Poison penned | May 20, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 20, 2022

Poison penned

Former Stanford history professor's new book investigates the real-life whodunit and coverup behind the death of university co-founder

by Mike Berry

It all sounds like a lesser-known Agatha Christie whodunnit.

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 died at age 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 (bostonathenaeum.org) and June 16 at a Commonwealth Club event offered both in-person and online (in-person at 110 Embarcadero in San Francisco and 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

Email Contributing Writer Michael Berry at [email protected]


Posted by Bette Langford
a resident of Stanford
on May 19, 2022 at 7:48 am

Bette Langford is a registered user.

Though the factual account of this mystery is filled with intrigue, the case will never be proven one way or the other because all of the suspected players are deceased and the motives subject to speculation.

Conspiracy theories always make for interesting reading and/or conversation but most of the time they are inconclusive unless one was an actual witness to the occurrence.

This is essentially a historically-based 'who-dunnit' novel and perhaps best reserved 'for entertainment purposes only' (or a possible movie starting Helen Mirren in the key role).

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2022 at 7:59 am

Bystander is a registered user.

Wait, wait, this says she wasn't a nice person to work for. Hurry, Hurry, we had better change the name of JLS Middle School!

Fascinating story, I hope they do make our school children read this!

Posted by Mildred Lapham
a resident of Woodside
on May 19, 2022 at 9:11 am

Mildred Lapham is a registered user.

How would such a case be handled today?

Would there be additional forensic investigations including a full-scale interrogation of all the suspected parties?

Since MLS' death was deemed a murder and there were no arrests made, this sounds like either a cover-up or investigative incompetence on the part of the police.

And while the book might make for an interesting read, do we really care what happened in a Honolulu hotel over 100 years ago?

Life goes on and today, Stanford University is a thriving educational institution that has far exceeded the original visions and master plans of the various old-timers mentioned in the book.

These people are now immaterial and historical footnotes.

Posted by Jason Layne
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 19, 2022 at 10:13 am

Jason Layne is a registered user.

"Would there be additional forensic investigations including a full-scale interrogation of all the suspected parties?"

^ Forensic science was not very advanced in those days and with the possible exception of the fictional detective Poirot, the majority of police investigators were not very competent during the late 19th and early 20th century.

It is obvious that Jane Stanford had some enemies and the solving of this alleged murder should not have been that difficult unless it was a conspiracy and all of the complicit parties took a vow of silence.

At this stage of the game, it is just water under the bridge and few people care.

Let the woman rest in peace.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2022 at 6:16 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

It seems the anti history brigade are out in full force today, even with mysterious history in their own backdoor.

The trouble with ignoring history is not only that it is likely to be repeated, but that our ideas of right and wrong just might get murky.

If we don't study history and analyze motivation, actions, and beliefs, we will be left assuming that people never thought differently. Yes people were greedy and power hungry and did murder in the past so not that much has changed. But not all historical mysteries are as easily understood unless we are able to enter the cultural norms of the time.

Posted by Ramona Fernando
a resident of Professorville
on May 19, 2022 at 10:32 pm

Ramona Fernando is a registered user.

There is another, earlier book about the murder of Jane Stanford called Poisoned Palms, a paperback with a vivid pink cover. I purchased it Hawaii 15 years ago, and it reads like a surreal great beach read. I thought I would recommend it to save money by getting an engaging $5 paperback, but on Amazon it is selling for $54! Luckily, I bought 3 copies, but I must have given two of them away. Fascinating subject!

Posted by Aaron Levine
a resident of Stanford
on May 20, 2022 at 10:06 am

Aaron Levine is a registered user.

A personal diary or journal kept by Ms. Stanford would have shed far more light into the matter rather than pure speculation by historians who did not live during the period of this incident.

"The trouble with ignoring history is not only that it is likely to be repeated, but that our ideas of right and wrong just might get murky."

Ideas of 'right and wrong' are always murky.

And as for history being repeated, the chances are extremely slim that the widow of Leland Stanford Sr. will get poisoned again.

Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on May 20, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Rose is a registered user.

I heard Mr. White speak about his book and he was unnecessarily negative about Stanford, even and including up to this day. He seems to have a huge chip on his shoulder, or maybe that's how you sell books. Regardless, listening to him made me sick.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 20, 2022 at 5:57 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Why so vehement? No one ever said she was a well-balanced woman and/or that Stanford University officials have a track record in openness.

Posted by Cassandra Peterson
a resident of Barron Park
on May 22, 2022 at 9:24 am

Cassandra Peterson is a registered user.

Mr. White's account is just speculation and not be be taken seriously as chances are the perpetrators and alleged complicity plot will never be fully verified or confirmed.

Mr. Wright's book is a 'for entertainment purposes only' type of reading...similar to James Michener's highly detailed historical fiction.

Posted by Burke Longley
a resident of Los Altos
on May 22, 2022 at 1:16 pm

Burke Longley is a registered user.

"If we don't study history and analyze motivation, actions, and beliefs, we will be left assuming that people never thought differently."

Nothing has changed since Day 1 of mankind's existence.

Greed, lust, narcissism, and empowerment have transcended centuries, decades, and ancestry.

Some attribute this to human nature.

History is a broken record.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 22, 2022 at 1:34 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Actually James Michener's books were an easy way to get the history of most of the places he wrote about wrapped in popularized format/

Posted by Erica Decker
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 23, 2022 at 9:02 am

Erica Decker is a registered user.

"James Michener's books were an easy way to get the history of most of the places he wrote about wrapped in popularized format/"

• it's even easier to simply skip reading the elongated Michener novels and just watch the movie adaptations instead.

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