Home Business and Labor Ida Tarbell, Investigative Journalist, Takes Down John D. Rockefeller

Ida Tarbell, Investigative Journalist, Takes Down John D. Rockefeller

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In the 1930s, Ida Tarbell sat down at her mahogany desk in the sunny library of her Easton, Conn., farmhouse. She wrote the story of her life as an investigative journalist. She had been a teenager in Titusville, Pa., when John D. Rockefeller destroyed her father’s oil business. At 43, she avenged her father. She wrote The History of Standard Oil, which would result in the dismantling of Rockefeller’s empire seven years later.

Ida Tarbell

That wasn’t her intent, she said. She merely wanted to write an honest history of his company, Standard Oil. President Theodore Roosevelt, not always the anti-monopolist he claimed to be, called her a “muckraker.” She rejected the label.

But through steady, painstaking work, Ida Tarbell defined investigative journalism for the next century.

Ida Tarbell

She was born on her grandfather’s farm in Hatch Hollow, Pa., on Nov. 5, 1857. Her parents were Franklin S. Tarbell, a carpenter and a teacher, and Esther Ann McCullough Tarbell, also a teacher.

She was only three when her family moved to the pioneer town of Rouseville, Pa., in the Oil Creek Valley. The Tarbells arrived just before great streams of oil began to gush from the ground. When those oil wells came in, her father made barrels to carry the oil to market. That worked so well he started his own production business.

Oil barrels in a flatboat in Oil Creek State Park

In 1870, when Ida was 13, the family moved to a new house in Titusville, which she called a gay, prosperous boom town in the Oil Creek Valley. Christmas introduced luxury into Ida’s life, with a gorgeous tree, a velvet cloak and a fur coat for mother.

But there was trouble brewing about 120 miles from the western Pennsylvania paradise. In Cleveland, John D. Rockefeller bought out his business partners that year and formed the Standard Oil Company.

John D. Rockefeller around 1872. He lost the sideburns.

Then Rockefeller made a secret deal with the railroads out of the city that would shatter lives in the Oil Creek Valley.

Tarbell called it “a blow between the eyes.”

The South Improvement Company

For 12 years, the Oil Creek Valley had yielded 33 million barrels of oil. An industry had grown up producing, transporting, refining, marketing, exporting and selling byproducts.  The entrepreneurs of northwest Pennsylvania believed they had a splendid future, she wrote.

The first oil derrick in Titusville

The businesses were self-dependent, wrote Ida Tarbell, except for one thing: transportation. Titusville oil companies depended on the railroads to take crude oil to refineries and to take crude and refined oil to the seaboard.

But there was too much oil and too many railroads, and price competition had grown intense among both. So Rockefeller tried to create a cartel to put his competitors out of business. Thus was born the South Improvement Company. The scheme included Standard Oil, several other large oil refiners, the Pennsylvania, the Erie and the New York Central railroads. The railroads agreed to double their shipping rates. But the South Improvement Company cartel would then get a rebate as well as a kickback on competitors’ shipments.

All this happened in secret.


News leaked about the South Improvement Company scheme in Oil Creek Valley. Ida Tarbell, 14 at the time, witnessed the backlash among the local oil refiners and producers. “As soon as the Oil Region learned of it a wonderful row followed,” she wrote. She recalled nightly antimonopoly meetings, violent speeches, processions, vandalism and appeals to state and federal lawmakers to crack down on the cartel. The uproar got a name: the Oil War.

Standard Oil refinery in Cleveland, 1897

Two Brooklyn, N.Y., refiners, Henry Rogers and Charles Pratt, led the opposition to the scheme. Rogers, a Mayflower descendant from Fairhaven, Mass., would later play an important role in Ida’s life.

The independents who fought Rockefeller formed the Petroleum Producers’ Union, and in 1872 they published a book, A History of the Rise and Fall of the South Improvement Company. Rockefeller ordered all copies hunted down and destroyed. Decades later, Ida Tarbell found one copy on the shelves of the New York Public Library.

During the Oil War, she had grown convinced that Rockefeller was wrong. The railroads ran through the Oil Creek Valley because the people had given them a right of way.

“One man had the same right as another, but the railroads had given to one something they would not give to another,” she wrote. “It was wrong.”

Cleveland Massacre

On April 2, 1872, the State of Pennsylvania revoked the South Improvement Company’s charter. But it didn’t matter. John D. Rockefeller had moved onto a predatory new scheme called the Cleveland Massacre. In six weeks in February and March, he bought up 22 of his 26 competitors in hostile takeovers. Henry Rogers and Charles Pratt eventually realized the futility of fighting Rockefeller, and secretly sold out to him in 1874.

Henry Rogers about 1900

Franklin Tarbell wouldn’t sell. “I remember a night when my father came home with a grim look on his face and told how he with scores of other producers had signed a pledge not to sell to the Cleveland ogre that alone had profited from the scheme,” wrote Ida.

Because of his refusal to sell, he had to mortgage his house to pay off his company’s debts. His business partner killed himself. From then on he struggled to make a living.

“He came home silent and stern,” Ida wrote. “He no longer told of the funny things he had seen and heard during the day.”

Lessons Learned

Rockefeller then marched out of Cleveland and did the same thing with the railroads in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and beyond, wrote his biographer, Ron Chernow. He had “figured out every conceivable way to restrain trade, rig markets and suppress competition,” he wrote. He left hundreds, if not thousands, of Franklin Tarbells in his wake.

At 18, Ida Tarbell went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., the only woman to matriculate. She graduated in 1880 after four years. Then she taught in Ohio for two years, but didn’t take to it. So she got a job on a teaching magazine called the Chatauquan, moving up to managing editor. Then in 1890, she moved to Paris. Somewhere along the way she forswore marriage.

In  Paris she met Samuel McClure, a publisher who persuaded her to come work for his new magazine, McClure’s. She wrote serialized biographies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln, so popular it got her a book deal.

In 1900, McClure assigned her a three-part, 25,000-word series about Standard Oil.  Her family warned her against doing it, fearing for her safety. She replied she was writing a legitimate history. It would reveal “the processes by which a particular industry passes from the control of the many to that of the few.”

Investigating Standard Oil

It began,

ONE of the busiest corners of the globe at the opening of the year 1872 was a strip of Northwestern Pennsylvania, not over fifty miles long, known the world over as the Oil Regions.

And it created a sensation. McClure’s ultimately ran it as a 19-part series from late 1902 to late 1904 as The History of the Standard Oil Co.

Tarbell had plenty of material to work with. State legislatures and Congress had held many hearings and written reports about Standard Oil’s depredations. They just hadn’t done anything about it.

She searched out and pored over massive amounts of testimony, reports and books. Through dogged work, along with some luck, she found the smoking guns.

Rockefeller had organized a secret service to spy on independent oil dealers. When a Standard Oil spy learned that a business had ordered oil from an independent refiner or producer, the spy would try to persuade the customer to cancel the order. If that didn’t work, the spy would threaten the independent with cutthroat competition — selling oil at cost or less until the rival gives up. Standard Oil would often set up bogus companies to crush the independent.

People who bought oil from independent producers would be told the train cars were sidetracked. They would then be pressured to cancel the order.

Tarbell interviewed people who supported her evidence of Standard Oil’s corrupt and unethical practices. She also met frequently with her father’s old ally in the Oil Wars, Henry Rogers.

Henry Rogers

Tarbell’s friend Mark Twain had connected her with Rogers, then the acting head of Standard Oil.

Mark Twain and Henry Rogers, 1908

She liked him, and he was surprisingly willing to talk to her. He may have thought she was writing a puff piece.

We discovered in talking over the early days of the industry that at the very moment I was beginning to run the hills above Rouseville he was running a small refinery on the Creek and living on a hillside just below ours, separated only by a narrow ravine along each side of which ran a path. “Up that path,” Mr. Rogers told me, “I used to carry our washing every Monday morning, go for it every Saturday night. Probably I’ve seen you hunting flowers on your side of the ravine. How beautiful it was! I was never happier.

But Rogers lied to her. He told her the company had never illegally spied on competitors. But she had proof that wasn’t true.

A boy about 16 who worked for Standard Oil had the job of burning large amounts of company records.  For months he ignored their content. Then one night he noticed in the records the name of a friend who was an independent refiner and a Sunday school teacher. So he started to pay attention – and to realize Standard Oil had been spying on his teacher and trying to destroy his business. The teenager gathered up a set of documents and gave them to his friend, who passed them on to Tarbell. She included them in the series.

Ida Tarbell 1905

The next time she saw Rogers, he went “white with rage,” demanding to know where she got the incriminating evidence. She wouldn’t tell him. But she did say, “You know this bookkeeping record is true.”

She had no more interviews with him about Standard Oil. But she acknowledged that he had made her understand the vastness and complexity of the company’s problems “and the amazing grasp with which it dealt with them.”

Ida Tarbell, ‘Misguided Woman’

She praised Rockefeller in the series, which became a book and ignited public anger against the Standard Oil monopoly.

He was like a general who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from a balloon the whole great field, and sees how, this point taken, that must fall; this hill reached, that fort is commanded.

John D. Rockefeller, 1902

But she also described him as a “living mummy” with small, steady, expressionless eyes.  “Our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises,” she concluded.

He called her “that misguided woman” and “Miss Tarbarrel.” But he never responded publicly to her allegations.


Seven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court broke up Standard Oil into 34 companies, including those now known as ChevronExxonMobilAmoco, and Marathon Petroleum.

But if Ida Tarbell intended to impoverish John D. Rockefeller, she failed spectacularly. Rockefeller had undercapitalized his company, and in 10 years the value of its successor companies quintupled. He still had stock in them, Rockefeller went from a millionaire worth $300 million to nearly the first billionaire in history.

She moved to Easton, Conn., later taking in her mother and sister, then her brother and his wife. Every word she wrote after 1915 came from Easton.

Ida Tarbell House in Easton, now on the National Register of Historic Places

Eventually she left McClure’s and bought the American magazine with friends from the magazine, Lincoln Steffens and Stannard Baker. President Theodore Roosevelt labeled them “muckrakers.”

Tarbell continued to write about business, and she wrote biographies of Elbert Gary of U.S. Steel and Owen Young of General Electric. She traveled the lecture circuit and spent some time in Chicago doing social work at Jane Addams’ Hull House. Two presidents, Wilson and Harding, appointed her to commissions to investigate long work days and unemployment.

She was diagnosed with tuberculosis and Parkinson’s Disease, though her doctor didn’t tell her about the latter. She died in Bridgeport, Conn., of pneumonia at the age of 86. Her legacy includes the techniques and principles of modern investigative journalism.

New York University ranks The History of Standard Oil fifth on a list of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.

Images: Ida Tarbell House By Laurent Chaix – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17356774. Flatboat By Jason Pratt – originally posted to Flickr as Wooden Boat, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4191720.


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