Jane Lathrop Stanford, Mother of a University

The founder of Stanford University was murdered?? And the case was never solved?! And the first president of Stanford may have been part of the murder conspiracy... how had I never heard about this before?

Jane Lathrop Stanford, Mother of a University

The founder of Stanford University was murdered?? And the case was never solved?! And the first president of Stanford may have been part of the murder conspiracy... how had I never heard about this before? In "Jane Lathrop Stanford, Mother of a University," Catherine Pyke skims over key episodes in the Stanfords' lives and goes into depth about Jane's central role in the founding of Stanford University. Indeed, after Leland Stanford Sr. died in 1893 a few years after the founding of the university, Jane was solely responsible for setting the young university on a solid footing.

Pyke offers a balanced but shallow overview of the life of this remarkable woman. While praising her determination and stamina, Pyke doesn't shy away from Jane's more controversial positions on academic freedom (the Ross Affair) and her decision to impose gender quota restrictions. There are also a few fun trivia bits in here, like that Jane endowed the Stanford library (the "Jewel Fund") through the sale of the Spanish crown jewels (which Leland Sr. had given her as an anniversary present). I wish that Pyke had included more about how Leland Stanford made his money, but I suppose this was a book about Jane...

I was really here for the murder though! Seeing as I'm living on the Stanford campus now and 2018 is my year of "Crime and Punishment", I knew I had to read something about Jane Stanford once I learned that she had been murdered. There's actually a more in-depth book about the murder called "The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford" written by a doctor, but the reviews weren't great. Pyke makes the case that David Starr Jordan, the first president of the university, had a motive to kill Jane because she was probably about to fire him. They had clashed over the Ross Affair and the overall vision for the university and Jane was about to pull the plug on him. However, Jordan was across an ocean when Jane was murdered. Her maid Bertha Berner was present at Jane's death (as well as at a previous poisoning!) but seems to have had little motive. The plot thickens as Jordan orchestrates a coverup of Jane's death, claiming that she died of natural causes. In spite of the original autopsy indicating strychnine poisoning, even today Stanford University continues to stick to the party line that Jane died of natural causes. Because the murder happened over a century ago, we'll probably never know what really happened. But Pyke makes a pretty compelling case that Berner and Jordan conspired to murder Jane Stanford. Wild stuff!

My highlights below.

A Speech Undelivered

Opening Day, Leland Stanford Junior University October 1, 1891

One guest taking meticulous mental notes on this day was Jane’s friend, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the forty-eight-year-old recent widow of Senator George Hearst. Six years later in 1897, Mrs. Hearst would be appointed as the first female Regent at the University of California. Inspired in part by the Stanfords’ grand plans, Phoebe Hearst would finance an international architectural competition to design a campus at Berkeley of comparable scale and grandeur.

Despite the criticisms, the Stanfords were determined to build the university as a memorial to their son in their own way. They had traveled to the leading campuses of the day, where they had consulted with the presidents of Harvard, MIT, Cornell, and Yale. Renowned park planner Frederick Law Olmstead and prominent East Coast architect Charles Coolidge had been hired to draw up the original master plan. Yet the plans of both men had been radically revised and ultimately rejected.

After an exhausting vigil at the deathbed, the despondent father had eventually fallen asleep. The spirit of the boy, whose body lay stretched out in a coffin in the adjoining room, had come to his father in the dream to comfort him. “What shall I do?” Stanford despaired. “I have nothing more to live for.” “Father, do not say that. You have everything to live for,” the spirit responded. “Live for humanity.” Shortly afterward, Stanford had told the dream to his wife and pronounced, “The children of California shall be our children.”

Two years later, as the country advanced toward the Great Financial Panic of 1893, Leland Stanford died in his sleep. The future of the fledgling university would depend entirely on the courage and determination of his sixty-five-year-old widow, who had been too timid to speak on opening day.

CHAPTER ONE: Waiting for her Life

Two years after Jane and Leland Stanford’s marriage in 1850, a fire destroyed Leland’s law office in Port Washington, Wisconsin. The fire disrupted the young couple’s lives, causing them to live apart for three years while Leland sought his fortune in California.

On top of this, Leland’s early political ambitions had been thwarted in his unsuccessful bid to become district attorney. Adding sting to her husband’s many disappointments, all five of his brothers had gone to California, each achieving success seemingly overnight in the gold mines.

CHAPTER TWO: A Rising Tide

Initially a Whig politician, he soon became a leading member of the California Republican Party, which he helped to organize in 1856 at the party’s first state convention. His early runs for office ended in defeat: in 1857, he lost in his bid for California state treasurer and lost again in 1859 when he ran for governor.

These men, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, soon to become known along with Stanford as “The Big Four,” became key investors in what would become the Central Pacific Railroad. Stanford would be elected president of this company on June 28, 1861.

Stanford, encouraged by his wife, would soon play a key role in keeping California in the Union.

Leland would serve from January 1862 to December 1863 as California’s first Republican governor.

Just nine days after he was nominated for governor, Leland had become president of the Central Pacific Railroad. And upon his victory, whether or not Californians agreed that the construction of the transcontinental railroad should assume top priority, he began to place his own business concerns near the top of his objectives. In the ensuing months, he divided his time between building the railroad and keeping California loyal to the Union.

Shortly after his son’s birth, Leland reluctantly departed for an extended business trip. As president of the Central Pacific Railroad, he needed to reside for several months in Salt Lake City, in order to negotiate labor terms for the construction of the railroad with Mormon leader Brigham Young.

While Leland was overseeing the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, his associates acquired control of the Southern Pacific Railroad for their corporation. Leland would subsequently be elected president of this new acquisition and hold this post until 1890. As head of the company that built the western section of the first transcontinental railroad over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, Nevada, and Utah, Leland presided at the “Last Spike” ceremony in Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, nearly a year to the day of his son’s birth.

Leland swung a hammer made of Nevada silver to drive a spike, dubbed the “Golden Spike” into the final section of track uniting East and West. He missed.

In the 1870s, the Southern Pacific moved its headquarters and major operations to the Bay Area. Leland subsequently moved his family to San Francisco in 1874, assuming the additional presidency of the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company, the steamship line associated with the Central Pacific. The prosperity that soon followed allowed the Stanfords to build a stately mansion on Nob Hill with sweeping views of San Francisco.

Jane and Leland decided to rent a residence in New York to assure that they would never be more than a short train ride away from him. They rented the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York for a thousand dollars a month during the winter of 1882-1883, to prepare young Leland for his move to the East.

CHAPTER THREE: A Death in Florence

Leland met with Luigi Pama de Cesnola, the former consul of Cypress and first director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Cesnola, highly celebrated at this time, but later revealed as a mercenary soldier and plunderer of ancient relics, may have been more motivated by Stanford’s financial capacity than by a sincere desire to mentor his son.

A few days later, Leland spent a day with world-renowned archeologist Dr. Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann thrilled Leland by inviting him to his home and private museum, where he gave him numerous charms and fetishes that he had discovered in Troy.

As the doctor diagnosed earlier, Leland had indeed contracted typhoid fever, caused by the bacillus Salmonella typhi, most likely from contaminated food or water consumed during his lengthy hikes in Turkey or Greece.

On the morning of March 13, 1884, young Leland’s body, exhausted from fever, delirium, acute abdominal pain, and possibly intestinal hemorrhage, lost the struggle. The only child of Leland and Jane Stanford died just two months shy of his sixteenth birthday.

CHAPTER FOUR: Paris, City of Light and Shadow

Leland had purchased the highly celebrated Spanish crown jewels from Tiffany & Company at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate their twenty-sixth wedding anniversary.

CHAPTER FIVE: Cornerstones

Jane’s essential role as Mother of the University would become clear following her husband’s death, but few have understood the degree of her involvement in the earliest stages of the university. There is little doubt that Leland viewed Jane as his full and equal partner in the university. He would confirm this point on many occasions and would later seek to formalize Jane’s equal participation in the institution’s founding documents.

CHAPTER SIX: Washington D.C., 1885-1891

Jane was said to have the most spectacular collection of emeralds, pearls, and rubies ever seen in Washington. A single necklace was valued at over $600,000, and her diamond collection alone was rumored to be worth more than $1 million. Jane’s diamonds were supposedly the finest in New York with the exception of Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s.

In the late 1870s, Tiffany & Company had begun to take advantage of the growing misfortunes of the royal families of Europe. Boasting that they had acquired the Spanish crown jewels, they soon put them up for sale.

Yet while the press mocked her ruthlessly as she wore them, few could have guessed the intention of her heart: to use the jewels to endow the university. Today, the proceeds from Jane’s jewels, valued at over $20 million, form the core of an endowment fund at Stanford University’s library that remains appropriately named The Jewel Fund.

(The liberal use of “coin,” or bribery, was believed to have been employed by both of California’s wealthiest senators, Leland Stanford and George Hearst.

Ladies called from three to five o’clock and were joined later by gentlemen, who filled the parlors of the Stanford home and engaged in animated conversation well into the evening. Her good friend Julia Grant (wife of Ulysees S.) was often among the honored guests.

CHAPTER SEVEN: Father and Son are Together Now

According to his doctor, Leland Stanford’s final illness resulted from two afflictions, fibrema, which rendered him subject to dizzy spells and could culminate in sudden paralytic attacks, and locomotor ataxia, the inability to coordinate the muscles in the execution of voluntary movement. The later affliction is sometimes a symptom of tabes dorsalis, which is a key finding in tertiary syphilis, likely contracted during the period when Leland was separated from Jane so early in their marriage. While the cause of her husband’s decline and her own awareness level of his condition may never be known, it perhaps sheds light on the complexity of Jane and Leland’s relationship and may explain why Jane did not want prying eyes reading these letters.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Close the Circus

On June 3, 1894, the federal government filed a fifteen-million-dollar lawsuit against the estate of Leland Stanford.

CHAPTER NINE: The Blessed Work

the Executive Mansion (the name for the President’s residence used until 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt engraved the words “The White House” on his stationery).

Determined to hire the nation’s best legal talent, Jane turned to Joseph Choate, who was for many years considered among the most prominent attorneys in the country. A tall and erect, distinguished-looking man with “a high forehead over which his reddish brown hair fell carelessly,” Choate played an active role in New York legal, political, and social affairs for over thirty years. The Harvard-educated lawyer had been President of the New York Bar Association, a founder of the Metropolitan Museum, and Ambassador to the Court of Saint James.

The U.S. Supreme Court had rendered a unanimous decision in favor of the Stanford estate.

CHAPTER TEN: The Jewel Fund

As soon as Mrs. Stanford slipped away, Bertha noted, his behavior changed. Cooper made a deep bow with a flourish, drew a flask from his pocket, took a drink, and said, “Now you watch me put a little fire into that sapphire.”


In a manner carefully designed to assure maximum publicity for the cause of academic freedom, Ross explained that President David Starr Jordan had fired him, taking his orders from Mrs. Stanford. Seven Stanford professors immediately resigned in protest. The American Economic Association, a group founded by Dr. Ross’s dissertation advisor, took up the cause, and this ruckus led to the first professorial investigation of an abuse of academic freedom in the United States.

Professor Ross, who had received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins in 1891, would go on to distinction in positions in Nebraska and Wisconsin and to celebrity as a fomenter of the Academic Freedom movement. His dismissal from Stanford would also lay the groundwork for the formation of the American Association of University Professors fifteen years later.

Jane’s disapproval of Ross was intensified by what she likely perceived as his racist tendencies. In this regard, she was significantly more enlightened than President Jordan, whose writings on eugenics have caused him to be reevaluated as racist in the light of contemporary thinking and have sparked a debate to remove his name from the middle school in Palo Alto that bears his name.

CHAPTER TWELVE: Allies and Adversaries - Jane, Crothers and Huntington

By serving Stanford University on a pro bono basis, as he would throughout his life, Crothers’ ethical integrity was never questioned. He declined every suggestion of receiving payment for his advice regarding university or personal matters.

She asked Crothers to journey east with her for the meetings. Unfortunately, he was unable to make the trip, a decision he would come to regret as one of the major mistakes of his life. What resulted was a premature sale of her Southern Pacific holdings to an international banking house where Jane received sixteen million, which she turned over to the university. But later valuations suggested that she lost forty-five million by this early sale, enough to have made Stanford University the richest academic institution in the world.


Jane Stanford had been a major contributor to the California campaign for the women’s suffrage amendment in 1896, which ultimately went down to narrow defeat due to lobbying efforts of the liquor industry.

her chief fear was that her son’s memorial might turn into a women’s school. Desperate to preserve the status of the university as a major institution, Jane decided to impose the limit after the percentage of female students increased from twenty-five to forty.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: Winds of Freedom - Jane Relinquishes Control (In Theory)

A week later, the water was found to have contained strychnine, commonly found in rodent poison.

Richmond, a British citizen, would soon be accused of having regaled Jane’s household staff with tales of the poisonings of English aristocrats in the households where she had been previously employed.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: A Troubled Heart - Journey to the Fair Beyond

Jane awakened them with cries of “Bertha, May, I am so sick.” Rushing to her room, they found her standing in her open doorway. Jane cried out, “Bertha, run for the doctor. I have no control of my body. I think I have been poisoned again.”

A coroner’s jury reviewed the autopsy report, and three full days of testimony followed at the Moana Hotel. On March 9, 1905, the jury reached a unanimous conclusion in just two minutes: “Jane Lathrop Stanford came to her death... from strychnine poisoning, said strychnine having been introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.”

Jordan had arrived well prepared with a contradictory agenda of his own firmly in mind — to prove that Jane Stanford had not been poisoned but had died of natural causes. Most likely his intent was to avoid scandal for the university. Upon arrival, he hired a young, relatively inexperienced physician, Dr. Ernest Waterhouse, to dispute the cause of death. Without ever having seen Mrs. Stanford’s body, Waterhouse produced a report of his own that supported the claim Jordan was determined to prove. Jordan’s plan had been to conduct a second autopsy in San Francisco that would back up Waterhouse’s conclusion that Mrs. Stanford’s death had resulted from natural causes. If this occurred, no record exists of a second autopsy having been conducted, let alone the substance of its findings. Nevertheless, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Jordan’s cover-up was ultimately successful. Natural causes stood as the official explanation of Mrs. Stanford’s death until 2003, when a book by the late Stanford Medical School professor, Robert W.P. Cutler, M.D, delivered a strong case, now generally accepted by all (with the notable exception of Stanford University), that Jordan’s conclusion was wrong and that Mrs. Stanford’s death indeed resulted from strychnine poisoning.

While public suspicion had initially swarmed around Bertha as a prime suspect in what was at first reported as Jane’s murder, she was nevertheless completely exonerated by the Honolulu inquest jury, who had found her highly composed and genuinely grieving her now deceased former employer. Accompanied by an attorney as she was first questioned by detectives, calm and cooperative as she testified, Bertha was taken under the protective wing of Stanford University administrators and treated with all courtesy due the founding mother’s secretary and primary companion.

At the mausoleum that Jane had carefully designed and erected for her beloved husband and son, the Right Reverend William Ford Nichols, Bishop of California, delivered the Episcopal burial service between a pair of sphinxes that Jane had ordered made in Italy. The original pair, which she had found shockingly buxom but too expensive to discard, stood guard at the rear of the mausoleum.

Jane Lathrop Stanford. Born in Mortality, August 25, 1828. Passed to Immortality, February 28, 1905.

Clearly Jane Stanford did not die naturally, and Dr. Robert Cutler’s book provides a solid case that her death resulted from strychnine poisoning. Who would have wished her dead? Cutler suggests two most likely suspects: David Starr Jordan and Bertha Berner. One, he said, had motive but no opportunity (Jordan), the other, opportunity, but no motive (Berner). He also considers the possibility that Berner and Jordan may have collaborated.

Little evidence exists to suggest anything beyond a formal relationship between Jordan and Berner. Yet one small clue emerges in Cutler’s book: Berner, he writes, advised Jordan to leave the Ross Affair completely out of his memoirs. While this exchange would have occurred years after Jane’s death, it does suggest that Jordan and Berner were on friendly enough terms that she felt free to advise him about this very personal decision as to how best to document his presidency. It also hints that Berner was a shameless spin master, quite capable of arranging incidents in her own memoir to make her appear in the most favorable light.

Ironically, it is only because of Bertha Berner that we know anything about Mrs. Stanford’s daily life, as a result of her publication of a book about her longtime employer. Incidents in the Life of Mrs. Leland Stanford by Her Private Secretary, Bertha Berner, is viewed by Cutler and others as an unreliable mix of fiction and fact.

That Berner had no motive to kill Jane Stanford is not entirely true. Jane remembered all of her servants in her will, leaving each $1,000, with the exception of Bertha Berner, who received $15,000 — the equivalent of about $100,000 today.

Beyond these far from insignificant gifts, Jane’s death had granted Berner, at the age of forty-four, independence for the first time in her life.

Indeed the only person present at both poisonings was Bertha Berner.

The cascara capsules that Jane ingested on her last night alive had belonged to Bertha Berner. Berner had spooned the fatal bicarbonate of soda from its container into the portion that Jane ingested.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Afterword - The Founder’s Vision

“Where there is no vision,” James observed, “the people perish. Mr. and Mrs. Stanford evidently had a vision of the most prophetic sort. They saw the opportunity for an absolutely unique creation, they seized upon it with the boldness of great minds.”

President Jordan, nine years younger than James, had much in common with the renowned scholar. Both had been students of the zoologist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz, the greatest scientist of his day.

The day after the earthquake, Jordan closed the university for the remainder of the quarter and sent all students home. But many students chose to remain in order to volunteer for relief efforts in San Francisco. Through Camp Stanford in the city, students helped to provide food and build shelters for people affected by the earthquake. In late August of that same year, classes resumed in the fall quarter and the seniors, known as “the Calamity Class,” were able to graduate.