California Scheming

Has one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved crimes finally been cracked?

Leland and Jane Stanford, 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)
Leland and Jane Stanford, 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)

Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University by Richard White; W. W. Norton, 384 pp., $35

In 1905, Jane Stanford was likely the wealthiest woman in San Francisco. She had railroad money and real estate, including a compound in Palo Alto and a mansion in Nob Hill, built for a life she only occasionally still lived. She had suffered the deaths of her only child, Leland Jr., and her husband, Leland Sr., and for years had been on her own. She had acquaintances, a few close friends, some family, many employees, and more than one lawyer. She had her spirit guides. And she had the university she had founded with her husband in honor of their son.

At 76, Stanford wasn’t afraid of death, and maybe even looked forward to an afterlife with her family, but she wasn’t eager to hasten the reunion. She walked at least five miles a day, ate carefully, and drank Poland Spring water. Still, that January at the Nob Hill mansion, someone added rat poison made with strychnine to her water. Her first sips were bitter, and she forced herself to vomit. She then called her maid and personal secretary and vomited again. Later she said, “Oh God. I did not think anyone wished to hurt me. What would it benefit any one?”

Richard White convincingly answers that question in his new book, Who Killed Jane Stanford? Although she survived the first poisoning attempt, a second one six weeks later proved fatal. Then came a cover-up led by the university’s president, David Starr Jordan, abetted by corrupt police and private investigators and some of Stanford’s own employees and family. The effort to convince people that she had died of natural causes was so successful that even now, Stanford University doesn’t mention the very unnatural circumstances of its cofounder’s death on its website. This, I imagine, is likely to change.

White, a professor emeritus at Stanford and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2011 book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, is a formidable detective. Others have examined pieces of this mystery, but White solves it by unearthing evidence of motive and opportunity and means. He discovers the strained relations between Stanford and her long-serving personal secretary, Bertha Berner, a single woman who insisted, over her employer’s objections, on maintaining a personal life. And he explores Stanford’s differences with Jordan, whom she mistrusted and planned to force out of his university post. White picks apart differing recollections and testimonies, rules out potential suspects, tracks down potential accomplices, and makes connections no one did at the time.

Along the way he detours, here into disputes among the tongs of Chinatown, there into police vice, sometimes with so much detail that the story slows. But when we’re deep into his investigation, the details compound into a damning account. White examines the university’s shaky finances and legal status as well as the dubious leadership of its president and its cofounder. Jordan protected friends and punished enemies, promoted eugenics, and also wanted to make Stanford a research university equal to Harvard and Yale. Jane Stanford believed the university should be devoted to the development of the soul. She kept it alive, but had she survived and prevailed over Jordan, she might have stunted its growth.

Leland Jr., not yet 16 years old, had died of typhoid in 1884. In their grief, and after Leland Sr. recalled a dream he’d had at his son’s bedside, the Stanfords decided to create a university. To lead it, they hired Jordan, a former president of Indiana University and an ichthyologist who thought himself “a minor prophet of democracy.” Leland Sr., an indifferent politician who served as California’s governor before being elected to the U.S. Senate, was also a lucky, though incompetent, railroad baron. We can take White at his word that building and operating the Pacific rail lines “involved bribery, subsidies, fraud and an inordinate amount of lying, cheating, self-dealing and backstabbing.” Leland Stanford Junior University opened in 1891, a prime example of Gilded Age philanthropy and, to its critics, “a giant exercise in money laundering.”

Leland Sr. died two years later. The country was sinking into a depression brought on by financial trouble in the railroad industry. His estate got stuck in probate court, a process complicated by a federal lawsuit. Jane used her allowance to keep the university open, and after her assets were unfrozen, endowed it with $25 million. But she kept control over the money and used it to attempt to shape the university to her liking. She decided that it should admit fewer young women because they were tempting the young men. She wanted her Memorial Church to be central to campus life and, in 1904, proposed an academic chair in “psychic psychology” to validate spiritualism and other occult forces. Jordan was unenthusiastic. White’s assessment of these plans is blunt: “Jane Stanford wanted to turn the university into a cult.”

That was the situation when, a month after her poisoning at Nob Hill, Stanford sailed to Hawaii, expecting to continue on to Japan. She insisted that her secretary, Berner, and May Hunt, a new maid, accompany her. Berner didn’t want to be away from her ailing mother for so long, but there was no dissuading Stanford. By all accounts, especially Berner’s, the women were close. Still, Stanford didn’t approve of Berner’s romantic entanglements and more than once over the years asked her to leave, only to request that she return. Berner always did: her salary was excellent, and a sizable inheritance from Stanford was coming.

In Hawaii, Stanford stayed at the Moana Hotel, a grand resort on Waikiki Beach. On February 28, she and Berner and Hunt lingered over a picnic: sandwiches of Swiss cheese, tongue, and lettuce; gingerbread and chocolate candy and cold coffee. That evening, Stanford asked Berner for a half-teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda to help with indigestion. Berner kept it in a special medicine bottle.

Sometime after 10 p.m., Stanford was awakened by a severe spasm. She knew she had been poisoned again and yelled for Berner, Hunt, and a doctor. Minutes later, another spasm. “This is a horrible death to die,” Stanford moaned. Her body went rigid, her feet turned inward, her eyeballs protruded, and her heart stopped. The authorities in Hawaii concluded that she died of strychnine poisoning.

Jordan concluded otherwise. He said Jane Stanford died of “advanced age, the unaccustomed exertion, a surfeit of unsuitable food, and the unusual exposure of the picnic party.” That explanation satisfied not only Jordan but also many others around Stanford. No poison, no murder, no scandal, no challenges to her will or Jordan’s position. At Stanford’s funeral, “leading her procession to the grave,” writes White, “were people suspected of her murder, people who had covered it up, and those she despised and wished to fire.” A police investigation eventually ended with no charges.

White concludes the final chapter with a tease: “But the story does not end here. Somebody killed Jane Stanford.”

Don’t worry. He reveals who it was in the epilogue.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Susan Berfield is the author of The Hour of Fate: Theodore Roosevelt, J. P. Morgan, and the Battle to Transform American Capitalism.


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