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Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
W. W. Norton & Company, 2008
320 pp., $25.95
by David A. Skeel
If ever there was a true David and Goliath story in American business, this was it. A scrappy investigative reporter, a woman no less, took aim at John D. Rockefeller, the nation's richest and one of its most powerful men. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was the greatest of the monopolistic trusts of the late 19th century, a company that crushed its competitors, pressured the railroads to give it special rates, and generally strode like a colossus across American business life. When other oil companies or even ambitious state prosecutors whined, Rockefeller simply brushed them off. But Ida Tarbell, armed only with her pen and dogged persistence, somehow nosed her way inside his company, penetrating its code of silence and exposing the ruthless and at times illegal methods it had used to dominate the oil industry. Her 1904 exposé, disarmingly entitled The History of the Standard Oil Company, laid the groundwork for the first serious challenge to Rockefeller's hegemony and for the Supreme Court's epochal 1911 decision breaking the company up.
In Taking on the Trust: How an Investigative Journalist Brought Down Standard Oil, Steve Weinberg, himself an investigative journalist, recounts this great story as a tale of intertwined destinies. Both hero and villain were shaped by the wilds of Western Pennsylvania—and the rush to capitalize on the black gold that seemed to ooze from every pore in the landscape in the late 19th century. Eighteen years older than his future nemesis, Rockefeller was the son of a ne'er-do-well father who moved from job to job and town to town, selling the latest patent medicine and secretly marrying his housekeeper-mistress without ever divorcing Rockefeller's mother. Rockefeller left high school shortly before graduation to help support his family, working with a firm that arranged deliveries of commodities and eventually starting his own firm. When the oil rush began, Rockefeller jumped in, and by the late 1860s he had made it his exclusive ...