The Arrows of Fate part II

The Dramatic Oil Company

EARLY IN 1863, John Wilkes Booth had formed a Pennsylvania oil investment partnership with a number of his friends from the theater. Booth’s company was called, appropriately enough, the "Dramatic Oil Company." As with most such business ventures, the purpose of the partnership was to pool resources. The partners wanted to acquire a lease and drill a well near the booming oil region near Titusville, PA. This was a far cry from stage acting.

Booth was, at that time, among the best known actors in the nation. He was making a fortune in the theater. But for some reason, Booth and his troubadour friends were laboring, then as now, under a common misconception about investing outside of one’s field of knowledge or expertise.

That is, Booth and his friends were not in the least bit knowledgeable about the oil business. They were outsiders to a business that was rapidly developing a body of inside knowledge. But that did not stop them from hurling their ambition, as well as their funds, into a hole in the ground. The Dramatic Oil Company partners thought that they could make more money in the oil business, about which they knew little, than by acting in stage shows, about which they knew much.

In late 1863 and into the early months of 1864, the Dramatic Oil Company paid a local driller to kick down a well on a farm property near Titusville. The well was called the Wilhelmina No. 1.

In May of 1864, as the well deepened, Booth simply gave up stage acting. He traveled to the northwest region of Pennsylvania, where he watched the progress of his oil well. In an initial act of fortune favoring the bold, the hired driller and his well hit penetrated a relatively shallow oil-bearing sand. The well began to produce oil at a consistent, though somewhat un-dramatic, rate of about 25 barrels of per day.

The Dramatic Oil Company partners, who had expected more of a return from their investment, thought that this level of production could be increased. In the late spring of 1864 they hired a man, called a "shooter," to detonate an explosive shot down their hole. The hope was that by detonating an explosive charge at the bottom of the well, they could shatter the rock and increase the flow of oil. Unfortunately for the partners, their shooter promised more than he could deliver.

The records are that there were several failed attempts to "shoot" the Wilhelmina. For one reason or another, the charges failed to detonate. Finally, however, one charge did perform as intended and detonated correctly. A powerful shock wave sped through the rock beneath the feet of an assembled crowd. Everyone waited expectantly for something else to occur, such as a great gusher of oil spouting from the depths. But nothing further happened.

After cleaning out the debris from the bottom of the Wilhelmina No. 1, the well still did not produce any oil. Adding insult to injury, the well had stopped yielding even the original 25 barrels per day. By detonating an explosive charge in the hole, the partners had irreparably damaged their well. The Dramatic Oil Company, and its partners, were financially ruined.

(Note: Let me digress. You can find the remains and a marker of the Wilhelmina No. 1 today, on the Allegheny River Trail, just east of Titusville.)

The Apostate

By September of 1864, broke and bitter, and having lost what funds he had invested in the Pennsylvania oil fields, Booth climbed aboard a wagon and headed west to the railroad junction at Meadville, PA. From that small town, he rode northeast by rail to Montreal, of all places, where he arrived in October. In Montreal, Booth met with a number of men associated with the Confederacy. The record is unclear as to what exactly transpired.

By mid-November of 1864 Booth had returned to Washington, D.C. and checked into the National Hotel. Booth carried with him a letter of introduction from the Confederate associates, with whom he had conferred, addressed to Dr. William Queen of Charles County, Maryland. This letter led Booth to meet with a man named Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. These two would meet again.

Booth returned to stage acting. Booth himself, as well as members of his family, were long time friends with John T. Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Using this connection, on March 18, 1865 Booth was cast to play the by-now familiar role of Duke Pescara in The Apostate.

The Apostate? What an interesting name for a play, and what an interesting thing it was for Booth to choose to appear in such a performance, and at just that time. The word "apostate" itself, in its etymological sense, signifies the desertion of a post, or the giving up of a state of life. That is, one who voluntarily embraces a definite state of life cannot leave it, at least without becoming an apostate. For example, it is apostasy when a Christian gives up his faith (apostasy "a fide" or "perfidi"). Similarly, it is also apostasy when a cleric abandons the ecclesiastical state (apostasy "ab ordine"), or a religious leaves the religious life (apostasy "a religione," or "monachatus").

What had Booth determined to give up by March of 1865? What apostasy was he planning to commit? Of that, we can only speculate, but subsequent events tell their own tale. The fact is that this was the last stage appearance of John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, at least on the playbill. However, Booth had been in and out of Ford’s Theater so often during the course of his career that at various times he even had his mail sent there. This level of familiarity granted Booth complete access to Ford’s Theater, day and night. He would come to make use of that access.

April 14, 1865

Early in the afternoon of April 14, 1865, Booth dropped by the Washington hotel that was the residence of Vice President Andrew Johnson. Booth had previously met Johnson in Nashville in February 1864, when Booth appeared in the newly opened Wood’s Theatre. At that time, Johnson was military governor of Tennessee. Upon learning from the hotel desk clerk that neither Johnson nor his private secretary, William A. Browning, was in the hotel, Booth wrote the following note: "Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth."

Later, in the evening, John Wilkes Booth entered Ford’s Theater during a performance of the British play, Our American Cousin. President Lincoln was in attendance with his wife Mary Todd, as well as an Army Major named Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris, the daughter of Senator Ira Harris of New York. Not in attendance, having canceled at the last minute, was the victorious General Ulysses S. Grant, just back from accepting General Lee’s surrender in the courthouse at Appomattox, VA. The original plan for the evening at theater had been for security for the party to be provided by General Grant’s staff. But absent the presence of General Grant, there was no security detail for the president.

Shortly after 10:15 PM, Booth walked upstairs towards the State Box, carrying in his pocket a single barrel, .41 caliber percussion pistol, known as a "Deringer," named after its manufacturer. The gun was small, and could be easily concealed. The Deringer was quite handy, and a classic type of concealed weapon. Booth entered the State Box, and placed a bar on the door behind him. He smoothly swept back the drape behind the president’s chair, moved close behind Abraham Lincoln, placed a gun to the head of the President of the United States, and pulled the trigger.

(Note: In a macabre sort of way, other gun manufacturers later wanted to capitalize on the popularity of these small types of pistols. The weapon was widely copied, and advertised as "the gun that killed President Lincoln." Due to popular usage, these rather generic, single-shot pistols came to be known as "derringers," whence came the extra "r" in the spelling.)

Immediately after shooting the president in the head, Booth stabbed Major Rathbone with a hunting knife. Booth then leapt from the balcony down to the stage, catching a spur on an American flag hanging near his path of descent, fracturing a bone in his leg upon landing. Booth turned to the shocked audience, and said loudly, "Sic Semper Tyrannis." This was and remains the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, meaning, "Thus Always to Tyrants." Then Booth limped off the stage.

Booth fled from Washington, but was hobbled by the broken bone in his leg Theater. He was treated for this injury by his recent acquaintance, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, much to Mudd’s eventual misfortune.

Booth was subject to the greatest manhunt that had ever been seen in the United States. While fleeing from his pursuers, Booth is supposed to have stated that "Our country owed all her troubles to him (Lincoln), and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment." Are these the words of an American apostate? Or are they the self-justifications of a Confederate patriot? Perhaps both?

"Useless, Useless?"

One can only marvel at the parallels between the final chapter of Booth’s life, and certain elements of the plot of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the play in which Booth had debuted his professional acting career only ten years before. Richard, having cut a cruel swath of blood, found himself followed by only a few supporters. He was a man marked and condemned, hounded and chased across the land to Bosworth Field. Richard was, as Booth was about to become, a victim of the destiny that he had designed for himself. In the final battle scene of Shakespeare’s play, Richard is disheveled, disorganized, and disoriented. Richard becomes dismounted in battle, and utters the famous cry: "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richard’s opponent, Henry Tudor, finally slays Richard, while exclaiming "The bloody dog is dead."

As truth sometimes echoes history, on April 26, 1865 an informant reported to federal authorities that Booth hiding in a barn near Port Royal, VA. Quickly, U.S. soldiers approached and surrounded the structure. After several hours of trying to draw Booth out alive, the soldiers set fire to the barn where he was holed up. A U.S. Army sergeant, one of his pursuers, saw Booth through a crack in the wall. The sergeant took aim and shot Booth in the neck.

Booth died several hours later. Reportedly, during his death throes Booth looked at his hands and said, "Useless, useless." Booth, the famous actor whose fame would now become immortal, was not quite three weeks shy of his 27th birthday.

On September 22, 1870, the Titusville Morning Herald published the following note:

"At a Spiritualists’ meeting in Brooklyn last week, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth was called up and made to divulge. Booth said he was sorry that he had killed Abraham Lincoln, but that they have since become reconciled. They are now good friends and walk out together. The assassination was based on an unfortunate misunderstanding."

Conspiracy Theories

Of spiritualist meetings, and the supposed voices of famous ghosts, we can only wonder. But in the world of recorded history, there is more grist for the mill. After Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, questions and theories arose immediately. Was Booth solely responsible for the assassination? Or was Booth simply a tool in a much larger conspiracy? The question of who may or may not have been involved with Lincoln’s assassination by Booth has been the subject of speculation among writers, historians, and others for 140 years.

The simplest conspiracy theory paints Booth as a Southern patriot who originally planned to kidnap Lincoln, take him to Richmond and hold him to exchange for Southern prisoners of war. When the kidnapping plans fell through, Booth decided to assassinate Lincoln as a means of revenge.

Another version of the conspiracy story has Booth formulating his plan with a group of Confederate conspirators. Booth’s role was to kill Lincoln. Others were supposed to assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Only Booth’s part of the mission was completed. This version is supported by a number of coded letters found in Booth’s baggage at the National Hotel, where he was staying.

Booth’s visit earlier in the day to the hotel of Vice President Johnson was also viewed with suspicion. Congress appointed a commission to investigate the circumstances, but the commission found nothing to incriminate the man who succeeded Lincoln. Johnson’s impeachment by the U.S. Congress would come later, and for entirely different reasons. One person who was never convinced of Johnson’s innocence, however, was the president’s widow Mary Todd Lincoln. On March 15, 1866, she wrote to a friend:

"(T)hat miserable inebriate Johnson, had cognizance of my husband’s death. Why was that card of Booth’s found in his box? Some acquaintance certainly existed. I have been deeply impressed with the harrowing thought that (Johnson) had an understanding with the conspirators & they knew their man… As sure, as you & I live, Johnson, had some hand, in all this…"

There was also talk of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton being part of a conspiracy to kill Lincoln. This was based on Stanton’s known opposition to Lincoln’s proposed Reconstruction policies, which were intended to be lenient towards the South. There was also talk that it was Stanton who had arranged for "other matters" to prevent General Grant, and Grant’s security detail, from attending Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865. The motive underlying the theory was that Stanton wanted Lincoln out of office so that more heavy-handed Reconstruction policies would be employed in the South.

Other theories include speculation that Lincoln was assassinated through a conspiracy of international bankers. That is, Lincoln was killed due to his monetary policies. Booth was merely the "hired gun." In essence, Lincoln needed to raise funds to finance the Civil War. Early in the fighting, the U.S. government had been offered loans, at high interest rates, by European bankers, particularly the Rothschilds. Rather than take out the loans, Lincoln flooded the nation with paper currency, the infamous "greenbacks" that caused so much wartime inflation and all but wrecked the prevailing monetary system. Compounding the economic crime, Lincoln instituted an income tax to soak his paper currency back up and pay for his war. Also, after watching Lincoln develop his economic policies while in office, the foreign bankers opposed Lincoln’s protectionist tariffs. Hence, the international bankers wanted Lincoln dead.

Beyond these conspiracy theories, there is no end of others. According to one author, the Roman Catholic Church was behind it. In the minds of other historians, other groups and individuals that have been implicated in Lincoln’s assassination. These include Freemasons, domestic bankers, businessmen, Copperheads, certain other Radical Republicans (either on their own or in concert with Edwin Stanton), the Jewish B’nai B’rith, and the Knights of the Golden Circle.

The Arrows of Fate

John Wilkes Booth was born to a famous family. In the 1850s and early 1860s, he found his own measure of fame, to the point of public adulation. Booth became rich in his chosen trade. But he also held strong beliefs about matters that were the subject of a very un-civil war. Add to this the fact that he had invested his savings and lost a fortune in a hole in the ground near Titusville, PA.

In an earlier article, I wrote of the temptation to speculate upon the outcome for John Wilkes Booth, and for the United States of America and the world, if Booth and his partners in the Dramatic Oil Co. had enjoyed more success in their effort near Titusville. Would he have stayed in the oil patch, instead of going to Montreal, and later back to Washington? We will never know.

But we do know that John Wilkes Booth was a successful man in may respects, evidently convinced of his own merit on the stage as well as off. If he lost his money in a bad investment, could he not make more money through his chosen calling on the stage? Or did he seek a higher stage, and a different form of fame?

Booth was the son of a famous father who was, and in a quirk of coincidence, if not fate, named after the man who killed Julius Caesar. Booth the son was named after John Wilkes, a man who made his name in England opposing the tyranny of monarchs. As a student of Shakespeare, Booth was well versed in the ways of tragedy and political intrigue.

In the end, Booth engaged in the American equivalent of regicide, the ultimate act of political opposition if not self-sacrifice. His end was tragic, bloody and suspenseful to the point of being Shakespearean.

Was Booth a true believer for a cause that had failed? Or was he simply frustrated that the world did not conform to his own inner vision? "Useless, useless" he is supposed to have said as he died in a pool of his own blood. But what did he mean? Was Booth the type of person who accepted his own misfortune as a badge of honor? Or was Booth, on his deathbed, sorry for what he had done? It is worth pondering these questions. Then as now, a man such as this will use his own trials to convince himself of his inner virtue. In the mind of such a person, if not deep within his soul, he desires to be a worthy target for those arrows of fate.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

January 02, 2006

The Daily Reckoning