The Flimflam Man
In the early 1900s, as Rockefeller vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of the world’s richest man, a spirited rivalry arose between France and Germany, with each claiming to be Rockefeller’s ancestral land. Assorted genealogists stood ready, for a sizable fee, to manufacture a splendid royal lineage for the oilman. “I have no desire to trace myself back to the nobility,” he said honestly. “I am satisfied with my good old American stock.”
The most ambitious search for Rockefeller’s roots traced them back to a ninth-century French family, the Roquefeuilles, who supposedly inhabited a Languedoc chbteau. The clan’s departure from France is much better documented than its origins. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenot family fled from religious persecution and emigrated to Sagendorf, near the Rhenish town of Koblenz, and Germanized their surname to Rockefeller.
Around 1723, Johann Peter Rockefeller, a miller, gathered up his wife and five children, set sail for Philadelphia, and settled on a farm in Somerville and then Amwell, New Jersey, where he evidently flourished and acquired large landholdings. More than a decade later, his cousin Diell Rockefeller left southwest Germany and moved to Germantown, New York.
Diell’s granddaughter Christina married her distant relative William, one of Johann’s grandsons. (Never particularly sentimental about his European forebears, John D. Rockefeller did erect a monument to the patriarch, Johann Peter, at his burial site in Flemington, New Jersey.) The marriage of William and Christina produced a son named Godfrey Rockefeller, who was the grandfather of the oil titan and a most unlikely progenitor of the clan. In 1806, Godfrey married Lucy Avery in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, despite the grave qualms of her family.
Establishing a pattern that would be replicated by Rockefeller’s own mother, Lucy had, in her family’s disparaging view, married down. Her ancestors had emigrated from Devon, England, to Salem, Massachusetts, around 1630, forming part of the Puritan tide. As they became settled and gentrified, the versatile Averys spawned ministers, soldiers, civic leaders, explorers, and traders, not to mention a bold clutch of Indian fighters. During the American Revolution, eleven Averys perished gloriously in the battle of Groton.
While the Rockefellers’ “noble” roots required some poetic license and liberal embellishment, Lucy could justly claim descent from Edmund Ironside, the English king, who was crowned in 1016. Godfrey Rockefeller was sadly mismatched with his enterprising wife. He had a stunted, impoverished look and a hangdog air of perpetual defeat. Taller than her husband, a fiery Baptist of commanding presence, Lucy was rawboned and confident, with a vigorous step and alert blue eyes. A former schoolteacher, she was better educated than Godfrey. Even John D., never given to invidious comments about relatives, tactfully conceded, “My grandmother was a brave woman. Her husband was not so brave as she.”
If Godfrey contributed the Rockefeller coloring-bluish gray eyes, light brown hair-Lucy introduced the rangy frame later notable among the men. Enjoying robust energy and buoyant health, Lucy had ten children, with the third, William Avery Rockefeller, born in Granger, New York, in 1810. While it is easy enough to date the birth of Rockefeller’s father, teams of frazzled reporters would one day exhaust themselves trying to establish the date of his death.
As a farmer and businessman, Godfrey enjoyed checkered success, and his aborted business ventures exposed his family to an insecure, peripatetic life. They were forced to move to Granger and Ancram, New York, then to Great Barrington, before doubling back to Livingston, New York. John D. Rockefeller’s upbringing would be fertile with cautionary figures of weak men gone astray. Godfrey must have been invoked frequently as a model to be avoided. By all accounts, Grandpa was a jovial, good-natured man but feckless and addicted to drink, producing in Lucy an everlasting hatred of liquor that she must have drummed into her grandson. Grandpa Godfrey was the first to establish in John D.’s mind an enduring equation between bonhomie and lax character, making the latter prefer the society of sober, tight-lipped men in full command of their emotions.
The Rockefeller records offer various scenarios of why Godfrey and Lucy packed their belongings into an overloaded Conestoga wagon and headed west between 1832 and 1834. By one account, the Rockefellers, along with several neighbors, were dispossessed of their land in a heated title dispute with some English investors. Another account has an unscrupulous businessman gulling Godfrey into swapping his farm for allegedly richer turf in Tioga County. (If this claim was in fact made, it proved a cruel hoax.) Some relatives later said that Michigan was Godfrey’s real destination but that Lucy vetoed such a drastic relocation, preferring the New England culture of upstate New York to the wilds of Michigan.
Whatever the reason, the Rockefellers reenacted the primordial American rite of setting out in search of fresh opportunity. In the 1830s, many settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut were swarming excitedly into wilderness areas of western New York, a migration that Alexis de Tocqueville described as “a game of chance” pursued for “the emotions it excites, as much as for the gain it procures.”
The construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820s had lured many settlers to the area. Godfrey and Lucy heaped up their worldly possessions in a canvas-topped prairie schooner, drawn by oxen, and headed toward the sparsely settled territory.
For two weeks, they traveled along the dusty Albany-Catskill turnpike, creeping through forests as darkly forbidding as the setting of a Grimms’ fairy tale. With much baggage and little passenger space, the Rockefellers had to walk for much of the journey, with Lucy and the children (except William, who did not accompany them) taking turns sitting in the wagon whenever they grew weary. As they finally reached their destination, Richford, New York, the last three and a half miles were especially arduous, and the oxen negotiated the stony, rutted path with difficulty. At the end, they had to lash their exhausted team up a nearly vertical hillside to possess their virgin sixty acres. As family legend has it, Godfrey got out, tramped to the property’s peak, inspected the vista, and said mournfully, “This is as close as we shall ever get to Michigan.”
So, in a memorial to dashed hopes, the spot would forever bear the melancholy name of Michigan Hill.
Even today scarcely more than a crossroads, Richford was then a stagecoach stop in the wooded country southeast of Ithaca and northwest of Binghamton. The area’s original inhabitants, the Iroquois, had been chased out after the American Revolution and replaced by revolutionary army veterans. Still an uncouth frontier when the Rockefellers arrived, this backwater had recently attained township status, its village square dating from 1821. Civilization had taken only a tenuous hold. The dense forests on all sides teemed with game-bear, deer, panther, wild turkey, and cottontail rabbit-and people carried flaring torches at night to frighten away the roaming packs of wolves.
By the time that John D. Rockefeller was born in 1839, Richford was acquiring the amenities of a small town. It had some nascent industries-sawmills, gristmills, and a whiskey distillery-plus a schoolhouse and a church. Most inhabitants scratched out a living from hardscrabble farming, yet these newcomers were hopeful and enterprising.
Notwithstanding their frontier trappings, they had carried with them the frugal culture of Puritan New England, which John D. Rockefeller would come to exemplify.
The Rockfellers’ steep property provided a sweeping panorama of a fertile valley. The vernal slopes were spattered with wildflowers, and chestnuts and berries abounded in the fall. Amid this sylvan beauty, the Rockfellers had to struggle with a spartan life. They occupied a small, plain house, twenty-two feet deep and sixteen feet across, fashioned with hand-hewn beams and timbers. The thin soil was so rocky that it required heroic exertions just to hack a clearing through the underbrush and across thickly forested slopes of pine, hemlock, oak, and maple. As best we can gauge from a handful of surviving anecdotes, Lucy ably managed both family and farm and never shirked heavy toil. Assisted by a pair of steers, she laid an entire stone wall by herself and had the quick-witted cunning and cool resourcefulness that would reappear in her grandson. John D. delighted in telling how she pounced upon a grain thief in their dark barn one night. Unable to discern the intruder’s face, she had the mental composure to snip a piece of fabric from his coat sleeve.
When she later spotted the man’s frayed coat, she confronted the flabbergasted thief with the missing swatch; having silently made her point, she never pressed charges. One last item about Lucy deserves mention: She had great interest in herbal medicines and home-brewed remedies prepared from a “physic bush” in the backyard. Many years later, her curious grandson sent specimens of this bush to a laboratory to see whether they possessed genuine medicinal value. Perhaps it was from Lucy that he inherited the fascination with medicine that ran through his life, right up to his creation of the world’s preeminent medical-research institute.
By the time he was in his twenties, William Avery Rockefeller was already a sworn foe of conventional morality who had opted for a vagabond existence. Even as an adolescent, he disappeared on long trips in midwinter, providing no clues as to his whereabouts. Throughout his life, he expended considerable energy on tricks and schemes to avoid plain hard work. But he possessed such brash charm and rugged good looks-he was nearly six feet tall, with a broad chest, high forehead, and thick auburn beard covering a pugnacious jaw-that people were instantly beguiled by him. This appealing fagade, at least for a while, lulled skeptics and disarmed critics. It wasn’t surprising that this nomad did not accompany his parents on their westward trek to Richford but instead drifted into the area around 1835 in his own inimitable fashion. When he first appeared in a neighboring hamlet, he quickly impressed the locals with his unorthodox style. Posing as a deaf-mute peddler selling cheap novelties, he kept a small slate with the words “I am deaf and dumb” chalked across it tied by a string to his buttonhole. On this slate, he conversed with the locals and later boasted how he exploited this ruse to flush out all the town secrets. To win the confidence of strangers and soften them up for the hard sell, he toted along a kaleidoscope, inviting people to peer into it.
During his long career as a confidence man, Big Bill always risked reprisals from people who might suddenly unmask his deceptions, and he narrowly escaped detection at the home of a Deacon Wells. The deacon and his daughter, a Mrs. Smith, pitied the poor peddler who knocked on their door one Saturday and sheltered him in their home that night. The next morning, when they invited him to church, Big Bill had to resort to some fancy footwork, for he always shied away from crowds where somebody might recognize him and expose his imposture. “Billy told [the deacon] in writing that he liked to go to church, but that his infirmity caused him to be stared at, so that he was abashed and would not go,” recalled a townsman. “He really feared that he might be exposed by someone.”
Seven months later, after the deacon and Big Bill had both moved to Richford, Mrs. Smith spotted the erstwhile deaf-mute at a social gathering and marveled at his miraculous recovery of speech. “I see that you can talk better than when I saw you last,” she said. Big Bill smiled, unfazed, his bravado intact. “Yes, I’m somewhat improved.”
When he arrived in Richford, the local citizens immediately got a taste of his fakery, for he wordlessly flashed a slate with the scribbled query, “Where is the house of Godfrey Rockefeller?”
Since he usually presented false claims about himself and his products, Bill worked a large territory to elude the law. He was roving more than thirty miles northwest of Richford, in the vicinity of Niles and Moravia, when he first met his future wife, Eliza Davison, at her father’s farmhouse. With a flair for showmanship and self-promotion, he always wore brocaded vests or other brightly colored duds that must have dazzled a sheltered farm girl like Eliza. Like many itinerant vendors in rural places, he was a smooth-talking purveyor of dreams along with tawdry trinkets, and Eliza responded to this romantic wanderer. She was sufficiently taken in by his deaf-and-dumb humbug that she involuntarily exclaimed in his presence, “I’d marry that man if he were not deaf and
Whatever tacit doubts she might have harbored when she discovered his deceit, she soon succumbed, as did other women, to his mesmerizing charm.
A prudent, straitlaced Baptist of Scotch-Irish descent, deeply attached to his daughter, John Davison must have sensed the world of trouble that awaited Eliza if she got mixed up with Big Bill Rockefeller, and he strongly discouraged the match. In later years, Eliza Rockefeller would seem to be a dried-up, withered spinster, but in late 1836 she was a slim, spirited young woman with flaming red hair and blue eyes. Pious and self-contained, she was the antithesis of Bill and probably found him so hypnotic for just that reason. Who knows what gloom hung around her doorstep that was dispelled by Bill’s glib patter? Her mother had died when Eliza was only twelve-she had dropped dead after taking a pill dispensed by a traveling doctor-and Eliza was raised by her older sister, Mary Ann, leaving Eliza deprived of maternal counsel.
Excerpted from Titan by Ron Chernow. . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. From the Trade Paperback edition.