Saturday, November 27, 2010

November 27, 1864 – J. Wilkes Booth Decides to Continue in the Oil Business

Famed actor and oil tycoon of the nineteenth century John Wilkes Booth once very nearly gave up the stake in the Pennsylvania Oil Boom of the 1860s that would make him his great fortune. Profitable crude oil in Pennsylvania had been discovered by Colonel Edwin Drake, who also developed new drilling techniques for easy removal, in 1859 and made a rush for new wealth in the region. Booth created a company with his friends John Ellsler and Thomas Mears called Dramatic Oil, which would soon be renamed Fuller Farm Oil but would continue to play on the Booth’s fame to help in the sale of shares.

A native of Maryland, Booth considered himself a Southerner throughout, despite his years of acting and touring in the North. When the South seceded, he publically applauded the action as “heroic.” His wealth and fame grew as the fate of the South dimmed, and many said he became obsessed with the “tyranny” of the Union. According to some, Booth was even involved in a kidnap plot for Abraham Lincoln, supposedly the reason for his 10-day trip to Montreal in 1864. Union-sympathizers called for banning him from the stage, and he was arrested for treasonous speech in Missouri in 1863, but even his fellow actors, who had long suffered from his notorious scene-theft, admitted that he was gifted.

On November 25, just after his famed performance with his brothers Edwin and Junius in Julius Caesar in New York’s Winter Garden Theater, Booth fell from the stage amid the applause and broke his leg. The next day, he was treated in his brother Edwin’s New York home, where the two argued bitterly about John’s hatred of the North. Out of survival, the two were forced to agree to disagree, and Booth settled on plans for bringing his acting career back to Washington, D.C., later that winter. He intended to sell off his shares in the oil business despite a significant loss, but on the morning of the 27th, his doctor judged his leg and noted, “It’s broken now, but it’ll heal to be stronger than ever.”

The thought settled into Booth’s passionate support for the South. The war had taken a terrible turn, but it would be over soon, and there was always the fact that the South could rise again. He decided that he would help the rebuilding of the South privately and for the rest of his life would denounce the Federal Reconstruction policies. As his mind filled with dreams, he realized he would need money to make them concrete. Instead of pulling out of the oil business, Booth sent telegrams to Ellsler and wired his savings to rebuild equipment destroyed by hasty use of explosives.

After the war ended, Booth married Lucy Hale and conducted expert business savvy organizing Booth Oil, which would buy out Fuller Farm as well as the majority of other oil production companies in the region. In 1870, he would spark conflict with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil out of Ohio, which controlled the refineries. Booth and Rockefeller battled for years to dominate the industry, with Booth using influence through Ellsler in Cleveland to block Rockefeller’s buy-up of competitors. When Rockefeller overspent on purchasing rivals, Booth cut his prices to the other companies, destroying Rockefeller’s empire, which eventually was absorbed.

Armed with untold millions of dollars, Booth lived a fairly modest life and sank much of his money into investment in the South. Factories went up in Virginia, mills began production in the Carolinas, universities reopened, and new railroad lines spread through the Deep South. On top of his business, Booth also toured the South using his acting talent and raw passion in speeches to reinvigorate the Southern cause. Booth would even run for president in the famous five-party election of 1892, though many Southern Democrats gave more attention to winner Grover Cleveland.

When oil fields began to open in Texas after the gusher at Spindletop, Booth began to tour the West in search of new fields. While in the northwest Oklahoma Territory town of Enid, Booth would die in 1903 at age 65 from what many said was exhaustion and others suspected as heavy drinking. In the Republican administrations of Roosevelt and Taft, Booth Oil would become a favorite target of anti-trust action. The company would be broken up, but its effect on the national economy continued to be obvious as New Orleans surpassed New York City as the nation’s busiest harbor and industrial production in Georgia alone outpaced the growing Midwest. For all of his actions, Mr. Booth truly will always be remembered among the American people.


In reality, John Wilkes Booth sold out of the oil business and pursued his passionate hatred of the Union. Upon hearing of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Booth changed his conspiratorial plans from kidnapping to assassination, which would be carried out April 14, 1865, as he shot President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, making Booth forever notorious in the American memory.

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