History In The Headlines

10 Things You May Not Know About John D. Rockefeller

By Christopher Klein
On July 8, 1839, John D. Rockefeller Sr. was born in a simple wood frame house in the quiet hamlet of Richford, New York. Rockefeller would rise from his humble origins to become the richest man in the world. On the 175th anniversary of his birth, explore 10 surprising facts about the business magnate and philanthropist.

1. His father was a con artist and a bigamist.
The tycoon’s father, William Avery Rockefeller, was a traveling snake-oil salesman who posed as a deaf-mute peddler and hawked miracle drugs and herbal remedies. The smooth-talking huckster dubbed “Devil Bill” alternately fathered children, including the future industrialist, with his wife and mistress, the couple’s live-in housekeeper. The itinerant William Rockefeller also lived a double life posing as an eye-and-ear specialist named Dr. William Levingston, and in 1855 he secretly married another woman.

2. Every year, Rockefeller celebrated the anniversary of landing his first job.
On September 26, 1855, a Cleveland merchant company, Hewitt and Tuttle, hired the teenaged Rockefeller as an assistant bookkeeper. From that year forward, the corporate tycoon celebrated “job day” every September 26 to commemorate his entrance into the business world, and he considered the date more important than his birthday. “All my future seemed to hinge on that day,” he reminisced later in his life, “and I often tremble when I ask myself the question: ‘What if I had not got the job?’”

3. He hired substitute soldiers to avoid Civil War combat.
Although he was a fervent abolitionist, Rockefeller did not take up arms when the Civil War broke out in 1861. While his youngest brother was wounded at Chancellorsville and Cedar Mountain, Rockefeller received an exemption for being the primary means of supporting his family and hired substitute soldiers in his stead, a common practice during the war. “I wanted to go in the army and do my part,” he said. “But it was simply out of the question. There was no one to take my place. We were in a new business, and if I had not stayed it must have stopped—and with so many dependent on it.” Rockefeller’s commodity business profited handsomely from the Civil War and provided the necessary capital for his entrance into the oil business.

4. Cleveland was the first epicenter of his oil empire.
Shortly after the discovery of petroleum in Titusville, Pennsylvania, the 24-year-old Rockefeller entered the fledgling oil business in 1863 by investing in a Cleveland refinery. In 1870, he formed the Standard Oil Company of Ohio along with his younger brother William, Henry Flagler and additional investors. Through secret alliances with railroads, accumulating segments of the supply chain to achieve economies of scale, buying out and intimidating rivals and serving the growing demand for quality kerosene, Standard Oil eventually controlled 90 percent of the refining capacity of the United States. In the 1880s, Rockefeller moved Standard Oil’s headquarters to New York City.

5. Rockefeller donated more than $500 million to various philanthropic causes.
Raised by a pious mother, Rockefeller tithed 10 percent of his earnings to his church from his very first paycheck. After retiring from Standard Oil in 1897, he stepped up his philanthropy and donated more than half a billion dollars to educational, religious and scientific causes. In 1913, America’s first billionaire endowed the Rockefeller Foundation, which had the ambitious goal “to promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.” The foundation contributed to achievements such as development of a yellow fever vaccine and the successful eradication of hookworm disease in the United States.

6. Spelman College bears the maiden name of Rockefeller’s wife.
In addition to giving millions to help found the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University, the industrialist in 1882 began to donate money to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. Two years later, the African-American women’s school changed its name to Spelman Seminary in honor of his wife, Laura, and her parents, Harvey Buel and Lucy Henry Spelman, who were longtime abolitionists. In 1924, the institution was renamed Spelman College.

7. The court-ordered breakup of Standard Oil made Rockefeller hundreds of millions of dollars.
After years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil must be dismantled because it violated federal anti-trust laws. The monopoly was broken up into 34 separate entities that included companies that would become ExxonMobil, Conoco, Chevron and Amoco. The court order turned out to be a financial windfall for Rockefeller, who still held a quarter of Standard Oil’s stock after his retirement. The individual pieces of the company were worth more than the whole, and as shares of the individual companies doubled and tripled in value in their early years, Rockefeller became the country’s first billionaire with a fortune worth nearly 2 percent of the entire American economy.

8. Winston Churchill would have written Rockefeller’s biography—if his price hadn’t been so high.
In addition to being a gifted orator, Churchill was a masterful writer who penned 42 books and earned the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. During the 1930s, the Rockefeller family approached the future British prime minister to write an authorized biography of their patriarch, but Churchill’s proposed advance of $250,000 was too rich even for the deep-pocketed Rockefellers, who instead turned to Columbia University historian Allan Nevins.

9. Rockefeller suffered from alopecia and lost all hair from his body and head.
Beginning in his 40s, Rockefeller lost all the hair from his head, his mustache and his body. The hair never grew back, and in the early 1900s the tycoon began to wear rotating wigs of various lengths to give the impression of his hair growing and being shorn.

10. Rockefeller lived so long that his life insurance company had to pay him $5 million.
Although he didn’t celebrate birthdays with the same gusto as “job days,” Rockefeller certainly experienced many of them. His life spanned from the presidency of Martin Van Buren to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt before his death at age 97 on May 23, 1937. When Rockefeller turned 96, his insurance company was required to pay him the $5 million face value of his policy.

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