Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Beginning about 10:25 on the evening of April 14, 1865, the time and date President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington’s Ford Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, a mass of information including evidence and myths has accumulated regarding the act and those connected with it, particularJy about the assassin him­self.

John Wilkes Booth was the ninth of ten children born to Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. Junius Booth had deserted his first wife, Mary Delancy, and infant son in 1821, leaving them in London while he departed with his new love, a London flower-seller whom he had discovered in the Bow Street Market. After visiting France and Madeira, the couple arrived at Norfolk, Virginia, in June of 1821 and travelled up and down the East coast. Junius, like his son John Wilkes, was an actor and before settling on a farm north of Baltimore near Belair, Maryland, he performed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and the leading cities of the South. His acting ability and experience were such that he had no trouble finding suitable engagements, and soon he was regarded as the foremost Shakespearean actor in America, a distinction he held with little competition for over thirty years. But his heavy drinking habits and mental aberrations were a constant strain on his managers as well as on the theatre owners where he was booked.

The strains were evident on the family as well, and the impact on John Wilkes, born on May 10, 1838, was no ex­ception. He developed a history of fighting with other children at school and grew angry easily. His father set a poor example for a son only too quick to follow his lead.

Junius provided his children with more than enough bad examples for several lifetimes. He drank too much, too often frolicked wildly with his drinking companions (especially with his friend Sam Houston) and tried to com­mit suicide when the mood was upon him. His hard life shattered his physical endurance, and he died in 1852 when John Wilkes was only fourteen years old.

Despite this behavior, Junius Booth’s four sons aU thought they wanted to become actors like their father. Joseph, however, soon abandoned his short acting career to become a physician. Junius, Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes, however, carried on the tradition. By the tin1e Wilkes made his first brief theatre appearance in Baltimore in 1855. he was certain that he possessed many natural advantages for work on the stage. He had the physical make-up of an athlete, the face of a young god, flashing dark eyes, black wavy hair and carried the famous Booth name. The growing reputation of his older brother Edwin was valuable too, but Wilkes did not have the temperament to serve a long and tiresome apprenticeship in the theatre. Rather, he felt his graceful manners, good features and bold stage actions were sufficient to impress his audiences.

Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre was the scene of one of his early appearances and, in a minor role there in 1857, he forgot his Lines, had stage fright and was hauled off the stage by the irate manager. Never again was he to regard Philadelphia as a friendly city, and he did not care to per­form there.

Soon Booth joined George Kunkel’s traveling stock com­pany playing chiefly in the southern states, and he rapidly gained experience and ability. Richmond proved exceeding­ly kind to the young actor; the applause was long and hearty, and he was frequently sought to take part in the social life of the city. Here was doubtless welded to him forever his deep love for the South and its people, for he enjoyed their mode of living, their high spirits and their gallantry. Perhaps most of all, he enjoyed their praises of John Wilkes Booth.

Wilkes took no active part in the War of the Rebellion. He did, however, while playing in Richmond during 1859, borrow a uniform and stow away on a train with the Richmond Gray’s. With this guard outfit, he was present when John Brown of Osawatomie fame was hanged for treason in December of that year. The falling trap and the swaying body of John Brown made Wilkes weak, and his “military service” ended abruptly.

In 1862, John Wilkes began acting in an impressive man­ner, determined to improve his standing and to gain greater prestige. Large audiences came to see him and by this time he found it a decided benefit to use the family name on his billings. However, as time progressed, Booth encoun­tered more and more difficulties with his throat and vocal cords, a fact that did not go unnoticed by critics. The handicap produced definite strain on his physical condition and, in 1863, he found himself hampered by a throat impediment, which, upon diagnosis proved to be a form of bronchitis. At intervals his voice was raucous and ugly and his constant stage work aggravated the condition.

Early in 1864 a severe attack temporarily halted his acting. Reflecting upon his trouble as early as 1862 and ex­periencing hoarseness and strain during 1863, Booth must have recognized that his stage appearances would have to be infrequent at the very best, and that perhaps he would have to give up acting completely. He must have pondered where an actor of his standing, used to the finer things of life with recent yearly incomes ranging from $15,000 to more than $20,000, could turn in order to maintain this standard of living.

Next to the actual battlefields of the Civil War, one of the most exciting places on earth in 1864 and 1865 was a small section of northwestern Pennsylvania designated as “the oil region.” Edwin L. Drake had drilled the world’s first oil well there late in August 1859 and, as the news circulated, a rush into the area commenced and drilling activity grew to a fevered pitch. Leasing and selling lands, putting down wells, and producing and transporting crude oil became a large business. During the year 1864, the spec­ulative craze reached its zenith. Many men became wealthy in a few short months and those who did not immediately gain wealth kept trying; no more optimistic group of men existed than the early oil pioneers.

Newspapers carried accounts of gusher wells being struck one after another, of men who grew from abject poverty to “princes of petroleum” with the striking of a single success­ful well, and of speculation that seemingly knew no bounds in oil stock. Little wonder that Booth looked toward petro­leum with interest, especially when he and his friend,John Ellsler (manager of Cleveland’s Academy of Music where Booth had performed several times), had a mutual acquain­tance, one Thomas Mears, who had oil land for sale!

Either in late 1863 or early January 1864, Booth dis­cussed oil property with Mears and talked Ellsler into join­ing him in the venture. He wrote Ellsler the following letter:

Wood Threatre
Jan 23d/64

Dear John:

I know you will not believe me when I say that this is the only moment I have had in which I could sit down and write you, for I am anxious for our busi­ness to go on, as you can be. I have written to Mears several times. The last time I wrote I requested him to have the agreement drawn up and to send it to me and I would sign it. He said he wanted about $500 to begin with. I told him if you could not spare it that I would send it to him.

I have had a rough time John since I saw you. It was hard enough to get to Leavenworth but coming back was a hundred times worse. Lost all but four nights of my St. Louis engagement. In St. Joe I was down to my last cent and had to give a reading to pay my way. It gave me $150 with which I hired a sleigh and came 160 miles over the plains. Four days and nights in the largest snow drifts I ever saw. Its a long story which I want to tell you when I see you, but I will say this that I never knew what hardship was till then. Write to Tom, John, and let us push this thing through. Give my love to all. How’s my little girl?

Your friend
J. Wilkes Booth

During the time Booth had played in Boston, from 1861 through part of 1864, he met one of the tellers at the Mechanic’s Bank there, one Joseph H. Simonds. Simonds had a deep interest in the stage and an intense desire to advance to a more affluent position than that of a bank teller. When Wilkes decided to invest in some Boston real estate, Simonds acted as his agent because he knew market values for property in the city and was well versed in finan­cial affairs in general.

John Wilkes terminated his run at the Boston Museum May 27, 1864, and had, by this time, persuaded Simonds to accompany him to the oil country and manage his invest­ments there. The actor and banker then journeyed to Franklin (Pa.), and on May 30 Booth rented a horse from liveryman Ralph M. Brigham and rode south of the town to inspect his oil land.

The oil property consisted of three and one-half acres of land on the Fuller Farm, one mile south of Franklin and bordering the Allegheny River. The partnership (Booth, Ellsler and Simonds) hired an experienced driller, Henry Sires, to assist them in their operation. Sires was first intro­duced to Booth while he was busily engaged on another well and he apologized to the actor for the fact that his hands were covered with grease. Booth supposedly replied, “Never mind, that’s what we are after.”

Booth soon made yet another investment. In 1864, Boston oil men had organized a stock association to secure drillable land in the oil region. They first took the name of the Boston Oil Well Company, but in a short time the name was changed to the Botolph Oil & Mining Company. Seven­teen miles up the Allegheny River from Franklin, along Pit­hole Creek, oil operators had been leasing land since 1862 but no actual testing had been done. The Boston f1rm looked with favor upon this virgin sector. Willing to gamble, they purchased the Hiner Farm bordered by Pithole Creek for $15,000.

Simonds had now become manager of the Dramatic Oil Company, the name Booth and his partners had selected for their venture. Booth had correctly assumed, now that he had a business manager, that he would have plenty of leisure time in Franklin. He spent some of it reading and was prob­ably inwardly pleased by Franklin’s newspaper, the Ven­ango Spectator, strongly anti-Lincoln in views. Vitriolic words against the president were many, with such phrases as “Lincoln’s Double Dealing,” and “Mr. Lincoln Will Never Win the War,” and “Lincoln Proposes a Disunion Peace,” being common headlines. Booth’s Franklin cronies were ardent supporters of the administration, however, and, knowing this, the actor did not express his secessionist opinions often or loudly.

At least once, however, Wilkes did come close to serious trouble with the oil crowd because of his political views. While crossing the Allegheny River by ferry, Booth was confronted by a fellow passenger, Titus Ridgway, who started an altercation by making some offensive remarks about Southerners. Booth replied with biting sarcasm against Lincoln. Ridgway immediately labeled the Lincoln comment as, “A damned lie!” Wilkes replied, “I will never allow a man to call me a liar!” while at the same time pulling a gun from his pocket. As he did this, Ridgeway grabbed a river pushing-pole tipped with a metal spike, aimed it at Booth and swore he would run him through. At this crucial moment, the ferry pilot wrenched the pole from Ridgway’s hands while passengers jumped between the men and finally succeeded in calming both belligerents.

In contrast to his unusually exciting exchange, most days were spent by Booth and the other speculators loafing around the real estate offices where farmers were con­stantly preparing to lease their acres for the highest fee. Some days operators would cover considerable distances, on foot or on horse, in their eternal search for promising farms. To pass the long evenings, Booth and some friends rented a room simply as a meeting place; the men who gathered there were a genial group of optimists, all in Franklin keen on instant wealth through investments in petroleum. John Wilkes took an active part among this circle of oil adventurers.

Despite early optimism, however, by September 1864 the well on the Fuller Farm had proven to be a failure. The volume of oil being produced was not sufficient to pay for the pumping. Henry Sires, in charge of drilling, reported that “The well cost Booth and his associates a great deal of money and they got almost no oil.” To make matters worse, the well met a tragic end. The son of Thomas Mear’s, the man from whom Booth had purchased the land, told a reporter in later years:

The Wilhelmina well yielded twenty-five barn:ls of crude daily but this was not thought sufficient, hence the well was ‘shot’ with explosives to increase pro­duction. Instead of accomplishing that, the blast utterly ruined the hole and the well never yielded another drop.

After this, Wilkes suddenly lost all interest in petroleum. He contacted a lawyer, S. C. T. Dodd, directed him to draw up the necessary papers and deeds to close out his interest, and left for New York late in September 1864. Once in New York City, Booth signed the papers that deeded two­-thirds of the oil property to his older brother Junius and the other third to Simonds, who had received no other pay for his services. Wilkes had previously sold his interest in the Pithole land.

From New York, the actor travelled to Montreal and finally settled in Washington, D.C. From there he made frequent trips to the South before the fateful day of April 14, 1865, on the evening of which he secured a place in history by assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. His friends in the oil region were shocked beyond belief when they heard the news. As part of the investigation following the slaying, Joseph Simonds went to Washington to offer testimony about Booth. Simonds indicated then and later in correspondence that he believed Booth had lost all the funds he had invested in the oil business.

History frequently hinges upon things that might have been. So it is with John Wilkes Booth. During his stay in Pennsylvania, no effort had been made to drill in the territory along Pithole Creek in which he had invested with others of the Botolph Oil & Mining Company and owned a one-thirtieth interest. He sold out even before he deeded his remaining oil properties to his brother Junius and Joseph Simonds after the failure at the Wilhelmina well. That fact is worthy of note, for had a test well been sunk, it might have changed the life of John Wilkes Booth and altered American history. On June 3, 1865, the very successful Homestead well was struck on that property. But, as history would have it, the strike was of little signif­icance to Booth. By the date of the strike his infamous act had been committed and John Wilkes Booth was dead.

Today the only trace which remains of John Wilkes Booth as an oil man is his photograph and a silver headed riding crop now preserved at the Drake Well Museum, Titusville.


Ernest C. Miller is a retired oil company executive and the author of seven books relating to petroleum and one histor­ical novel. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Feder­ation of Historical Societies and former chairman of both the Drake Well Advisory Board and the Drake Well Founda­tion.