John D. Rockefeller Sr. characterized Gilded Age capitalism. Ida Tarbell was one of the few willing to hold him accountable.
At the age of 14, Ida Tarbell witnessed the Cleveland Massacre, in which dozens of small oil producers in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, including her father, were faced with a daunting choice that seemed to come out of nowhere: sell their businesses to the confident 32 year-old John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his newly incorporated Standard Oil Company, or attempt to compete and face ruin. She didn’t understand it at the time, not all of it, anyway, but she would never forget the awful effects of “the oil war” of 1872, which allowed Rockefeller to leave Cleveland owning 85 percent of the city’s oil refineries.
Almost 30 years later, she became one of the most influential muckrakers helping to usher in that age of political, economic and industrial reform known as the Progressive Era. Tarbell would redefine investigative journalism with a 19-part series in McClure’s magazine, a masterpiece of journalism and an unrelenting accusation that brought down one of history’s greatest industrialists and broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly.
Ida Tarbell was born in 1857, in a log cabin in Hatch Hollow, in Western Pennsylvania’s oil region. Her father, Frank Tarbell, spent years building oil storage tanks but began to prosper once he switched to oil production and refining. “There was ease such as we had never known; luxuries we had never heard of,” she later wrote. Her town of Titusville and surrounding areas in the Oil Creek Valley “had been developed into an organized industry which was now believed to have a splendid future. Then suddenly this prosperous town received a blow between the eyes.”
That blow came in the form of the South Improvement Company, a corporation established in 1871 and widely viewed as an effort by Rockefeller and Standard Oil in Ohio to control the oil and gas industries in the region. In a secret alliance with Rockefeller, the three major railroads that ran through Cleveland—the Pennsylvania, the Erie and the New York Central—agreed to raise their shipping fees while paying “rebates” and “drawbacks” to him.
Franklin Tarbell and the other small oil refiners pleaded with state and federal officials to crack down on the business practices that were destined to ruin them, and by April of 1872 the Pennsylvania legislature repealed the South Improvement Company’s charter before a single transaction was made. But the damage had already been done. In just six weeks, the threat of an impending alliance allowed Rockefeller to buy 22 of his 26 competitors in Cleveland. “Take Standard Oil Stock,” Rockefeller told them, “and your family will never know want.” Most who accepted the buyouts did indeed become rich. Franklin Tarbell resisted and continued to produce independently, but struggled to earn a decent living. His daughter wrote that she was devastated by the “hate, suspicion and fear that engulfed the community” after the Standard Oil ruckus. Franklin Tarbell was forced to mortgage the family home to meet his company’s debts.
In 1900, nearly three decades after the Cleveland Massacre, Tarbell set her sights on what would become “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” a 19-part series (and book) that, as one writer described, “fed the antitrust (anti-monopoly) frenzy by verifying what many had suspected for years: deceit, secrecy and unregulated concentration of power that characterized business practices
Franklin Tarbell warned Ida that Rockefeller and Standard Oil were capable of crushing her, just as they’d crushed her home town of Titusville. But his daughter was relentless. InThe History of the Standard Oil Company, she managed to include a thorough understanding of the inner workings of Rockefeller’s trust and his interest in the oil business while avoiding a condemnation of capitalism itself. She did not hesitate to criticize Rockefeller for stooping to unethical business practices in pursuit of his wealth
Ida Tarbell concluded her series with a two-part character study of Rockefeller, where she described him as a “living mummy,” adding, “our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.” Public fury over the piece is credited with the eventual breakup of Standard Oil, which came after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that the company was indeed a monopoly in the famous court case United States vs Standard Oil. Tarbell ultimately forced Americans to consider that the nation’s best-known industrialist was using evil tactics to crush competitors, driving honest men from business. Ultimately, Standard Oil was broken into “baby Standards,” which include ExxonMobil and Chevron today. Rockefeller, a great philanthropist, was deeply stung by Tarbell’s investigation. He referred to her as “that poisonous woman,” but told advisers not to comment on the series or any of the allegations. “Not a word,” Rockefeller told them. “Not a word about that misguided woman.”
Almost 40 years after the Cleveland Massacre cast a dark cloud over Titusville, Ida Tarbell, in her own way, was able to hold the corporation accountable. She died in Connecticut in 1944, at the age of 86. New York University placed her book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, at No. 5 on a list of the top 100 works of 20th-century American journalism.