Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Who killed Jane Stanford? Who killed Jane Stanford? (October 01, 2003)

Stanford professor writes conclusively that Leland Jr.'s mother was poisoned
"The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford" by Robert W.P. Cutler; Stanford University Press; 161 pp.; $29.95

by Don Kazak

Who did kill Jane Stanford? Well the finger, 98 years later, seems to point to Bertha Berner, Jane Stanford's long-time personal secretary, who was the only person with her both times she was poisoned.

The first time was at the Stanford's Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco, where Mrs. Stanford drank from a bottle of poisoned water on the night of Jan. 14, 1905. But she didn't die.

Recuperating from that incident, Stanford then took a vacation in Hawaii. This time, she was poisoned more successfully, probably from a bottle of bicarbonate of soda. Despite several physicians who rushed to her bedside, she died, on the night of Feb. 28, 1905.

There seems to be little doubt that Stanford was murdered. So writes Dr. Robert W.P. Cutler, a professor emeritus of neurology at Stanford, in a meticulously researched and carefully written book. There are 108 pages of narrative supported by 24 pages of notes, plus three appendices and a bibliography.

If the founding mother of Stanford University was the victim of foul play, why has this been a secret for so long?

Well, it wasn't a secret in March 1905, when newspaper headlines in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Honolulu blared the deed in big headlines.

But then came the cover up, and this is where the story gets really interesting.

A panel of four of the most distinguished doctors in Hawaii came to the conclusion that Jane Stanford died as a result of being poisoned. That's what a coroner's inquest concluded. That's what the Hawaiian High Sheriff concluded. And so wrote the newspaper reporters.

Enter David Starr Jordan, the revered founding president of the university. Jordan's legend is mostly untarnished over the years. Next to Wallace Sterling, the fifth Stanford president (1949-1968) who is credited with helping put the institution in the front rank of research universities nationally, Jordan's star shines the brightest among past presidents.

Jordan was the man who ferried the dream of Leland and Jane Stanford into reality. It was literally a vision, the story goes, that Leland had after the Stanfords' young son, Leland, Jr. died at 15 years old of typhoid fever while on a European vacation with his parents in 1884.

After Stanford, Sr., former governor of California and then senator, decided to put his railroad fortune to use in founding a university on his stock farm near what would become Palo Alto, he and Jane Stanford stopped over at Bloomington, Ind. on a train trip back home. There, they met with the young president of the University of Indiana and sealed the deal with handshake for Jordan to be the founding president of Stanford University, a post he held with distinction from when the institution first opened its doors in 1891 until 1913.

Or did he, indeed, serve with that much distinction?

Cutler writes that Jane Stanford, who was the board of trustees for many years after the senator's death, did not get along with Jordan. Indeed, Jordan fired the chairman of the university's German Department, possibly because the man was a confidant of Jane Stanford's.

And Cutler has uncovered reports that Jane Stanford was trying to muster support on the board of trustees in early 1905 -- the university did have a board of trustees by then -- to oust Jordan, who allegedly ran the faculty with an iron hand and played favorites.

This is the stuff of good TV detective dramas, needing only a Colombo in a wrinkled raincoat pausing to say, "I have one more question."

But 98 years later, all that remains is the big question: Who killed Jane Stanford? And we'll never really know.

As mentioned earlier, Jane Stanford's personal secretary, Bertha Berner, is the most likely culprit, the only person with Jane Stanford both times she was poisoned. But she was never arrested by the Honolulu police because of lack of firm evidence.

Jordan did his best to muddy the waters by declaring to the world that Jane Stanford died from a heart ailment (she was nine days shy of her 81st birthday when she died). And the world believed David Starr Jordan, not the Honolulu coroner, who declared differently.

Once Jordan arrived in Hawaii to take things in hand after Jane Stanford's death, he hired a young physician to go over the autopsy report and who came to the conclusion that a heart ailment killed Jane Stanford.

Never mind the fact that the four physicians who came to the conclusion that Jane Stanford was poisoned were more experienced. And never mind the fact that all four achieved varying degrees of significant achievement in their subsequent medical careers while the physician Jordan hired was out of medical practice a decade later and died destitute in 1947 (at the then-Stanford Lane Hospital in San Francisco), leaving only $125 of stock certificates.

The force of Jordan's will seemed to keep Jane Stanford's murder disputed for so long. Indeed, there have been more than a few books written about Jane Stanford, and most only touch in passing on her death, giving Jordan's version of things.

So it is to Stanford University's full credit that "The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford" has been published by the Stanford University Press, researched and written by one of the medical school's most distinguished physicians. It does indeed tarnish the legend of one of the university's most revered icons, for whom one of Palo Alto's middle schools is named -- a second one is named for Mrs. Stanford.

Not everyone believed Jordan's claim at the time that Jane Stanford died a natural death. Cutler writes that the Hawaiian High Sheriff William Henry "put Jordan's claim in a different light. Calling Jordan a `science crank,' Henry asserted that during his investigation he had learned that Stanford University was close to bankruptcy, that `the real purpose they (Jordan and Timothy Hopkins, an old friend of the senator's) were working for was to make it believed that Mrs. Stanford died from natural causes and was not murdered. I told them right to their faces that that was what they were trying to do.' "

Cutler examines and rejects the idea that Jordan was directly responsible for Jane Stanford's murder: "No evidence linked Jordan to the poisonings; there is no basis for a belief that he constructed the cover-up to conceal his own guilt."

But Cutler also quotes from a 1975 dissertation by a Stanford history student, Luther Spoehr, who researched Jordan's presidency. Spoehr wrote that "rumors abounded that Mrs. Stanford planned to replace Jordan . . . when she returned from a vacation. . . . the gossips always considered it fortuitous for Jordan that in Honolulu, on Feb. 28, 1905, Mrs. Stanford died."

Jane Stanford's last words were that she had been poisoned. Writes Cutler: "I concur with Mrs. Stanford."

Don Kazak can be e-mailed at


Copyright © 2003 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.