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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
While granting Rockefeller his due, Ida could not forgive practices she considered illegitimate and debasing to business morality. His success, she feared, would tempt thousands of others to “Commercial Machiavellianism.” In the wake of his growing monopoly, Ida said, Rockefeller left a trail of devastated small businesses:
Why one should love an oil refinery the outsider may not see, but to the man who had begun with one still and had seen it grow by his own energy and intelligence to ten, who now sold 500 barrels a day where he once sold five, the refinery was the dearest spot on earth save his home. … To ask such a man to give up his refinery was to ask him to give up the thing which, after his family, meant most in life to him.
But faced with the growing power of Standard Oil, the independents did give up. Describing one who sold out, Ida wrote that “he realized that something … was at work in the oil business—something resistless, silent, perfect in its might—and he sold out to that something.” Along Oil Creek, she said, “the little refineries which for years had faced every difficulty with stout hearts collapsed. ‘Sold out,’ ‘dismantled,’ ‘shut down,’ is the melancholy record.”
As dramatic proof of the fierceness of the conflict Ida devoted an entire installment to “The Buffalo Case,” in which managers of a Standard affiliate in New York were convicted of conspiring to blow up a rival refinery to force it out of business. In another chapter she shocked her public by repeating the tale of Widow Backus, who declared in an affidavit that Rockefeller had fleeced her of a fair price when she sold her husband’s refinery to Standard Oil. Ida said of the widow:
She had seen every effort to preserve an independent business thwarted. Rightly or wrongly, she had come to believe that a refusal to sell meant a fight with Mr. Rockefeller, that a fight meant ultimately defeat, and she gave up her business to avoid ruin.
Historians later criticized Ida for repeating the widow’s tale, which was of questionable accuracy, but true or exaggerated, it made a sensational installment. Victorian ladies of comfortable means could identify with the plight of Widow Backus.
Acknowledged as “Lord of the Oil Regions” by 1879, Rockefeller controlled 90 per cent of the oil business of the nation, dominating refining, transporting, and marketing. The entire pipeline system of the Pennsylvania fields belonged to Standard. Rockefeller had achieved his goal, Ida wrote, “because he had the essential element to all great achievement, a steadfastness to purpose once conceived which nothing can crush.”
To handle the affairs of his giant monopoly, Rockefeller created a new type of business organization, the trust, whereby he and eight other trustees managed the entire structure. But public resentment against the monopoly began to be reflected in a rash of legal suits. Ida reminded her readers of the 1892 ruling by the supreme court of Ohio that had resulted in dissolution of the Standard Oil Trust. It was replaced by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, which functioned as a holding company for the Rockefeller interests.
After eighteen chapters and almost four years of research and writing Ida and McClure’s rested their case against John D. Rockefeller. Summing it all up, Ida told her faithful readers that they were paying more for oil under monopoly conditions than they would pay under free competition. Business opportunity in the oil industry, she said, was now limited to a few hundred men.
But there was a more serious side to it, she concluded. The ethical cost of all this should be a deep concern. “Canonize ‘business success,’ and men who make a success like that of the Standard Oil Trust become national heroes!” Defenders of Rockefeller might justify his methods by saying, “It’s business” or “All humans are erring mortals,” but Ida would not accept a moral code that “would leave our business men weeping on one another’s shoulders over human frailty, while they picked one another’s pockets.”
In a last plea to her readers she urged them to ostracize monopolists who used unethical practices as they would ostracize unethical doctors, lawyers, or athletes, for “a thing won by breaking the rules of the game,” she moralized, “is not worth the winning.”
As her public exploded with wrath, McClure’s was deluged with angry letters. Ida, readers said, was a modern Joan of Arc and “the Terror of the Trusts.” Her study reminded one man of “the clarion notes of the old prophets of Israel.” Another called it “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of today.” A letter addressed to “Ida M. Tarbell, Rockefeller Station, Hades,” reached her promptly.