john d. rockefeller's father -- 1/26/16

Today's selection -- from American Colossus by H.W. Brands. Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller's father was a con artist:

"John D. Rockefeller's ... first teacher was his father, William Rockefeller, a confidence man, purveyor of snake oil, fornicator, liar, and cheat. A journalist contemporary of John D., writing about the father, aptly remarked, 'He had all the vices save one -- he never drank.' Yet Bill Rocke­feller could be utterly charming. 'He was the best-dressed man for miles around,' a neighbor in upstate New York remembered. 'You never saw him without his fine silk hat.' The ladies loved him, to their dismay. He married Eliza Davison chiefly because her father was rich and Rockefeller hoped to claim her inheritance. But he refused to leave off with his other girlfriends. He brought one of these, Nancy Brown, into his and Eliza's home as a housekeeper, and he proceeded to cohabit with both. He fathered a daughter by Eliza in 1838, and then a daughter by Nancy. In 1839 Eliza bore him a son, John Davison Rockefeller. Several months later Nancy gave him a fourth child, another girl.

"Eliza was too smitten to terminate this menage, but her broth­ers did it for her, compelling Rockefeller to dismiss Nancy. Yet their intervention hardly curbed his lust or diminished his appetite for unconventional arrangements. His work as a traveling huck­ster ('Dr. William A. Rockefeller, the Celebrated Cancer Special­ist, Here for One Day Only. All cases of cancer cured unless too fur gone and then can be greatly benefited') carried him far from home, often for months at a time. On one journey to Ontario, Can­ada, he met a trusting young woman with equally trusting parents. Without divorcing or even informing Eliza and his family in New York, he married Margaret Allen and commenced a secret, second life with her.

Bill Rockefeller

"John D. Rockefeller (who insisted on using his middle initial from youth) knew little of his father's escapades and admitted less. The boy was more directly influenced by his mother, who suffered her husband's sins in silence and prayer. Eliza was a Bap­tist, a child of the Second Great Awakening that swept through the 'burned-over district' of upstate New York during the first half of the nineteenth century. She placed her trust in God and inculcated a puritan abstemiousness in her son. 'The Baptists I knew listened to their consciences and their religious instructions, and not only did not dance in public places but did not dance anywhere and did not even concede the reputability of dancing,' Rockefeller remembered. 'The theater was considered a source of depravity, to be shunned by conscientious Christians.' On the irregular occasions when Bill Rockefeller was home, he plied the children with candy and gifts, leaving matters of discipline to Eliza. She meted out enough for any two parents. 'I made my protests, which she heard sympathetically and accepted sweetly ­but still laid on, explaining that I had earned the punishment and must have it,' Rockefeller recalled. 'She would say, "I'm doing this in love." ' Innocence was no excuse. 'Never mind,' she said during one thrashing, when he convincingly complained that he hadn't done what he was being punished for. 'We have started in on this whipping, and it will do for the next time.' Not even hero­ism stayed her hand. John and his brother William went skat­ing on the Susquehanna River despite her injunction against it; a comrade fell through the ice and would have drowned but for their quick thinking and brave action. When they got home she hailed their courage. 'We thought we should be left off without punishment,' Rockefeller said. 'But Mother gave us a good tanning nevertheless.'

"Rockefeller spent much of his long life in denial about his early years. As they pertained to his father, the denial was direct; years before Bill died, John D. began referring to Eliza as his 'widowed mother.' And the memories he related of his father were unac­countably fond. 'He himself trained me in practical ways. He was engaged in different enterprises; he used to tell me about these things. ... He taught me the principles and methods of business. ... I knew what a cord of good solid beech and maple wood was. My father told me to select only solid wood. ... and not to put any limbs in it or punky wood. That was a good training for me.' Bill Rockefeller was more candid about his pedagogy. 'I cheat my boys every chance I get,' he told a contemporary. 'I want to make 'em sharp. I trade with the boys and skin 'em and I just beat 'em every time I can. I want to make 'em sharp.'

"Between his mother's discipline and his father's cheating, Rockefeller learned to fend for himself. He cultivated a reserve that would persist throughout his life. One of his high school teachers described him as 'the coldest blooded, the quietest and most deliberate chap.' "


H.W. Brands


American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2010 by H.W. Brands


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