It all sounds like a lesser-known Agatha Christie whodunit.
In February 1905, Stanford University co-founder Jane Stanford died in Honolulu. Though initially recorded as a death by poisoning, the official account stated the cause of death was heart disease. Stanford's death occurred shortly after the 76-year-old widow survived an attempted poisoning at her San Francisco mansion.
Who poisoned Jane Stanford, the widow of Stanford University's co-founder, Leland Stanford? Could it have been the maid, the English butler, the personal secretary, the ambitious academic, the Chinese kitchen worker?
These murder mystery archetypes are all featured in Stanford History Professor emeritus Richard White's new book, "Who Killed Jane Stanford? — A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University." Author of numerous books, White is a MacArthur Fellow and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for "Railroaded," an account of how transcontinental railroads altered the trajectory of corporate influence in the 19th century.
Nearly a century after Stanford's death, retired professor of neurology Robert W.P. Cutler examined the case, writing persuasively that she'd been murdered, the victim of strychnine poisoning, in his 2003 book, "The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford."
A member of Stanford's History department when Cutler's book came out, White believed Cutler's book hadn't received the attention it deserved.
Reached by phone at his home near Palo Alto, White said "I was shocked (how few discussed it). It seemed pretty convincing. And the university does what the university often does when it has things it would rather not talk about — it says nothing."
It wasn't until White taught two classes focused on students using original archive sources that he thought another book on the case was warranted.
Archival discoveries by students from the "Who Killed Jane Stanford" courses intrigued him. "I was surprised by the extent to which the university tried to make sure (official records said) she wasn't murdered," White said. "The students' research didn't explain why, but the record was fairly clear that they did that."
What also became irrefutable from his students' research was that Jane Stanford was nearly impossible to work for.
"The university's position," White said, "was she was universally beloved and nobody but a crazy person would try to do her harm. My students showed that wasn't the case."
"She was arrogant, she was arbitrary, she was convinced that she was doing God's work," White said of Jane Stanford. "As a spiritualist, she was 'taking advice' from her husband and son, even though both of them were dead."
Stanford not only controlled campus purse strings, she was witness to some political, ideological, financial and sexual scandals that plagued the university during its early years. White's own research indicated that if her death had been ruled murder or suicide, survivors may well have contested her will, opening a can of worms that no one at the university wished to contemplate.
In his new book, White delves deeply into the history of Gilded Age Bay Area. He highlights Leland's lack of business acumen, Jane's obsession with her son who passed away at 16, the flawed documents that established the university, and President David Starr Jordan's struggles to protect the university from a series of scandals. White unearths clues involving shady detectives, corrupt politicians, yellow journalists and leaders of Chinatown's powerful tongs (community organizations that sometimes had ties to crime).
White also details both poisoning incidents.
On Jan. 14, 1905, Jane Stanford called for help after drinking from her nightly glass of Poland Spring mineral water. The water tasted "queer" to her maid and to her personal secretary. Stanford was sure that she had been poisoned. Analysis would later prove the sample contained enough strychnine to kill an adult victim. Fortunately, Stanford was able to vomit up enough of the poison to save herself.
She was not so lucky the second time.
Deciding to escape to the tropics, Stanford and her entourage journeyed to Hawaii's Moana Hotel, where on the night of February 28, she again called for help.
“Run for the doctor!" she yelled. "I have no control of my body! I think I have been poisoned again!”
She was correct, only this time, the poisoning was fatal. After local authorities ruled her death a murder by poisoning. David Starr Jordan rushed to the islands to promote the notion that Stanford had died of natural causes, heart disease in particular.
The list of possible suspects extends all the way to Jordan, White explained.
"Some people thought servants had done it, the butler Albert Beverly, or one of the maids, Elizabeth Richmond. Some people thought David Starr Jordan had done it, or arranged to have it done. Other people thought that her own family was involved to get an inheritance. Some thought Bertha Berner, her secretary and confidante, had done it."
"For me," said White, "motives run deep into the history of Stanford itself. Many of the enemies Jane Stanford had, and many of the people who had reason either to kill her or to cover up the murder, their reasons came out of scandals and finances of Stanford University."
It's not just the list of suspects that evokes the golden age of mystery writing. White noted that Agatha Christie's first novel in 1920, "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," involved a fictional murder surprisingly similar to the real poisoning that killed Stanford.
"I wondered whether Christie knew anything about Jane Stanford's poisoning," White said. "Both of them are designed to make strychnine poisoning look like accidental deaths. The parallels are striking."
Although he won't spoil the solution, White is very sure he's got the right answer.
"How confident am I?" White ponders. "I am very, very confident. I know there are going to be people who put up other candidates. That's fine with me, because it goes to my larger point, that there's more than one person who had a motive for killing Jane Stanford."
Richard White will discuss "Who Killed Jane Stanford?" on June 9, in a virtual book talk sponsored by Boston Athenaeum and June 16 at a Commonwealth Club event offered both in person (at 110 Embarcadero in San Francisco) and virtually at commonwealthclub.org.
"Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University" by Richard White; W.W. Norton; 362 pages; $35.