8 Facts About John D. Rockefeller

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There’s rich, there’s wealthy, and then there’s John D. Rockefeller. Considered by many to be the most financially-prosperous individual in modern history with an estimated $900,000,000 bank balance (unadjusted for inflation) in the early 1910s, Rockefeller (1839-1937) made his massive fortune by dominating the oil industry. While Rockefeller was prone to controversy—he was accused of being a monopoly in the fuel business—he was also a generous philanthropist, donating over a half-billion dollars in his lifetime (and that's also unadjusted for inflation). Take a look at some things you might not have known about the legendary tycoon.

1. HIS DAD PRETENDED TO BE A DOCTOR.

While his son would go on to want for nothing in life, William Avery Rockefeller was not a man of resources. The one thing he could depend on was a somewhat diabolical gift for conning others. Before his son was born, William spent time as an itinerant, going from place to place pretending to be deaf and soliciting free meals. (Eliza, the daughter of one such target, became his wife and John’s mother.) In other towns, he would hand out sheets referring to himself as “doctor” and pretend to have found a “cure” for cancer. The elder Rockefeller also insisted that his mistress, Nancy, live in the same house as his family, where she bore him two children. William Rockefeller would continue peddling “medicines,” sometimes under the pseudonym of William Levingston—and when he died in 1906, that was the name on his tombstone.

2. HE CELEBRATED HIS OWN PERSONAL HOLIDAY.

More important to Rockefeller than his own birthday was what he called “Job Day.” The future oil magnate was born and raised in upstate New York and took on his first real job at the age of 16 for a grain and coal supplier/shipper after his family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. The date he started—September 26, 1855—was when Rockefeller believed he got his official start in business. As an adult, he celebrated the day every year.

3. HE DID EVERYTHING HE COULD TO DOMINATE THE OIL INDUSTRY.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rockefeller’s wealth was a consequence of his obsession with owning the oil industry. He struck deals with railroads to ship his goods cheaply, bought out smaller companies, and helped usher in the concept of a monopoly in modern times. Smaller businesses were faced with a choice: be consumed or attempt to compete with his massive corporation. His buying spree was referred to as the “Cleveland Massacre.” By 1882, his company, Standard Oil, owned or controlled 90 percent of all refineries in the United States. “Competition is a sin,” he was allegedly quoted as saying.

4. HE HIRED A STAND-IN SOLDIER TO SERVE FOR HIM IN THE CIVIL WAR.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Due to be drafted to serve the Union in the Civil War in 1863, the 23-year-old Rockefeller did what many men of means had done: He paid for someone to serve in his place. This practice was allowed by the U.S. government, which granted draftees the ability to offer up a substitute. No record exists of who the man who took Rockefeller’s spot was. His brother, Frank, chose to serve at age 16, telling a recruiting sergeant he was 18. Despite being wounded in battle, he survived.

5. HE HELPED REDUCE HOOKWORM IN THE UNITED STATES.

With his fortune, Rockefeller pursued a number of philanthropic efforts in his lifetime. In 1910, that funding led directly to the widespread treatment of a mostly-forgotten illness: hookworm. The larvae enter the soles of the feet and travel the bloodstream to the lungs before settling in the intestine, where sufferers can experience stunted growth, anemia, and exhaustion. More than 40 percent of the population in southern states had hookworm infection in the early 20th century. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease used Rockefeller’s $1 million donation to map out high-risk areas and made a concentrated effort to cure infected residents with Epsom salts and thymol while educating the public on the need for improved sanitation systems.

While it was thought for decades that hookworm had been essentially eradicated in the United States, a recent study found that it still occurs in impoverished areas of Alabama and possibly other regions of the deep south—but not with the severity of the early 20th century.

6. HE LIKED HANDING OUT DIMES TO STRANGERS.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, Rockefeller often traveled by ferry from his home in Tarrytown across the Hudson River and into Nyack, New York. When his ferry docked, he would typically be greeted by children. Rockefeller came prepared, handing out dimes to his welcoming party. Rockefeller was also known to hand out coins to adults. He reportedly did this in part to instill habits of savings and thrift in people. Many of them hung on to their famous “Rockefeller dimes” as a keepsake.

7. SOMEONE PLANNED TO BLOW HIM UP.

At the turn of the century, bomb threats and detonations were often used to make a point against capitalism by radicals looking to upend the system; business barons like J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller were targeted. In the case of Rockefeller, it’s been proposed that he was targeted for his family’s role in the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, when several striking miners—and even children—were killed during fighting with the Colorado National Guard and mine guards. Fortunately for Rockefeller, his would-be assassins never made it to his Tarrytown home: On July 4, 1914, an explosion went off in a Harlem tenement, killing several anarchists who had been storing dynamite at the location. Their plan had been to leave it at Rockefeller’s doorstep.

8. MARK TWAIN PLAYED A ROLE IN STANDARD OIL'S DOWNFALL.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1900, Ida Tarbell, the daughter of one of Rockefeller's business rivals, decided to even the score with Rockefeller by writing an extensive 19-part expose on his questionable business practices for McClure’s magazine. A key source was Henry Rogers, who worked for Rockefeller as an executive for Standard Oil for roughly 25 years. Rogers heard of the series Tarbell was working on and felt Standard Oil should be involved, asking his friend Mark Twain to inquire with McClure’s. Twain eventually asked, “Would Miss Tarbell see Mr. Rogers?” and a meeting was arranged. Rogers later grew upset when he saw Tarbell’s articles, but it was too late. Her reporting led to a 1911 Supreme Court ruling that broke up Standard Oil for good, mincing it into a series of companies that later became known as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and others. Tarbell didn’t spare words about her vendetta or potential lack of objectivity. In the copy, she referred to the slim Rockefeller as a “living mummy.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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7 People Killed by Musical Instruments

On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
On occasion, a piano has been a literal instrument of death.
Pixabay, Pexels // Public Domain

We’re used to taking it figuratively. One “slays” on guitar, is a “killer” pianist, or wants to “die” listening to a miraculous piece of music. History, though, is surprisingly rich with examples of people actually killed by musical instruments. Some were bludgeoned and some crushed; others were snuffed out by the sheer effort of performing or while an instrument was devilishly played to cover up the crime. Below are seven people who met their end thanks to a musical instrument.

1. Elizabeth Jackson // Struck with a Flute

A German flute.The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments (1889), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

David Mills was practicing his flute the night of March 25, 1751, when he got into a heated argument with fellow servant Elizabeth Jackson. A woman “given to passion,” she threw a candlestick at Mills after he said something rude. He retaliated by striking her left temple with his flute before the porter and the footman pulled them apart. Jackson lived for another four hours, able to walk but not make sensible speech. Her fellow servants decided to bleed her, a sadly ineffective treatment for skull fractures. “Her s[k]ull was remarkably thin,” the surgeon testified at Mills’s trial.

2. Louis Vierne // Exhausted by an Organ Recital

Louis Vierne plays the organ of St.-Nicolas du Chardonnet in Paris, France.Source: gallica.bnf.fr, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

Reputed to be the king of instruments, the organ requires a performer with an athletic endurance—more than 67-year-old Louis Vierne had to give during a recital at Notre Dame cathedral on June 2, 1937. He collapsed (likely of a heart attack) after playing the last chord of a piece. With a Gallic appreciation for tragedy, one concertgoer noted the piece “bears a title which, given the circumstance, seems like fate and takes on an oddly disturbing meaning: ‘Tombstone for a dead child’!” As Vierne’s lifeless feet fell upon the pedalboard “a low whimper was heard from the admirable instrument, which seemed to weep for its master,” the concertgoer wrote.

3. James “Jimmy the Beard” Ferrozzo // Crushed by a Piano

The exterior of the Condor Club in 1973.Michael Holley, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Getting crushed by a piano is usually the stuff of cartoons, but what happened to James Ferrozzo is somehow even stranger than a cartoon. “A nude, screaming dancer found trapped under a man’s crushed body on a trick piano pinned against a nightclub ceiling was too drunk to remember how she got there,” the AP reported the day after the 1983 incident. The dancer was a new employee at San Francisco’s Condor Club (said to be one of the first, if not the first, topless bar). The man was her boyfriend, the club’s bouncer. And the trick piano was part of topless-dancing pioneer Carol Doda’s act—a white baby grand that lowered her from the second floor. During Ferrozzo’s assignation with the dancer, the piano’s switch was somehow activated, lifting him partway to heaven before deadly contact with the ceiling sent him the rest of the way.

4. Linos // Killed with a Lyre

A student and his music teacher, holding a lyre—potentially Herakles and Linos.Petit Palais, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

One of the greatest music teachers of mythic Ancient Greece, Linos took on Herakles as a pupil. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the demi-god “was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul,” and so after a harsh reprimand he flew into a rage and beat Linos to death with his lyre. Herakles dubiously used a sort of ancient stand-your-ground law as a defense during trial and was exonerated. Poor Linos: an honest man beaten by a lyre.

5. Sophia Rasch // Suffocated While a Piano Muffled her Screams

Pixabay, Pexels

No one better proves George Bernard Shaw’s quip that “hell is full of musical amateurs” than Susannah Koczula. “I have seen Susannah trying to play the piano several times—she could not play,” 10-year-old Carl Rasch testified at Koczula’s 1894 trial. Susannah, the Rasch’s caregiver, distracted little Carl, sister Clara, and their neighborhood friend Woolf with an impromptu performance while a gruesome scene unfolded upstairs: Koczula’s husband tied and suffocated Carl and Clara’s mother, Sophia Rasch, before making off with her jewelry. “She banged the piano,” explained Woolf. “I heard no halloaing.”

6. Marianne Kirchgessner // A Nervous Disorder Acquired Playing the Glass Armonica

According to one doctor, Ben Franklin's instrument caused "a great degree of nervous weakness."Ji-Elle, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Benjamin Franklin invented the glass harmonica, or armonica, in 1761, unleashing a deadly scourge upon the musical world. “It was forbidden in several countries by the police,” wrote music historian Karl Pohl in 1862, while Karl Leopold Röllig warned in 1787 that “It’s not just the gentle waves of air that fill the ear, but the charming vibrations and constant strain of the bowls upon the already delicate nerves of the fingers that combine to produce diseases which are terrible, maybe even fatal.” In 1808, when Marianne Kirchgessner, Europe’s premiere glass armonica virtuoso, died at the age of 39, many suspected nervousness brought on by playing the instrument.

7. Charles Ratherbee // Lung Disease Possibly Caused by Playing the Trumpet

A valve trumpet made by Elbridge G. Wright, circa 1845.Purchase, Robert Alonzo Lehman Bequest (2002), Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

One summer day in 1845, Charles Ratherbee, a trumpeter, got into a fight with Joseph Harvey, who rented space in a garden from Ratherbee and was sowing seeds where the trumpeter had planned to plant potatoes. When confronted, Harvey became upset and knocked Ratherbee to the ground with his elbow. Two weeks and five days later, Ratherbee was dead.

Harvey was arrested for Ratherbee’s death, but a doctor pinpointed another killer: An undiagnosed lung disease made worse by his musical career. “The blowing of a trumpet would decidedly increase [the disease],” the surgeon testified at Harvey’s manslaughter trial. When asked if he was “in a fit state to blow a trumpet” the surgeon replied bluntly, “No.” Harvey was acquitted and given a suspended sentence for assault. The trumpet was never charged.