The Surprisingly Dark History Of The Rockefeller Family

The Rockefeller family history is steeped in industrial and political accomplishments that have played a significant role in the shaping of America. As brothers John D. and William Rockefeller rose to social prominence during the late 19th century, their company - Standard Oil - became a significant force in the booming fossil fuels industry, and established the roots for the generational wealth that still supports their descendants to this day.

The Rockefellers' business interests, coupled with their forays into politics (with Nelson Rockefeller even ascending as high as the vice presidency), cemented them as one of the most famous and influential families in American history. A case could be made that much of 20th century America's growth and development can be credited to this New York City dynasty, as they undoubtedly impacted the lives of millions in a variety of ways. That impact, however, was not always positive.

The Rockefellers are not without their secrets or controversies. From labor disputes to monopolies to foreign coups to the mysterious disappearance of Michael C. Rockefeller, some stories about the Rockefellers cast a dark shadow over their illustrious accomplishments.

  • The Family Patriarch, William A. Rockefeller, Was A Con Artist
    Photo: Andrew L. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Family Patriarch, William A. Rockefeller, Was A Con Artist

    William A. Rockefeller was the father of John D. and William Rockefeller Jr. - two men who would become titans of industry and amass tremendous wealth through the founding of Standard Oil. While the two heirs built their empire, they worked hard to cultivate the idea their father was a family man who shaped their values. However, that couldn't have been further from the truth.

    In reality, Rockefeller Sr. was a largely absent father and con artist. While working as a traveling salesman, he often faked being deaf and mute, peddling miracle remedies that were completely useless. Going by the nom de plume "Devil Bill," the snake-oil pushing Rockefeller also took on a mistress (who lived in his home as a housekeeper) and fathered multiple illegitimate children. Rockefeller also took on a second wife and divided time between his two families, unbeknownst to either of them.

    In the latter years of his life, Rockefeller lived as "Dr. Levingston," an eye and ear specialist, despite not having any actual medical knowledge or experience. Instead, he continued to con unassuming patients with a miracle treatment that was actually just a concoction of his creation. 

    John D. Rockefeller worked hard to conceal the truth about his father for decades, only for it all to be exposed by journalist Ida M. Tarbell when John was in his 60s.

  • Michael Rockefeller Disappeared Off The Coast Of New Guinea In 1961

    On November 19, 1961, Michael C. Rockefeller disappeared. The 23-year-old son of then-New York governor Nelson Rockefeller was on an anthropological expedition off the coast of New Guinea when his catamaran tipped over. In hopes of making it to shore to get help for his fellow passengers, Rockefeller swam off into the sea and was never seen again. 

    Though many concluded that Rockefeller likely succumbed to drowning, or was eaten by a shark or crocodile, some have speculated that he met a much more grim fate. At the time, multiple tribes practiced cannibalism in southern New Guinea.

    In 2014, journalist Carl Hoffman released Savage Harvest, a book detailing his investigation into Rockefeller's disappearance. In it, Hoffman reveals two weeks after Rockefeller disappeared, Catholic priests in the area told the Dutch government villagers from Otsjanep killed Rockefeller. However, this information was covered up. Hoffman later reveals that in his own conversations with the villagers of this region, this story was all but explicitly confirmed.

    Despite this revelation, all of the information available is secondhand and unable to be completely verified. Therefore, the disappearance of Rockefeller remains a mystery.

  • A Murder-Suicide Claimed Three Members Of The Family In 1951

    One of the first major tragedies to befall the Rockefeller family occurred on March 16, 1951, when Winifred Emeny - the great-niece of John D. Rockefeller - reportedly took her own life and that of her two children.

    Emeny, who was a known socialite in the Greenwich, CT, scene, started two cars while she and her daughters, Winifred (age 12) and Josephine (age 6), were trapped inside the garage. After the family's governess returned to find the home full of smoke, the authorities were alerted. Despite resuscitation efforts, all three lost their lives. 

  • Standard Oil Had A Role In The Ludlow Massacre
    Photo: John Sloan / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Standard Oil Had A Role In The Ludlow Massacre

    In September 1913, more than 1,000 coal miners in Colorado went on strike against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation (CF&I). The aggrieved workers were protesting low wages, dangerous working conditions, and the contentious relationship they had with their employer.

    CF&I - which was owned by the Rockefeller family and Standard Oil - responded to the work strike by evicting the workers and their families from the company-owned housing. The workers maintained their resolve, however, setting up nearby tent communities and continuing the strike.

    With the aid of the National Guard, the Rockefeller-owned corporation sought to break the strike, and on April 20, 1914, two companies of guardsmen descended on the tent colony near the town of Ludlow, resulting in a clash between the groups.

    After the slaying of a strike leader - who was attempting to negotiate a truce - the guardsman began shooting at families fleeing the scene. All told, dozens of lives were lost during the strike, including that of several women and children.

  • The Name Rockefeller Has A Dark Legacy In Brazil

    The Rockefeller Foundation - a philanthropic organization set up and operated by the wealthy family - began doing work in Brazil during World War I. Around this time, Brazilian elites had become infatuated with the so-called public health movement, which was largely designed around eugenics.

    In 1918, the Rockefeller Foundation helped to create the Eugenic Society of São Paulo, and in doing so directly financed programs aimed at exterminating the poor and disabled, and those of mixed African descent throughout Brazil. 

    Later, in the 1960s, David Rockefeller - a banker who controlled Chase Manhattan - publicly declared the need for Brazil's then-leader João Goulart to be ousted. Following the acknowledgment that Brazil's leadership was bad for US business, Rockefeller was part of a group that invested more than $12 million in the 1962 Brazilian elections. 

    Rockefeller's continued support for anti-Communist groups played a large role in the 1964 coup that removed Goulart and installed a military dictatorship. 

  • John D. Rockefeller Hired Soldiers To Fight For Him In The Civil War
    Photo: Scientific American Compiling Dep't, New York / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    John D. Rockefeller Hired Soldiers To Fight For Him In The Civil War

    Though John D. Rockefeller considered himself to be an abolitionist (even writing an anti-slavery essay in high school), he did not take up arms and join the Union forces during the Civil War. Citing the fact he was the primary provider for his family, he received an exemption and instead hired soldiers to go and fight on his behalf. 

    This was not an uncommon practice for those with the means, and though Rockefeller gave remorseful statements about not fighting, his commodities business profited greatly from the conflict. So much so that, by the time the war was over, Rockefeller was in an opportune position to capitalize on the budding oil industry.