John Wilkes Booth is the man anyone with an 8th grade American education could identify as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln - at least this was true of 8th graders back in the day. If he cites his profession, it is invariably actor, but this answer is incomplete, and possibly misleading.
It is true that Booth, descending from a line of aristocratic English actors entered the stage in 1855 at the age of 17 to become an actor of renown in his own right, but there is more. According to Dave McGowan, he was engaged to New Hampshire Senator John Hale's daughter Lucy. While this is not the little known fact we wish to disclose shortly, it is nonetheless not commonly known, and strikes one as a surprise given the constant claim that Booth was a "Southern sympathizer."
From our point of view, a southern sympathizer would not be engaged to a Yankee, especially when Hale was a strong abolitionist who worked closely with Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward. It seems outlandish that Hale would countenance such an arrangement, or that Booth, if truly a "Southern sympathizer" would stomach the friction such antithetical political contrasts would nurture. Or perhaps it is the case that Booth was not really a confederate compatriot after all.
Some have gone so far as to say that Booth was a double agent working for the Union under the guise of a Confederate supporter. However, that is not something which we wish to explore at the moment.
So far, we see that Booth comes from an aristocratic family, is a successful and famous actor, has ties to Northern political parties, and might be an intelligence for the Union army - though we have by no means established the latter point.
So what is the little known fact about Booth? We implied that he was wealthy. The National Republican newspaper (1860-1883), reporting on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, estimated Booth's worth at 350,000 USD. While that may seem rather modest by today's standard, it might help to compare that money to a couple of standards to get a sense of his fortune.
For one, US GDP in 1865 has been estimated at 10 billion USD. Today it hovers around 21 trillion USD. So even today, for many Americans, 350,000 dollars would be an impressive amount of money, but the share of wealth of 350,000 USD was so much greater in 1865 as the two GDP numbers attest.
Another way to put Booth's wealth in perspective is to note that an ounce of gold was in the neighborhood of 20 dollars in 1865, whereas today, it has recently been in the neighborhood of 1900 USD. Or yet a final way to assess the wealth, we could look at a farm laborer wage. By sheer serendipity, we found a report to the legislature of New Hampshire, quite apropos under the occasion, published in 1872:
A farmer, in 1864, hired a man to work in haying for two dollars per day, and board.
Assuming a 6 day work week, which is being quite conservative, our laborer made 12 dollars per week or roughly 600 per year. He would have to work over 500 years to save the kind of money Booth had.
So we finally get to the main point that Booth had business interests outside of acting, the most curious one to us being the oil business. The Daily National Republican wrote the following in its April 15th edition as the ordeal of the assassination was unfolding:
It is said Booth is worth 350,000, which he made in the oil business; but it is supposed this is part of the sum paid him to murder President Lincoln.Booth has been actor, and on several occasions has appeared at Ford's Theatre; this made him very acquainted with the various entrances and exits....Booth had often represented himself to be in the oil business. The clerk at the hotel said to him, "Booth, have you made a thousand dollars to-day?" Booth replied, "No, but I have worked hard enough for it."
Besides disclosing Booth's business interests, the curious aspect of this report is that it was published in the newspaper edited by Simon P Hanscom who was the man who took a message to Lincoln while he was attending Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. Whatever could be so important that it required the editor of this newspaper to serve as courier?
Before closing, we should note gratuitously as other little known facts that two Booth family descendants were Claire Booth(e) Luce, and Theresa Cara Booth, the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In any event, our purpose for this Chronicle was to broaden our dear reader's perspective on the infamous Booth who was more than merely an actor, and who might possibly have worked for Federal intelligence. There is more to be said about John Wilkes Booth.
Dave McGowan, WHY EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION IS WRONG: PART V, Center for an Informed America (website:http://centerforaninformedamerica.com/why-everything-you-think-you-know-about-the-lincoln-assassination-is-wrong-part-v/), April 19, 2014, accessed 9/27/2020
unknown, US Gross Domestic Product 1865-1939, Stuck on Stupid (website: http://www.usstuckonstupid.com/sos_downchart.php?year=1865_1939&units=b&chart=gdp&bar=1&stack=0&size=l&title=&color=c#copypaste), nd, accessed 9/27/20020
unknown, The Awful Murder., National Republican, April 15, 1865, accessed 9/27/2020 on https://archive.org/details/dailynationalrep1518hans/page/n1/mode/2up
Samual Flint, et. al., Report of Commissioners on Bureau of Labor Statistics to the Legislature, June
Session 1872, Manchester, 1872, 114 pp, accessed: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.096205135&view=1up&seq=114 9/27/2020
Justin Taylor, The Day Lincoln Was Shot: A Visual FAQ, The Gospel Coalition (website), April 13, 2015, (website accessed 9/27/2020: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/the-day-lincoln-was-shot-a-visual-faq/ )
Copyright 2020 Tony Bonn. All rights reserved.