Jane Stanford

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Jane Stanford
Portrait of Jane Stanford.jpg
BornJane Elizabeth Lathrop
(1828-08-25)August 25, 1828
Albany, New York
DiedFebruary 28, 1905(1905-02-28) (aged 76)
Honolulu, Hawaii
Resting placeStanford Mausoleum, Stanford, California
OccupationSocial entrepreneur, philanthropist
Known forco-founder of Stanford University
Spouse(s)Leland Stanford
ChildrenLeland Stanford, Jr.

Jane Elizabeth 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 mysterious death in 1905.

Early life and marriage[edit]

Portrait of Leland and Jane 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] Stanford also served as Governor of California from 1862 to 1863, and one of California's United States senators from 1885 until his death in 1893. After nearly 18 years of marriage, they finally had a child, a son, in 1868 when Jane Stanford was 39.[2]

Stanford University[edit]

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 "...to 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]

Murder and coverup[edit]

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.[note 1]

On January 14, 1905, at her Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco, Stanford consumed mineral water that tasted bitter. She quickly forced herself to vomit the water (with prompting from and assistance by her maid) and, when both the maid and her 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.[note 2] Stanford moved out of her mansion,[13] vowing never to return.[14] Elizabeth Richmond, the maid, fell under suspicion (she had previously worked in Britain and had reportedly regaled Stanford's domestic staff with tales of English aristocrats being poisoned by their servants[13]) and was dismissed.[15] The Harry Morse Detective and Patrol Agency was retained to discreetly investigate the incident. Its detectives put Richmond under surveillance[13] and scoured records of Bay Area pharmacies for possibly suspicious purchases of strychnine, finding none.[13] While the agency learned that the mansion was a hothouse of petty staff jealousies, graft, and intrigue,[14] they were unable to come up with evidence pointing to a culprit or a motive for an attempted murder.[13] 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,[16] with plans to continue on to Japan.[13] 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.[13][note 3] At 11:15 p.m., Stanford cried out for her servants and hotel staff to call for a physician, declaring that she had lost control of her body and believed she had been poisoned again.[16] This time, attempts to induce vomiting were unsuccessful.[13] Robert Cutler, a retired Stanford neurologist, recounted in The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford[13] what took place upon the arrival of Francis Howard Humphris, the hotel physician:

As Humphris tried to administer a solution of bromine and chloral hydrate,[note 4] 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.

The San Francisco Evening Bulletin trumpeted the news with a March 1 headline, "Mrs. Stanford Dies, Poisoned."[13][18] Forensic chemical analysis revealed the presence of a pure form of strychnine in samples from the bicarbonate she had taken,[note 5] as well as traces of the poison in her tissues.[13][15][note 6] 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."[15] The testimony revealed that the bottle in question had been purchased in California (after Richmond was let go), had been accessible to anyone in Stanford's residence during the period when her party was packing, and had not been used until the night of her death.[13][note 7]

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.[27] 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,[16][note 8] a "medically preposterous" diagnosis given the dramatic and highly distinctive symptoms of strychnine poisoning she had displayed.[18][note 9][note 10] 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."[13] Stanford had long had a difficult relationship with Jordan;[15][30] 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.[16]

Jordan's motives for involvement in the case are uncertain; however, he had written the new president of Stanford's board of trustees offering several alternate explanations for Jane Stanford's death, suggesting they select whichever would be most suitable.[15] The university leadership may have believed that avoiding the appearance of scandal was of overriding importance.[15][note 11] The coverup evidently succeeded to the extent that the likelihood that she was murdered was largely overlooked by historians and commentators until the 1980s.[13][note 12]

The source of the strychnine was never identified. 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. The town of Lathrop, California in San Joaquin County was developed by her husband's railroad company in the late 1860s and named after Jane and her brother Charles Lathrop.

Further reading[edit]

  • Boessenecker, John (1998). Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835-1912. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-3011-8. OCLC 00563654.


  1. ^ Today the room in which she stayed, number 120, no longer exists, having been incorporated into an expansion of the lobby.
  2. ^ The assay measured 0.8 grains (52 mg) per glass full (a fatal human dose for an adult can be as little as 30 mg[11]). The water also contained the alkaloid brucine and other substances, suggesting that the source was a rodent poison derived from the tree Strychnos nux-vomica.[12]
  3. ^ Stanford also took a cascara capsule, an herbal laxative preparation.[17]
  4. ^ Anticonvulsants
  5. ^ Seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica contain brucine and strychnine in a ratio of about 1 to 2,[19] while the former is about twice as bitter as the latter[20][21][22] but only one fortieth as toxic;[23] thus, a dangerous level of strychnine would taste about half as bitter in pure form than as a component of the seed. In addition, it has been reported that sodium ion suppresses perception of bitter tastes.[24][25]
  6. ^ A small, nonlethal, amount of strychnine was also detected in the cascara capsules, which contained a mixture of Rhamnus purshiana and Strychnos nux-vomica; however, strychnine is a natural component of the latter.[26]
  7. ^ Berner was quickly dismissed as a suspect at the time, based on her longstanding and apparently good relationship with Stanford. However, her testimony and repeatedly shifting accounts of the incident, which seem designed to cast doubt on poisoning as the cause of death, have aroused suspicion.[17]
  8. ^ Jordan also publicly disparaged the view that the poisoned Poland Spring water incident represented a murder attempt.[17][28]
  9. ^ Jordan was well aware of at least some of strychnine's properties.[29]
  10. ^ The only other common medical condition that produces similar symptoms, tetanus, has a much more gradual onset and can usually be linked to an observable wound or infection.
  11. ^ Jordan also expressed concern that the press accounts of Stanford's death were unfairly damaging Berner's reputation.[31]
  12. ^ Both Jordan and Berner would go on to write glowing accounts of Stanford which attributed her death to coronary disease and either failed to mention[32] or made light of[33][34][35] the strychnine poisoning incidents.


  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. Archived from the original on 21 May 2016. 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. Archived from the original on 4 October 2014. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  10. ^ "The Jewel Society" (PDF). Stanford University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 November 2011. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
  11. ^ Gossel, T. A.; Bricker, J. D. (1994-06-30). Principles Of Clinical Toxicology, Third Edition. CRC Press. p. 351. ISBN 978-0781701259.
  12. ^ Cutler, 2003, p. 22
  13. ^ 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. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-4793-6. OCLC 52159960. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
  14. ^ a b Morrall, J. (1999). "Summer Reading: The Story of Jane Lathrop Stanford". Half Moon Bay Memories & El Granada Observer. Archived from the original on 2013-12-12. Retrieved 2013-12-07.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Romney, Lee (2003-10-10). "The Alma Mater Mystery". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
  16. ^ a b c d Wolfe, Susan (Sep–Oct 2003). "Who Killed Jane Stanford?". Stanford Magazine. Stanford University. Retrieved 2012-12-19.
  17. ^ a b c Dowd, Katie (2018-01-14). "In 1905, someone murdered the founder of Stanford University. They've never been caught". SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2018-10-23. (Note that the claim that the level of strychnine in the poisoned Poland Spring water was greatly in excess of a lethal human dose is incorrect.)
  18. ^ a b Morris, A. D. (2004). "Review of The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford" (PDF). Hawaiian Journal of History. Hawaiian Historical Society. 38: 195–197. Retrieved 2012-12-21.
  19. ^ Han, Q.-B.; Li, S.-L.; Qiao, C.-F.; Song, J.-Z.; Cai, Z.-W.; Pui-Hay But, P.; Shaw, P.-C.; Xu, H.-X. (2008). "A Simple Method to Identify the Unprocessed Strychnos Seeds used in Herbal Medicinal Products". Planta Medica. 74 (4): 458–463. doi:10.1055/s-2008-1034359.
  20. ^ Wiener, A.; Shudler, M.; Levit, A.; Niv, M. Y. (2012). "BitterDB: a database of bitter compounds". Nucleic Acids Research. 40 (D1): D413–D419. doi:10.1093/nar/gkr755.
  21. ^ "Brucine". BitterDB. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-11.
  22. ^ "Strychnine". BitterDB. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 2018. Retrieved 2018-10-11.
  23. ^ Malone, M. H.; John-Allan, K. M. St.; Bejar, E. (1992). "Brucine lethality in mice". Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 35 (3): 295–297. doi:10.1016/0378-8741(92)90028-P.
  24. ^ Breslin, P.A.S.; Beauchamp, G.K. (1995). "Suppression of Bitterness by Sodium: Variation Among Bitter Taste Stimuli". Chemical Senses. 20 (6): 609–623. doi:10.1093/chemse/20.6.609.
  25. ^ Keast, R. S. J.; Breslin, P. A. S.; Beauchamp, G. K. (2001). "Suppression of Bitterness Using Sodium Salts". Chimia. 55 (5): 441–447.
  26. ^ Cutler, 2003, p. 46
  27. ^ "Quick Stanford Verdict; Coroner's Jury Reached Its Conclusions in Less Than Two Minutes". The New York Times. 1905-03-11. Retrieved 2012-12-20.
  28. ^ Cutler, 2003, p. 25
  29. ^ Cutler, 2003, p. 104
  30. ^ Carnochan, W. B. (Summer 2003). "The Case of Julius Goebel: Stanford, 1905". American Scholar. Phi Beta Kappa. 72 (3). JSTOR 41221161.
  31. ^ Cutler, 2003, p. 106
  32. ^ Jordan, David Starr (1912). The Story of a Good Woman: Jane Lathrop Stanford. Boston: American Unitarian Association. OCLC 19954121.
  33. ^ Jordan, David Starr (1922). The Days of a Man: Being Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher, and Minor Prophet of Democracy. 2. World Book Company. p. 156. OCLC 98392080.
  34. ^ Berner, Bertha (1934). Incidents in the Life of Mrs. Leland Stanford. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers. OCLC 23322688.(full text)
  35. ^ Berner, Bertha (1935). Mrs. Leland Stanford: an intimate account. Stanford University Press. OCLC 569774785.

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