Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University
“considerable detective work, which overlooks few details. White has certainly written the definitive book on Jane Stanford’s death.”
The first time someone poisoned Jane Stanford, the richest woman in San Francisco and co-founder with her robber baron husband Leland of Stanford University, she cried out, “Oh, God. I did not think anyone wished to hurt me. What would it benefit anyone?”
This was on a rainy evening in January 1905, in a bedroom of her 50-room mansion on Nob Hill. Jane, a hard-core spiritualist, was imperious at 76. Fortunately, the bitter taste of the strychnine-laced poison caused her to vomit. She survived, then called in private detectives.
The second poisoning was successful. It happened weeks later, in Honolulu, and led to a coroner’s jury verdict of murder by strychnine poisoning. Jane was dead. The university issued a press release claiming she had died of a natural cause: heart disease.
For decades, her death remained a mystery. Even those close to her, who knew of the poisonings, could not identify who was responsible. In 2003, after completing his own investigation, Stanford physician Robert W. P. Cutler declared in The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford that Jane had definitely been murdered.
Now comes retired Stanford historian Richard White whose richly detailed Who Killed Jane Stanford? offers a meticulous account of both poisonings and names the murderer.
White is not an ordinary true-crime writer. A much-acclaimed authority on the Gilded Age, he is the author of the prizewinning study Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011). He has taught the Jane Stanford murder case to history students at Stanford.
The depth of his research into Jane’s death as well as “the politics, power struggles, and scandals of Gilded Age San Francisco” is extraordinary—especially since relevant police and private detective documents were lost to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Patient readers will thoroughly enjoy White’s precise accounts of Jane’s life and times. Others, not so much.
First, the story is exceedingly complex. There are many suspects, from disgruntled personal servants to trustees and a university president about to be fired.
Second, the author is so enamored of the historical period that his descriptions of San Francisco politicking and wrongdoing hamper the narrative flow.
Not least, Jane is an unsympathetic figure. Her constant need to be loved and admired, her mindless shopping trips to Europe, and her insistence on being a hands-on founder and bankroller of the university (i.e., a meddler) are all off-putting, as was her determination that Stanford be “devoted to the development of the soul.”
She undoubtedly kept the lights on during difficult early years of what was to become a leading American research university. She did so by always seeking the advice of her dead husband and precocious son (Leland Jr., lost to typhoid at 15), often “communing with her dead child” in the richly decorated anteroom of his mausoleum.
Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, suggested that in founding their university the Stanfords had “tried to raise a personal monument by the good use of ill-gotten money.”
It all left a bad taste in many contemporary mouths and prompted considerable enmity. Some readers may wonder, however unfairly, who cares who killed Jane Stanford?
None of which is to detract from the author’s considerable detective work, which overlooks few details. White has certainly written the definitive book on Jane Stanford’s death.
Who Killed Jane Stanford? even provides a glimpse of world-famous philosopher William James, 64, coming to California to teach somewhat reluctantly, but pragmatic enough to “pocket” the compensation of $5,000.