There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
– Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3.
History is full of 'contingency moments' – times when events could have gone either way. What if the Mayflower had not sailed? Or the weather been less foggy at Dunkirk in 1940? Things might have been different. Here's one: what if John Wilkes Booth hadn't blown up that oil well in 1864? Lincoln might have completed his second term.
If you're scratching your head and asking, 'What fresh madness is this?', just wait. We've got a petroleum-based tale to tell you. All about the Dramatic Oil Company.
What Does a Superstar Do with All That Cash?
In 1863, John Wilkes Booth was a superstar. He was called 'the most handsome man in America'. His stage career had allowed him – finally! – to emerge from the shadow of his initially more famous acting brothers, Junius and Edwin. Booth's looks made women swoon, and they carried his carte de visite around, a form of 1860s fan activity. Better yet, the cash was rolling in: $20,000 a season, which was real money in those days. (Union, not Confederate dollars, we hasten to add.) The question was: how to invest that cash as a hedge against inflation and hard times? Booth's throat was giving him trouble, he'd had to take time off from public appearances, and, frankly, the actor had expensive tastes. He wanted to continue to finance a lavish lifestyle.
During the 1860s, the smart money was investing in oil. No, not in Texas – in Pennsylvania. The first big strike was in Titusville. In 1863, Pennsylvania oil netted a young Andrew Carnegie about half of his $42,000 earnings that year, and in 1864, he was raking it in from his oil holdings. It was no wonder that Booth, a neophyte in the business area, would follow where the captains of industry led. So in 1863, Booth decided to become an oil baron. How hard could it be?
Booth talked a couple of friends, John Ellsler, himself a Shakespearean actor and manager of the Cleveland Academy of Music, and Thomas Mears, an anti-slavery Southerner1 into joining him in his Venango County investment. Together, they formed the Dramatic Oil Company. In January 1864 Booth went out to the cheerful, booming town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, on the Allegheny River. He took out a 3.5-acre lease on the Fuller farm near Franklin, and set out to make himself a fortune.
Venango County was deep into Scots American territory, so the neighbours could probably have reminded John Wilkes Booth that 'the best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley'. Certainly, Andrew Carnegie could have. But some people have to learn the hard way. (We're getting to the explosives part, promise.)
So What About the Explosives?
At first, things looked promising. The first well they dug, south of the depot along the river, yielded 25 barrels a day, which at around $8 per barrel was not too shabby for a start. It was the custom to name the wells: they called this one 'the Wilhelmina' for Mears' wife. We have no information on whether the lady appreciated this compliment, but she probably did. She was likely the first person on her street to have an oil well named after her.
Alas, celebration was short-lived. Twenty-five barrels a day wasn't going to make the men a big enough fortune to challenge the top-hat boys in Pittsburgh. So they decided to 'shoot' the well. Yes, that's where the explosives came in. To 'shoot' a well, you planted explosives, such as gunpowder charges, deep inside the well. Allegedly a successful 'shooting' would fragment the oil-bearing formation and dramatically increase the yield – an early form of fracking2.
The key word here was 'successful'. Booth's 'shooting' was not. It was dramatic, though: the Wilhelmina was ruined. It never yielded another drop of oil. To be fair, the partners were probably just a year ahead of their time. In January 1865 Colonel EAL Roberts of the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company successfully 'shot' a well at Oil Creek. The trick was the torpedo. The process became even more successful – and spectacular – a couple of years later. That's when they changed from gunpowder to nitroglycerin. All this technology came too late to help Booth, though.
Booth's dreams of riches lay in tatters. In addition to earning few profits from his oil, he had squandered an estimated $10,000 on a worthless investment. Disheartened, Booth sold out in July 1864 and moved to Baltimore. The Dramatic Oil Company ended, not with a bang, but a whimper.
In his Baltimore hotel, Booth began conspiring with other Southern sympathisers – a conspiracy that would lead to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on 14 April, 1865. Booth's last dramatic appearance was when he leaped onto the stage of Ford's Theatre from the presidential balcony, shouting, 'Sic semper tyrannis!' The Union Army caught up with Booth 12 days later, in a barn in Virginia. Booth had a relatively small audience at his own final scene – just some soldiers and farmer folk.
And yes, students of counterfactual history wonder at this point whether the world might have been a different place, and Abraham Lincoln still alive on 15 April, if Booth and his fellow oilmen hadn't tried to shoot that well? If Booth had been busy making his pile from crude oil, would he, perhaps, not have had time to brood over his hatred of The Great Emancipator?
But it's worse than that. Just wait.
The Final Irony: Patience Is a Virtue
In addition to the Wilhelmina, John Wilkes Booth briefly owned a share in the Homestead Well on Pithole Creek, in Allegheny Township. When he sold out in July 1864, Booth also sold his interest in this well. Two months after Booth was shot down by pursuing soldiers, the Homestead Well began gushing 500 barrels a day. The owners became very wealthy, indeed.
If... if Booth had waited... if he'd gone back to the theatre, and kept up his interest in other oil wells, and bided his time... in 1865, he would have been a rich man. Instead of a dead assassin, an embarrassment to his kinfolk3, and a byword in US history along with Benedict Arnold.
Perhaps, rather than emulating Brutus, John Wilkes Booth should have quoted his countryman, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who in 1856 had written:
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'
– 'Maud Muller'.
For More Information
If you have trouble visualising the region in which this adventure took place, please refer to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society for helpful maps and other realia.
If you would like to know what the folks in Franklin, Pennsylvania, thought about the three oil adventurers at the time, there's an excellent compilation of oral history interviews on the subject available online. This document, made from notes taken in 1894, is well worth reading: there's a lot of gossip in it. Gossip is the best kind of history.