; W. O. Durham, 2007; pg. 406