Ida Tarbell: Reporting the Oil Region

2020-03-13T11:20:25-04:00March 3, 2020|

Excerpted from “Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine that Rewrote America” (2020)

By Stephanie Gorton

The first article of Ida Tarbell’s “History of the Standard Oil Company” appeared in the November 1902 issue of McClure’s. It was a tense season in America, but now more because of domestic discontent than war overseas; civil unrest aimed against trusts had built to a five-month strike by coal miners. Writing about architecture, Walt Whitman criticized the era as having a blind “pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit,” a tendency to believe too fervently in the new at the expense of the old. The old ways seemed corrupted and past saving, but what did that mean for the future?

Even in this climate of existential angst, Ida Tarbell’s story of Rockefeller’s rise to power hit the newsstands at a particularly sensitive time. After McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt hardly took the oath of office before proceeding to channel his energies toward reform. McClure, Steffens, and Baker already knew Roosevelt, and Baker had even written to his father that he’d hoped for his ascent: “I think we have nothing to fear concerning his reputed rashness and impetuosity,” he wrote. “He seems to possess a very keen sense of his tremendous responsibilities, and he is highly amenable to advice and wise counsel so that he will make no foolish departures.”

Citizen Reporters cover

HarperCollins

Standard Oil was already in Roosevelt’s sights. In a speech early in his presidency, he pointedly declared that the nation had to grapple with the problem of fortunes in big businesses, with the portentous words, “no amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate for the misconduct in acquiring them.” As one Rockefeller biographer wrote, Roosevelt “had a glint in his eye for Standard Oil. He was a big-game hunter, and Standard Oil was big game.”

Others had put the Standard in the crosshairs long before Miss Tarbell or Roosevelt did. It had been targeted by the media and the courts for years, even before the passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1890 and an exposé in The Atlantic of Standard Oil’s monopolistic practices. That series, Wealth Against Commonwealth, by Henry Demarest Lloyd, was published as a book in 1894, just as Miss Tarbell was leaving Paris. She determined to dig deeper than Lloyd and reach a much larger readership.

To begin, Miss Tarbell started with what she knew: western Pennsylvania’s boom and bust. She excavated some notes from her old room in her parents’ house in Titusville, first written back when she was at The Chautauquan. She recalled, just after her return from Paris, when she spent a day driving through the ruined sites of the Oil Region with her brother Will, finding many of the landmarks they knew obliterated. Now she began looking beyond the landscape, at the legal charters and government records that would let her trace the ascent of Rockefeller and his empire.

Before approaching Standard Oil itself, she amassed documentary evidence that told most of the story she had set herself to write. She delved into dense stacks of documents from Standard Oil’s past legal battles. Since the 1870s, oilmen who had been disadvantaged by the ever-expanding Standard had periodically sued the company, and there was a wealth of sworn testimony on the relentless expansionist methods of Rockefeller’s organization. The Standard had been under federal investigation almost continuously since its founding in 1870, under the allegation that it was “practicing methods in restraint of free trade.” Miss Tarbell went directly to the courts, requested the records, and painstakingly dissected them, hoping to dig up something new in the transcripts. The typed covering letters she received back from records departments and businesses often bore the same correction in pen: they were so accustomed to starting letters with “Dear Sir” that the “Sir” needed to be struck and replaced with “Madam.”

The material she found—though some files had mysteriously vanished— spurred her onward. She wrote, “These experiences had exactly the quality of the personal reminiscences of actors in great events, with the additional value that they were given on the witness stand.” In other words, it was juicier than she expected. Congressional committees and state legislatures had investigated Standard Oil several times already, but it was these private lawsuits that yielded the stories never previously reported by journalists.

She mapped out the sources that would allow her to paint as detailed a picture of Rockefeller as possible, pending an interview with the man himself. Writing about a subject that was alive presented problems that were by turns irritating and sinister. Many seeming well-wishers sternly warned her against taking on the Standard. Even her father, still scraping together a living from oil in Titusville, cautioned her, anxious that Rockefeller would somehow ruin McClure’s before Ida could make any real headway. “Don’t do it, Ida,” he said. “They will ruin the magazine.” Some fellow journalists took the trouble to send Miss Tarbell murky warnings that Standard Oil would “get” her in the end.

Determined to keep her trepidation concealed, she proceeded stubbornly through the fog of suspicion and fear that surrounded her investigation. She was used to resurrecting stories from dry records and accounts, in a foreign language if necessary. Even Lincoln’s death had been distant enough to approach more as a historian than a contemporary. But in the case of Standard Oil, her subject was not only living but thriving, at the height of its powers. Miss Tarbell, her McClure’s colleagues, and other journalists who knew of the series waited uneasily to see how the Standard would retaliate.

 

Her first introduction into the ranks of the Standard itself came from an unexpected source. As she wrote, rumors about her work had started to alarm Rockefeller’s men: “Mr. McClure dashed into the office one day to tell me he had just been talking with Mark Twain, who said his friend Henry Rogers, at that time the most conspicuous man in the Standard Oil group, had asked him to find out what kind of history of the concern McClure’s proposed to publish.”

Nicknamed “Hell Hound Rogers” for his ruthlessness at the negotiat-ing table, Henry Huttleston Rogers was Rockefeller’s corporate PR man, in Miss Tarbell’s eyes “as fine a pirate as ever flew his flag in Wall Street.” He was curious about the forthcoming McClure’s story, but he also saw an- other advantage to talking with Miss Tarbell. It was a chance to repaint the damning picture that Henry Demarest Lloyd had drawn in Wealth Against Commonwealth, the prior Atlantic series and book.

If anyone had the guile to sway Miss Tarbell, it was Hell Hound Rogers, then in his early sixties. Miss Tarbell frankly thought him very appealing indeed; “the handsomest and most distinguished figure…tall, muscular, lithe as an Indian.” She liked his fluid, masculine way of moving, the “hint of the mechanic & laborer” in his bearing, “despite excellent grooming.” She liked looking into the sharp dark eyes under his gray mane, “narrowed a little by caution & capable of blazing.” Rogers, she thought, had “[the] devil in him all right.” Both Twain and Rogers assumed the latter would charm the spinster reporter, and they were right. In this, however, they underestimated her ability to remain focused on the mission at hand.

Rarely had a man engaged her so completely. Armed with her instinct and experience in gaining the confidence of volatile men, she had cultivated a self-effacing manner that quickly made interviewees trusting and voluble. “She got in the habit of protecting herself from people that way,” Viola Roseboro perceived, “and the other side is that when she gets with the people who have what she wants she is masterly in keeping them talking.” Men, especially. When a younger writer once mentioned the impressive number of men that Miss Tarbell associated with, she was taken aback; beyond the McClure’s group, those meetings and lunches were all incidental to a specific goal: the story. “Men were as impersonal as the pitcher on the table,” she thought to herself, “but they always had a good time.” Rogers, however, affected her personally, and soon both discovered they shared more than a mercenary interest in each other’s work.

McClure's Magazine, 1903

McClure’s Magazine, Christmas 1903. Public domain image via wikimedia

In an odd coincidence, Miss Tarbell and Hell Hound Rogers realized early in their acquaintance that they had once been neighbors in the derrick-covered settlement of Rouseville. She had been a child then, while he was first starting out in business. “Probably I’ve seen you hunting flowers on your side of the ravine…

I was never happier,” confessed Rogers, as he faced the sharp-eyed reporter seated on the other side of his desk. She warmed to the nostalgia for his obscure pioneer background, which reflected her own.

She went to the Standard Oil offices at 26 Broadway regularly for two years. Each time, she entered the imposing colonnaded building and was immediately whisked by an assistant from the lobby via a circuitous and private route to Rogers’s office, kept out of sight from Standard Oil employees who might recognize her, and spoken to by no one but Rogers and his secretary. Once they were in his office with the door closed, even sensitive subjects were fair game for Miss Tarbell’s spirited questioning. When reminiscences of Rouseville led naturally to a conversation about the Oil War, Rogers’s reaction was quick. He forestalled her, saying it was “an outrageous business. That is where the Rockefellers made their big mistake.” She made a deal with Rogers that she would bring all of her discoveries to him in the interest of hearing his clarification and context—although the final narrative would ultimately be shaped by herself and her editors alone.

Privately, she found his poise in the heat of her interrogations remarkable. “He’s a liar and a hypocrite, and you know it,” she “exploded” at Rogers in one of their long interviews, speaking of a man who remains unnamed in her papers. Rogers refused to be moved by her outburst and replied, with ostentatious calm, “I think it’s going to rain.” She was leery of relaxing too much in his presence, and of any situation that might compromise her in his eyes. In her sessions with Rogers, she would even refuse the glass of milk he habitually offered her unless he let her pay for it.

The exchanges with Rogers solidified her approach with a living subject who was seemingly determined to outmaneuver her. She asked Rogers to confirm the factuality of her findings and neatly batted away his attempts to steer her toward his own narrative. “Mr. Rogers,” she would say good-humoredly, “if you will look at my letter you will see that I did not suggest that you make the article correspond with your opinion of this case. I feel convinced I could never do that. I asked you to examine the article and see if I had made any errors in statement or had omitted any essential testimony on either side.” Her efforts at verification—including checking sources’ affidavits and only using stories that could be confirmed—were unique to the Tarbell method decades before they became common practice for journalists.

Both enjoyed their sparring matches and were enlightened by their interviews, but those meetings could also be strangely obfuscating. How could she believe him on every count, seductive as he was, when he was a key part of Rockefeller’s machine? Once, after he had given her some documents to review and she was bent over them in concentration, she glanced up suddenly and “caught him looking at me with narrowed eyes and an expression of great cunning. He straightened his face out at once.” She kept her own expression neutral, but never forgot that ruthless, predatory gaze behind Rogers’s suave façade.

Rogers was her only key to the tycoon himself, who had essentially retired around 1897. When she wasn’t using her meetings with Rogers to fact-check documents and allegations she had turned up, Miss Tarbell gently prodded him about arranging that meeting. In one of their first interviews, Rogers agreed, “a little doubtfully,” to try to set something up with Rockefeller. Gradually the possibility faded. “If I hinted at it,” she wrote, regretfully, “he parried.” Rockefeller remained tantalizingly out of reach— for now—and she was at a loss for how to close the gap.

Rogers had his own agenda for Miss Tarbell. He framed the company’s accelerating growth as a patriotic necessity. What would happen to the Oil Region’s lucrative product if it were outstripped by an upstart competitor, perhaps Texas, or California—or Russia? Rogers suggested Miss Tarbell and her story should see that threat, and not Rockefeller’s familiar reign, as the “anaconda” squeezing the Oil Region workers. “It looks as if something had the Standard Oil Company by the neck, something bigger than we are,” Rogers pushed. Miss Tarbell took notes, unmoved. Her judgment of the company’s desire for total dominance echoed like a drumbeat through her articles.

Rogers’s anxiety was, in fact, backed up by the headlines. The recent Spindletop, Texas, oil well had yielded close to a hundred thousand barrels of oil per day for nine days before it was capped to control the flow. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, American kerosene had been the main light source until drills hit massive oil reserves near Russia-controlled Baku. The streets and homes of Shanghai had burned the Standard’s product since the early 1880s, creating valuable consumers abroad just as electric light was starting to shrink the American oil market. But what if Shanghai could strike a better deal with Russia? Miss Tarbell resisted being drawn in; her story was about oil in America, but Rogers had a way of complicating her thoughts.

The Rogers connection also aroused suspicion among valuable sources, even those she assumed would be the most sympathetic. Henry Demarest Lloyd, whose Wealth Against Commonwealth had presciently attacked the Standard, at first offered to help with her research; but when he heard that she was meeting with Rogers he did his considerable best to keep independent producers from talking to her, for fear she was feeding information to the wily PR man. Later, when her articles began to appear, Lloyd had another change of heart. “I want to congratulate you on the extraordinarily interesting and effective work that you are doing in McClure’s,” he wrote her in April 1903. “When you get through with ‘Johnnie [Rockefeller],’ I don’t think there will be very much left of him except something resembling one of his own grease spots.”

From disgruntled oilmen, Miss Tarbell received a great volume of tips to look into, but her distaste for hearing their woes accumulated with the success of her series. Rogers introduced her to Henry Flagler, Rockefeller’s scandal-prone business partner (who later became known as a key developer of Miami), who let her know in an off-the-record conversation that Rockefeller was “the biggest little man and the littlest big man he ever knew….He would do me out of a dollar today—that is, if he could do it honestly.” It quickly became clear that Flagler was more interested in clawing back a respectable image for himself than in supplying Miss Tarbell with actual insight.

At least she wasn’t alone in the monumental task of sifting through rumors and deciding what to believe. She found a brilliant lieutenant, a young writer with a nose for investigative work whose bubbling energy bolstered her enthusiasm as she trudged through her interviews and reading. She had been hiring local assistants in Cleveland, Rockefeller’s home base, since early in her research, but hadn’t seen particular promise in many of them. All were young men: the first two were courteous and competent but inclined to check off the tasks she had assigned and go quiet. The third, John Siddall, was a different breed. Miss Tarbell wrote that he was “short and plump, his eyes glowing with excitement. He sat on the edge of his chair. As I watched him I had a sudden feeling of alarm lest he should burst out of his clothes. I never had the same feeling about any other individual except Theodore Roosevelt…so steamed up, so ready to go, attack anything, anywhere.”

Tarbell - Wikimedia

Ida Tarbell. Public domain image via Wikimedia.

Like Miss Tarbell, Siddall was a former editor at The Chautauquan. He was naturally curious and persistent, unafraid to prod and question his redoubtable boss. He wrote such animated, entertaining letters that the rest of the McClure’s staff petitioned Miss Tarbell to bring him to New York after the Standard series was through. But as long as he was assigned to her, he pursued her story with dedication equal to her own.

Although she investigated Standard Oil over a period of four years, she missed other sources much closer to her quarry. Siddall had assumed Rockefeller’s father, a con artist and bigamist who had never been close to his eldest son, was long since dead, and had not looked into the particulars. When it turned out he was alive and well in Illinois, Siddall wrote, shocked and penitent, to Miss Tarbell in late April 1903, “I am startled almost beyond expression to learn, as I have through the telephone within the last five minutes, that the old man is living.”

He was convinced that John D. Rockefeller had conspired to hide the existence of his disreputable father. Siddall was not the only one who was fooled; William Rockefeller, Sr. had lived a double life under an alias complete with a bogus medical title, Dr. William Levingston, for years. Dr. Levingston himself was elusive, ninety-three years old, deaf, and in his own world. But Siddall found the one photographer in Cleveland who admitted to having a confidential file of Rockefeller plates, including images of John D.’s father; at first the man refused to let Siddall see them, but with the lubrication of fifty dollars, McClure’s was able to print the images in later installments of the series.

More fruitful was a teenaged clerk at Standard Oil, who by chance one day noticed that the papers he’d been given to burn bore the name of an independent oil refiner who had been his Sunday school teacher. He started a habit of looking for the name on all of the paperwork he was given for the incinerator, and pieced together what was happening: Standard Oil was issuing orders that amounted to “Stop that shipment—get that trade,” diverting its competitor’s business with collusion from the railroad companies.

The clerk discreetly passed the documents to his former teacher, who knew of the McClure’s series and shared the evidence with Miss Tarbell. With this nameless insider’s help, she confirmed the truth of a charge that others had suggested to her, but that she had considered little more than a conspiracy theory. Standard Oil was spying on independent oil refiners and manipulating distribution through a byzantine system of railroad rebates.

She was electrified by the scoop, and the next installment in the series drew heavily from it. Rogers was “white with rage” in their next interview. “Where did you get that stuff?” he demanded. When Miss Tarbell refused to give away her source’s identity, the ensuing conversation brought a curt, angry end to their collaboration. With Siddall’s help, she would have to finish her research completely shut out of the Standard itself. ■

 

 

From Citizen Reporters by Stephanie Gorton. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Gorton. Reprinted with permission of Ecco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.

Stephanie Gorton has written for NewYorker.com, Smithsonian.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Toast, The Millions, and other publications. She will discuss her book Citizen Reporters with Belt Publishing’s Dan Crissman in Cleveland on April 2.

Cover image of Ida Tarbell at work. From the U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia.

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