By the end of 1863, John Wilkes Booth had reached the peak of his acting career. He was earning $20,000 a year from his work on the stage which was big money in the 1860s. Booth looked for investment opportunities outside of acting, and he became interested in the new, and booming, petroleum business.
Booth teamed up with the manager of the Cleveland Academy of Music, John Ellsler, and a third investor named Thomas Mears, to form the appropriately named Dramatic Oil Company. In January 1864, Booth traveled to the northwest Pennsylvania town of Franklin, where he purchased a lease on a 3.5 acre parcel of land. The Dramatic Oil Company partners hired an experienced professional driller to drill their first well, and drilling began in the summer of 1864.
Booth, who had an acting job in Boston in the spring of 1864, left the stage in late May to concentrate on the oil business. “This may be a big thing for us or it may be nothing. The last sure if we do not give it our attention” Booth wrote in a June letter to Ellsler. Booth worked in the field himself, putting aside his normal fine clothes for overalls, boots, and flannel shirts.
The drillers did indeed strike oil at about 1900 feet down, and the well produced about 25 barrels a day. However, that amount was not enough to pay for the associated costs of the operation, so the Dramatic Oil Company partners decided to try a process called “shooting the well” in an effort to increase the well’s production.
This method involved detonating a large amount of black gunpowder deep inside a well to break up rocks and other obstructions to increase the flow of oil into the well. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. In this case, it didn’t work, and the explosion actually cut off the flow of oil in the well completely and permanently.
By the fall of 1864, Booth was becoming more and more concerned about the plight of the Confederacy, and with his oil well producing nothing, he liquidated his assets in the business on October 29th. He assigned the property to his brother Junius, his sister Rosalie, and a friend named Joe Simonds. Booth lost an estimated $6000 in the venture, a considerable sum in those days. Less than six months later the successful actor and unsuccessful oil man was killed in a Virginia tobacco barn after being tracked down following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family: Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth
by Gene Smith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
The Dramatic Oil Company. American Oil and Gas Historical Society
Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: THE WRITINGS OF JOHN WILKES BOOTH
edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper. Urban, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1997.