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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
McClure’s , packed with articles by Steffens and Baker as well as with Ida’s literary dynamite, thrived on its crusading zeal. But Ida was even more of a celebrity than her colleagues, and they joined in the general admiration for her work. “Ida Tarbell was the best of us,” Baker admitted. In a western city a newspaper hailed the arrival of William Allen White and Ida with the headline “Celebrated Writers Here.” S. S. wrote his protegee: “You are today the most generally famous woman in America.”
Ida’s “History” evoked even more praise when it was published as a two-volume book !01904. “Miss Tarbell,” said the Cleveland Leader , “has done more to dethrone Rockefeller in public esteem than all the preachers in the land.” The New York News declared that “Rockefeller’s very conscience is exposed by her search for truth.” The Norfolk Dispatch and the Washington News proclaimed Ida “a great woman historian” and “probably the most talented woman writer of history that this country has produced.”
Standard, however, was not without its defenders. In Pennsylvania the Oil City Derrick , subsidized by the company, headlined its review: “Hysterical Woman Versus Historical Facts.” A Harvard economist, Gilbert Montague, who wrote a sympathetic history of Standard’s operations, termed Ida “a mere gatherer of folklore.” The popular essayist Elbert Hubbard said Standard Oil was an example of “survival of the fittest” and called Ida a “literary bushwhacker” who “shot from cover and … shot to kill.” The nickname Miss Tarbarrel was coined by Standard supporters. Even Rockefeller himself, not a notably humorous man, adopted the pun with glee.
While interest in Ida’s history was at its height, new oil discoveries by wildcatters drilling deep in the Kansas plains caused a fresh boom. Standard Oil moved quickly into the new fields, threading its pipelines across prairie and farmland. But McClure’s had reached even the remote farmers of Kansas. Populists, women’s clubs, and independent oilmen vowed to keep Standard out of their fields even if they had to set up a state-owned refinery in the penitentiary. At the urging of the oilmen Ida visited the new arena. To her dismay she was received as a prophet and serenaded by oil boomers. “But here I was,” she wrote later, “fifty, fagged, wanting to be let alone while I collected trustworthy information for my articles—dragged to the front as an apostle.”
The news from Kansas, added to the cumulative effect of the Tarbell series, helped stir Congress to action. In February, 1905, it authorized the Bureau of Corporations to investigate the low price of crude oil, particularly in Kansas. Could the wide margin between the prices of crude and refined, a Kansas congressman asked, be attributed to the operations of a trust or conspiracy?
Enthusiastically the Bureau of Corporations dug into its assignment. In the first of three lengthy reports to Congress, it concluded that Standard “habitually” received and was still receiving secret rebates and other “unjust and illegal discriminations” from railroads. The second report charged that Standard controlled the only major pipeline serving the oil industry and that it fought would-be competitors with lawsuits, right-of-way disputes, aid to railroads, and price wars. The final report accused Standard of keeping oil prices artificially high at the expense of the American consumer. Commissioner Herbert Knox Smith called for prosecution of Standard under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The bureau’s findings were not news to Ida’s readers. One cartoonist pictured President Roosevelt receiving the reports on a slate bearing these words: “Standard Oil is just as naughty as Ida said it was.” In the background of the cartoon was Henry Rogers, muttering to Rockefeller: “And I had my fingers crossed too.”
But Roosevelt, who had originally encouraged federal legal action against Standard, became exasperated at the public vogue for the literature of exposure as other magazines and writers rushed to copy McClure’s successful formula. Shortly after the appearance of an article in Cosmopolitan titled “The Treason of the Senate” an angry Roosevelt applied the term “muckrakers” to responsible and irresponsible journalists alike. Pondering the President’s attack years later, Ida decided that Teddy preferred to conduct trust busting on his own and resented writers “stealing his thunder.”
Meanwhile, Standard’s troubles were multiplying. Three antitrust suits were brought against the corporation in state courts in 1904, four in 1905, and fourteen in 1906. Many resulted in fines or the temporary ouster of Standard from a state. The most sensational fine, $29,240,000 for 1,462 violations of the Elkins Act forbidding acceptance of rebates, was handed down by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in August, 1907. Although this decision was later reversed, the “Big Fine” made Judge Landis famous and added drama to the controversy.