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Tycoon John D. Rockefeller Couldn't Hide His Father's Con Man Past

June 14, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

When he was a child, John D. Rockefeller watched his father count his money—huge wads of which he refused to keep in a bank and lovingly stacked in front of his impressionable son. “He made a practice of never carrying less than $1,000,” the oil baron recalled later in life, “and he kept it in his pocket. He was able to take care of himself, and was not afraid to carry his money.”

William Avery Rockefeller’s son would go on to become one of the richest men of all time. Famously money-hungry, John D. spoke admiringly of his father’s piles of cash long after he had made a fortune that would have surpassed his father’s wildest dreams. But though the head of Standard Oil was proud to tell the world where he had gotten his own appreciation for cold hard cash, he always excluded a detail: where his father’s cash came from.

In fact, William’s money had come from a slew of shady business ventures, from pretending to be a deaf and blind peddler to posing as a doctor to hawk patent medicines. But after his stratospheric rise to the heights of Gilded Age business, John D. Rockefeller did everything he could to downplay the exploits of his parent. He was in his sixties before accusations about his father’s unethical business practices and possible criminal behavior came back to haunt him—accusations that sparked a race to find out the truth about Rockefeller’s father.

The accusations came courtesy of Ida Tarbell, the muckraking journalist who exposed Standard Oil’s secretive business practices, which included cutting secret deals to squelch its competitors. As the capstone to her multi-part exposé in McClure’s magazine, she published a two-part character study of John D. Rockefeller in 1905.

Ida M Tarbell was a leading muckraker and well-known writer of the Progressive era of the early 1900s.

The articles painted a portrait of a man obsessed with money—an intimidating, secretive figure whose personality was warped by ambition. But just as shocking as her portrait of one of the United States’ most famous men was what she wrote about his father. Tarbell accused William Avery Rockefeller of posing as a physician and exploiting others for financial gain, and brought to light allegations of rape and horse thievery against him.

During John D.’s childhood, she wrote, his father had been “the leader in all that was reckless and …read more


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