Dark Secrets You Never Knew About the Rockefeller Family

When John D. Rockefeller died in 1937, his assets totaled 1.5% of U.S. economic production. As John’s legacy grew, his family became one of the most powerful in the world. We may never know the Rockefellers’ exact worth, but we can explain the family’s other secrets. These are the dark secrets of one of America’s wealthiest families.

1. Nelson Rockefeller’s affair was discovered at his death

Nelson Rockefeller with Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon with Nelson Rockefeller | Corbis via Getty Images

The New York Governor and U.S. Vice President endured an unusual death. In 1979, Nelson A. Rockefeller had a heart attack. Early reports stated that Rockefeller Center security found the “liberal Republican” dead at his desk. But later reports issued a correction; the 70-year-old actually died of a heart attack at a townhouse, where he was having sex with a 25-year-old aide. Nelson’s wife contested this, but his longtime aide confirmed the affair.

Next: Fortunately, no Rockefellers carried on this legacy.

2. William A. Rockefeller was a bigamist and con artist

Millionaire John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller meets with the American Press Humorists. | Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images

William Avery Rockefeller, John D.’s father, posed as a “deaf-mute peddler” to sell miracle potions and herbal remedies, according to History. Nicknamed “Devil Bill,” he also posed as an eye-and-ear doctor named Dr. William Levingston. He had children with both his wife and mistress, the latter woman living with the family as their housekeeper.

Next: Another tragedy strikes the Rockefeller family.

3. Dr. Richard Rockefeller died in a foggy plane crash

Both Susan Cohn Rockefeller and Richard Rockefeller
Susan Cohn Rockefeller and Dr. Richard Rockefeller | Amber De Vos/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

The son of David Rockefeller and nephew of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller devoted his life to philanthropy, rather than banking or politics. Tragically, Dr. Richard Rockefeller died at 65, when his plane met fog and crashed outside Harrison, New York. The 2014 flight had taken off from the nearby Rockefeller estate, and he wasn’t expected to be gone long.

Next: Not even Winston Churchill was worth it for the Rockefellers.

4. Winston Churchill almost wrote the Rockefeller biography

Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill makes the Victory Sign. | Bettmann/Getty Images

The future British prime minister gave rousing speeches and wrote more than 40 books, earning the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the ’30s, the Rockefellers asked Churchill to write John D.’s authorized biography. But the orator wanted a $250,000 advance. Even the wealthiest family in the world wasn’t willing to pay it, so they hired Allan Nevins, Columbia University’s historian.

Next: A ruthless business deal jumpstarted their fortune.

5. Their early wealth was connected to a secret Vanderbilt deal

Standard Oil Company tank wagon
An earlier version of oil transportation | Bettmann/Getty Images

Railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt struck a deal with John D. Rockefeller to help them both profit. Vanderbilt got exclusive rights to ship John’s oil on his trains for a lower price. Standard Oil, however, grew so fast that Vanderbilt tried to end the discounts. In a shrewd move, John earned enough to build his own pipeline, driving his profit down. Vanderbilt passed away a few years later in 1877.

Next: A gruesome death that’s nearly proven

6. Michael C. Rockefeller was likely eaten by cannibals

Rodman Rockefeller and Michael Rockefeller
Michael Rockefeller (R) with his old brother Rodman | Robert W. Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1961, Nelson Rockefeller’s fifth son traveled to New Guinea. The 23-year-old photographer and Museum of Primitive Art trustee hoped to bring an indigenous art collection back to New York. When Michael’s boat overturned, however, he tried to swim to shore and get help, reports the Smithsonian. Despite a two-week search, he was never found.

Although Michael’s official cause of death is drowning, many think he was eaten by a crocodile or shark. Some believe he made it to shore and encountered cannibals. A month later, a Dutch priest spoke with men from the Otsjanep tribe, who admitted they killed a man who matched Michael’s description. They even showed the priest some bones.

Next: A legal way to dodge the draft

7. John D. Rockefeller paid his way out of the Civil War

John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr.
On Fifth Avenue, John D. Rockefeller Sr. and John D. Rockefeller Jr. | Bettmann/Getty Images

Wealthy Americans avoided serving in the military by paying $300 to a “substitute,” who served in the Civil War on their behalf. Known as the Enrollment Act of 1863, this process didn’t exist for long, reports the National Archives. But it kept a healthy John D. out of the army.

Next: Terrible deaths for three Rockefeller relatives

8. Winifred Rockefeller committed a double-murder/suicide

Woman with Plymouth car
Woman poses with a Plymouth car | Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

John D. Rockefeller Sr.’s great-niece was 46 years old when she killed herself and her two daughters. In 1951, Winifred Rockefeller Emeny started two cars in her Greenwich, Connecticut garage. The socialite put her 12-year-old and 6-year-old in one car and then laid on the ground nearby. The maid discovered them dead from asphyxiation. It was one of many tragedies the Rockefellers experienced over the years.

Next: One “Rockefeller” slipped through the cracks.

9. A con-man posed as a Rockefeller for years before getting caught

Criminal Clark Rockefeller during an interview with the Boston Globe at the Nashua Street Jail.
“Clark Rockefeller” in jail | John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Rockefellers are busy people, so they didn’t notice when a “Clark Rockefeller” began using the family name to enter high-profile events, accept job offers, and even marry a rich woman. Actually named Christian Gerhartsreiter, the German man was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 27 years in prison in connection with an unrelated murder. “Crockefeller” got the No. 1 spot on Time Magazine’s list of the Top 10 Imposters.

Next: The last person who needed an extra $5 million

10. John D. Rockefeller outlived his life insurance and got $5 million

John D Rockefeller Sr handing out Christmas gifts
Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller hands out Christmas presents | General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On top of his other feats, John D. lived so long that his insurance company was required to pay him the $5 million value of his policy. Born on July 8, 1839, John D. died of atherosclerosis, two months before his 98th birthday.

11. John D. Rockefeller quietly supported Prohibition

Mr & Mrs John D Rockefeller
John D. and Laura Rockefeller in Cleveland | Bettmann/Getty Images

Yes, John D. Rockefeller helped establish Prohibition. But not for the reasons drifting around the internet. Many think he funded Prohibition in order to exclude ethanol as an automotive fuel. However, this had nothing to do with his stance on temperance. John D. never drank alcohol, and his wife, Laura, was a founding member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU used his huge donation to pass the 18th Amendment and the consequent Volstead Act.

Next: A Rockefeller quietly suffered from this disease.

12. John D. Rockefeller had alopecia

The aged John D. Rockefeller, Sr. on his 94th birthday
A close-up of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. on his 94th birthday | Bettmann/Getty Images

This disease causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, causing extreme hair loss. As one of the 200,000 Americans diagnosed yearly, John D. Rockefeller lost all hair from his head and body, including his eyebrows, by the time he was in his 40s. Soon he began to wear wigs of different lengths to make it look like he was getting haircuts.

Next: Most people don’t know about this bygone infection.

13. The Rockefellers helped eradicate hookworm

County Dispensary For Free Treatment Hookworm Disease 1912
A dispensary for free treatment of hookworm circa 1912 | Fotosearch/Getty Images

In the early 20th century, hookworms infected over 40% of Southerners, who experienced anemia, exhaustion, and stunted growth. However, in 1910, John D. Rockefeller gave $1 million to the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, which mapped high-risk areas and treated infected people. The group also improved sanitation in affected areas. Now, hookworm is under control; it’s only found in small areas of the Deep South.

Next: An honor bestowed on a Rockefeller

14. An African-American college is named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller

Spelman College graduate June Dobbs with her family
A Spelman College graduate June Dobbs with her family | Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1882, John D. and Laura Rockefeller began donating money to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, an African-American women’s school. After two years of ample donations, the college echanged its name to Spelman Seminary and later Spelman College in honor of Laura and her parents, who were lifelong abolitionists.

Next: Can you imagine $35,000 worth of dimes?

15. John D. Rockefeller gave a dime to every single person he met

John D. Rockefeller
American industrialist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) | by MPI/Getty Images

Per advice from a PR consultant, John D. carried around a bag of fresh dimes, giving one to every person he met, from children to the owner of Firestone tires (and fellow millionaire), Samuel Firestone. A dime in the 1920s equals about $5 these days. It’s estimated that John D. gave away about $35,000 in dimes over his lifetime.

Next: New York City wasn’t everything to the Rockefellers.

16. The Rockefellers began in Cleveland, not New York City

The childhood Home of John D. Rockefeller
John D. Rockefeller’s childhood home | Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Most recall the Rockefellers of New York City. After all, the family commissioned the 19-building Rockefeller Center, which occupies 22 acres of Manhattan. John D.’s grandson, Nelson A. Rockefeller, even served as governor of New York from 1959-1973. But the family fortune originates in Cleveland, where John D. founded Standard Oil in 1870. He didn’t move to NYC until over 10 years later.