"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 24, 2014

Who Killed Jane Stanford?

Jane Lathrop Stanford

Jane Lathrop was born in Albany, New York in 1828. In 1850, she married a promising young lawyer named Leland Stanford. In 1856, the Stanfords moved to San Francisco, where Leland turned his attention from law to business. He became a co-founder and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, and by the time of his death in 1893, Stanford was one of the wealthiest men in America.

After their only son, Leland Jr., died in 1884, the couple founded their most well-known achievement, Stanford University, in his honor. After her husband’s death, Jane Stanford took virtual control of the university, often funding the fledgling institution out of her own pocket. It was not until 1903 that she allowed a Board of Trustees to be formed, although she retained presidency of this board. She carefully oversaw every detail of the university’s management. Under her direction, Stanford University became a champion of the arts and women’s rights. She left instructions that after her death, her jewelry should be sold and the money used as a permanent endowment to purchase books and academic journals for the university. This “Jewel Fund” is to date worth approximately $20 million.

Stanford University was, as Jane Stanford had hoped, her “child.” Many suspect that this loving, intensely possessive care for the institution directly led to her death.

On January 14, 1905, Mrs. Stanford drank from a bottle of mineral water that was, following the nightly custom, left near her bed by a servant. She immediately noticed it had an oddly bitter taste. It was very fortunate for her that she was able to immediately vomit out the liquid, because when she had the remaining water analyzed, it was found to contain strychnine. Someone with access to her private household wanted her dead. A maid whom Mrs. Stanford suspected of being the poisoner was fired, but the crime remained unsolved. A month later, Mrs. Stanford was still deeply troubled by the incident.  Feeling in understandable need of a change of scene, she left her San Francisco mansion for Hawaii. Among the entourage accompanying her was her personal secretary Bertha Berner. Berner had worked for Mrs. Stanford for twenty years, and was completely trusted by her employer. Berner was the only person traveling with Mrs. Stanford who had been present during the attempted poisoning in January.

By February 28, the Stanford party had settled into Honolulu’s Moana Hotel. Soon after her arrival, Mrs. Stanford told another visitor to the hotel that "they" had tried to poison her in San Francisco, so she had come to Hawaii to evade them.  That evening, Mrs. Stanford had Berner prepare her a glass of bicarbonate of soda. Soon after drinking it, she frantically screamed that she was going into convulsions. She had, she cried, been poisoned again.

Unfortunately, she was right, and her mysterious assailant was more successful this time around. Jane Stanford passed away that night. It was, as she herself said in the final agony, “a horrible death to die.”

At the inquest, all the coroner’s jury could conclude was that she had died of strychnine poisoning, introduced into the bottle of bicarbonate of soda “by some person or persons to this jury unknown.” The soda had been purchased before Stanford left San Francisco, and was freely accessible to anyone in her house. The bottle had not been used before her death. The source of the strychnine was never discovered.

The police questioned everyone who worked for Mrs. Stanford, but although they discovered that many petty jealousies and rivalries existed within the household, they could not find that any of the servants had a reason to wish their mistress dead.  Some newspapers printed allegations that certain members of Mrs. Stanford's staff had cooked the household books, by charging her for far more than she was really paying for food and other items, and then pocketing the difference.  Even if these stories were true, this relatively minor and far from uncommon offense seems to hardly justify murder.  Mrs. Stanford's Lathrop relatives were lacking in motive, as well.  At the time of her death, Mrs. Stanford was not as personally wealthy as one might think.  During her lifetime, she deeded all her personal property to the regents of Stanford University, to be held in trust after her death. Her relatives had already been generously provided for, and evidently were not in need of additional funds.  Even if one of them felt they just couldn't wait for their inheritance, no evidence ever surfaced suggesting they tried to hurry along the inevitable course of nature.  In addition, Jane Stanford had the reputation of being a generous, charitable, and high-minded woman who was unlikely to inspire murderous personal hatred.

Although the circle of people who could have been responsible for Stanford’s murder was a relatively small one, the identity of her poisoner—let alone the motive to kill her in such a particularly cruel manner—remains a hotly-debated puzzle to this day.

For instance, there was the peculiar behavior of Stanford University’s president, David Starr Jordan. Jordan’s reaction to Stanford’s demise was to bribe a shifty doctor—who had never set eyes on Jane Stanford--to write a report stating she had died of heart failure, a diagnosis rightly characterized as “medically preposterous.” Jordan did everything in his power to whitewash the truth about her death. Jordan even slandered the physicians who had been at Stanford’s deathbed by accusing them of manufacturing the evidence that she had been poisoned. Jordan used his bogus physician’s report to persuade law enforcement in California and Hawaii that Mrs. Stanford had died a normal death. Frustrated by the lack of obvious suspects, as well as the inability to trace any source for the poison, the police were soon more than ready to close the case by embracing Jordan's argument that Mrs. Stanford must have died of natural causes.  In short, Jordan deliberately helped someone to get away with murder. (It is also interesting that after the first attempt to murder Mrs. Stanford, Jordan assured the press that reports she had been poisoned were "entirely unfounded.")

Was Jordan merely trying to save Stanford University from a damaging scandal?  Or did he have more sinister reasons for wanting the curious circumstances of Mrs. Stanford's death ignored?  Jordan had long been at odds with Jane Stanford over management of the university—in fact, she told friends that she was planning to have him fired. It could be said that Jordan had a motive for murder, and his actions were certainly remarkably suspicious—but did he have the opportunity?

David Starr Jordan

Then, there was the long-time secretary, Bertha Berner. The fact that she was the only witness to both poisoning episodes has, not unnaturally, caused many students of the case to look at her with suspicion. Her position, however, was the opposite of Jordan’s:  she certainly had the opportunity to poison Mrs. Stanford—but what motive could she have had? Her relations with her employer had always been very good. Berner was left $15,000 in Stanford’s will, but she already enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in the Stanford household, and she had no financial problems. In fact, even with this inheritance, her standard of living sharply declined after Stanford’s death. Besides, she may well have been unaware she would receive this bequest.

Bertha Berner

There is always the possibility that Jordan or someone else bribed Berner to do their deadly work for them, but it is hard to picture this hitherto quiet and inoffensive woman suddenly turning hired assassin. Although Berner was obviously a subject of intense scrutiny, no one who knew her appeared to find her a credible suspect. It is conceivable that some disgruntled servant poisoned the mineral water, and also introduced strychnine into the bicarbonate of soda before Stanford left California. However, no one had the slightest clue who that might have been.

Despite the best efforts of many researchers and armchair detectives, Jane Stanford’s death remains one of America’s most enigmatic murder mysteries.


  1. Wow, this one seems more intriguing than most of your mysteries. It's too bad someone would try to kill this generous and, to all appearances, rather wonderful woman. Even Jordan seems shady rather than murderous. Homicide is a big step, and it seems unlikely that he would have taken it to remove Mrs Stanford, even if he were going to be fired. Another unsolved - and infamous - murder.

  2. David Starr Jordan was a sensitive man of honor and integrity, and it's highly unlikely that he had anything to do with hurting her. On the other hand, there were enough multicultural lunatics even in those days to be offended by Jordan's campaign to improve the race, that they'd stir the pot of any unfounded rumor against him.


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