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The Gentlewoman And The Robber Baron
When Ida Tarbell set out to probe the operations of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust, it seemed like David against Goliath all over again
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
Standard Oil was well aware that a popular journalist—and a female at that—was prying into its past. Executives of the corporation asked no less a public figure than Mark Twain to inquire what McClure’s planned to publish. “You will have to ask Miss Tarbell,” S. S. replied. “Would Miss Tarbell see Mr. Rogers?” Twain inquired. When her supporters heard that Ida was visiting 26 Broadway to get the company’s side of its history, they were instantly suspicious. “You’ll become their apologist before you get through,” many prophesied.
At their first meeting Ida and Henry Rogers discovered that they had been neighbors years before in the booming oil regions of Pennsylvania, where Ida’s father had made tanks and Rogers had been an independent refiner. They even recalled the beauty of a wooded ravine separating their houses. Although she decided that Henry Rogers was “as fine a pirate as ever flew his flag in Wall Street,” Ida was not beguiled by nostalgic memories. She alone, she told the Standard Oil executive, would be the judge of what she wrote.
Diligent and methodical, Ida studied musty records of the many lawsuits brought against Standard Oil in the thirty years since its incorporation. Every pertinent document must be located: “somewhere, some time,” Ida insisted, “a copy turns up.” Rogers once suggested that Ida should meet Rockefeller himself, and somewhat apprehensively she agreed. But their meeting was never arranged.
Seeking firsthand knowledge of Standard’s methods, Ida interviewed other businessmen. Reluctant though they might be, they usually responded to her firm, dignified manner. One eccentric Cleveland millionaire received her with his hat on, his feet propped on his desk, and his face buried in a newspaper. As Ida quietly began to ask questions, he placed his feet on the floor, put down the newspaper, removed his hat, and gave her his respectful attention.
Her first installment was a vivid account of the brawling, gambling spirit of pioneer days in the Pennsylvania oil country. In 1859, when they heard the exhilarating news that oil was gushing out of a well near Titusville, thousands of adventurous Americans poured into the area, and a whole series of boom towns—with names like Pit Hole, Oil City, Petroleum Center, and Rouseville—hastily sprang up. “On every rocky farm,” Ida wrote, “in every poor settlement of the region, was some man whose ear was attuned to Fortune’s call, and who had the daring and the energy to risk everything he possessed in an oil lease.” Saloons, brothels, and dance halls catered to a drifting population of fortune seekers.
Recalling the atmosphere of her youth, Ida praised the efforts of many citizens of this rough frontier to create schools, churches, and a proper environment. Her own parents, Esther and Franklin Tarbell, had shepherded their children into respectable middle-class ways, highlighted by family picnics on Chautauqua Lake or an occasional trip to Cleveland. Crusading suffragettes visited the Tarbell home, and young Ida fell under the spell of their fervent talk. “I must be free,” she vowed, “and to be free I must be a spinster.” At fourteen she prayed on her knees that God would keep her from marriage.
To prepare for a career, Ida entered Allegheny College at Meadville, the lone girl in a freshman class of forty “hostile or indifferent” boys. After graduation she hoped to become a biologist, but fate and S. S. McClure decided otherwise. Now, twenty-two years later, this child of the oil regions who had elected spinsterhood and freedom was challenging the ruler of the oil industry himself.
At the close of the first chapter Ida offered her readers an enticing glimpse of the drama to come. Praising the independent oil producers, who gambled their lives and money in an uncertain new industry, she wrote:
Life ran swift and ruddy and joyous in these men. They were still young, most of them under forty, and they looked forward with all the eagerness of the young who have just learned their powers, to years of struggle and development. … There was nothing too good for them, nothing they did not hope and dare. But suddenly, at the very heyday of this confidence, a big hand reached out from nobody knew where, to steal their conquest and throttle their future.
The “big hand,” she revealed in her next installment, was an enterprising young man with “remarkable commercial vision, a genius for seeing the possibilities in material things.” As a boy of thirteen John Rockefeller discovered that lending money at 7 per cent interest was more profitable than his earlier job of digging potatoes: “It was a good thing,” the boy reasoned, “to let the money be my slave.” This principle, Ida told her readers, was the foundation of a great financial career.