Michael Rockefeller

History Uncovered Episode 55:
The Disappearance Of Michael Rockefeller

Published September 29, 2023

Was John D. Rockefeller's great-grandson Michael killed and eaten by cannibals in the remote wilds of New Guinea in 1961? Go inside the disturbing disappearance of this famed scion.

The Rockefeller name has a long and storied history in American business and politics, from Standard Oil co-founder John D. Rockefeller, widely considered the wealthiest person of all time, to his grandson Nelson Rockefeller, who served as governor of New York from 1959 to 1973 and Vice President to Gerald Ford from 1974 to 1977.

But among the long line of Rockefellers, there is one whose story is marked by tragedy, mystery, and grisly theories about his untimely death.

Michael Clark Rockefeller was Nelson Rockefeller’s youngest son, a quiet and artistic young man who wanted more out of life than four walls in an office building. So after graduating from Harvard in 1960, Michael Rockefeller decided to make his mark on the world not as another businessman or politician — as many a Rockefeller had done before him — but instead as a collector of what was then called “primitive art.”

While on a trip to Dutch New Guinea in October 1961, the small boat transporting Rockefeller and his companion, René Wassing, capsized roughly 14 miles from the shore. Rockefeller felt he could make it to land and swam off into the water, never to be seen again.

Michael Rockefeller

President and Fellows of Harvard University; Peabody Museum of Archeology and EthnologyMichael Rockefeller on his first trip to New Guinea in May 1960, just one year before his death.

What followed was a media whirlwind as the son of New York’s governor and the scion of America’s most famous wealthy family remained missing despite an enormous search effort. Ships, airplanes, and helicopters scoured the region, but there was no sign of him.

Nine days later, the Dutch interior minister declared, “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive.” Two weeks later, the search was officially called off, and Michael Rockefeller’s cause of death was listed as drowning.

His body was never found. But in 2014, National Geographic reporter Carl Hoffman released a book titled Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art. This book claimed that the evidence from the inquiries of Dutch officials proved that Michael Rockefeller had, in fact, been killed and eaten by a local tribe.

Hoffman wrote that after deciding to kill Rockefeller, the tribe allegedly cut his skull open and eaten his brains, turned his bones into daggers and fishing spears, and drained his blood and coated themselves in it while performing ritual dances. But, in the end, what happened to Michael Rockefeller in October 1961 remains a mystery to this day.

Learn more about the chilling story of Michael Rockefeller.

Learn more about the music used in our podcast. History Uncovered is part of the Airwave Media network. Learn more about your ad choices by visiting megaphone.fm/adchoices.