8 Facts About John D. Rockefeller

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s rich, there’s wealthy, and then there’s John D. Rockefeller. Considered by many to be the most financially-prosperous individual in modern history with an estimated $900,000,000 bank balance (unadjusted for inflation) in the early 1910s, Rockefeller (1839-1937) made his massive fortune by dominating the oil industry. While Rockefeller was prone to controversy—he was accused of being a monopoly in the fuel business—he was also a generous philanthropist, donating over a half-billion dollars in his lifetime (and that's also unadjusted for inflation). Take a look at some things you might not have known about the legendary tycoon.

1. HIS DAD PRETENDED TO BE A DOCTOR.

While his son would go on to want for nothing in life, William Avery Rockefeller was not a man of resources. The one thing he could depend on was a somewhat diabolical gift for conning others. Before his son was born, William spent time as an itinerant, going from place to place pretending to be deaf and soliciting free meals. (Eliza, the daughter of one such target, became his wife and John’s mother.) In other towns, he would hand out sheets referring to himself as “doctor” and pretend to have found a “cure” for cancer. The elder Rockefeller also insisted that his mistress, Nancy, live in the same house as his family, where she bore him two children. William Rockefeller would continue peddling “medicines,” sometimes under the pseudonym of William Levingston—and when he died in 1906, that was the name on his tombstone.

2. HE CELEBRATED HIS OWN PERSONAL HOLIDAY.

More important to Rockefeller than his own birthday was what he called “Job Day.” The future oil magnate was born and raised in upstate New York and took on his first real job at the age of 16 for a grain and coal supplier/shipper after his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. The date he started—September 26, 1855—was when Rockefeller believed he got his official start in business. As an adult, he celebrated the day every year.

3. HE DID EVERYTHING HE COULD TO DOMINATE THE OIL INDUSTRY.

A portrait of John D. Rockefeller
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Rockefeller’s wealth was a consequence of his obsession with owning the oil industry. He struck deals with railroads to ship his goods cheaply, bought out smaller companies, and helped usher in the concept of a monopoly in modern times. Smaller businesses were faced with a choice: be consumed or attempt to compete with his massive corporation. His buying spree was referred to as the “Cleveland Massacre.” By 1882, his company, Standard Oil, owned or controlled 90 percent of all refineries in the United States. “Competition is a sin,” he was allegedly quoted as saying.

4. HE HIRED A STAND-IN SOLDIER TO SERVE FOR HIM IN THE CIVIL WAR.

John D. Rockefeller stands in a field
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Due to be drafted to serve the Union in the Civil War in 1863, the 23-year-old Rockefeller did what many men of means had done: He paid for someone to serve in his place. This practice was allowed by the U.S. government, which granted draftees the ability to offer up a substitute. No record exists of who the man who took Rockefeller’s spot was. His brother, Frank, chose to serve at age 16, telling a recruiting sergeant he was 18. Despite being wounded in battle, he survived.

5. HE HELPED REDUCE HOOKWORM IN THE UNITED STATES.

With his fortune, Rockefeller pursued a number of philanthropic efforts in his lifetime. In 1910, that funding led directly to the widespread treatment of a mostly-forgotten illness: hookworm. The larvae enter the soles of the feet and travel the bloodstream to the lungs before settling in the intestine, where sufferers can experience stunted growth, anemia, and exhaustion. More than 40 percent of the population in southern states had hookworm infection in the early 20th century. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease used Rockefeller’s $1 million donation to map out high-risk areas and made a concentrated effort to cure infected residents with Epsom salts and thymol while educating the public on the need for improved sanitation systems.

While it was thought for decades that hookworm had been essentially eradicated in the United States, a recent study found that it still occurs in impoverished areas of Alabama and possibly other regions of the deep south—but not with the severity of the early 20th century.

6. HE LIKED HANDING OUT DIMES TO STRANGERS.

John D. Rockefeller hands a coin to a child
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In the early 1900s, Rockefeller often traveled by ferry from his home in Tarrytown across the Hudson River and into Nyack, New York. When his ferry docked, he would typically be greeted by children. Rockefeller came prepared, handing out dimes to his welcoming party. Rockefeller was also known to hand out coins to adults. He reportedly did this in part to instill habits of savings and thrift in people. Many of them hung on to their famous “Rockefeller dimes” as a keepsake.

7. SOMEONE PLANNED TO BLOW HIM UP.

At the turn of the century, bomb threats and detonations were often used to make a point against capitalism by radicals looking to upend the system; business barons like J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller were targeted. In the case of Rockefeller, it’s been proposed that he was targeted for his family’s role in the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when several striking miners—and even children—were killed during fighting with the Colorado National Guard and mine guards. Fortunately for Rockefeller, his would-be assassins never made it to his Tarrytown home: On July 4, 1914, an explosion went off in a Harlem tenement, killing several anarchists who had been storing dynamite at the location. Their plan had been to leave it at Rockefeller’s doorstep.

8. MARK TWAIN PLAYED A ROLE IN STANDARD OIL'S DOWNFALL.

A portrait of writer Mark Twain
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In 1900, Ida Tarbell, the daughter of one of Rockefeller's business rivals, decided to even the score with Rockefeller by writing an extensive 19-part expose on his questionable business practices for McClure’s magazine. A key source was Henry Rogers, who worked for Rockefeller as an executive for Standard Oil for roughly 25 years. Rogers heard of the series Tarbell was working on and felt Standard Oil should be involved, asking his friend Mark Twain to inquire with McClure’s. Twain eventually asked, “Would Miss Tarbell see Mr. Rogers?” and a meeting was arranged. Rogers later grew upset when he saw Tarbell’s articles, but it was too late. Her reporting led to a 1911 Supreme Court ruling that broke up Standard Oil for good, mincing it into a series of companies that later became known as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and others. Tarbell didn’t spare words about her vendetta or potential lack of objectivity. In the copy, she referred to the slim Rockefeller as a “living mummy.”

5 Actors Who Could Play the Next Batman

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iStock

by Natalie Zamora

Ben Affleck's casting as the Caped Crusader wasn't exactly met with a lot of excitement. While many DC fans were (and still are) happy with the casting, many definitely weren't, and even took it upon themselves to think of who could replace him. Now, with Affleck's role in Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman completely unknown, it's worth looking at who has been actually rumored to take his place.

5. JAKE GYLLENHAAL

Jake Gyllenhaal attends the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival - 'The Sisters Brothers' premiere at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 8, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

As early as November 2017, Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal has been rumored to be playing the next Batman. Reportedly, Gyllenhaal had a meeting with Matt Reeves, something reporter Rob Keyes tweeted out at the time. When asked about the possibility, the actor shot it down, saying, "Wow, that’s a very difficult question. The answer to that question is no."

4. RYAN GOSLING

Ryan Gosling attends the 'First Man' press conference during 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 11, 2018
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images

Another acclaimed actor, Academy Award nominee Ryan Gosling has also been rumored to take on the role of Bruce Wayne for some time. When recently asked at the Toronto International Film Festival if he would consider, Gosling simply said, "I don't know," before joking that if his First Man and La La Land director Damien Chazelle made it, he'd be in.

3. JOSH BROLIN

Josh Brolin attends the 'Sicario Day Of The Soldado' Photo Call at Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills on June 14, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Matt Winkelmeyer, Getty Images

Although Josh Brolin now plays two major Marvel characters, Cable and Thanos, he once confirmed he was in the running for Ben Affleck's role in 2016. Ultimately, Brolin backed out after he had disagreements with Zack Snyder on how the character should be played. Ever since Affleck's departure from directing The Batman, Brolin has been rumored to take the role.

2. MATTHEW GOODE

Actor Matthew Goode attends the 'The Imitation Game' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater in 2014
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for The Weinstein Company

Like Brolin, Matthew Goode was also one of the actors in the running to play Batman before Ben Affleck was cast. He was also reportedly considered for the roles of both Superman and Lex Luthor. Clearly, Goode would be welcomed into the DCEU. Now would be the perfect time.

1. JON HAMM

Jon Hamm attends the Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures And New Line Cinema's 'Tag' at Regency Village Theatre on June 7, 2018 in Westwood, California
Jerritt Clark, Getty Images

Ever since Jon Hamm played the dark and brooding role of Don Draper on Mad Men, fans have been rallying for him to play Batman. Though rumors have been circulating for years, Hamm just recently revealed that he has never had a conversation about the possibility. However, he did say he would be interested, if the script was good.

13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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iStock

When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

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