About a Boy

His death broke his parents’ hearts and spawned a university. But who was he? Recent revelations suggest a different Leland Stanford Jr. than many have imagined.

July/August 2003

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About a Boy

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

Leland and Jane Stanford were not the type to boast, but in the spring of 1868, they just couldn’t help feeling proud. Leland Stanford’s most ambitious business venture, the western portion of America’s first transcontinental railroad, was racing toward completion at Promontory, Utah. Better yet, after 18 years of childless marriage, the 44-year-old former California governor and his nearly 40-year-old wife were elated parents of a healthy baby.

To celebrate, the Stanfords decided to host a gathering in their handsome house on the corner of 8th and N streets in Sacramento. In her 1934 book, Mrs. Leland Stanford: An Intimate Account, Jane’s longtime secretary, Bertha Berner, retold the story: “Mr. Stanford asked Mrs. Stanford to arrange a dinner party for a group of their particular friends, and when the guests were seated the waiter brought in a large silver platter with a cover and placed it in the center of the table.” Then the governor rose to his feet and announced that there was someone he wished to introduce. To Jane’s surprise, “the cover of the silver dish was lifted, and the baby was discovered lying in it on blossoms,” Berner wrote. “He was carried around the table and shown to each guest. He was smiling and went through his introduction very nicely.”

Like many wealthy children of America’s Gilded Age, little Leland Stanford junior was born into a glittering world of silver and servants, pampering and privilege. Collared in lace and cultivated by tutors, the young heir to the Stanford fortune had his own pony and a pint-size train that ran on a 400-foot track from the family’s Palo Alto house to the stables. As a teenager, he rubbed elbows with senators, generals and Supreme Court justices and traveled with his family by rail across much of the United States and Europe. Encouraged by his parents, he developed a small museum on the third floor of the family’s San Francisco mansion to house the curiosities collected during his adventures.

Portrait of Leland Stanford JrPRIVILEGED SON: Leland Junior’s amusements included a toy train that ran on 400 feet of track near the Stanfords' Palo Alto home.

Yet there is another side to the boy—one barely known to graduates of the university that bears his name. Tucked inside gray archival boxes in Green Library, Leland Junior’s carefully preserved letters and his drawings of ships and trains hint at an energetic and likable kid who loved animals and the outdoors, took special care of his playmates and fretted about his aging parents’ health. He also had an insatiably curious intellect that Stanford admission deans would have appreciated. “I’m not sure he was any more of an overachiever than most kids today, but he comes across as a smart youngster who was interested in odd things that you wouldn’t expect a 12-year-old to like,” says University archivist Maggie Kimball, ’80, custodian of the Stanford family letters and scrapbooks. “Who knows how he would have ended up as an adult? He could have been an insufferable bore, but you don’t get that sense from his letters.”

Train tracks

In an age when first-time 40-something moms are common, it is hard to appreciate just how miraculous baby Leland’s impending arrival must have seemed to the Stanfords and their friends. It is possible that Jane suffered several miscarriages prior to the child’s birth, and this pregnancy, too, seemed threatened when, in her last trimester, she tumbled off the veranda into a flowering bush during a tea party at her home. When the family physician finally delivered the healthy baby at the Sacramento house on May 14, the grateful mother recalled that it was the first time she had ever seen her husband on his knees in prayer. “I wanted to thank God that you were doing so well, Jenny,” the governor explained, using his wife’s pet name. “And for giving us such a fine boy.”

Unlike many Victorian tykes, who were seen and not heard, little brown-eyed Leland clearly was the adored center of his parents’ world. Although the governor continued to travel extensively on railroad business, he and Jane were at a point in their lives when they could shower attention on the child, whom they christened Leland DeWitt Stanford after the governor’s younger brother. (The boy later asked to have his name legally changed to match his father’s.) Maids, cooks and nurses took care of the heavy work, leaving Jane to focus on her family; and their richly furnished Sacramento house had all the 19th-century conveniences money could buy.

Jane and Leland Stanford Jr.

Nevertheless, the Stanfords were a pragmatic couple, determined to bring their son up, in Berner’s words, “as sensibly as possible.” As former Special Collections librarian Linda J. Long explained in a 1991 Stanford Historical Society article, “Both Jane and Leland came from middle-class hardworking families with strong family values, which they were determined to teach their son.... They were dedicated to their growing boy, whom they cherished, but they stopped short of catering to his every wish.”

Apparently the strategy worked, for the Stanford Archives are full of references to Leland Junior’s good nature. When he was 5 years old, he and his family moved to San Francisco to be near the new headquarters of the Central Pacific Railroad. Looking out the front window one day, the boy was horrified to see a small mongrel dog with a broken leg. He carried the animal into the house, bathed and bandaged the limb, and then summoned the family doctor to find out what to do next. Another time, young Leland was playing outside with the maid’s nephew when the little boy started crying about his muddy shoes. So the Stanford heir took his companion into the kitchen, stood him on a chair and, over the protests of the servants, scrubbed the shoes clean.

Among the most charming items in the Stanford Archives are Leland Junior’s letters to a handicapped friend named Wilsie, who lived down the block from the Stanfords’ Nob Hill home. “Mamma came downstairs to day and plaid on the piano,” 10-year-old Leland writes in careful schoolboy cursive on blue-lined notebook paper. “We had a delightful trip to the Sierra Nevaddas... snow balling to our hearts content our fingers were numb of a hanfanhour after wards.” On another rail trip, from San Diego, 13-year-old Leland apologizes to Wilsie for his handwriting. “While I am writing NOW the car is going MUCH FASTER, so excuse the shakeness.”

At home in San Francisco, Leland Junior’s rooms reflected artistic and mechanical interests typical of many a preadolescent boy. An enthusiastic amateur photographer, he also enjoyed sketching trains and ships, meticulously incorporating tiny American flags and rigging for the sails. (One pencil-and-crayon effort shows ships engaged in a harbor battle, with a fort on the shore spewing puffy white smoke.) Among his playthings were a toy steam engine and locomotive, a telegraphic apparatus, a telephone, and a carpenter’s bench and tools that he used for woodcarving. The house also had a workroom where he could tinker with mechanical devices. Once, when their son was working on a small steam engine, the Stanfords heard a loud pop and went to investigate. They found Leland Junior holding a handkerchief to his face. “Boiler exploded,” he said matter-of-factly.

For sheer boyish pleasure, though, nothing could compare to the Palo Alto family farm. When Governor Stanford purchased the first 650 acres of the property along San Francisquito Creek in 1876, he hoped to acquaint his young son with the vigorous country pastimes he had enjoyed as a youth in upstate New York. The estate quickly grew to become the Stanford family’s favorite retreat, a fog-free haven of orchards, vineyards, grazing lands, stables and training tracks where Leland Junior could adventure from dawn to dusk. He practiced shooting, fished in the creek, hunted arrowheads in the Foothills near Jasper Ridge. As his tutor, Herbert Nash, recalled in a short biography of Leland Junior: “The boy would ride about the farm on his pony with the dogs barking at his heels. He loved to spend the day in the fields among the laborers, and a picnic in the redwoods was his ideal of happiness.

“Being full of life and health,” Nash continued, “he did not prefer his Latin grammar to his gun, or his algebra to his driving team.” Nevertheless, Leland Junior apparently was a diligent pupil with a real knack for French, German and history. Indeed, his tutors sometimes found it hard to keep pace: the boy was impatient with cursory textbook facts, always hungry for explanations. Determined not to neglect the practical side of his son’s education, Governor Stanford enrolled him in accounting courses at San Francisco’s new Heald College. While he assumed Leland Junior someday would take over his various business enterprises, the governor believed in “bringing up the boy in the spirit of self-dependence,” a San Francisco newspaper reported in 1877. That way, “if the father’s riches be-wing themselves, the son will be able to take care of himself.”

Above all, Leland and Jane Stanford believed in the educational value of travel. Shortly after Leland Junior’s first birthday, the toddler and his mother began making regular trips on the new transcontinental railroad to visit relatives and friends in New York. His first European grand tour, with his mother and Nash in 1880-81, was a continual source of wonder for the 12-year-old. “He could not see macaroni made without having an explanation of the whole process, or glass blown without learning all the details of the business, the wages paid the workmen, the hours of labor, etc.,” Nash recalled. A well-known Liverpool merchant put it succinctly: “He had a faculty of drawing from those he met all the information they had to give.”

Leland Junior’s surviving travel log entries, dated April to August 1881, describe a lively European routine that included morning lessons and afternoon sightseeing, dancing classes, swimming lessons or romps in the Tuileries Gardens, plus an occasional evening out for dinner or the opera. Traveling in Italy, the boy was particularly impressed by a trip to Mount Vesuvius, by a lavish martial birthday parade in honor of King Humbert, and by a solemn audience at the Vatican with Pope Leo XIII. Later, the Protestant lad told his ailing mother, who suffered debilitating headaches, that he was sure she soon would be feeling better, “as he had mounted the Holy Steps on his knees, saying a prayer for her recovery on each step.”

Two years later, when the family embarked on its second European tour, Leland Junior had matured into a slender, thoughtful youth of 15, about 5 feet 10 inches tall, with clear fair skin and light-brown hair. At the same time, his nearly 60-year-old father and 54-year-old mother were showing signs of age. Doctors prescribed soaks in Bavarian hot springs for the aching governor. “Papa has not improved as much as we hoped for,” the teenager wrote an aunt from the RMS Germanic in June 1883, “and Mama has only been to the table twice. She has had a great deal of pain in her head. I hope you will write to Mama often and keep her cheered up.” Although Governor Stanford rallied under the care of London doctors, Jane’s headaches continued to trouble her. Between outings with his tutor, young Leland would sit in her darkened sickroom and tell her about everything he had seen in the city.

FOREVER FIFTEEN: In September 1883, at age 15, Leland Junior toured Europe and wrote to his father describing his adventures. Seven months later, he was dead.FOREVER FIFTEEN: In September 1883, at age 15, Leland Junior toured Europe and wrote to his father describing his adventures. Seven months later, he was dead.

When Jane was well enough to travel, the family struck out for museums and auction houses of Great Britain and the Continent. On their previous European adventure, Jane had encouraged her budding archaeologist to collect and catalog mementos of the sites he had seen, including Venetian glass animals and a bayonet and two rifle balls from Waterloo. Now the boy was determined to build a public archaeological museum in San Francisco—“to help in the art-training of our American people,” as he told Luigi Palma di Cesnola, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his father was a patron.

Helped by Cesnola’s letters of introduction, Leland Junior spent many blissful afternoons in the Egyptian wing of the Louvre, copying hieroglyphics and learning to decipher them with the help of famed Egyptologist Georges Daressy. He also made the rounds of famous auction houses and antiquities dealers, purchasing ancient coins, Egyptian bronzes, Greek vases and other pieces with small sums for which he had to keep strict accounts. “It frequently happened that in looking over specimens offered him for sale, Leland would hand some back to the dealer, quietly remarking that they were imitations,” his tutor recalled with satisfaction. “Invariably the man, after a look at his young customer, would apologize, excusing himself on the ground that the imitations had accidentally slipped in with the others.”

After spending Christmas of 1883 in Vienna, the Stanfords headed toward Constantinople, where the sultan wanted the governor’s advice about the construction of a Turkish railroad. “When we arrived we thought we were in the strangest country we had ever been in before,” the dazzled young Leland wrote his friend Lizzie Hull. “No two turks seem to be dressed alike because their clothes are of so many different colors.... We saw diamonds literally by the bushel and one emerald as large as your hand.” On one particularly joyous occasion, the family took a cruise on the Bosporus strait, and the 15-year-old was allowed to steer the party’s small steamboat. “He stood at the wheel all day long, with a sharp wind blowing in his face and spray dashing over the deck, for it was a rough day,” Bertha Berner recalled. “He was greatly excited and very happy.”

Later that evening, Jane thought her boy looked a little pale. The weather had turned cold, and by the time the family arrived in Athens in January 1884, the snow was knee-deep. Undeterred, Leland Junior insisted on visiting the ancient temples and on meeting with the most celebrated archaeologist of the day, Heinrich Schliemann, who recently had unearthed the site of ancient Troy. Limping back to the Italian peninsula in mid-February, “neither Mrs. Stanford nor Leland [Junior] felt well,” Berner wrote. “The climate of Rome plainly did not agree with Leland, and they took him to Florence, where the air was somewhat more bracing.”

In fact, Leland Junior had contracted typhoid, a bacterial illness characterized by a sudden high fever, severe headache and nausea, for which there was no known cure (see sidebar). Frantically, his parents telegraphed physicians in Rome and summoned them to the Bristol Hotel. “For three weeks, alternate hope and fear reigned in the darkened room,” Herbert Nash recalled. As Leland Junior’s fever spiked, “his mind was lucid at times, and at times wandering ... to his horses and his museum, his studies and his pleasures.”

On February 25, Jane wrote to a friend: “I have turned for comfort to the Giver of both good and evil and my faith has increased, and now I again turn to Him with entreaties to save to me my darling son.”

To reduce the fever, doctors wrapped Leland Junior’s body in ice-cold wet sheets, an excruciating treatment the shivering boy begged to avoid. Nuns were brought in around the clock to nurse the delirious youth, and at one point, the hotel manager had straw scattered outside to deaden street noise. Their efforts were futile: two months before his 16th birthday, on March 13, 1884, Leland Stanford Junior died.

Prostrate with grief at the hotel, Leland Stanford is said to have had a dream about his departed son, who urged his parents to keep on living for the good of humanity. Just one year after they laid their only child to rest—in a small mausoleum near their beloved Palo Alto Farm house—Leland and Jane Stanford signed a grant founding and endowing the Leland Stanford Junior University “to qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life.” The same goal they had had for their son. 

Theresa Johnston, ’83, is a Palo Alto writer and frequent contributor to STANFORD. She was assisted by historian and former Stanford archivist Roxanne Nilan, MA ’92, PhD ’99.

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