William Rockefeller (aka “Devil Bill”, aka William Levingston), was literally a traveling snake oil salesman with at least two wives, at least two children with the family maid, a convicted rapist, a trickster and a con man.
William was the daddy of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. William taught his son through fear and uncertainty that John D needed to be in absolute control of his world. It was due to John D’s insecurity that he took over all aspects of the oil industry and made U.S. anti-monopoly laws necessary. Secret alliances – none dare call it conspiracy – served him well. With a little help from his friends, John destroyed all his competition. See in this video how John D’s father fanned the fires of his ruthless behaviors and attitudes.
Watch the PBS movie here: The Rockefellers.
The following excerpt is from the PBS transcript of The Rockefellers:
John Davison Rockefeller was born in 1839 — the second of five children. His mother, Eliza Davison Rockefeller, was deeply religious, stern, disciplined. Even as a young woman, she had not been given to smiles and laughter.
But she had this fatal moment of weakness one day when William Avery Rockefeller appeared on her doorstep peddling cheap trinkets, and he had a little slate that was tied to his buttonhole, and on the slate he had chalked, “I am deaf and dumb.” This was part of his con man routine. And Eliza, quite out of character, was immediately smitten by this charming rascal, and in fact proclaimed in his presence, “I’d marry him if he weren’t deaf and dumb.”
He’s a scoundrel. Apparently an enchanting scoundrel in person, and he certainly enchanted Eliza, and apparently he enchanted a good many other women, too, which is part of being a scoundrel.
Unlike his devout wife, William Avery Rockefeller kept away from the church. He was a traveling man, a salesman who sold quack cures from a wagon out on the western frontier. People whispered about his footloose life. They called him “Devil Bill.”
He would come and go as he pleased, never with advance warning. He’d be away for months — there’d be credit at the store. One winter he ran up a bill in one store of $1,000, and in the 19th century that’s an enormous sum of money. But then he would come back, most frequently at night so people would never know where he came from, and he would tell stories of his exploits that were never quite complete enough to pin him down as to what he had done or where he had done it.
Devil Bill’s laughter and music flooded the house. He would be fingering wads of cash, wearing fancy new clothes. He once appeared with a patchwork tablecloth made out of bank notes. “I had a peculiar training in my home,” John D. observed of his childhood. ” It seemed to be a business training from the beginning.”
Bill Rockefeller admitted to one of his neighbors, “I do business deals with my sons and I always try to cheat them to make them sharp.” Now, John D. did not always like those lessons in business, but he absorbed them.
His father lent him money — always at the prevailing interest rate — then deliberately called in the loans without warning to make sure his son had kept reserves. With Devil Bill, John D. discovered the excitement of taking a big risk, the allure of cold cash. Eliza taught him the sober habits of her Christian faith — thrift, hard work, and perfect self control.
He was like a little adult. When he went to school, students talked about him being Mr. Serious. And although he had a wonderful sense of humor that was very sly, for the most part he behaved very rigidly even, and liked things orderly, the way his mother did. Things occurred according to schedules. And there was a reward for good behavior, and there was a sacrifice for bad behavior.
In 1849, the world fell apart for the Rockefeller family. Bill was accused of the rape of a maid he had hired to work in the household. Rather than confront the charges, he fled, leaving the family alone to face the scandal. It was a moment of intense shame for 10 year-old John.
And I think that it was in the face of the malicious tongues of village gossips that John D. Rockefeller developed this very wary, secretive, self-reliant nature, because people were always whispering about his father, and John D. himself would not have known the truth of his father, but I think that he felt that he would face down the village gossips by developing this very hard and stoic air.
Eliza and her five children found refuge in the local Baptist church. Each Sunday, when the collection plate was passed around, she urged young John to contribute his few pennies. He came to associate the church with charity. A Baptist preacher once encouraged him to make as much money as he could — and then give away as much as he could. It was at this moment, Rockefeller later recalled, “that the financial plan … of my life was formed.” But the sound of coins in the collection plate still had the distant ring of Devil Bill.
John D. came to associate money with those rare times that Father came home, flush with cash from the road, and that the Rockefellers briefly functioned as a real family. And I think the fact that John D. grew up in this perpetually insecure situation, wondering when Father would come home, wondering if they would pay off the credit at the general store, created a person who had an abnormal need, not only for a large amount of money, but for constant security, and somebody who disliked surprises, somebody who wanted to master chance and outwit fate.
Fate delivered John D. one more bitter surprise. He soon discovered that his father had taken a second wife — under an assumed name. Shielding his mother from the shame, John kept the bigamy a secret. To carry on his double life, Bill moved the family to Cleveland. Then, he disappeared again, leaving them alone in the new city.
And this turned relations between John D. and his father stone cold. I think in the long run, it had the effect of leading John D. to decide to make a life for himself that was as different from his father’s as he could manage, without quite abandoning things that he still thought of value in what his father had taught him, like business.