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By 1865, Standard Oil was the largest and most profitable organization in the world, moving to Manhattan to house all the new employees.

Doctor Quack the Devil?Bill

and John D. Rockefeller

The super rich in America enjoy power and prerogatives unimaginable to most of us. Who can conceive of owning a private empire that includes 100 homes, 2,500 servants, untold thousands of luxuries, and untold millions of dollars? America has a royal family of finance that has known such riches for generations. It is, of course, the Rockefellers.

John D. Rockefeller?s father, William, was a travelling salesman and self-described ?botanic physician? who refused to live a normal 9-to-5 life.?There were secrets behind the brick walls at 515 W. Clark St., where Dr. William and Margaret Levingston lived.

Levingston was an assumed name, taken by a bigamist and a con man nicknamed “Big Bill” who peddled herbal remedies and cancer treatments around the country. In Freeport, he claimed to be an eye and ear specialist, but Levingston was a quack.

And the biggest secret: His real name was William Avery Rockefeller and he was the father of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil Co. and at the time the richest man in the world. At the dawn of the 20th Century, there was national intrigue and mounting clues of Dr. Levingston’s secret Freeport life.

Publisher Joseph Pulitzer offered $8,000 ($210,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who could provide information on Rockefeller’s father. William Randolph Hearst also offered a tidy sum for the story.

These days it is accepted as fact by historians that Big Bill, who died in 1906 in Freeport, fathered John D. Rockefeller with Eliza Rockefeller. In a span of two years, Big Bill had two children with Eliza and two more with the family housekeeper in a span of four years. He abandoned his family in the 1850s, but never got a divorce before marrying a second wife, Margaret Allen, in 1856.

The Rockefeller clan denied any genetic connection to Levingston, who took his secrets to the grave.

Known as Devil?Bill, William was famous for travelling from town to town selling homeopathic medicine that ?cured cancer? and other shady schemes. He had?girlfriends in each city and even had children with a few of them, a fact that John tried to hide his entire life.

William Rockefeller was cut from a different cloth.?He was in his mid-twenties when he arrived in the burned-over district. Rather than devote his attention to farming or preaching, however, he became a full out huckster.?Blessed with incredible marksmanship, Rockefeller’s practice at times was to introduce himself to a village by way of a shooting contest. After he shot a smoking pipe or an apple from two hundred yards, it was only natural for his words to carry some legitimacy with the townspeople.

At other times, he adopted a simpler strategy. He simply affixed a slate to the front of his shirt saying “This man is deaf and dumb”, and proceeded to hold written conversations. Only the hardest of hearts would deny him a meal and a place to stay with such a handicap weighing against him.?William Rockefeller must have taken more time than usual at the house of John Davison, for John’s daughter Eliza saw enough of him to exclaim, “I would marry that man if he weren’t deaf and dumb!”?With her heart set upon that path, William convinced Eliza to overlook his initial reticence. The Davison family was prosperous, and winning the hand of Eliza was no small feat for a con artist like William Rockefeller. John Davison would hate William for the rest of his life, and with good reason.

Everything about the Rockefellers seems to be controversial, even their family background. One story goes that the family descends from French Protestants, who changed their name from Roquefeuille to Rockefeller when they were driven from France into Germany. However, a genealogy compiled by the distinguished scholar, Dr. Malcolm Stern, entitled Americans of Jewish Descent, convincingly established the claims of many American Jews that the Rockefeller clan originally was one of their own.

William Rockefeller Sr., the father of John D., first became involved in the petroleum business when he peddled the oily stuff at $2.5 a pint as a cure for warts, snake bite, cancer and impotency. The wandering medicine man called himself ?Doctor,?? even though he couldn?t have entered medical school with a search warrant. In addition to being a quack, ?Doc? Bill was a bigamist, horse thief and child molester.

William Avery Rockefeller Devil Bill, John?s father.

The image of the travelling snake oil salesman of 19th century America is by now a familiar trope. It is the image of the heartless huckster who preys upon the trust of the general public to swindle them out of their hard-earned savings. With a bottle of useless tonic and the help of a plant in the audience, the snake oil salesman made a living out of lies and deceit.

In these respects, William Levingston was your average snake oil salesman.

He used a made-up title, billing himself as ?Dr. Bill Levingston, Celebrated Cancer Specialist? despite being neither a doctor nor celebrated nor a cancer specialist.

He was an inveterate cheat and liar, having abandoned his first wife and their six children to start a bigamous marriage in Canada at the same time as he fathered two more children by a third woman.

Rockefeller married his first wife, Eliza Davison (September 12, 1813 ? March 28, 1889), a daughter of farmer John Davison and Cynthia Selover, on February 18, 1837 in Niles, Cayuga Co., NY. John highly opposed the union. Since Cynthia had died when Eliza was twelve, Eliza had been raised by her elder sister, Mary Ann Davison, and father John. Bill and Eliza were the parents of three sons and three daughters:

Lucy Rockefeller (1838?1878), married Pierson Briggs

John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (1839?1937), married Laura Celestia “Cettie” Spelman (1839?1915)

William Avery Rockefeller Jr. (1841?1922), married Almira Geraldine Goodsell (1844?1920)

Mary Ann Rockefeller (1843?1925)

Franklin “Frank” Rockefeller (1845?1917) [twin]

Frances Rockefeller (1845?1847) [twin]

Bill once bragged, “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ’em sharp.” Although Bill abandoned the family while Lucy, John, and William Jr. were teenagers, he remained legally married to Eliza until her death. In 1856, having assumed the name Dr. William Levingston, he married Margaret Allen (1834?1910) in Norwich, Ontario, Canada. Bill and Margaret had no children together. Before leaving his first wife, he also had two daughters with his mistress and housekeeper Nancy Brown:

Clorinda Rockefeller (c. 1838??, died young)

Cornelia Rockefeller (c. 1840??)

Before marrying Eliza, Bill had been in love with Nancy. However, he ended up marrying Eliza since her father was to give her $500 when she married, and Nancy was poor

William Avery Rockefeller, left his family penniless. A sexually profligate figure, William brought his mistress, Nancy Brown, to live in the house with his wife, Eliza, who was John D.’s mother. Nancy bore William Avery two illegitimate children. In Mr. Chernow’s view, William Avery’s behaviour was a source of unending shame to his son and resulted in John D. Rockefellers penny-pinching, puritanical personality. ”John D. defined himself in opposition to his father.

”John D. Jr. was never able to ask his father directly about the accusations about Standard Oil. There were always unanswered questions about the legitimacy of John D. Sr.’s half sisters. It produced an uneasy conscience in the family.

John David Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and the richest person to ever live, not just in America, but in the history of the world. Although Standard Oil was eventually forced to break into multiple companies because it was ruled a monopoly, BP, Exxon, ConocoPhillips and Chevron (among others) are all subsidiaries of Standard Oil.

Like every snake oil salesman, William Avery Rockefeller had a cure-all tonic to hock. He called it Rock Oil and charged $25 a bottle for it, equivalent at the time to two months? salary for the average American worker. Claiming it could cure all but the most terminal cancers, there were always desperate souls in every town who could be duped into buying a bottle.

As near as anyone can tell, ?Rock Oil? was in fact just a mixture of laxative and petroleum and had no effect whatsoever on the cancer of the poor townsfolk he conned into buying it. But ?Dr. Bill? didn?t have to worry about the consequences when his customers discovered they?d been had; he never stayed in any one place for very long.

Yes, in almost every respect, William Levingston was your run-of-the-mill snake oil huckster, someone who had no compunction about preying on the weak and the innocent in his pursuit of wealth and power.

There was one thing that set him apart however. His name was not in fact ?Levingston.? That was an identity he had assumed after being indicted for raping a girl in Cayuga in 1849. His actual name was William Avery Rockefeller, and he was the father of John D. Rockefeller, founder of the infamous Rockefeller dynasty.

On July 26, 1849, in the city of Auburn, New York, William was incited in court for a rape which had occurred at gunpoint. His victim had worked in the Rockefeller household, her name was Ann Vanderbeak. In the 1905 book Memoirs of an American Citizen, Robert Herrick says an improper relationship was rumoured to exist before the trial.

The court document reads, “That William A. Rockefeller late of the Town of Moravia in the County of Cayuga, on the first day of May in the year of the Lord Thousand Eight hundred and forty eight, with force and arms at the Town of Moravia in said County, in and upon one Ann Vanderbeak in the Peace of God with the People of the State of New York then and there being, violently did make and assault on her, the said Ann Venderbeak, then and there make violently and against her will feloniously did ravish and carnally know [?]”. William Cooper, the Rockefeller family Doctor, also indicated with the assault and battery with the intention of raping Ann Vanderbeak.

Due to these allegations, William sold the Moravia home and moved to Oswego, New York, presumably to avoid trial, under the pretence of providing better opportunities for the boys. Four days later, Eliza’s father sued Bill in the Supreme Court of Cayuga for failure to pay $1,175 debt. His plea sates Bill had asked him for help with his bail for the rape charges but had not seen him since. Eliza also informed authorises her husband had “absconded and cannot now be found within the state.” William assumed the title Doctor Bill Lenvingston and worked as a travelling Snake oil Specialist. Although nothing became of the charges William left the family penniless.

After hearing rumours that John D. Rockefeller, then the richest man in the world, then at the height of his notoriety as a monopolist, had a shameful family secret, the press went into a frenzy. Joseph Pulitzer offered a reward of $8000 for information about “Doc Rockefeller,” who was known to be alive and living under a false name, but whose whereabouts were a family secret. Despite slender clues picked up from interviews with family members and an 18-month search, the journalists failed to track him down before he died, and the full story was not exposed until two years later.

William Avery Rockefeller had spent some time in Park River, North Dakota under the Levingston alias. He died on May 11, 1906, at the age of 95 in Freeport, Illinois and was buried there in Oakland Cemetery. John D. never publicly acknowledged the truth about his father’s life as a bigamist, and Bill’s grave marker was paid for out of his second wife’s estate.

The tall building in the middle right background was the second-floor Hewitt & Tuttle. To help pay the bills, a 16-year-old Rockefeller landed his first job as an assistant bookkeeper with Hewitt & Tuttle, a produce brokerage.

The official histories of the Rockefeller family, many commissioned or approved by the Rockefellers themselves or produced by public television stations owned and managed by family members, downplay the significance of the dynasty?s snake oil lineage. John D., they claim, was the opposite of his father: pious and industrious where his father had been wayward and lazy, philanthropic and generous where his father had been selfish and greedy. In reality, the apple didn?t fall far from the tree and John D. learnt a lot from his father.

Although no one ever nominated him for the father-of the-year award, the ?Doc? did take the time to instruct his children in his own unique business ethics. Author William Hoffman reports: ?The thing the children most remembered about their father was the delight he took in getting the better of them in business deals. He would con them out of something they considered important, then lecture them on the necessity of always being alert.?

?Devil Bill,? as the ?Celebrated Dr. Bill Levingston? was also known, once bragged that ?I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ?em sharp.? The young Rockefeller learnt his lesson well, and by all accounts John was smart, shrewd and possessed of a maturity beyond his years. From his father?s example, he learned how to lie, how to cheat, and how to get away with it, traits that served him well as he rose to become one of the richest men the world has ever known.

John Davidson Rockefeller was born on July 8, 1839 in Richford, NY to Eliza Rockefellar, a homemaker, and William Rockefeller, a con artist.

Because her husband was always on the road, Eliza Rockefeller didn?t have much income, so she taught her children how to be thrifty.?Eliza was a deeply religious woman, trapped by her naive decision into a hard life. In spite of her situation she was uncomplaining and her determination never (visibly) wavered. Like his mother, John Rockefeller found solace in the church. He found a serene fulfillment in the services that was rarely seen in teenage boys, and he adopted his mother’s Baptist faith in full.

John would grow up to be a teetotaler with a straight-laced reputation, and there is no evidence to suggest that he led a double life on this account.

?Willful waste makes woeful want,? Eliza?used to tell her children. While Rockefeller?s father taught him dishonesty and ruthlessness in order to get ahead, Eliza instilled in John the sober habits of her Christian faith: thriftiness, hard work, and self control. Starting at a young age, Rockefeller earned money from his neighbours by raising turkeys and selling pieces of chocolate to his school mates.

By the time Rockefeller was 12 he had saved $50, about $1,400 in today?s money. Following his mother?s advice, he loaned his $50 to a local farmer at 7% interest, payable after one year.

It was around this time that Rockefeller learned the power of interest. ?The impression was gaining ground with me that it was a good thing to let the money be my servant and not make myself a slave to the money,? he said of?this time. As a kid, Rockefeller was known for being particularly serious and rarely smiled.

John?s father was involved in a rape scandal and several scams, which prompted Eliza to move the family to hide from the embarrassment. She chose Cleveland. Because of the recent railroad construction, Cleveland was a booming city with a focus on the manufacturing?and garment industries. However, its biggest draw was oil. At one point, Ohio had one of the largest known oil reserves in the world.

On June 12, 1855, “William Levingston” married Margaret Allen and began his new life as a bigamist. At that same time, a letter arrived to the Rockefellers, advising them that income was reduced and that expenses should be cut. It is one telling example out of thousands on how easily one could reinvent themselves in the antebellum world, if they were perfidious enough to manage it.

Cleveland was not yet a tenth of the industrial power it would soon become, but it was a bustling, regional transport center. For six weeks, six days a week, ten hours a day, a sixteen-year old John looked for work with a shipping firm to support his family. He went to some places three of four times, never relenting. He was finally hired on September 26th and put to work on the spot.

Because he had experience giving out loans and selling small items, Rockefeller was a skilled bookkeeper at a young age. On September 26, 1855, after months of searching, he signed on as a bookkeeper, making 50 cents a day at a produce brokerage firm called Hewitt & Tuttle.

Until the day he died, Rockefeller?celebrated ?job day? every September 26 to commemorate his entrance into the business world. ?All my future seemed to hinge on that day,? he reminisced later in life. ?I often tremble when I ask myself the question: ?What if I had not got the job??.?

To live frugally while he was a young professional, Rockefeller kept a journal of all his expenses, which he called Ledger A. He kept the habit of writing out all his expenses until the day he died.

He closely reviewed every bill and jumped on errors of even a few pennies. Rockefeller?was amazed at the laxity and inefficiency of his?much older peers, which distinguished him?from an early age. This thorough, systematic way that he did things was more recognized at this time than his brilliant, flashing intelligence. Even as a wealthy man, Rockefeller was known to go to extreme measures to pay back pennies that he owed.

Years later, when asked about his first ledger, Rockefeller?said he wouldn?t try all his riches in the world if it meant giving up his ledger.

?I was trained in business affairs, and I was taught how to keep a ledger,? he said. ?The practice of keeping a little personal ledger by young men just starting in business and earning money and requiring to learn its value is, I think, a good one.?It is more than forty-two years since I wrote what it contains. I call it Ledger A, and now I place the greatest value upon it.?

It was around this time that Rockefeller started giving away 10% of his earnings?to charity, another habit he started when he was young and practiced until he died.

At 18, after getting into an argument with his boss about his low pay, Rockefeller used two years of savings to open his own produce brokerage firm.

To start the business, Rockefeller and his partner used savings, borrowed money from Devil Bill, and got a bank loan to pool together?$4,000, about $100,000 in today?s money. The firm sold practically everything that passed through Cleveland including pork, grain, and other commodities. ?Think of it, a bank had trusted me for $2,000!? Rockefeller said of the time. ?I felt that I was now a man of importance in the community.?

The produce business took off immediately, making young John Rockefeller a popular Cleveland businessman at the age of 21.

A bustlin? photo of Cleveland in the 1800s

Like his father, John Davison Rockefeller made his fortune by hocking another type of oil. In the early 1860s he built an oil refinery with some business partners in Cleveland. By 1880, Standard Oil was refining 90% of the oil in America, rising on the back of John D.?s deceit, backstabbing and secret deals with the railroad tycoons. With the acute business acumen of a born-and-bred snake oil salesman, Rockefeller became unimaginably wealthy by exerting ruthless control over the oil industry.

In those early days, however, oil was refined mainly into kerosene for lighting fuel. It was ubiquitous and a profitable industry to monopolize, but it was hardly central to American society. Indeed, the invention of the light bulb in 1878 and its introduction to American homes threatened the industry itself. It was only the invention and mass production of the horseless carriage, powered by an internal combustion engine running on gasoline, that made oil into the backbone of American society?and the snake oil of the 20th century.

The sharpest of the ?Doc?s? progeny was John D. Any psychiatrist worth a couch would trade several neuroses to have had a chance to learn what made him tick. He was full of more contradictions and paradoxes than a Charlie Chan flick. The main feature of his Jekyll-Hyde personality is that he was straighter than an arrow in his private life and deeply (some say fanatically) religious. At the same time he was totally and utterly ruthless in his grasping for money and power. Many of the old boy?s victims were sure that his religion was a pretence, an act. But actually there is no evidence that his claims to piety were deliberately faked.

Unlike his father, John D. was a nose-to-the-grindstone type who, before he was out of his teens, was a shrewd and successful commission broker in Cleveland. In 1859, his partners sent him over to Titusville, Pennsylvania to see if there was as much financial potential in the gushing black liquid as?was rumoured. Young Rockefeller liked what he saw. He decided that of the three phases of the burgeoning oil industry-production, transportation and refining-the last promised the greatest profits.

John D. returned to Cleveland and launched what became the mighty Standard Oil Company. From the start of his business career, one thing that Rockefeller hated more than sin was competition. For John D the only efficient way to run anything was by a monopoly. Provided, of course, that the most qualified, most capable, and most deserving person-meaning himself-ran it.

When John D. founded Standard Oil, it was just one of the 27 other refineries in the Cleveland area, and by no means the biggest. But the ambitious businessman-who once declared that -competition is a sin?- soon devised a plan to take on or destroy his competitors. The simplicity. Audacity, and ruthlessness of his scheme is breathtaking.

John D. Rockefeller Sr was a ruthless competitor, devouring smaller businesses as he built Standard Oil, conspiring with the railroads to get rebates not only when he gave them his own oil to transport, but also when they transported his competitors’ oil. In 1914, his operatives opened fire on striking miners in Ludlow, Colo., killing several of them. In addition, 2 women and 11 children were asphyxiated as they hid in an underground bunker. In 1902, Rockefeller was ”humbled, but not impoverished” by the crusading journalist Ida Tarbell, whose father had been put out of business by Rockefeller. The Government began investigating Standard Oil, which led to its breakup in 1911.

Standard Oil?s humble beginning. In 1863, sensing an opportunity, Rockefeller and his business partner teamed up with a chemist to start a refinery.

An early Standard Oil wagon, used to deliver kerosene. Photo Corbis

The most painful blow, however, was Tarbell?s exposure of Rockefeller?s father as a snake-oil salesman, bigamist, and accused rapist, a fact that Rockefeller hid nearly his entire life. The discovery that Devil Bill was still alive set off a nationwide manhunt. One newspaper offered $8,000 for information about him. Rockefeller began to fear that his children might be kidnapped and secluded himself from the public.

Labour activists, politicians, and demonstrators now hated Rockefeller. People even tried to kill him.

In line with his modest Baptist demeanor, Rockefeller refused to make his donations public, even though he was vilified in the media for being stingy and ruthless. To this day, there is little evidence on the University of Chicago campus that it has anything to do with Rockefeller.

In addition to founding and supporting multiple schools, Rockefeller is attributed with having started the first ever research hospital, which resulted in eradicating hookworm and yellow fever.

By 1912, Rockefeller had given away hundreds of millions of dollars (billions in today?s terms).?Rockefeller?s fortune peaked in 1912 at almost $900,000,000, but?his estate totaled only $26,410,837 when he died, making him the biggest philanthropist ever to live.

In 1902, Ida Tarbell, the daughter of an oil refiner from Ohio who went out of business because of Standard, wrote a series of articles on Rockefeller?s famous deal with the railroads called ?The History of Standard Oil?. The article later turned into a book, bent on proving how arrogant Standard Oil was and making Rockefeller America?s biggest enemy.

Rockefeller gave to schools, starting the University of Chicago and Spelman College, a free university for young African-American women. However, the media still viewed him as a stingy monster.

A hairless John Rockefeller. Only in his 50s, the stress and overwork caused Rockefeller to have a nervous breakdown. He lost all of his hair, including his eyebrows. And because he was famously media shy, Rockefeller refused to address his critics, making them hate him even more.

To crush his competitors, Rockefeller would?create a shortage of the railroad tank cars that transported oil. He?d then buy up all the barrels on the market so his competitors would have no place to store or ship their oil. He bought up all the available chemicals that were necessary to refine oil.

Rockefeller even had?Standard Oil men communicate in code. The company was nicknamed ?Club?; John D. Rockefeller was referred to as ?Chowder.?

He was so secretive and ruthless that few people?knew what he sounded like. He walled himself off and the people who did?know him recognized that he had no self doubts.?Once he made up his mind that he was going to aquire your refinery, you might as well sell it, because it was going to be part of Standard Oil.

?The day of combination is here to stay,? he once declared. ?Individualism has gone, never to return.?

After the birth of their first child, Elizabeth, the Rockefeller?clan moved to Euclid Avenue, Cleveland?s ?millionaires? row.? Rockefeller could have afforded any mansion on the street, but he deliberately picked a more modest house (with basic furnishings), where his three remaining children were born ? Alta, Edith, and his only son, John Jr. Convinced that riches led to sin, Rockefeller, one of America?s richest men, faced a difficult task in raising his children.

Laura, John?s wife, made?their only boy?wear his sisters? hand-me-down dresses until he was eight. She once proudly confided to a neighbor, ?I am so glad my son has told me what he wants for Christmas, so now it can be denied him.?

And Rockefeller was practicing what he made his children do. He was famous for buying one suit a year, wearing it every day until it was unwearable.

John D. and his family.

Rockefeller treated his top managers as conquering heroes and gave them praise, rest, and comfort. He?d allow executives to have their say and, at the end of the meeting, they?d vote on the right action.

He gave compliments and avoided yelling. ?Very well kept?very indeed,? said Rockefeller to an accountant about his books before pointing out a minor error and leaving.

Once, a new accountant moved into a room where Rockefeller kept an exercise machine. Not knowing what Rockefeller looked like, the accountant saw him and ordered him to remove it. ?All right,? said Rockefeller, and he politely took it away. Later, when the embarrassed accountant found out whom he had chided, he expected to be fired but Rockefeller never mentioned it.

After retiring from Standard Oil in his 50s, he?hired Rev. Frederick Gates, a Baptist minister, to help him forge a new set of principles for philanthropy.

Frederick Gates pushed him, warning, ?Mr. Rockefeller your fortune is rolling up like an avalanche! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children?s children!?

Already strained by the demands of making money, Rockefeller now staggered under the new pressures of giving it away. ?I investigated and worked myself almost to a nervous breakdown,? he said, ?in groping my way through the ever-widening field of philanthropic endeavor.?

In 1911, after a decade in court, the Supreme Court ordered Standard Oil to divest itself within six months.

Known as the Sherman Antitrust?Act, Standard Oil was now forced to break up.

Portrait of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

While an unintended?consequence, breaking up his?monopoly actually made Rockefeller?s net worth increased significantly as each new equity piece began growing like Standard Oil did in the early days. Two years after the monopoly?broke up, Rockefeller?s?net worth was $900 million, more than double what Bill Gates has now when adjusted for inflation, making him the richest man ever.

At the old age of 97, Rockefeller failed to achieve his final goal. As a boy, Rockefeller often boasted that he would one day make over $100,000 and live until he was 100 years old.?While he easily accomplished his first mission, Rockefeller died in his sleep at the age of 97. At the time of his passing, John was jollier than ever. His wife had passed years before and, acting out of character, he was known to constantly flirt with young women whom he invited to play golf with him.

William Avery Rockefeller would no doubt approve of ?his legacy.

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