William Avery Rockefeller, the Con Artist ‘Scoundrel’ Who Fathered a Dynasty
John D. Rockefeller may have been a scion of American industry, the head of a family known for its philanthropy. But his father was a wheeling-dealing con-man and accused rapist.
On what one can imagine was an otherwise ordinary day in late 1836, Eliza Davison answered a knock at the door of her father’s farmhouse in the countryside outside of Richford, New York.
On the stoop was a tall and handsome peddler wearing a chalkboard attached to his shirt that announced “I am deaf and dumb.”
The conversation, silent on his part, that ensued is lost to history. Did he encourage the young red-haired woman to take a peak through his kaleidoscope, his usual M.O. with new customers? Did he enchant her with bizarre curiosities and potions that could solve any ill? Did he titillate the imagination of the young lady known for her prim and pious ways?
What is known is that Eliza was so charmed by her first interaction with the traveling stranger that she declared, “I’d marry that man if he were not deaf and dumb.”
She was so charmed, in fact, that when it turned out the salesman was not deaf and dumb, but faking the disabilities as part of his peddling scheme, she overlooked his deception and agreed to marry him against the wishes of her father.
It was surely the biggest—if not only—rebellion of the staid Eliza’s life, and one that she no doubt would come to regret. The unlikely pair disproved the maxim that opposites attract, but their ill-advised union did produce one extraordinary result.
Eliza Davison and the con artist William Avery Rockefeller gave birth to a son, John D. Rockefeller, who would become a scion of American industry and one of the wealthiest men to ever wheel and deal on the shores of Lady Liberty.
The seeds of “Devil Bill,” the nickname William Avery Rockefeller would rightfully earn, were planted in his earliest days. Born in 1810, young Bill was a wanderer from the start, known for the disappearing acts he would pull even as a boy. By his early twenties, his career as a vagabond and a charlatan was well underway.
“Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work,” historian Ron Chernow writes in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Rockefeller was creative when it came to his business pursuits, but his earliest ploys largely involved his work as a peddler, where he often masqueraded as a “deaf-mute,” and as a “botanic physician,” a fancy name for a traveling medicine man. Among the cures he sold were berries picked from the garden that he passed off as pills to treat digestion maladies.
According to one of his neighbors in Richford, Chernow recounts, “he would warn [his customers] solemnly that they must not be given to a woman in a delicate condition, for they would surely cause abortion. Thereupon he would sell his pills at a high price. They were perfectly harmless, and he broke no law in selling them. He had remarkable imagination.”
In order to marry Eliza in February 1837, Bill first had to pay off a poor, local woman whom he had been wooing with promises of matrimony. But it was worth it to the huckster who most in town agreed was probably after the Davison money.
“He’s a scoundrel. Apparently, an enchanting scoundrel in person and he certainly enchanted Eliza and apparently enchanted a good many other women too, which is part of being a scoundrel,” historian Albert Berger told PBS in a 2000 documentary series on the Rockefellers.
Whatever romantic notions Eliza had about her adventurous and dashing beau collapsed soon after the wedding. But an unhappy marriage between a straitlaced, devout churchgoer and a rogue who came and went as he pleased could still be a productive one. The pair had six children, the second of which they named John Davison Rockefeller.
Devil Bill was not a constant or stable presence in John D.’s life, but his influence still loomed large. Bill would disappear for long stretches of time in which he usually ran up debts and got into trouble. Then, he would randomly show up back home, usually at night, bearing cash and wild tales about his adventures.
Bill was undoubtedly an entrepreneur, however nefarious his dealings, and he taught his young sons about business by lending them money at whatever interest rate was current, then making a point to show up at some random time and demand immediate payment in full.
According to Berger, Bill once told a neighbor, “I do business deals with my sons, and I always try to cheat them to make them sharp.”
The lessons for John, however unwanted, stuck. “I had a peculiar training in my home. It seemed to be a business training from the beginning,” the tycoon once said.
But things began to change for the family beginning in 1849 when Bill was indicted for the rape of the family housekeeper. While the outcome of this case is riddled with questions, Bill seems to have fled town rather than face charges in court and his family was left to deal with the gossip and scandal that followed in his wake.
Bill eventually moved his family to a new town, but whatever tenuous ties the Rockefeller family maintained with their patriarch continued to deteriorate over the next decade.
In 1852, Bill met a 17-year-old named Margaret Allen and proceeded to marry her three years later without either first procuring a divorce or filling either of his now-wives in on the situation. Devil Bill had officially added “bigamist” to his résumé of misdeeds.
As Bill was slowly pulling away from his original family throughout the 1850s, he also began a new scheme, that of posing as an actual doctor. Dr. William Levingston, the pater-Rockefeller’s nom de guerre as well as the name he gave to his second wife, developed his roving practice over the next few decades.
In an article that appeared in papers around the country in 1908, Dr. Charles H. Johnston, who served as his assistant and business partner for 12 years, recounted Bill’s practice as a physician:
“He had a fine team of horses, the best that money could buy, and a fine carriage in which we drove from town to town. He would have a string of eight or ten towns at once. He would drive into a town, scatter handbills, in which the great Dr. Levingston asserted that he could cure all diseases, and we would have a suite of rooms at the best hotel, and to the doctor there would come the sick and the halt and the lame. In all cases of common ailments he could detect the cause almost at a glance.”
On a very good day, he would pull in $200 for his “medical” savvy.
While John D. was becoming a budding oil entrepreneur and then a titan of American industry, he maintained a limited relationship with his father. It seems both that father and son were periodically in contact and that they had a sort of gentleman’s agreement that they would never speak of the other.
As John D. was building his business reputation, not a whiff of the potential scandal of his origins was detected; Bill, for his part, kept mum about his famous son, even to his longtime business associate. Johnston says this shocking bombshell was only revealed to him in 1881 after Bill suffered an accident and thought he might die.
When Johnston asked if Bill’s wife, Mrs. Levingston should be informed upon his death, he responded, “‘No; notify John D. Rockefeller, but be very careful and let no one else know it.”
But in the early 1900s, that all changed as Standard Oil gained increasing attention for its ruthless and corrupt business practices. In 1902, famed journalist Ida Tarbell published the first in her 19-part series on the history and machinations of Standard Oil in McClure’s Magazine.
The expose was a serious hit to the Rockefeller family, but perhaps the most difficult revelation happened at the end of the two-year investigation with, according to the PBS series, “Tarbell's exposure of Rockefeller's father as a snake-oil salesman, bigamist, and accused rapist. The discovery that Devil Bill was still alive set off a nationwide manhunt.”
The hunt that ensued was the early 20th-century equivalent of a modern-day paparazzi scrum. Papers around the nation searched for clues as to the identities and whereabouts of the original Rockefeller Scoundrel.
In 1905, the 93-year-old John M. Phipps was forced to tell The Washington Times in no uncertain terms that “No, I am not the father of John D. Rockefeller, not by a god durn sight” after rumors swirled that he had a multibillion-dollar secret. (“What is the matter with this man Rockefeller? Can’t he find his father?” Phipps asked the reporter after being constantly hounded by the press.)
Reporters competed for leads around the nation as newspaper impresario Pulitzer put up an $8,000 reward for credible leads. What the press widely agreed on was that the Rockefeller sons knew the answer to this nationwide mystery, but they were resolutely mum.
In February, 1908, the Rockefeller family secret was revealed once and for all on the front page of the New York World when proof of Bill’s wild life and his death in 1906 were published. The scandal Rockefeller had tried to bury was now out in the open.
Today, the Rockefeller name is synonymous with the early development of America as we know it as well as a family legacy built on philanthropy.
But the exposés of the early 1900s suggested that perhaps the apple had not fallen too far from the tree. Tarbell’s investigation was followed by the 1911 dissolution of Standard Oil by antitrust order of the Supreme Court.
But even before that, those who had dealings with Rockefeller murmured of the goings-on at his company, where the New York headquarters were often referred to as “a cave for pirates.”