John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s Pap Was a Con Man is the story of how John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil, created an elaborate scheme to con his way into becoming America’s first billionaire.
John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s Pap Was a Con Man is a book that tells the story of John D. Rockefeller Sr., who was born in 1839 and became one of the richest people in the world.
‘Devil Bill’ was a thief, a bigamist, and a thorn in the side of his son.
HE’D COME INTO TOWN ON A LUXURY TRAILER DRIVEN BY FINE HORSES. By putting a clay pipe in a manikin’s mouth, marching 200 yards, raising his gun, and firing the pipe out of the dummy’s yap, he’d attract a throng. Then he’d pull out a ten-dollar note and offer it to anybody who could repeat his accomplishment. Few individuals are capable of doing so.
In the decades leading up to the Civil War, that’s how the bearded foreigner with dazzling clothing and gold jewelry drew people’s attention in tiny upstate New York communities. He’d identify himself as a “herbal doctor” or a “botanic physician” and sell bottles of his home-brewed patent medication after he’d caught people’s attention. He claimed that the substance could treat any illness, even cancer. He would sometimes peddle purple tablets that he said were great for stomach problems. He did caution, however, that a pregnant woman should never take such pills since they might cause her to miscarry—a coded “warning” meant to appeal to the unhappy expecting.
The tablets were purple berries, the treatments were useless, and the “doctor” was an ignorant flimflam guy with two identities. He went under the names “Dr. William Levingston” and “Dr. William Rockefeller” at different periods. He was dubbed “Devil Bill” by his neighbors.
In 1810, he was born William Avery Rockefeller in Granger, New York, the son of a poor farmer who liked to drink. Devil Bill was a great hunter, fisherman, storyteller, and fiddle player, and he was tall and powerful. But, since he was uninterested in farming or any other kind of hard labor, he left home in his twenties to sell baubles and miraculous cures. He used to carry a slate with the words “I am deaf and dumb” on it so he could deceive the weak while listening on rumors disseminated by others who assumed he couldn’t hear.
When Devil Bill was fleecing rubes in Moravia, New York, in 1836, he courted Nancy Brown, a local girl. Nancy was lovely but poor, so his gaze was drawn to Eliza Davison, a redhead with a wealthy father. In 1837, Bill married Eliza, earning a wife and a dowry of $500. They moved to neighboring Richford, and Bill hired a maid, Nancy Brown, to help Eliza with her responsibilities. Eliza and Nancy both gave birth to two Rockefeller children in less than two years.
When servants carry their husbands’ children, wives become irritated, and Eliza ordered Nancy Brown and her scumbags packing. Mrs. R’s problems, however, did not stop there. Her spouse would leave without notice, sometimes for months at a time, conducting frauds throughout the countryside. He’d appeared, jewels encrusted and a stack of greenbacks in his hand. Devil Bill would bring neighbors to a feast and regale them with stories of his exploits, making a show of paying Eliza’s food bill with large dollars. A neighbor recounted, “He would dress up like a royal and keep everyone guessing.” “He guffawed a lot and reveled in the conjecture he sparked.”
The emphasis of the discussion was on how Devil Bill came into his wealth. Was it all due to shady medical treatment? When two Rockefeller associates were found guilty of stealing nags, rumors that he headed a ring of horse thieves gained traction. Devil Bill was the ringleader, according to one thief’s son. He said that Rockefeller was “too clever to be caught.” “He destroyed my father and then abandoned him.”
Although a thug on the road, Rockefeller looked like a kind guy at home. He had a thriving lumber company, abstained from alcohol, and
John D. Rockefeller Sr. inherited his father’s business deception, but he kept his public image as a rock-ribbed Baptist. (Getty Images/The Life Picture Collection)
Eliza helped him support his six children. He did, however, educate his children in unconventional ways. He placed John, his oldest kid, in a high chair and urged him to leap into his arms. He grabbed the kid many times, but then moved aside and let him fall to the ground. “Remember,” his father reminded his son. “Never put your entire faith in anybody, not even yourself.” He conned his boys to educate them about business. He informed a neighbor, “I trade with the guys and skin ’em.” “I want them to be razor-sharp.” This unusual schooling paid off: his oldest son, John D. Rockefeller, went on to become the world’s wealthiest man. John D. once remarked, “I owe a tremendous obligation to my father.” “He taught me business concepts and methods.”
Devil Bill’s restless nature kept him on the go. He was charged with rape on one trip, but was never prosecuted. When Bill, 42, was roaming Canada in 1852, he presented himself to Margaret Allen as Dr. William Levingston. They tied the knot. The guy with two identities now had two wives, one in New York and the other in Illinois. But he avoided both of them on a regular basis, preferring to swindle the ill as far west as the Dakotas. In the 1870s, he hired Charles Johnson as an apprentice and taught him the practice of quackery. Johnson stated, “He had me pay $1,000 for my tuition, which demonstrates his shrewdness.”
While Devil Bill was scheming, his son John built America’s largest monopoly, the Standard Oil Company, dubbed “the Octopus,” and became the world’s first billionaire. John’s methods were more advanced than Dad’s, but they weren’t always more ethical. John, an arrogant Baptist in a black suit, blanched at his flashy father’s bigamy, desperate to conceal his father’s crimes. He purchased the elderly guy a ranch in North Dakota in 1881, far away from prying eyes. When Eliza Rockefeller died in 1889, John spread the rumor that his mother was a widow.
But Devil Bill was still alive and well, and he was continually deceiving people. He’d show up to one of John’s houses without warning to amuse the grandchildren by shooting his rifle, playing the violin, and telling crazy tales. Devil Bill—92, asthmatic, and almost blind—came to visit in 1902.
A political cartoon from 1884 depicted John D.’s Standard Oil as a deadly octopus with numerous arms. (New York City, Grnger)
He takes pleasure in humiliating his kid. He shouted to a gathering of visitors, “Here comes Johnnie.” “I’m sure he’s a nice Baptist, but be careful how you deal with him.” John attempted to flee as he began making filthy jokes, but his father caught him and forced the blushing millionaire to listen.
Devil Bill had a mystery guest who came in town by private train in 1906, as he lay dying at the Freeport, Illinois, house he occasionally shared with wife Margaret. The caller would only enter Bill’s room if no one else was in the room.
The New York World published the tale John D. Rockefeller had been concealing for decades two years after Devil Bill died. The story detailed lurid stories of Bill’s infidelity, bigamy, quackery, and chicanery under the headline “Secret Double Life of Rockefeller’s Father Revealed by The World.” John D. Rockefeller was unavailable for comment.
John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s Pap was a Con Man. He started out as a bookkeeper for his father’s oil company, but after the death of his father he took over the business and became one of the richest people in America. Reference: rockefeller family tree.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of person was John D Rockefeller?
John D Rockefeller was an American entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Standard Oil, one of the first great business trusts.
Who was Rockefeller and what did he do?
Rockefeller was an American industrialist who founded Standard Oil in 1870. He is most famous for being the first of the great oil barons and for his role in the formation of the modern global economy.
Was John D Rockefeller a good business man?
John D Rockefeller was a very successful businessman.
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