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Federal soldiers drag a dying John Wilkes Booth from the burning barn where he had taken refuge after assassinating Lincoln. (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

John Wilkes Booth: An Oily Character

By Sarah Richardson
February 2019 • American History Magazine

CAMEO

Before plotting murder, actor tried his hand at wildcatting

JOHN WILKES BOOTH at 24 had the charisma of a young Johnny Depp. Graceful, daring, and handsome, with flashing dark eyes, he was the youngest son of a prominent theatrical family. Father Junius Brutus Booth had emigrated from England to make his name as a Shakespearean, and succeeded. Older brothers Edwin and Junius Jr. already were established thespians in 1845 when John, 17, first trod the boards. Physical vitality alone made the youngest Booth memorable, and by 1858 he was a star and a celebrity. However, in January 1864, John Wilkes Booth quit theater to seek his fortune in Franklin, Pennsylvania. In that boom town, he strutted his hour as an oil well speculator before coming to a different notoriety for assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Long after Booth’s death by gunshot after being cornered in a burning barn in Port Royal, Virginia, rumors swirled that Lincoln’s killer had made a fortune as a wildcatter. The truth is far different.

Raised in rural Bel Air, Maryland, John Wilkes Booth so ardently embraced the white supremacist cause that he attended the 1859 hanging of abolitionist insurrectionary John Brown at Charles Town, Virginia.

In 1863, Booth was performing in theaters up and down the Eastern Seaboard when a mysterious hoarseness threatened his livelihood.Whether caused by poor vocal technique or bronchitis, the condition caused Booth to book fewer appearances. After starring as Richard III in St. Louis in January 1864, he shucked theater hoping to strike it rich in oil.

Booth’s Pennsylvania well went bust and he returned to DC and his fellow conspirators.
(Library of Congress)

In seeking another career, Booth also was joining a wave of Americans looking to prosper on the new frontier of energy. To light their lamps, American households needed liquid fuel. To lubricate machinery, American factories needed oil. Oil came mainly from sperm whales, killed and rendered at sea. Whaling had so depleted that species that sperm oil had become costly. An alternative was a flammable glop oozing to the surface around western Pennsylvania in patches called oil seeps. Native Americans had long burned the stuff, sopping it up in blankets wrung into containers. Speculators were eyeing coal gas, camphine, a byproduct of turpentine distillation, and other fuels. However, “rock oil” not only burned well—emitting “a dainty light; the brightest and yet the cheapest in the world,” a booster said—but also was a swell lubricant.

Oil, which often seeped near salt deposits, went unexploited for lack of a practicable way to extract it until 1859, when the tenacious Edwin Drake, 59, drilled the first commercial oil well. Investors had brought the former railroad worker in on a well at Titusville, Pennsylvania. His first hole, drilled with a bare shaft, caved in, trapping the mechanism. Drake encased the shaft in a protective metal sheath. His design succeeded, proving deep drilling could work. Within a year of Drake’s strike, 500 drilling rigs were lining the 16 miles of Oil Creek between Titusville and Oil City.

“The whole population are crazy almost,” investor George Bissell wrote. “I never saw such excitement. The whole western country are thronging here and fabulous prices are offered for lands in the vicinity where there was a prospect of getting oil.”

Booth joined the oil rush, convincing two theatrical pals from Cleveland to come in as well. Their Dramatic Oil Company leased 3.5 acres outside Franklin. The wildcatters called their would-be gusher “Wilhelmina” after one partner’s wife. After a brief sojourn onstage, Booth returned to Franklin in May 1864 with banker Joseph Simonds, an acquaintance from Boston. Workers, speculators, and teamsters hired to haul oil so crowded Franklin that the two had to room with others.

Booth swanned around town, Confederate zealotry on full display; in a barbershop he upbraided a black man for wearing a hat. The man retorted that he bared his head for ladies, so outraging Booth that a companion said he was sure that if the actor had had a weapon he would have killed the fellow.

The Wilhelmina scarcely delivered, though Booth spent another couple of thousand dollars trying to improve extraction. The preferred method, a precursor to fracking, involved detonating explosives in a laggard well in hopes of dislodging oil. At Wilhelmina the tactic failed and ruined the well. In September, Booth gave his stakes to family and to Simonds. Booth headed to Baltimore, then to Montreal, where he mingled with fellow Confederate sympathizers before relocating to a frequent stop, Washington, DC.

In February 1865 the actor sent Simonds a note the banker found disturbing. “I hardly know what to make of you this winter—so different from your usual self,” Simonds replied. “Have you lost all your ambition or what is the matter. Don’t get offended with me John but I cannot but think you are wasting your time spending the entire season in Washington doing nothing where it must be expensive to live and all for no other purpose beyond pleasure. If you had taken 5 or 10,000 dollars and come out here and spent the season living here with us, traveling off over the country hunting up property I believe we both could have made considerable money by it. It is not too late yet for I believe the great rush for property is to be this Spring ….”

Simonds was right. Lack of efficient transport was bottlenecking the oil flow. In less than a year the industry began building pipelines, dramatically widening markets but also stirring unrest as sidelined teamsters fought the new technology. Thanks to pipelines many entrepreneurs in what came to be called Petrolia did very well. One was Franklin Tarbell, closely connected to the Drake Well, who sold tanks and storage. His daughter, Ida, became a muckraking journalist. She wrote The History of the Standard Oil Company, a 1904 book cited in the Supreme Court’s 1911 antitrust ruling that ended Standard’s monopoly.

However, Booth quit wildcatting. In the capital he and co-conspirators hatched the plan that ended Abraham Lincoln’s life on April 14, 1865. Two weeks later, pursuers confirmed Booth’s demise by noting the JWB tattoo on his dead wrist. Soldiers buried him in Washington at what is now Fort Lesley J. McNair.

In 1869, his family re-interred the remains, unmarked, in a family plot in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery. For decades, newspapers claimed Booth made a bundle in oil. In truth, Booth the wildcatter lost $6,000—today, nearly $98,000—that Booth the actor, perhaps about to lose his voice and therefore his career, badly needed. In an irony, John Booth gave sister Rosalie a $1,000 stake in the Homestead Well, 17 miles from Franklin. In February 1865, the Homestead came in and for a brief while was outproducing anything in the vicinity, yielding some 28,000 barrels.

The Booths never pursued revenue from the shortlived gusher. “The stock must have been in Rosalie’s hands following the assassination, but it was never sold or transferred, “ Ernest Miller wrote in a 1912 study of Booth’s turn as a wildcatter. “Following the disaster, the Booth family washed their hands of everything and anything John Wilkes had touched.”

One Response to John Wilkes Booth: An Oily Character

  1. R Dub says:

    …After being spurned by the Confederate intelligence community, Mary’s ‘candy man’ approached and became involved with the Rothschild Empire of Europe, for he realized the European banking moguls would be very interested in his pipeline to the White House. (At this time) Abraham was searching for an issue that would unite the North and South after the Civil War ended. The issue needed to be popular to all levels of American citizenry so they could ‘rally around the Stars and Stripes’ thus rapidly healing the wounds of the bloodiest war in history. Lincoln was seriously considering one major movement or event that would galvanize his fellow Northern and Southern patriot countrymen into cutting loose the United States of America from the dictatorial grip of the Hapsburg’s bloodline of banking control in Europe. All the time, the Rothschild’s were trying to take control of the entire world monetary system, and at that time the Rothschild’s were trying to get a foot-hold in America and find a way around the British, Virginia Company, and French Bourbon family that were gaining control in this country through government help …
    Lincoln found himself in real hot water, because under the Virginia Company covenant, the 48 families that formed it were all the Holy Grail Bloodline. This country was to be an extension of what all the royal families of Europe controlled. The royalty of Europe is ‘Hapsburg,’ no matter what their name is. The royal family of England is one such example. Now what Lincoln did is he wanted to become independent of the covenant (in favor of his family) on the Rothschild side … the Rothschild’s and their family bloodline have always been undermining the affairs of the Hapsburg’s and stealing the monetary control away from them. No matter what the history books say, the Rothschild’s didn’t get (total) real control on things in America and the Federal Reserve until the Springs usurped the Payseur family companies in the early 1920’s … (But Lincoln had fallen from Rothschild grace also and so, due, in part to his Executive Order to print United States Greenbacks, thus interfering with the Jewish International Banks profits). It appears that the Rothschild family wanted Lincoln embarrassed to the maximum degree. (So) Mary Todd’s drug dealer (John Wilkes Booth) was hired to kidnap the President of the United States. Abraham would be put on a boat for a two-month cruise of the Atlantic where he would be injected with and addicted to Opium and then dumped on the streets of Washington. While the forcefully addicted President was stumbling around our nation’s capital, the press would be informed of Elizabeth, Ella and Emily.
    The drug pusher (Booth) and collaborator (agent) of the Rothschild’s had his perfect accomplice in the plot to kidnap and discredit the leader of the North American Continent in the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln. After being informed of Abe’s lover and the twins and the kidnap plot by her drug supplier, Mary was promised that after her husband resigned or was impeached, she and Abe would be moved to Europe to live happily ever after with plenty of Opium. Superficially, Mary expressed a desire to live in Europe with plenty of Opium and no Civil War or Politics to distract her husband or family. But her drug suppler had totally underestimated the confusion, desperation and anger of Mary Todd Lincoln.
    The plotters decided the Presidential snatch needed to take place in a public, yet discreet location where minimum witnesses would be present. There were too many potential witnesses at the White House. Two hours before the capture was to take place, Mary Todd had on the floor, a tantrum, because Abe had decided not to go out of the White House that night. Mary’s outrageous outburst caused Abe to change his mind and the First family departed. Several minutes after arriving at the kidnap location, Mary instructed the family bodyguard to take a position that placed the First Family out of his visual sight. The position also required the bodyguard to traverse several flights of stairs to reach Abe and Mary should he be needed for any reason … A wagon with a wooden cover arrived at the back entrance of the kidnap location with several men including Mary’s Opium supplier. The plan was for the drug pusher to traverse the backstairs entrance, silently move down a hallway, and open an unlocked door to a darkened room where Mary and Abe were sitting.
    After entering the room, Mary’s drug man (Booth) would tell the President an urgent message was waiting for him at the War Department. Before descending the backstairs, Abe would be knocked out with a chloroform cloth. The kidnappers would load the limp body into the covered wagon and swiftly stow Lincoln on an Opium boat for a novel ‘cruise’ of the Atlantic Ocean. When Booth opened the door to the darkened room where Abe and Mary were sitting, he went into a panic and shock. Abe was asleep with his head on Mary’s left shoulder and the First Lady had her head turned toward the left looking at the door … When she was sure the man who opened the door was Booth, she turned and looked at the President to be sure the pistol she was pointing would explode beneath the lower left earlobe of her husband.
    Before Mary pulled the trigger, John Wilkes Booth, drug supplier to the First Lady, realized he was the patsy in all this mess. But he did not know if he was only Mary’s patsy or also a chump for the Rothschild family. Were the men hiding around the back door of Ford’s Theater there to help Booth with the kidnapping or there to point the false finger at the ‘innocent’ Booth? Booth was not about to run into the hallway or down the backstairs to find out the answer to that question. The only escape route was to jump the balcony and crash onto the stage during the performance. That night, Booth gave a literal interpretation of the theatrical phrase ‘break a leg’ as he fractured one of his during his leaping act from ‘lethally loony Mary’ and the men lurking around the back entrance of Ford’s Theater.
    In a novelty case located on a wall in Ford’s Theater is ‘The Gun That Shot Abraham Lincoln.’ If anyone (assassin) were to kill a head of state, they would use a revolver, because several bullets might be needed to accomplish the murder and stop any guards during the escape. One would only use a one-shot pistol if they were absolutely-sure they had intimate access to the victim. The gun on the wall of Ford’s Theater is a derringer – the perfect weapon for the left handed female assassin who did not attend her husband’s funeral. Mary Todd was not hiding in her room due to overwhelming grief and sorrow; she was imprisoned in her room with two armed guards for two weeks after killing her husband.
    In the 1860’s, an Act of Congress mandated the compensation of widows of former and active Congressmen, Senators, Vice Presidents and Presidents. The month and duration was ratified by both Houses of Congress for each widow. Mary Todd Lincoln applied for her widower’s compensation three times and was denied the mandated compensation three times by both Houses of Congress. An unknown benefactor paid for Mary’s passage to Europe where she died in small cottage in Germany.
    In 1867, the Secret Service was founded so that drunken municipal law enforcement could not unwittingly participate with drug-addicted First Ladies or Gentlemen in vengeful high-brow killings of philandering Presidents of the United States. (To cover up the murders committed which would reflect a bad light for the presiding Administration, such as the Foster murder of President Clinton’s administration). Before Booth jumped out of the balcony of the Presidential Box of the Ford Theater, he shouted at General Riley and his wife who were sitting to the right-front of the Lincolns. Booth’s words expressed his innocence but also sealed the fate of the Riley’s. Within a week of the shooting, General Riley and his wife were packed off to an insane asylum where they both died of ‘unknown causes’ within 30 days of being committed.” (Pandora’s Box, by Alex Christopher, pp. 282-286).

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