Book Review: Murder, He Wrote

New and Notable

September 2022

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Book Review: Murder, He Wrote

Background image: Giorgia Virgili

Nearly two decades ago, in 2003, professor of neurology and neurological sciences Robert W.P. Cutler published The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford. The book revealed that the forensic evidence pointed not to heart failure, as the official report indicated, but to murder. 

The story piqued my curiosity: Who would want to do away with the woman Stanford’s founding myth heralds as the savior of the university established in her son’s memory—and why?

I devoured Cutler’s book and read theories by other Stanford faculty. My interest led me to write about it. That article—titled “Who Killed Jane Stanford?”—ran in the September/October 2003 issue of Stanford. 

And alumni readers had a lot to say.

“Having family ties that go back to the late 1940s, I thought I was pretty well informed on Stanford lore,” wrote Scott O’Connor, ’79. The Stanford article “sure killed that notion. What an extraordinary story, with eerie undertones.”

Al Floda, MBA ’80, wrote: “I am sitting here shocked, saddened, and horrified at the story of Jane Stanford’s murder. I knew she had died in Hawaii, but I had never heard this take on it. It’s like learning something terribly tragic about the fate of a beloved family member, indeed the ‘mother’ of the Stanford University family.”

In his recent book, Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University, history professor Richard White delves into the lesser known facts of the founding: The legal scaffolding supporting the nascent university was precarious at best; the vaunted matriarch, beneficent and beloved, sometimes brandished her money as a bludgeon, propelled by the spirit voices of her deceased loved ones.

“Jane Stanford, a woman supposedly without enemies, cultivated enmity and harvested a bountiful crop,” White writes.

It turns out there were many who had cause to wish her dead.

‘Her first words were predictable. Her last words were surprising. Jane Stanford rarely if ever used the word death. Confronted with death, she spoke its name.’

Stanford history professor Richard White, in Who Killed Jane Stanford? A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University, W.W. Norton

On January 14, 1905, Stanford retired to bed in her San Francisco mansion. On her bed stand, at her request, was a bottle of Poland Spring water. An unusual bitter taste caused her to call out for her personal secretary and her maid, and to force herself to vomit. A chemist’s analysis verified that the water had been spiked with rat poison.

Distraught and traumatized, Stanford decided to travel to Japan, opting for a stopover respite in Honolulu. Shortly before her trip, she divulged to trustee George Crothers that she had lost confidence in then-president David Starr Jordan. Hostility between the two had been growing for years as Stanford meddled in the running of the university, pressing positions that Jordan had refused to execute. She told Crothers she planned to dismiss Jordan upon her return.

She and her travel party set sail for Hawaii on February 15. Two weeks later, on February 28, again at bedtime, she asked her secretary to prepare a bicarbonate of soda to aid her digestion. 

Jane Stanford did not live to see the next morning.

A coroner’s autopsy, corroborated by well-regarded physicians, concluded that Jane Stanford came to her painful death by strychnine poisoning. And that might have been that, if not for Jordan.

Upon learning that the university’s benefactor had died, Jordan rushed to Honolulu, ostensibly to escort her body home. Once there, he retained a local doctor to contest the cause of death. One day before her funeral procession in Honolulu, Jordan issued a statement. Referencing the report he’d bought and paid for—but never made public—Jordan proclaimed that Stanford had not been poisoned at all. She had, he said, died of heart failure.

They say the victors write the record books. And so it was that Jordan’s account of her death was the one that went down in history.

While White is not the first to examine the murder of Jane Stanford, his research is the most thorough. An undergraduate course that White taught on research methods, using Stanford’s death as a case study, uncovered a trove of documents. His students’ findings inspired him to pursue the matter further. In his effort, he found missing links, inconsistencies, and questions.

“Preservation of historical records is always imperfect,” White writes, “but rarely have I encountered more documents that have vanished and more collections and reports that have gone missing than in this research.”

Who Killed Jane Stanford? reads like a suspenseful whodunit punctuated by clever, first-person asides from White. In true crime-fiction fashion (guided by his brother, Stephen White, who writes in that genre), he walks the reader through a long list of potential perpetrators, including Stanford’s personal secretary and companion, Bertha Berner; aggrieved faculty and household staff members; and Jordan himself, assessing who had motive, the means, and the opportunity to take Stanford’s life.

Yet White gives us more than a mere mystery: He also explores possible institutional motives for the whitewashing of Jane’s murder.

White portrays Jane and Leland Stanford as having lucked into partnership with the railroad barons who generated the couple’s fortune. The Stanfords’ relative lack of sophistication evidenced itself when it came to drawing up the instruments that would establish and fund the university. In reviewing them, Crothers “discovered that he had barely sampled the rich stew of stupidity, ignorance, and arrogance in the university’s founding documents,” White writes.

A murder investigation would have hampered, if not halted, the distribution of Jane Stanford’s estate, which, at her wishes, went to the university and to many on her household staff—including key suspects. The faulty founding documents would have been scrutinized. Such outcomes would have imperiled the institution, affected the financial futures of the heirs, and mired the young university in scandal.

In a single stroke, Jordan’s phony cause-of-death report brushed all those eventualities away. With no poisoning and no murder, there was no challenge to Stanford’s will, no examination of the university’s legal status, and no threat to Jordan’s position as president.

In 1905, Stanford was “a sleepy, mediocre university,” White writes. Had the death of Jane Stanford been exposed as murder at the time, today’s world-renowned institution might’ve been only a footnote in the history books. 

Susan Wolfe, ’81, is a writer in Palo Alto. Email her at

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