The murder of Jane Stanford

On Saturday, January 14, 1905, at her Nob Hill mansion, wealthy widow Jane Stanford took a sip of mineral water that didn’t taste right. She vomited up the water and had her secretary, Bertha Berner, taste it. The secretary agreed it tasted strange, so they sent it to the pharmacy to be analyzed. A few weeks later, the report came in: the mineral water had been poisoned with a lethal dose of strychnine.

Who would want Jane Stanford dead? Well, maybe a lot of people. Her late husband was Leland Stanford, one of the “Big Four” founders* of the Central Pacific Railroad and a former governor of California, a tough customer for sure. Together the Stanfords founded Stanford University in honor of their son, Leland Jr., who died young. When Leland Senior died, Jane ended up in a long running squabble with the university’s president, David Starr Jordan.

haunted looking couple

After the attempted poisoning, Jane Stanford fired her maid and decided to get out of San Francisco. She sailed to Hawaii. Soon after arriving at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu, she asked for a bicarbonate of soda to settle her stomach. Bertha Berner prepared it for her and gave it to her. Jane Stanford drank it. A few hours later she cried out that she’d been poisoned. The hotel physician was summoned and tried to help her:

As Humphris tried to administer a solution of bromine and chloral hydrate, Mrs. Stanford, now in anguish, exclaimed, ‘My jaws are stiff. This is a horrible death to die.’ Whereupon she was seized by a tetanic spasm that progressed relentlessly to a state of severe rigidity: her jaws clamped shut, her thighs opened widely, her feet twisted inwards, her fingers and thumbs clenched into tight fists, and her head drew back. Finally, her respiration ceased. Stanford was dead from strychnine poisoning.

I quote from Wikipedia:

After hearing three days of testimony, the coroner’s jury concluded in less than two minutes that she had died of strychnine “introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.” The testimony revealed that the bottle in question had been purchased in California (after Richmond had been let go), had been accessible to anyone in Stanford’s residence during the period when her party was packing, and had not been used until the night of her death.

After the death, David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford, turned up in Hawaii and def acted fishy. He hired a local doctor and tried to prove that Mrs. Stanford wasn’t poisoned. Which, like, shouldn’t you be running your university?

Jordan’s motives for involvement in the case are uncertain, but he had written to the new president of Stanford’s board of trustees, offered several alternate explanations for Jane Stanford’s death, and suggested to select whichever would be most suitable. The university leadership may have believed that avoiding the appearance of scandal was of overriding importance. The coverup evidently succeeded to the extent that the likelihood that she was murdered was largely overlooked by historians and commentators until the 1980s.

The coverup worked! I mentioned this story to my friend MLW who’s affiliated with Stanford, and she’d never heard it. I’d never heard it either until I read about it in this terrific book, The King and Queen of Malibu, by friend of the blog David K. Randall:

Randall’s book is about Frederick and May Rindge, who owned almost all of what’s now Malibu in the late 19th century. May was a distant relative of Jane Stanford. The Rindges had their own share of enemies among the squatters, travelers, and developers of the pretty wild California of that era. I loved this part about the boundaries of the old ranchos of California:

In the Rindge days, the only way to cross Malibu was along the beach at low tide, until the Rindges put up gates, one at Las Flores Canyon and one at Point Dume, the eastern and western boundaries of their ranch. This pissed everybody off. After her husband’s death, May Rindge tried, and failed, to keep the Pacific Coast Highway from being built across what had once been her family’s idyllic ranch. Randall’s book functions as a great introduction to the history of Los Angeles as it transitioned from a distant outpost to a train and car-based metropolis that grew, fast.

As for Jane Stanford, her murder was never solved. David Starr Jordan lived on to promote his views of eugenics until his death, on campus, in 1933.

I’ll tell you who was never mixed up in anything like this:

source

* of the Big Four, two have names that live on in institutions in California: Leland Stanford has Stanford U, Collis Huntington has Huntington Library and Huntington Beach (both actually named after Collis’ nephew, Henry, but still), and Mark Hopkins at least has the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. In fact, Stanford, Huntington, and Hopkins all have stuff named after them around Nob Hill. But you don’t hear much about Charles Crocker. Seems like he was a bit of a petty bitch? I learn from Wikipedia that he is great-great-grandfather to Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.



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