- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

John Wilkes Booth, actor … John Wilkes Booth, assassin … John Wilkes Booth, oilman?
A little-known aspect of Booth's career is his unsuccessful oil venture, beginning scarcely a year and a half before his assassination of President Lincoln. The business papers still exist on microfilm at the National Archives.
The modern age of oil began Aug. 27, 1859, when Col. Edwin L. Drake struck oil by drilling a well near Titusville in a then-rural area of northwestern Pennsylvania. The Drake well set off a gold-rush response, with oil rigs springing up over the countryside, along with overnight towns, brothels, and saloons.
In late 1863 or early 1864 (the date is uncertain), Booth first visited the Pennsylvania oil lands. He went to the town of Franklin, in Venango County, accompanied by two friends John Ellsler, manager of the Cleveland Academy of Music, and Thomas Y. Mears. The three of them set up a firm appropriately named Dramatic Oil Co.
Booth may have been trying to arrange a secure income. As an actor, to be sure, he was both popular and successful, making the then-superstar figure of $20,000 a year. Still, some accounts have suggested that he had developed a persistent hoarseness, which might someday impair his acting.
The partners chose a 3-acre drilling site on the Fuller farm, one mile south of Franklin and along the east side of the Allegheny River. At this point, they also began using the name, Fuller Farm Oil Co. There were already several successful oil wells nearby. Booth then resumed acting, and made another visit May 30, 1864. It was also in May that Booth made his last paid performance as an actor.
At Booth's behest, an old friend named Joseph H. Simonds came to manage the business. He had already acted as agent for some of Booth's earlier real estate investments, and Booth trusted Simonds' competence and honesty. By this time, the company had given the oil well the name "The Wilhelmina," after Mears' wife.
The one-well company was now placing advertisements and selling shares. One ad is a complete map of the Fuller Farm Oil Co. tract. There was also a prospectus, describing in the usual glowing terms how profitable the operation was and (almost) promising to drill many more wells. In an early example of a celebrity endorsement, Booth was described as "Mr. J. Wilkes Booth, a successful and intelligent operator in oil lands," and as for his well, "the yield has been gratifyingly large."
As it happened, the Wilhelmina well reached a depth of 1,900 feet and yielded about 25 barrels of crude a day. In those days of the oil industry's infancy, this was a good average. The partners, however, were not satisfied with this and tried using explosives to increase the well's production. Although this technique had been used successfully by other companies, in this case the well was ruined and never yielded oil again. Since Booth had sunk $6,000 into the venture, his state of mind may well be imagined. In fact, after a third trip to Pennsylvania, Booth closed out his part in the business on Nov. 27, 1864.
Booth's view of the oil business could hardly have been sweetened by a subsequent letter from Simonds dated Dec. 31, 1864: "What an outrageous swindler Tom was with your money. … Instead of being applied to work on the well, it was spent for his private purposes." At least this letter included a check for $500, which "I know is not much but it may be of some assistance, until you get to acting again." Curiously, both Simonds in later testimony, as well as future historians, maintained that Booth never made a penny from the well.
Simonds seems to have been a genuine friend to Booth and kept in touch in several letters over the next few months. For example, a slightly earlier letter dated Dec. 7, 1864, included, "I fear you must be blue not acting any," and added, "If you have nothing else to do and got hard up just come out here and stop with us. We will guarantee to support you."
Perhaps Simonds' most interesting letter is dated Feb. 21, 1865, less than two months before Booth murdered Lincoln. It began, "Your strange note of the 16th rec'd. I hardly know what to make of you this winter, so different from your usual self. 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."
Simonds kept urging his old friend to give the oil business one more try, and added, "At least you can live prudently and where I really believe you can make money. Come John. We have plenty of room at our house now."
By this time, of course, Booth was consumed with plotting against Lincoln, culminating in his shooting of the president at Ford's Theatre on the night of April 14, 1865. In retrospect, most of Booth's oil circle seem to have been far healthier company for him than the strange misfits he drew into his assassination conspiracy. It is tempting to think of how history might have been different if Booth, instead of spending hours obsessing about Lincoln, had instead become immersed in a successful and growing oil industry.
John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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