Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker

Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker

by Kathleen Brady


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In this first definitive biography of Ida Tarbell, Kathleen Brady has written a readable and widely acclaimed book about one of America’s great journalists.

Ida Tarbell’s generation called her “a muckraker” (the term was Theodore Roosevelt’s, and he didn’t intend it as a compliment), but in our time she would have been known as “an investigative reporter,” with the celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein. By any description, Ida Tarbell was one of the most powerful women of her time in the United States: admired, feared, hated. When her History of the Standard Oil Company was published, first in McClure’s Magazine and then as a book (1904), it shook the Rockefeller interests, caused national outrage, and led the Supreme Court to fragment the giant monopoly.

A journalist of extraordinary intelligence, accuracy, and courage, she was also the author of the influential and popular books on Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln, and her hundreds of articles dealt with public figures such as Louis Pateur and Emile Zola, and contemporary issues such as tariff policy and labor. During her long life, she knew Teddy Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Henry James, Samuel McClure, Lincoln Stephens, Herbert Hoover, and many other prominent Americans. She achieved more than almost any woman of her generation, but she was an antisuffragist, believing that the traditional roles of wife and mother were more important than public life. She ultimately defended the business interests she had once attacked.

To this day, her opposition to women’s rights disturbs some feminists. Kathleen Brady writes of her: “[She did not have] the flinty stuff of which the cutting edge of any revolution is made. . . . Yet she was called to achievement in a day when women were called only to exist. Her triumph was that she succeeded. Her tragedy ws that she was never to know it.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822958079
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
Publication date: 09/21/1989
Edition description: 1
Pages: 172
Sales rank: 828,437
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

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Ida Tarbell

Portrait of a Muckraker

By Kathleen Brady


Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Brady
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1895-1


An Unaccommodating Child

In May 1873, a tall, silk-hatted businessman walked through the streets of Titusville, Pennsylvania, extending to a distrustful local populace the olive branch of a fresh deal. Thwarted the year before in his attempt to take over the entire oil business, John D. Rockefeller, onetime purveyor of groceries, was trying again. In his early middle age, a Clevelander dissatisfied with having control of only one-third of the market, he took the precaution of visiting the oil region in a party of colleagues. Through his associates, he asked independent petroleum producers to join with him in limiting output and maintaining price. Most declined, spurning him and his Standard Oil Company. "Sic semper tyrannis," gloated a feisty newspaper editor when Rockefeller decamped. Rockefeller himself felt not defeated, merely set back.

On Titusville's Main Street, in a tower room reached by a steep stair, Ida Tarbell squinted into her microscope. Upset to have been deceived by the matter of the Six Days of Creation, fretful over where she fit in a chaotic cosmic scheme, the girl had decided to trust only what she could discover for herself.

With her savings, Ida had purchased a microscope and submitted to its powers such diverse objects as rock salt and hangnails, fly wings and petals; if the minister could not tell her what created the buttercup, she would ask the buttercup itself. At fifteen, she was tall for her age — nearly six feet — and possessed of one other striking feature — a widow's peak from which flowed her long dark hair. God, Nature, or some Darwinian process had also granted her ambition — a trait she hardly recognized or admitted to.

If the young girl and the astute entrepreneur seemed unrelated — if Rockefeller's sway over oil and wealth seemed to have little to do with the plain girl's diligent investigations in the tower room — they would have everything to do with the woman young Ida Tarbell would become.

Fate, in the peregrinations of her ancestors, had given her life in a most unpromising spot. Northwestern Pennsylvania is a place of bitter winters, muddy springs, and scraggy acreage. Pioneers flowed around it in waves seeking more prosperous pastures, and Ida's own father was inclined to follow them. When she was born on November 5, 1857, in a Hatch Hollow log cabin, he was working land in Iowa, where he planned to bring his wife and baby.

Franklin Sumner Tarbell's family had cleared America's land and fought its wars. The earliest Tarbell recorded in America was Thomas, who in 1632 purchased land in Watertown, Massachusetts, near Boston. The Tarbells pushed up to Salem where John, who fought the Indians in King Philip's War, married Mary, whose mother Rebecca Nurse had been hanged for witchcraft in 1692. The family lived in New Hampshire and Massachusetts until William, a veteran of the War of 1812, settled briefly in Oxford, New York, where his son Franklin was born in 1827.

Franklin Tarbell was tall and spare, traits he passed on to Ida. Always fast on his feet, he was like a wire that could coil and spring, and was given to outbursts of frantic activity. His penetrating blue eyes sometimes twinkled but usually peered from deep sockets, which gave him the intense gaze of an evangelist. Children loved him and teased him about his whistling and his endless hunger for casaba seeds.

He loved learning but was the family's least accomplished speller. Franklin's favorite books, besides religious ones, told of travel. He delighted in the adventures of Henry Morton Stanley and eagerly attended the circus, which brought to Pennsylvania animals from India and Africa.

On the maternal side, Ida Tarbell was a McCullough. Alexander M'Cullough, a wheelwright of Scotch ancestry, came to Boston from the north of Ireland in about 1730 and helped to settle Pelham, Massachusetts. In 1785 his son James married Hannah Raleigh, said to be the nearest living kin to the famous Sir Walter. Their grandson married Sarah Seabury, descendant of the first Episcopal bishop and, through him, was related to John Alden of the Mayflower. To this couple was born Esther Ann McCullough, Ida's mother.

Ida Minerva Tarbell was the firstborn and the only one of her siblings who would not be given a forebear's name. Her twenty-seven-year-old mother, far from her husband and still under her parents' roof, perhaps found this the only rebellion possible.

At Ida's birth in 1857 a financial panic raged. Land speculation had bubbled until the collapse of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company had the impact of a sharp pin on an overinflated balloon. In Iowa, construction of railway lines stopped abruptly, leaving half-laid tracks in the middle of vast empty fields. Buildings went roofless, and Franklin Tarbell was forced to walk back to his family. He crossed Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio on foot, earning what little money he could by teaching along the way. When at last he arrived home, his eighteen-month-old daughter, indignant to see him take her mother in his arms, cried, "Go away, bad man!"

An amazing discovery allowed him to stay with his family. Edwin Drake, Moses searching for the promised land of oil, had struck at the earth and brought forth wealth. He was the agent of hopeful investors who had commissioned him, a vagrant and onetime railway conductor, to drill for oil. Until then oil for patent medicines, wheel lubrication, and lamps could be gathered only by skimming what oozed from the ground. Drake tapped a supply that could be refined into what mankind urgently needed — cheap illumination.

Men greedily tried to collect the supply before it disappeared. The precious fluid could be anywhere, and there were theories on the best places to look. One held that a subterranean river of oil ran under natural waterways, so drills needled streams and riverbanks. Then it was hypothesized that hills were but sacs of petroleum, so derricks were shifted to higher ground. Finally, when oil was discovered in every pasture, the earth's bounty was fully confirmed.

Franklin Tarbell, by turns teacher, farmer, river pilot, and joiner, saw in this new enterprise the chance to get ahead. He perfected a wooden tank that would hold a hundred or more barrels of oil and thus managed to earn more money than he had thought he could make in a lifetime.

When Ida was three years old and her brother Will three months, Franklin loaded the family into a wagon and for two days and three nights drove them over mud, rocks, and short stretches of corduroy road until they reached their new home in the encampment of Cherry Run, Pennsylvania.

Cherry Run, like the rest of the petroleum regions, was squalid. The teeming population was ragged, muddy, and greasy, but the appearance of poverty was deceptive, for they bathed in oil. An observer noted: "No one lives amid this sea of oil but those who are making money, and all know that the oldest tatters are good enough for the filth amid which they dwell. Men think of oil, talk of oil, dream of oil; the smell and taste of oil predominate in all they eat and drink; they breathe an atmosphere of oil-gas, and the clamor of 'ile, ile — ile' rings in one's ears from day-light until midnight."

The pervasive smell of gas nauseated visitors, but exhilarated oilmen liked even petroleum's taste. Many drank two or three glasses daily to prevent chills and colds.

Women and children had to adjust to the satanic landscape of hissing steam, thrusting pumps, bellowing ungreased wheels, and the treacherous mire that devoured planks carefully laid out as sidewalks.

From all indications, Esther Tarbell did not adapt willingly. She had been raised to remember always that the blood of Sir Walter Raleigh, of Massachusetts patriots, and of Episcopal hierarchy flowed in her veins. Though the McCulloughs lived in a log house in western Pennsylvania, the rule of a proper New England upbringing obtained. Esther and her sisters had been sent to live with an aunt near Albany to attend normal school and qualify as teachers. For a dozen years before her marriage, Esther had taught school. She would have continued, she told her children, had her mother not said working was improper for a wife.

The early days of married life were not auspicious. Instead of large acreage in Iowa and continuation of the family tradition of settling the country, Esther Tarbell was living in a place of filth where there were as many prostitutes as decent women. She was forty miles and an era away from her parents' pastoral farm, and she would never forget the indignity. Thirty years later she wrote to Ida, "I indured [sic] enough at Rouseville for all the rest of my life."

The transition was as difficult for the child as the parent. Ida had played with lambs and colts at her grandfather's farm. Now a creek raced by the house and open pits of oil gaped not far from their door. She suffered most from a loss of freedom to explore. Warned not to walk on one side of the house and not to climb on the derricks in the front yard, the rebellious Ida was often scolded and once switched for disobedience.

"My first reaction to my new surroundings was one of acute dislike. It aroused me to a revolt which is the first thing I am sure I remember about my life — the birth in me of conscious experience. This revolt did not come from natural depravity; on the contrary it was a natural and righteous protest against having the life and home I had known, and which I loved, taken away without explanation and a new scene, a new set of rules which I did not like, suddenly imposed," she later wrote.

In defiance, shortly after her third birthday, she tried to run away. She followed a path as far as she could but was finally overwhelmed by an embankment too high to climb. In adult life she recalled it as a dramatic scene in a play: "Never in all these years since have I faced defeat, known that I must retreat, that I have not been again that little figure with the black mountain in front of it."

Her baby brother Will intruded on her world and Ida rebelled again. To see if he could float, she led him onto a footbridge and tossed him into the creek. His billowing skirts buoyed him until a workman heard his screams and fished him out. She never recalled her spanking, only the joy of satisfied curiosity. She and the world were too young to term this sibling rivalry.

Despite little Will's brush with drowning, the threat of Ida's childhood was fire, not water. A terrible derrick explosion occurred soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected president and Confederates attacked Fort Sumter. Taking in one burned victim who had managed to crawl to the Tarbell door, Esther turned her alcove "parlor" into a sick room for three months and allowed her best quilts and comforters to be stained with soothing linseed oil.

Futile attempts were made to shield Ida from witnessing other such horrors. When three women died in a house fire in the early 1860s, Esther tried to ban Ida from the wake; but the curious child stole into the place where the bodies were laid out and lifted the sheets that covered them. The sight of flesh singed red and charred black returned to her in nightmares for weeks and must have lodged permanently in her psyche. When she was elderly, a filling station attendant accidentally spilled some gasoline on her. She surprised her companion by turning in an instant from a calm pleasant woman into a shrew hysterically screaming about fire.

If the town was a tinderbox in physical terms, its citizens also risked eternal fire in the usual ways. Good fought evil, sanctimony battled passion, decency met hedonism. The first step was taken toward forming a God-fearing community when some, the Tarbells among them, erected a white frame church with a steeple that poked heavenward beside the derricks. When the congregation voted to become Methodist, the Presbyterian Tarbells democratically converted. To regulate boomtown emotions, the group built a school and attempted to drive out prostitution by setting adrift Ben Hogan's Floating Palace, which literally floated twenty miles down the Allegheny River before the exhausted revelers awoke.

Though each man was still his own policeman by dint of his gun, fireman by virtue of his bucket, and banker by means of his money belt, a town named Rouseville began to coalesce. Those with a preference for order left the mud flats where individual pine shanties abutted derricks and regrouped along the bluff. Franklin Tarbell moved his family to a house on a hillside that had never been drilled nor stripped of trees and shrubs. In the spring, leafy branches obscured the derricks below and all around them flourished white shadflowers and red maples, laurel, and azaleas. In autumn, the foliage gleamed, not with petroleum, but in crimsons and russets, and the air was crisp and clean in Ida's nostrils. She loved the high-up places where she would take her pony. She loved climbing trees where she would perch in what her grandmother called "the loon's nest." When life was not sufficiently adventurous, she imagined herself as Miss Muffet, a pirate, a fairy godmother, or she marveled over the Civil War.

Ida and Will followed it through a series of engravings in Harper's Weekly. They lay on their stomachs, heels in the air, absorbing every detail of the Army of the Potomac encamped, under review, or charging into battle. Franklin Tarbell, now in his mid-thirties, did not go to the front, but was an ardent Republican who saw nobility in the cause. When Lincoln died he and Esther were both so grieved that Ida was astonished that something outside their own world could matter so much.

Iron tanks soon superseded the wooden ones Franklin Tarbell produced, and he began to drill for oil and to sell lumber from the land his drills cleared. Those who stayed in the fast-changing oil business were those who could adapt. Others "went back to the States" as returning to the more civilized parts of America was known. Franklin Tarbell stayed.

He was among the first to exploit the discovery of Pithole. It was the most legendary of oil rush cities where petroleum was so plentiful that pumps fighting fires struck oil instead of water and literally added fuel to flames. Firemen developed catapults to pelt out blazes with mud.

Capitalists with greenbacks thronged to the site, wages and board were exorbitant, land brought fantastic sums. Western Pennsylvania of the 1860s seemed even more promising than California of 1849. Many fortune seekers subleased fractions of wells for hundreds of dollars. Others just skimmed oil that ran off hillsides and floated on the surface of streams and sold this runoff to get their start in the oil business.

When the Civil War ended, the idle, the needy, and the avaricious were all lured by the promise of wealth to be made in "Oil Dorado." In September 1865, when Ida was nearly eight, Pithole's population was estimated at between twelve and sixteen thousand and the post office required seven clerks. Hotels, theaters, saloons, and public halls popped up like cutouts in a children's book. Derricks rose to heights of forty-eight feet, and guards stayed on duty lest whole structures be spirited off to other sites in the night.

To spare his wife and children the vulgarity of Pithole, Franklin Tarbell rode his horse the few miles each way. Ida, eyes round with excitement, stayed up at night with her worried mother to await his return, envisioning her father as a sort of Paul Revere figure, pistol in one hand, reins in the other, his pockets bulging with thick, tempting rolls of dollars.

But the frenzy passed. Pithole's reserves were drained in five hundred days and its denizens departed. Meanwhile, the small world of Ida Tarbell was occupied by events more central to herself. When she was six her sister Sarah Asenath, named for her grandmothers, was born, and Ida had her first responsibility — she was told by the midwife to take tea to her mother and see the new baby. As an old lady, Ida remembered holding the cup tightly and carefully, fearful that a drop might spill, thinking that this duty was the most important, the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her.

Two years later another brother was added to the household, but just before Frankie Junior's second birthday he and Sarah were stricken with scarlet fever. Sturdy Sarah fought it off but little Frankie's screams continued to grow worse. Helpless, eleven-year-old Ida stood outside the closed bedroom door, clamping tight fists over her ears to keep out the sounds of her baby brother's pain, but afraid to leave him. She clenched her knuckles so hard that they were still white days after he died. She was seventy-eight years old before she could bring herself to dredge up this fearsome incident and begged to be allowed to omit it from her autobiography. Ever after the loss of that little brother, Ida panicked when her siblings were sick.

Those days of childhood also brought the pleasure of friendship with Laura Seaver, the daughter of her father's business partner. Laura was a few years older, but the girls visited each other often, playing with dolls and practicing tying back their hair. Then they would look at the Police Gazette that Ida Tarbell found lying near the workmen's bunkhouse. These pictures in the Gazette portrayed the things her parents alluded to with disapproval and which her mother could hardly bear to explain, and the two girls studied them with fascination. "If they were obscene we certainly never knew it. There was a wanton gaiety about the women, a violent rakishness about the men — wicked, we supposed, but not the less interesting for that." Ida wrote this years later, but to an adult looking at the illustrations a hundred years later, the dance-hall girls looked remarkably anxious.

The Seavers lived in Petroleum Center, which grew rowdier and more raucous as oil strikes grew greater and the population boomed. When Ida rode there she looked up in the night sky to study the constellations, but walking through the streets she pretended to ignore its saloons and dance halls. At night she tiptoed from her bed to look across the way to a brothel where the laughter and curses were loud and the songs were never those she had learned to play on her parents' Bradbury square piano. Esther had told her nothing about sex, but Ida knew that in this forbidden place occurred the too-shocking-to-be-told things that men and women did to each other in the dark.


Excerpted from Ida Tarbell by Kathleen Brady. Copyright © 2014 Kathleen Brady. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 An Unaccommodating Child,
2 Pantheistic Evolutionist,
3 A Young Lady of Fine Literary Mind,
4 Une Femme Travailleuse,
5 The French Salon,
6 The Americanization of Ida Tarbell,
7 The Lady of Muckrake,
8 Unexplored Land,
9 A Second Crusade,
10 A Bad Woman,
11 Workhorse,
12 At Rest,

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