William Rockefeller Sr.

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William Rockefeller Sr.
Bill Rockefeller.jpg
William Avery Rockefeller

(1810-11-13)November 13, 1810
DiedMay 11, 1906(1906-05-11) (aged 95)
Burial placeOakland Cemetery (Buried as William Levingston)
Other namesDr. William Levingston
Occupation(s)Businessman, Lumberman, Herbalist, "Snake Oil" Salesman
Spouse(s)Eliza Davison
(m. 1837–1889; her death, separated c. 1855)
Margaret Allen
(m. 1856–1906; his death)
PartnerNancy Brown
ChildrenLucy, Clorinda, John, Cornelia, William Jr., Mary, Franklin, and Frances
Parent(s)Godfrey Lewis Rockefeller
Lucy Avery
RelativesSee Rockefeller family

William Avery "Devil Bill" Rockefeller Sr. (November 13, 1810 – May 11, 1906) was an American businessman, lumberman, herbalist, salesman, and con artist who went by the alias of Dr. William Levingston. He worked as a lumberman and then a traveling salesman who identified himself as a "botanic physician" and sold elixirs.[1] He was known to buy and sell horses, and was also known at one point to have bought a barge-load of salt in Syracuse. Land speculation was another type of his business, and the selling of elixirs served to keep him with cash and aided in his scouting of land deals. He loaned money to farmers at twelve percent, but tried to lend to farmers who could not pay so as to foreclose and take the farms.[2] Two of his sons were Standard Oil co-founders John Davison Rockefeller Sr. and William Avery Rockefeller Jr.


William Avery Rockefeller was born in Ancram, New York.[3] He was the eldest son of businessman/farmer Godfrey Lewis Rockefeller (September 24, 1783 in Albany, New York – September 28, 1857 in Richford, New York) and Lucy Avery (February 11, 1786 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts – April 6, 1867). Godfrey and Lucy had married on September 20, 1806, in Amwell, Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Bill had two elder sisters—Melinda and Olympia—as well as seven younger siblings; Norman, Sally, Jacob, Mary, Miles, Mary Miranda, and Egbert.


The Rockefellers trace their patrilineal line to Goddard Rockefeller (born Gotthard Rockenfeller) (1590) of Fahr, today part of Neuwied, Germany. The first Rockefeller to emigrate to America (1723) was Johann Peter Rockenfeller (1710 in Segendorf, Neuwied – 1787 in Amwell Township, New Jersey), who changed his name to Rockefeller. Godfrey Lewis Rockefeller was a son of distant cousins William Rockefeller (1750–1793) and Christina Rockefeller (1754–1800). Lucy Avery was born to Miles Avery and Melinda Pixley, New England Yankees of mostly English descent, being a descendant of James Avery.

Marriage and children[edit]

Rockefeller married his first wife, Eliza Davison (September 12, 1813 – March 28, 1889), a daughter of farmer John Davison and Cynthia Selover,[4] on February 18, 1837 in Niles, Cayuga Co., New York. John highly opposed the union. Since Cynthia had died when Eliza was twelve, Eliza had been raised by her elder sister, Mary Ann Davison, and father John.

Rockefeller met Eliza on one of his business trips in Upstate New York. It is said that Rockefeller pulled out a slate and chalk to communicate when he arrived at the Davison residence, as he often pretended to be deaf and dumb on his selling trips. Eliza is to have supposedly remarked, "If that man were not deaf and dumb, I'd marry him."[5]

Bill and Eliza were the parents of three sons and three daughters:

Bill once bragged, "I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make 'em sharp."[6] Although Bill abandoned the family while Lucy, John, and William Jr. were teenagers, he remained legally married to Eliza until her death. In 1856, having assumed the name Dr. William Levingston, he married Margaret Allen (1834–1910) in Norwich, Ontario, Canada. Bill and Margaret had no children together. Before leaving his first wife, he also had two daughters with his mistress and housekeeper Nancy Brown:

  • Clorinda Rockefeller (c. 1838–?, died young)
  • Cornelia Rockefeller (c. 1840–?)

Before marrying Eliza, Bill had been in love with Nancy. However, he ended up marrying Eliza since her father was to give her $500 when she married, and Nancy was poor.[7]

When John D. Rockefeller started his own produce commission business with Maurice B. Clark in 1859, Clark initiated the idea of the partnership and offered $2,000 towards the goal. John D. Rockefeller had only $800 saved up at the time and so borrowed $1,000 from his father, "Big Bill" Rockefeller, at 10 percent interest.[8]

Bill visited with his grandchildren at the Forest Hill estate in Cleveland and at Pocantico Hills in Tarrytown. He taught his grandchildren how to shoot and played fiddle in the evenings for them. Prior to Bill's visits, John D. would invite some of Bill's Upstate New York relatives and friends.[9]


On July 26, 1849, in the city of Auburn, New York,[10] William was indicted for a rape which had occurred at gunpoint.[11] His victim had worked in the Rockefeller household;[12] her name was Ann Vanderbeak.[11][12] In the 1905 book Memoirs of an American Citizen, Robert Herrick says an improper relationship had been rumoured to exist.[13][14]

The court document reads, "That William A. Rockefeller late of the Town of Moravia in the County of Cayuga, on the first day of May in the year of the Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty eight, with force and arms at the Town of Moravia in said County, in and upon one Ann Vanderbeak in the Peace of God with the People of the State of New York then and there being, violently did make an assault on her, the said Ann Venderbeak, then and there make violently and against her will feloniously did ravish and carnally know […]".[citation needed] William Cooper, the Rockefeller family Doctor, was also indicted for assault and battery with the intention of raping Ann Vanderbeak.[13]

Because of the allegations, William sold the Moravia home and moved to Owego, New York, possibly to avoid trial,[13] under the pretence of providing better opportunities for the boys.[12] Four days later, Eliza's father sued Bill in the Supreme Court of Cayuga for failure to pay a $1,175 debt. His plea states that Bill had asked him for help with his bail for the rape charges, but that Eliza's father had not seen Bill since. Eliza also informed authorities that her husband had "absconded and cannot now be found within the state."[13] William assumed the title Doctor Bill Levingston[12] and worked as a travelling snake oil specialist.[15] Although nothing became of the charges, William left the family penniless.[16]

After hearing rumours that John D. Rockefeller—then the richest man in the world at the height of his fame—had a shameful family secret, the press went into a frenzy. Joseph Pulitzer offered a reward of $8,000 for information about "Doc Rockefeller," who was known to be alive and living under a false name, but whose whereabouts were a family secret. Despite slender clues picked up from interviews with family members and an 18-month search, the journalists failed to track him down before he died. The full story was not exposed until two years later.


Rockefeller had spent some time in Park River, North Dakota under the Levingston alias. He died on May 11, 1906, in Freeport, Illinois, at the age of 95. He was buried there in Oakland Cemetery. John D. Rockefeller never publicly acknowledged the truth about his father's life as a bigamist, and the cost for Bill's grave marker was paid by the second wife's estate.[17]


  1. ^ Chernow 1998, p. 11.
  2. ^ Hawke 1980, pp. 10, 24–25.
  3. ^ Hawke 1980, p. 4.
  4. ^ Herrin, Donna. "DAVIDSON-L Re: [DAVIDSON-L] John Davison Rockefeller's parents". RootsWeb. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
  5. ^ Hawke 1980, p. 10.
  6. ^ Segall 2001, pp. 15–16.
  7. ^ Chernow 1998, Chapter one: "The Flimflam Man" via New York Times.
  8. ^ Hawke 1980, p. 26.
  9. ^ Hawke 1980, pp. 5–6.
  10. ^ Stasz, Clarice (June 2000). The Rockefeller Women: Dynasty of Piety, Privacy, and Service. ISBN 9781583488560.
  11. ^ a b Desocio, Richard James (8 April 2013). Rockefellerocracy: Kennedy Assassinations, Watergate and Monopoly of the ... p. 203. ISBN 9781481738224.
  12. ^ a b c d "Perspectives in History, Volume 10, 1994-1995" (PDF).
  13. ^ a b c d Hamen, Susan E. (January 2011). John D. Rockefeller. ISBN 9781617589423.
  14. ^ "The Memoirs of an American Citizen — Robert Herrick, Daniel Aaron". Harvard University Press. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
  15. ^ Smith, Dinitia (1998-07-13). "From Dimes To Millions And Mystery". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
  16. ^ Means, Howard. Money & Power: The History of Business. John Wiley & Sons. p. 151. snake oil rockefeller.
  17. ^ Chernow, p. 465


External links[edit]