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Opinion >  Column

100 years ago in Spokane: The court ‘had no other choice’ but to dismiss charges in the South Hill faux-oil boom

 (Spokane Daily Chronicle archives)
(Spokane Daily Chronicle archives)

Spectators cheered wildly when a federal commissioner dismissed the oil fraud charges against Mr. and Mrs. Alfred L’Ecuyer.

The commissioner ruled just moments after the defense rested its case.

“I don’t think the facts as a whole warrant binding over these defendants,” the commissioner said. “They will be discharged. … I had no other choice in the matter.”

The L’Ecuyers were accused of “planting” fake oil in their Southeast Boulevard basement, resulting in months of “oil fever” in which drilling rigs popped up on the South Hill and investors purchased stock in Alfred L’Ecuyer’s oil company.

However, much of the evidence against the L’Ecuyers was circumstantial or shaky. For instance, a gardener claimed he saw L’Ecuyer carrying two buckets of what appeared to be oil down to his basement through an external entrance – but he couldn’t remember exactly what day he had seen it. L’Ecuyer later testified the only entrance to his basement was inside the house.

Meanwhile, a number of neighbors testified they had been troubled for years by gassy fumes and oily seepages in their basements.

The case was largely based on a U.S. Bureau of Mines analysis that the oil was a mix of kerosene and cooking oil, in other words, “grocery store oil.”

Yet expert testimony was mixed. A Washington State College chemistry professor analyzed the oil and agreed that it was grocery store oil. But a Gonzaga University chemistry professor was equally certain it was natural oil seeping up from a well.

The ruling did not imply that Spokane’s “oil fever” was justified.

Even if the oil was natural, chemists said it was wood alcohol, not petroleum.

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