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Jane Stanford

Jane Stanford
Born Jane Elizabeth Lathrop
(1828-08-25)August 25, 1828
Albany, New York
Died February 28, 1905(1905-02-28) (aged 76)
Honolulu, Hawaii
Resting place Stanford Mausoleum, Stanford, California
Known for co-founder of Stanford University
Spouse(s) Leland Stanford
Children Leland Stanford, Jr.

Jane Lathrop Stanford (August 25, 1828 – February 28, 1905) was a co-founder of Stanford University in 1885 (opened 1891) along with her husband, Leland Stanford, as a memorial to their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who died in 1884 at the age of 15. After her husband's death in 1893, she funded and operated the university almost single-handedly until her death in 1905.


  • Early life and marriage 1
  • Stanford University 2
  • Apparent murder and coverup 3
  • Memorials 4
  • Notes 5
  • External links 6

Early life and marriage

Portrait of Mr. and Mrs Leland Stanford in 1850

Born Jane Elizabeth Lathrop in Albany, New York, she was the daughter of shopkeeper Dyer Lathrop and Jane Anne (Shields) Lathrop.[1][2] She attended The Albany Academy for Girls, the longest running girls' day school in the country. She married Leland Stanford on September 30, 1850, and went to live with him in Port Washington, Wisconsin, where he had practiced law since 1848.

The Stanfords lived in Port Washington until 1852 when his law library and other property were lost to fire; they then returned to Albany. Leland Stanford went to California to join his brothers in mercantile businesses related to the California Gold Rush, while Jane remained in Albany with her family. He returned in 1855, and the following year they moved to San Francisco, where he engaged in mercantile pursuits on a large scale. Stanford was a cofounder of the Central Pacific Railroad, serving as its president from 1861 until his death in 1893. He was also president of the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1868 until ousted from the post by Collis Potter Huntington in 1890.[3] After nearly 18 years of marriage, they finally had a child, a son, in 1868 when Jane Stanford was 39.[2]

Stanford University

After the death of their only child Leland Stanford, Jr., in 1884 while on a trip in Italy, the elder Leland turned to his wife and said "The children of California shall be our children." They then founded Leland Stanford Junior University in their son's honor. The university opened in 1891. After Leland's death on June 21, 1893, Jane in effect took control of the university. The university suffered severe financial hardship because of Leland's death, and the trustees advocated a temporary closure of the university until tax and legal issues could be resolved, but she insisted it remain in operation. Until the estate left probate in 1898 she paid for the university out of her personal resources (as the widow she was allowed $10,000/month while the estate was in probate and she also attempted to sell her personal jewels).[2] As the remaining founder she wielded a great deal of legal control over the university until her death though she allowed the Board of Trustees greater authority after June 1, 1903.[2]

It was at her direction that Stanford University gained an early focus on the arts. She also advocated the admission of women; the university had been coeducational since its founding.[4][5][6] She figured prominently in the issue of academic freedom when she sought and ultimately succeeded in having Stanford University economist Edward A. Ross fired for making speeches favoring Democrat William Jennings Bryan and favoring racism against Chinese American "coolies", outlining eugenics policies directed against Chinese people and other racial groups, and for his collectivist economic teachings. This case resulted in the American Association of University Professors' "Report on Academic Freedom and Tenure" of 1915, by Arthur Oncken Lovejoy and Edwin R. A. Seligman, and in the AAUP 1915 Declaration of Principles.

She traveled to London during 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, hoping to find a buyer for her rubies and other jewels to raise funds for the university; however, she was not able to sell them at that time. In 1905 she directed the university trustees that after her death, her jewels should be sold and the funds used as a permanent endowment " be used exclusively for the purchase of books and other publications."[7] The board of trustees confirmed this arrangement, and the Jewel Fund continues to add to the university's library collections. The endowment, originally $500,000, is now worth about $20 million.[8] Items purchased through the Jewel Fund display a distinctive bookplate that depicts a romanticized Jane Stanford offering her jewels to Athena, the goddess of wisdom.[9] Since 2007, benefactors who provide endowments for library acquisitions are referred to as members of the Jewel Society.[10]

Apparent murder and coverup

In 1905, Jane Stanford was at the center of one of America's legendary murder mysteries. She died of strychnine poisoning while on the island of Oahu, in a room at the Moana Hotel.

On January 14, 1905, at her Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco, Stanford consumed mineral water that tasted bitter. She promptly forced herself to vomit the water and, when both her maid and secretary agreed that the bottled water tasted strange, sent it to a pharmacy to be analyzed. The findings, returned a few weeks later, showed that the water had been poisoned with a lethal dose of strychnine. Stanford moved out of her mansion,[11] vowing never to return.[12] Elizabeth Richmond, the maid, fell under suspicion (she had previously worked in Britain and had reportedly regaled Mrs. Stanford's domestic staff with tales of English aristocrats being poisoned by their servants[11]) and was dismissed.[13] The Harry Morse Detective and Patrol Agency was retained to discreetly investigate the incident. Its detectives put Richmond under surveillance[11] and scoured records of Bay Area pharmacies for possibly suspicious purchases of strychnine, finding none.[11] While the agency learned that the mansion was a hothouse of petty staff jealousies, graft and intrigue,[12] they were unable to come up with evidence pointing to a culprit or a motive for an attempted poisoning.[11] Depressed by the conviction that an unknown party had tried to kill her, and suffering from a cold, Stanford shortly thereafter decided to sail to Hawaii,[14] with plans to continue on to Japan.[11] The Stanford party left San Francisco for Honolulu on February 15, 1905.

At the Moana Hotel on the evening of February 28, Stanford asked for bicarbonate of soda to settle her stomach. Her personal secretary, Bertha Berner (a trusted employee of twenty years' standing and the only other person present who had also been at the scene of the previous incident), prepared the solution, which Stanford drank.[11] At 11:15 p.m., Stanford cried out for her servants and hotel staff to call for a physician, declaring that that she had lost control of her body and that she believed she had been poisoned again.[14] This time, attempts to induce vomiting were unsuccessful.[11] Robert Cutler, author of "The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford",[11] recounted what took place upon the arrival of Dr. Francis Howard Humphris, the hotel physician:

"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."

Forensic chemical analysis revealed the presence of strychnine in samples from the bicarbonate she had taken, as well as traces of the poison in her tissues.[11][13] 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."[13] The San Francisco Evening Bulletin trumpeted the news with a March 1 headline, "Mrs. Stanford Dies, Poisoned."[11][15] The testimony revealed that the bottle of bicarbonate in question had been purchased in California, had been accessible to anyone in Mrs. Stanford's residence during the period when her party was packing, and had not been used until the night of her death.[11]

The jury's quick verdict was to prove controversial. A dispatch in The New York Times of March 11, 1905, stated that the verdict was "written out with the knowledge and assistance of Deputy High Sheriff Rawlins," implying that the jurors may have been coached on what conclusion to reach.[16] This controversy was largely stoked by Stanford University President David Starr Jordan. Jordan had sailed to Hawaii himself and hired a local doctor, Ernest Coniston Waterhouse, to dispute poisoning as the cause of death. He subsequently reported to the press that Stanford had in fact died of heart failure,[14] a "medically preposterous" diagnosis given the dramatic and highly distinctive symptoms of strychnine poisoning she had displayed.[15] In his book, Cutler concludes that “There is ample evidence that Mrs. Stanford was poisoned, that she was given good care, and that Jordan went over there to hush it up.”[11] Mrs. Stanford had long had a difficult relationship with Jordan;[13][17] at the time of her death, she was president of the university's board of trustees and was reportedly planning to remove him from his position.[14]

Jordan's motives for involvement in the case are uncertain; however, he had written the president of Stanford's board of trustees offering several alternate explanations for Mrs. Stanford's death, suggesting they select whichever would be most suitable.[13] The university leadership may have believed that avoiding the appearance of scandal was of overriding importance.[13] The coverup evidently succeeded to the extent that the likelihood that she was murdered was largely overlooked by historians and commentators until the 1980s.[11]

The source of the strychnine was never identified. Today, the room no longer exists, having been incorporated in an expansion of the hotel lobby. Stanford was buried alongside her husband Leland and their son at the Stanford family mausoleum on the Stanford campus.


Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in the Palo Alto Unified School District was named after her in 1985.


  1. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vo. XVII, p. 502. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935.
  2. ^ a b c d "Jane Stanford: The woman behind Stanford University". Stanford University. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  3. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XVII, pp. 502-504 passim.
  4. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. II, p. 129. New York: James T. White & Company, 1899. Reprint of 1891 edition.
  5. ^ Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XVII, p. 504.
  6. ^ Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?, pp. 432-433. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
  7. ^ Stam, David H. (2001). International Dictionary of Library Histories 2. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. pp. 707–708. 
  8. ^ "Pearls for Wisdom". Stanford Magazine. July–August 2008. 
  9. ^ "Jane L. Stanford - Timeline". Stanford University. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  10. ^ "The Jewel Society" (PDF). Stanford University. Retrieved 25 August 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cutler, Robert W. P. (1 August 2003). The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford.  
  12. ^ a b  
  13. ^ a b c d e f Romney, Lee (2003-10-10). "The Alma Mater Mystery".  
  14. ^ a b c d Wolfe, Susan (Sep–Oct 2003). "Who Killed Jane Stanford?". Stanford Magazine.  
  15. ^ a b Morris, A. D. (2004). The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford"Review of" (PDF). Hawaiian Journal of History (Hawaiian Historical Society) 38: 195–197. Retrieved 2012-12-21. 
  16. ^ "Quick Stanford Verdict; Coroner's Jury Reached Its Conclusions in Less Than Two Minutes".  
  17. ^ Carnochan, W. B. (Summer 2003). "The Case of Julius Goebel: Stanford, 1905".  

External links

  • Jane Stanford--Jane Stanford's 1898 Time Capsule
  • Stanford Magazine--"Who Killed Jane Stanford?"
  • "President Bollinger Delivers Cardozo Lecture on Academic Freedom - 2005, Columbia U.
  • "The roots/routes of academic freedom and the role of the intellectual"—William G. Tierney
  • "American Association of University Professors' 1915 Declaration of Principles"
  • Jane Stanford at Find a Grave
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