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The Surprisingly Dark History Of The Rockefeller Family

Updated October 22, 2020 70.0k views10 items

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 hulking force in the booming fossil fuels industry, and established the roots for the generational wealth that still buoy their scions to this day.

The Rockefeller's business interests, coupled with their forays into politics (with Nelson Rockefeller even ascending as high as the vice presidency), have cemented them in 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 brood, as they undoubtedly impacted the lives of millions in a variety of ways - though that impact was not always positive.

However, the Rockefellers are not without their secrets or controversies. From labor disputes, to monopolies, to foreign coups, to the mysterious Clark Rockefeller, to even - yes - cannibalism, some facts about the Rockefellers cast a dark shadow over the illustrious accomplishments made of their lineage.

  • William A. Rockefeller Was A Con Artist

    William A. Rockefeller Was A Con Artist
    Photo: Peter K. Burian / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    William A. Rockefeller was the father of John D. and William Rockefeller Jr. - two men who would go on to be titans of industry and amass tremendous wealth. While the two heirs achieved much of their success on the straight-and-narrow, the same could not be said for their father who was  complete con artist. 

    While working as a traveling salesman, William A. Rockefeller 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 and fathered multiple illegitimate children. However, his true magnum opus of fraud was likely his successful impersonation of a doctor named William Livingston, an eye-and-ear specialist.

  • Michael Rockefeller Disappeared In 1961

    Michael Rockefeller Disappeared In 1961
    Photo: HurayForZay / via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    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, there were multiple tribes that practiced cannibalism in southern New Guinea, and in 1969 a Dutch journalist ventured into a remote village to investigate Rockefeller's disappearance where he was told that Rockefeller had been killed and eaten. 

    To this day, Michael Rockefeller's death remains a mystery.

  • A Murder-Suicide Claimed Three Lives

    A Murder-Suicide Claimed Three Lives
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    One of the first major tragedies to befall the Rockefeller family came in 1951 when Winifred Emeny - the great niece of John D. Rockefeller - killed her two children before taking her own life. Emeny, who was a known socialite in the Greenwich, CT, scene, started two cars in her garage - in one of the cars she put her two young daughters, Josephine, 6, and Winifred, 12, while she lay on the ground between the two running vehicles.

    All three of them were discovered by the family's maid, dead from asphyxiation.

  • Standard Oil Had A Role In The Ludlow Massacre

    Standard Oil Had A Role In The Ludlow Massacre
    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia Commons

    In September of 1913, nearly 11,000 coal miners in Colorado went on strike against the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation. The aggrieved workers were protesting low wages, dangerous working conditions, and the servitude-like 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 in April of 1914, two companies of guardsmen descended on the tent colony near the town of Ludlow. The result was a slaughter. 

    After killing the strike leader - who was attempting to negotiate a truce - the guardsman began shooting at families fleeing the scene. All told, 19 were killed, including several women and children.