Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White

July 4, 2022 at 2:34 pm (California, History, True crime)

Who even knew this was an issue? The main reason so few people knew is that from the moment of her demise in Hawaii in 1905, those who were associated with Jane Stanford fought desperately and cunningly to have her death ruled as natural. This included her family, her friends, her servants, and others who were part of her circle at the fledgling university founded by her late husband and herself.

They each had their reasons.

The Stanfords had one child, Leland Stanford Junior, born in 1868 when Jane was 39 years old. While they were vacationing in Florence, Italy, Leland Junior died of typhoid fever. He was fifteen years old.

His parents were devastated. Their grief gave rise to a desire to memorialize their deceased son in a way that would be meaningful and enduring. Leland Stanford Junior University opened on October 1, 1891.

Leland Stanford’s enormous wealth derived from his initial investment in the Central Pacific Railroad, followed by his acquisition of the Southern Pacific Railroad. There’s more – Stanford’s rise to power and fortune is a complex story. When he died in 1893 at the age of 69, he left an extremely well-off widow. This book is her story.

Actually, it’s the story of the last years of her life, those that culminated in the act that caused her death. Jane Stanford was poisoned. The attempt was made twice. The first time, in California, it failed. The second time, in Hawaii, it succeeded. Both times the agent used was strychnine.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this book was the story it told of the early days of Stanford University. It was a surprisingly rocky beginning. Jane Stanford’s domineering presence on the scene was not helpful. Somehow, from the turmoil of a constant power struggle, Stanford ultimately emerged as a world class institution of higher learning.

Not long after Jane’s death, William James arrived at the university. His brief while there was to teach a course in philosophy to a group of relatively clueless undergraduates. “James was attracted to Stanford University by an easterner’s fascination with California, but mostly he came for the money.” He had some things in common with Jane Stanford: he too had lost a child, and he was also drawn to the practice of spiritualism. But James was possessed of a towering intellect which Jane, for all her affluence, could not even approach.

As for Jane Stanford herself, she is not an especially sympathetic person. Her obsession with the memory of her husband and even more powerfully with that of her son should have made her more so, and yet, for this reader at least, by and large they did not. She adhered to a confused mixture of fervent Christianity and spiritualism in a desperate attempt to obtain solace for her profound losses. And her interference with the running of the university was frequent and unhelpful.

At times, White’s narrative drags. The reporting on the wrangling among Jane Stanford’s servants and among various luminaries in the university’s administration at times seemed positively granular. Admittedly, true crime maven that I am, I was chomping at the bit as I awaited the climactic story of the murder of Jane Stanford. But somehow, when it finally came,it seemed a bit of an anticlimax. But…the description of death by strychnine poisoning is harrowing. In her last moments, Jane cried out that “This a horrible death to die.” Events bear out her final cry of agony.

No one deserves to die in so terrible a manner. And yet, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Jane Stanford’s demise was judged to be by natural causes. The title of this book tells you right away that the author Richard White does not accept this ruling. In fact, in the epilogue – entitled “Who Killed Her?” – he offers a solution to the mystery. I won’t reveal the name here, but I will say that, given all that went on before the event, it was not at all surprising.

Jane Stanford 1828-1905

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