John D. Rockefeller is about as controversial as they come. On the one hand, he worked himself up from nothing to become the richest man the world had ever seen, and he spent his final years giving away most of his incredibly vast fortune to charity. On the other hand, his ruthless business tactics ruined countless livelihoods, and he spent his life running from his shameful family history and ignoring atrocities under his watch. So, was he a ruthless tyrant or a benevolent patriarch? Read on, and decide for yourself.
1. His Family Was Poor
When you think of Old Money, you think of the name “Rockefeller,” but they had to start somewhere. John Davison Rockefeller came from painfully humble beginnings. He and his five siblings lived in near poverty with their mother Eliza. A homemaker, Eliza did everything she could to squeeze every penny and make ends meet for her family.
But what about his father? Well, unfortunately for John D. Rockefeller, his dad was a notorious swindler and crook, and the source of the family’s money problems.
2. His Father Was A Dirtbag
William Avery Rockefeller was far too distinguished of a name for a man like John’s father. He much more often went by “Big Bill” or “Devil Bill.” Though he held down countless jobs in his day, he mainly made his keep as a traveling salesman, dubbing himself a “botanic physician” with a vast collection of dubious elixirs that could fix whatever ails ya.
With a shady grift like that, it should surprise you to learn that Devil Bill wasn’t the most attentive father. He made young John D. Rockefeller’s childhood a nightmare.
3. He Was Never Around
“Family” was pretty low on Devil Bill’s list of priorities. He abandoned his wife and children on a regular basis to chase some shady scheme or another, leaving Eliza to look after the children and try to keep them clothed and fed. But Bill wasn’t just an absent father. No, his betrayals went far deeper than that.
4. He Led A Double Life
Prepare for the shock of a lifetime: Devil Bill Rockefeller, the crooked traveling salesman…cheated on his wife! I know, I know, it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Between the births of John and his sister Lucy, Bill had an affair with his housekeeper, Nancy Brown. Brown became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, Clorinda, who tragically didn’t survive infancy.
The affair must have devastated Eliza—but there was even more to it than that. See, Nancy Brown wasn’t just anyone.
5. He Married For Money
John D. Rockefeller grew up in a broken home, all because his father couldn’t say no to $500. Devil Bill was in love with Nancy Brown from the start, but there was just one problem: She was dirt poor, and if there’s one thing Devil Bill cared about, it was money. He had that in common with his son, at least. When Eliza Davison’s father offered him $500 to marry his daughter, he couldn’t say no.
And with that, he doomed two women and eight children. Nice guy.
6. His Dad Was A Shady Character
Although John D. Rockefeller was deeply ashamed of his disreputable father, he definitely learned industry from Devil Bill. The swindler would do anything if he thought it would net him a quick buck. When his elixirs weren’t cutting it, he tried buying and selling horses. Once, he bought a barge-load of salt to hopefully sell it at a profit. No scheme was too harebrained for Devil Bill.
Like it or not, John D. Rockefeller would end up following in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately, Rockefeller also learned some of his more sinister tactics from Devil Bill.
7. He Learned From The Worst
Devil Bill was a man without a conscience. He didn’t care whom he screwed over, as long as he made his money. Sure, that often involved selling phony elixirs to gullible customers, but he went so much further than that. When he scraped enough money together, he started loaning money to desperate farmers, but definitely not out of the goodness of his heart. Bill specifically tried to loan money—at a steep 12% interest rate—only to the farmers he knew wouldn’t be able to pay him back. That way, he could foreclose on them and take their farms.
Pretty soon, his son John would use similarly malicious tactics to become the richest man the world had ever seen.
8. His Mom Tried To Raise Him Right
John D. Rockefeller’s mother tried everything she could to shield her children from their father’s influence. Which wasn’t that hard, seeing as he was almost never around. She put up with his absences and his schemes; she even turned the other cheek when he married another woman, becoming a bigamist. Eliza worked to ensure life for John and his siblings was a stable as it could be with a man like Devil Bill looming over the household.
Pretty soon, it became clear to everyone who knew her serious, young son John that her hard work was paying off.
9. He Got To Work
John D. Rockefeller was born to work. As a boy, he did household chores like all his siblings, but he also did extra work on the side. He started raising turkeys, selling potatoes and candy; whatever could earn him an income. Eventually, he even started lending money to his neighbors—at a sizeable interest rate, of course. He learned that much from his father, at least. Devil Bill once said, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.”
Well, it seems to have worked. John D. Rockefeller became the shrewdest cheat in town—he just did it more reputably than his father did.
10. He Was A Weird Teenager
At 16 years old, Rockefeller got his first real job. He became an assistant bookkeeper for a produce commission firm. Now, if you’re like me, that sounds like the most boring job in the entire world. It required brutally long hours of poring over tedious ledgers. Most 16-year-olds would consider that cruel and unusual punishment. John D. Rockefeller, on the other hand, adored it. It was like summer camp to the kid.
But there’s one running theme in Rockefeller’s life: He always wanted more.
11. He Needed Money
Apparently, “produce commission” was exactly the kind of sexy and exciting field that Rockefeller wanted to be a part of. When he was barely 20 years old, he decided to get into the business for himself. He and a partner formed their own company—but there was just one huge problem. While his partner had his share of the money, Rockefeller was $1,000 short. No small sum in those days.
Lucky for him, he knew just the kind of person who would give out a high interest, predatory loan to a naive young businessman…
12. His Father Didn’t Give Handouts
John D. Rockefeller spent almost his entire life trying to flee his deadbeat dad’s shady reputation, but without Devil Bill, he’d be nowhere. His father loaned him the $1,000 he needed to start his first business, and at a measly 10% interest rate! Maybe Devil Bill believed in his son, or maybe he just thought he’d teach the boy a lesson, but either way, he was about to learn that investing in John D. Rockefeller was a very, very, very good idea.
13. He Was In The Right Place At The Right Time
In a strange way, John D. Rockefeller has the Civil War to thank for his vast fortune. He happened to start his produce commission business as the fighting started. Since the massive Union armies needed a lot of food, his timing couldn’t have been better. Once the conflict ended, he was well on his way to starting his fortune.
But while Rockefeller believed in the Union and was a staunch abolitionist, that doesn’t mean he believed in the cause enough to, you know, fight for it.
14. He Paid Men To Fight For Him
The United States conscripted countless young men to fight in the Civil War…unless they had the money to get out of it. Rockefeller simply hired substitutes to fight in his place and focused on running his company. He claimed he wanted to join the fight, but he simply couldn’t abandon his business. Now, sure, you may say, many poor farmers simply couldn’t abandon their land to fight, but had to anyway. But that would be splitting hairs…
North and South fought on, hundreds of thousands of casualties piled up, and throughout it all, John D. Rockefeller made a pretty penny for himself.
15. He Started Making Bank
Wars have always been good for one thing: Making unscrupulous people rich. Rockefeller’s produce commission supplied the Union forces and profits soared. However, once the fighting stopped, Rockefeller realized that he needed to take a new angle. Fortunately, the War had also shown him where the future was headed: Oil.
16. He Became An Oil Man
There’s a reason John D. Rockefeller is the poster boy for capitalism. He was really, really good at it. Not only did he get into the oil business just as it became the most essential and lucrative resource on the planet, but he also did a better job of it than any of his competitors. His dad taught him to cheat, his mother taught him to be thrifty, and these traits started to pay off big time. And I mean big time.
17. He Played The Game Better Than Anyone
While Rockefeller’s competitors were playing checkers, he was playing chess. He saw a future in oil, and he leveraged everything on that bet. Unlike more conservative rivals, he borrowed heavily and constantly reinvested all of his profits. He recycled the waste from his refineries and hired his own people rather than relying on contractors. Soon, he owned the largest oil refinery in the entire world.
For most of us, that would be enough to feel pretty good about ourselves. John D. Rockefeller had far bigger ambitions.
18. He Set Out On His Own
At this point, Rockefeller was doing well, but he still had his old business partners dragging him down, so he changed that in 1870. He abolished his old partnerships and formed Standard Oil of Ohio. His company soon became one of the largest corporate entities on Earth—but there was a dark side to this success.
19. He Got A Reputation
John D. Rockefeller’s meteoric rise didn’t go unnoticed. As he forced more and more businesses to either join him or face oblivion, Rockefeller gained a reputation. The press began to vilify him; the evil businessman who laid waste to everything in his path. But you can definitely say this about John D. Rockefeller: He didn’t listen to the haters.
Rockefeller doubled down on his ruthless business tactics, culminating in one of the most infamous events of his career: The Cleveland Massacre.
20. He Committed A Slaughter
Competing oil men tried their best to resist Rockefeller’s domination, but they just couldn’t keep up. He was, to put it simply, just better at this than they were. If they didn’t believe it, the events in Cleveland proved it. In just four months, Standard Oil bought out 22 of its 26 competitors. Everyone was starting to realize they couldn’t beat him, so they might as well join him.
And Rockefeller had a legendary way of proving it to them.
21. He Showed Them What He Was Working With
Though John D. Rockefeller spent years fleeing his seedy father’s shadow, he did inherit some of Devil Bill’s flair for the dramatic. During the Cleveland Massacre and subsequent takeovers, Rockefeller had a simple strategy for getting his competition to join him: He just showed them his books. When his competitors saw what Rockefeller was working with, they instantly realized there was nothing they could do.
Within a decade of getting into oil, Rockefeller was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world—and it helped shape his own twisted view of himself.
22. He Had A High Opinion Of Himself
If you asked the newspapers—or any of his fallen competitors—John D. Rockefeller was a ruthless and cold-hearted man who swept up anything that got in his way. He saw it differently. He viewed himself as “an angel of mercy” who absorbed the weak for their own good to usher in a golden era of oil production. And what’s the thing we all know about angels of mercy? They’re stinking rich.
23. He Was Unstoppable
Standard Oil was a juggernaut and no one could stop it. By the end of the 1870s, Rockefeller’s company refined over 90% of all the oil in the United States, making the man himself a millionaire. But that was nothing. Rockefeller still wanted more—but he began to pay the price for his limitless ambition.
24. The Stress Tore Him Apart
If you think being rich makes you happy, then you should talk to John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil days. He got used to working long hours when he was just a boy and he kept it up as an adult. It paid off as Standard Oil took over the entire industry, but as they say, “All work and no play makes [John] a dull boy.” He grew depressed and anxious.
Later in life, he made a sad admission: “All the fortune that I have made has not served to compensate me for the anxiety of that period.” But business wasn’t the only thing causing him stress.
25. The Press Villified Him
Rockefeller famously said that “competition is a sin.” He certainly seemed to believe that, as he spent his life stamping out all competition and bringing the oil industry under his monopolistic purview. But here’s the thing: Except for the guy running it, most people hate monopolies! Barely a day went by without another scathing attack on Standard Oil in newspapers across the country.
In 1880, the New York World said that Standard Oil was “the most cruel, impudent, pitiless, and grasping monopoly that ever fastened upon a country.” But Rockefeller still didn’t quit. He had one final mountain he wanted to climb.
26. He Wanted Every Drop
John D. Rockefeller’s greatest dream for Standard Oil was simple: He wanted to have sole control over all oil refining in the entire world. Now that would have been quite the feat—but he couldn’t realize that fantasy. Rockefeller was forced to admit that controlling literally all oil refining might be a bridge too far, and the governments of the world would finally turn against him. He gave up the fight and settled for a measly 80 to 90% share of the world’s oil market.
But little did he know, his company’s days were numbered anyway.
27. They Went For The Jugular
Though newspapers ceaselessly attacked Standard Oil and Rockefeller himself, little came of it for decades. Then, in 1904, a bombshell report changed everything. Ida Tarbell published her scathing piece The History of the Standard Oil Company, which brought all of Rockefeller’s shady machinations to light. Tarbell’s article finally shifted public opinion firmly against the leviathan of Standard Oil.
Though he may not have remembered it, Rockefeller had a history with Tarbell—and she was determined to get justice for what he’d done to her family.
28. He Had Enemies
Ida Tarbell’s father had once been in the oil business himself, but like pretty much every other oil man in those days, he fell prey to Rockefeller’s methods. Standard Oil ruthlessly took over Tarbell’s business, financially ruining him. Young Ida Tarbell went from the lap of luxury to near-poverty in the blink of an eye, and she never forgot the man who did that to her.
But, if anything, Tarbell got off easy. Her father’s business partner met a much darker fate.
29. He Ruined Lives
Rockefeller might have thought of himself as an “angel of mercy,” but he gave little thought to the pain and suffering he left in his wake. Families like the Tarbells lost everything, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. The business partner of Ida’s father ended up taking his own life after Standard Oil decimated their company and cost them everything. Ida herself had known the man, and never forgot the destruction Standard Oil and John D. Rockefeller had wrought.
She was just a girl when all of that happened, but now, she’d grown up—and she was ready to fight back.
30. Standard Oil Was In Trouble
Ida Tarbell was a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism. She spent years poring over Standard Oil’s books, uncovering secret letters, and digging skeletons out of closets. The result was The History of the Standard Oil Company, which laid bare Rockefeller’s underhanded tactics. He may have tried to leave his past behind, but John clearly still had a lot of Devil Bill in him.
Tarbell’s report sent shockwaves across the United States. Standard Oil had evaded all antitrust legislation thrown against them so far, but they couldn’t fight it any longer. John D. Rockefeller’s baby was on the chopping block.
31. His Time Had Come
Finally, in 1911, Standard Oil’s monopoly ended. The Supreme Court forced Rockefeller and his associates to break up their company. So just how big was Standard Oil? Well, it broke up into 34 separate companies, some of which are still some of the biggest corporations in the world today: Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and Pennzoil among them.
You’d think that the end of Standard Oil would be a sad day for John D. Rockefeller—but at least he got one heck of a consolation prize.
32. It Only Made Him Richer
John D. Rockefeller owned more than a quarter of Standard Oil’s shares when the company broke up. That meant he received proportionate shares in each of the 34 successor companies. Those companies continued to grow over the subsequent years, and Rockefeller grew richer than ever before. Within just a few years of the breakup, Rockefeller’s net worth ballooned to over $900 million.
33. He Took, And He Gave
There were two sides to John D. Rockefeller that seem completely incompatible. On the one hand, he was a ruthless capitalist who laid waste to any competition in his path, amassing the greatest fortune the world had ever seen as a result. On the other, he was a devoted philanthropist who considered charity one of his greatest callings. At 16, he was already giving six percent of his earnings to charity.
Later in life, he gave away the vast majority of his fortune to universities, charities, and civil rights organizations. Was it enough to offset the pain he caused? You decide.
34. He Was A Man Of The People
Say what you will, but John D. Rockefeller wasn’t like the ostentatious, untouchable billionaires of today. When he moved Standard Oil’s headquarters to New York City, he became a city institution. Despite the fact that he could buy and sell half the buildings in Manhattan, he still road the train to his office every single day.
Disgruntled New Yorkers would threaten him or beg for charity and he essentially never got a moment’s peace, but he did it anyway.
35. The Stress Really Affected Him
John D. Rockefeller might have had all the money in the world, but life was rarely easy. The constant stress and anxiety of running his empire left him frayed and vulnerable. He developed stress-induced alopecia and lost most of his hair. He took to wearing a toupe in 1901 and lost his iconic mustache not long after. John D. Rockefeller grew frail and withered—and people noticed.
Remember Ida Tarbell’s scathing rebuke of Standard Oil? Well, she didn’t just attack Rockefeller’s business practices. She went straight for the throat.
36. She Made It Personal
John D. Rockefeller destroyed Ida Tarbell’s father and caused his business partner to commit suicide. While her report on Standard Oil was accurate, she definitely had an axe to grind. You could tell just by reading how she wrote about him. She devoted much of her writing to describing his withered frame, calling him “the oldest man in the world—a living mummy.”
But while her physical insults were cutting, she got even meaner than that.
37. He Was “One Of The Saddest Objects In The World”
While preparing her exposé on Standard Oil, Ida Tarbell took to following Rockefeller around, to observe the man who took everything from her father. She held nothing back when writing about the man she saw: “It is pitiful, so pitiful, that one cannot watch John Rockefeller sit through a church service and never cease to feel that he is one of the saddest objects in the world.”
That is not what readers of the report expected from the richest and most powerful man in the world; the Great Capitalist who revolutionized the American economy through hard work and ruthless tactics; the man who lived in elegant mansions across the east coast. “One of the saddest objects in the world.”
38. He Didn’t Achieve His Goal
When Rockefeller was just a boy, he said he had two goals in his life: He wanted to make $100,000, and he wanted to live to be 100. Hopefully, overachieving in the former made him feel better he didn’t quite accomplish the latter. He succumbed to arteriosclerosis in 1937, just two months shy of his 98th birthday. He gave his last breath at The Casements, the luxurious Florida estate where he spent most of his time in his later years.
John D. Rockefeller was no more—but he still had plenty of secrets to hide.
39. He Was Richer Than You Can Imagine
Rockefeller’s obituary in the New York Times reported that he’d earned approximately $1.5 billion in his lifetime, “probably the greatest amount of wealth that any private citizen had ever been able to accumulate by his own efforts.” Adjusted for inflation, most of today’s billionaires would still have more money, but that’s not the full story. Let’s look at it another way: At his peak, Rockefeller’s wealth amounted to 3% of the United States’ GDP. What would 3% of the US’s GDP be today? Nearly $650 billion.
Sorry Bezos, but he’s got you beat. John D. Rockefeller made money better than anyone in history—but you don’t get that rich without letting some bodies pile up. For all he thought he was an angel, Rockefeller had some dark skeletons in his closet.
40. He Got Into A Dirty Business
Not all of Rockefeller’s money was in oil. He diversified some, such as when he got into the coal business. He invested in Colorado Fuel and Iron and quickly revitalized the once floundering company. Like most things Rockefeller did, the move started making him money hand over fist. It also led to one of the worst stains on his entire legacy.
41. Things Grew Heated
Though Rockefeller would have you believe he revitalized the coal industry, coal miners told a different story. Fed up with low pay and lax safety regulations, the United Mine Workers union called for a strike in 1913. The dispute dragged on for nearly a year until it reached a disturbing conclusion. The coal company brought in men from the National Guard to defend scabs and intimidate the strikers. It was only a matter of time before things got violent.
42. The Darkest Day Of His Career
The two sides eventually got into a firefight on April 20, 1914. The result was devastating. The National Guard set fire to the strikers’ camps, and 15 women and children lost their lives in the flames. People called it the Ludlow Massacre—and many placed the blame squarely on Rockefeller’s shoulders.
43. He Came Out Squeaky Clean
15 women and children lost their lives in agony, yet everyone’s favorite “angel of mercy,” John D. Rockefeller, couldn’t care less. When reporters asked him what he might have done differently, he doubled down. He placed the blame squarely on the strikers, and regretted only that his company’s men were “forced” to take such action. And, as usual, people bought it.
Though attacks in the press renewed, Rockefeller managed to make it out of the scandal with his reputation intact. He was good at that—but there was one secret still loomed over him.
44. He Had A Secret
Even horrible tragedies like the one at Ludlow couldn’t seem to shatter Rockefeller’s impeccable image. However, rumors continued to buzz about the seemingly benevolent billionaire; whispers that he was hiding a shameful secret from his past. Rockefeller himself brushed this off, as he did with all such rumors that appeared in the press.
But this time was different. Rockefeller was hiding a shameful secret from his past—one he hoped to take to the grave with him.
45. The Press Wanted To Know
The rumors about Rockefeller’s dark family secret just weren’t going away, so Joseph Pulitzer, the king of tabloid journalism, decided he was going to get to the bottom of it. He only had one clue: The truth lay with “Doc Rockefeller,” the billionaire’s father, who was allegedly living under a false name. Pulitzer offered an $8,000 reward for any information about the man.
The search was on.
46. The Hunt Began
Lots of journalists wanted that $8,000, so they started digging. They chased down every lead they could find, badgering family members and poring over public records; anything that could lead them to the elusive Doc Rockefeller. They spent 18 months on their frantic search—but they were too late.
47. His Father Outran The Truth
Devil Bill Rockefeller, who’d been living as Dr. William Levingston for years, managed to elude Pulitzer’s hounds just long enough. He passed in 1906 at the age of 95, before any journalists tracked him down and dragged his secrets out of him. Devil Bill’s end was lonely—his son was still determined to pretend Bill had never existed, so he never acknowledged his father publicly, nor did he contribute a cent towards his father’s funeral fees.
But, to be fair, the truth about Devil Bill was so dark, if he were my father, I’d probably do the same thing. Sure, Devil Bill was a swindler and a bigamist—but his worst crime was truly unforgivable.
48. His Father Was A Monster
When John D. Rockefeller was just 10 years old, his father suddenly sold their home and moved the whole family to a completely different city. He claimed he did it to provide better opportunities for his children. That was a lie. He was on the run from the law, who wanted him locked up for violating a young woman. At gunpoint.
Before then, as far as we know, Devil Bill Rockefeller had just been a no-good crook. The truth was clearly so much worse than that. John’s father was a despicable man—and he didn’t stop there.
49. He Stole From His Family
Just four days after Devil Bill suddenly picked up his family and moved, he faced another battle in court. His father-in-law, John’s grandfather, sued him for failure to pay a $1,175 debt. Allegedly, after the authorities picked him up the first time, Devil Bill begged his father-in-law for money for bail. The man forked over the cash, then Devil Bill simply disappeared, with no intention to ever pay it back.
The initial attack was horrible enough, but for John and his siblings, the fallout lasted years.
50. He Abandoned Them
Devil Bill completely abandoned his family in his flight from the law. This is when he took the name Dr. Bill Levingston, and he spent the rest of his life on the run. He was a slippery one, and he never had to face any consequences for his crimes, but any stability the Rockefellers might have enjoyed was gone for good. Eliza was essentially on her own, and the family was penniless.
So not only was John D. Rockefeller’s father a despicable predator, but he cowardly fled by himself, leaving his family destitute. No wonder Rockefeller wanted to erase his father’s name from history forever.