Truth and Lies at Harvard

Cantor Center for the Visual Arts

You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Sometimes you shouldn’t believe any of it.

Take the tale of two “backwoods country hicks” that’s been zapped across the nation and around the world in countless e-mails over the last few months. The story has it that sometime in the 1880s a man and woman show up unannounced to meet with the president of Harvard. They talk to him about building a memorial for their son, who “accidentally killed” himself after his freshman year at Harvard. Eyeing the woman’s “faded gingham dress” and the man’s “homespun threadbare suit,” the president rudely informs them of the cost of building a university. “Is that all?” the woman says to her husband. “Why don’t we just start our own?” With that, the story goes, Leland and Jane Stanford returned to Palo Alto, “where they established the University that bears their name, a memorial to a son that Harvard no longer cared about.”

The account, of course, is wrong -- and, in places, absurd. Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever at age 15. He never enrolled at Harvard. His parents did visit Harvard President Charles Eliot, but only to get advice on endowing a university. Perhaps most ridiculous is the notion that Sen. Stanford, a wealthy railroad baron, and his wife would show up in ratty clothes.

Still, the story lives on. Stanford officials have fielded questions from tourists, alumni, reporters -- and Harvard itself. Archivist Margaret Kimball, ’80, was even asked to settle a bet between a husband and wife. “I might have caused a divorce,” she says.