In which two young newspapermen discuss the mysterious death of Jane Stanford, Senator Leland Stanford’s widow.
“I just don’t understand it,” declared young reporter Marty Reilly to his friend, photographer Will Hutchinson. “Ten years have passed since her mysterious death. It seems to me that it’s an ideal subject for an investigative report, but the boss won’t go for it!”
The year was 1915, and Marty was working for the liberal newspaper, The Berkeley Chronicle, following his probing report on the labor troubles in the hop fields of Wheatland twelve months before.
“You say that Mrs. Stanford was murdered,” said Will. “I thought she died of heart failure.”
“Ah, that was the public story they used to kill the investigation into her death,” replied Marty, “but I’ve got a friend who works in the Honolulu coroner’s office, and he dug up the records for me. The autopsy revealed that she died of strychnine poisoning, and the coroner’s jury recorded that verdict, ‘strychnine introduced into a bottle of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown’. It only took them two minutes to decide on the verdict!”
“So how come they covered it up?” asked Will incredulously.
“Apparently Dr. David Starr Jordan, the President of Stanford University, sailed out to Hawaii as soon as he heard of Mrs. Stanford’s death and hired a doctor, Ernest Coniston Waterhouse, to contradict the findings of the autopsy staff. This shyster claimed that Mrs. Stanford had over-eaten the afternoon before her death, and this had induced the heart failure that killed her – a medically absurd diagnosis considering the very clear symptoms of strychnine poisoning she had displayed.”
“I’m no expert,” said Will cautiously, “but surely the autopsy doctors must have found some trace of the poison in her system!”
“Oh they did!” answered Marty. “They found substantial traces in the dead woman’s tissue as well as traces in what remained of the dose of bicarbonate of soda she had taken to soothe her stomach.”
“So how did Jordan’s doctor explain that?” asked Will.
“He came up with the outrageous suggestion that the hotel doctor, Francis Howard Humphris, who had made valiant attempts to revive Mrs. Stanford, had introduced the strychnine into her system and into her medicine after she had already died of heart failure,” replied Marty.
“Incredible!” exclaimed Will.
“And what’s more, this wasn’t the first time an attempt had been made to poison Leland Stanford’s widow,” continued Marty.
“Whoa!” interrupted Will. “You’d better start this story from the beginning!”
“Okay,” agreed Marty. “Well, my father interviewed Senator Leland Stanford nearly twenty-five years ago when he and his wife were beginning to set up the university in memory of their son, Leland Junior, who died tragically of typhoid at the age of sixteen.”
“I remember reading that Stanford said something like: ‘The children of California shall be our children’,” said Will.
“Yes,” agreed Marty. “The Senator and his wife had big plans to create an institution where students would learn together in an atmosphere of cooperation and support rather than in competition with one another. Sadly Senator Stanford died only two years after the University was opened, but his wife took on the burden of growing and developing the school. Senator Stanford’s estate was in probate for several years and the university trustees wanted to close the school down until his affairs were settled, but Mrs. Stanford insisted that it remain open, and she used her own personal money to keep it running. She even tried to sell her own jewelry. She was very committed to the University, promoting the study of the arts, encouraging the enrolment of women and overseeing the hiring of staff including Dr. David Starr Jordan, whom she and her husband thought would be the ideal leader for the institution, coming as he did from a distinguished academic back ground and holding educational views similar to their own. But some members of the board of trustees resented what they saw as her interference in academic matters, especially when she had economist Edward Ross fired for his racist views towards the Chinese and his extreme views on eugenics. Some of them thought she was limiting academic freedom, but I imagine she thought this man was not a suitable teacher for the youth attending a University set up and funded by her husband and herself.”
Will was listening carefully.
“Boy, Marty!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been gathering some background alright!”
“No use taking a story to the boss without adequate research,” replied Marty.
“So why was Dr. Jordan so anxious to hush up her real cause of death,” asked Will.
“Some have speculated that he merely wanted to avoid Stanford University being involved in some kind of scandal, that he wanted to protect the school’s reputation,” answered Marty, “but I have discovered that actually he and Mrs. Stanford had got into some serious disputes about university policy, and that he’d heard that she was planning to fire him from his position as President.”
“Are you suggesting that Jordan was involved in Mrs. Stanford’s murder?” asked Will incredulously. “That’s dynamite!”
“I’m not suggesting anything,” replied Marty carefully. “I’m just saying that Jordan’s actions were highly suspicious and deserve further investigation.”
“What about the first attempt on her life that you mentioned?” asked Will.
“That happened a month earlier at her mansion on Nob Hill in San Francisco,” replied Marty. “Apparently she took some mineral water after dinner, and was shocked at its bitter taste. She managed to vomit out the small quantity she’d taken with the assistance of her maid, Elizabeth Richmond. The bottle of mineral water was subsequently taken to a pharmacy to be analyzed and was discovered to contain a lethal dose of strychnine. Mrs. Stanford was understandably disturbed at her narrow escape, and hired the Harry Morse Detective and Patrol Agency which tried unsuccessfully to trace strychnine purchases in San Francisco pharmacies. Agents also watched the maid, who was under suspicion because she had entertained other members of Mrs. Stanford’s staff with tales of English servants poisoning their aristocratic employers. No evidence of Miss Richmond’s involvement in the attempted poisoning could be established, but Mrs. Stanford fired her anyway!”
“So what was Mrs. Stanford doing in Hawaii?” asked Will.
“She was seriously depressed after the attempt on her life, and decided to take a trip to Japan to get away from it all,” said Marty. “She stopped in Honolulu, and stayed at the Moana Hotel, which is where she took the fatal dose of bicarbonate of soda. Some have even suggested that she committed suicide, but the effects of strychnine poisoning, a gradual stiffening of the limbs into rigidity accompanied by violent spasms are extremely unpleasant, and it is highly unlikely anyone would choose it as a method of suicide. There are much less painful ways to end one’s life.”
“So besides Mr. Jordan and the eccentric maid, are there any other suspects?” inquired Will.
“The fatal bottle of bicarbonate had been purchased before Mrs. Stanford left for Hawaii and had not been previously used. During the bustle of her preparations any one of her numerous staff could have tampered with the bottle,” said Marty. “But only one person was present at both incidents, Mrs. Stanford’s secretary, Bertha Berner. She was very devoted to Mrs. Stanford and served her for twenty years. Most people cannot believe that she would have had any part in murdering her employer, but she did receive a generous bequest of fifteen thousand dollars in Mrs. Stanford’s will. It was she who prepared the fatal draft of bicarbonate for her mistress although she may have been totally ignorant of its dangerous contents. However you and I both know that murders have been committed for far less than fifteen thousand dollars.”
“Too true,” agreed Will. “Perhaps she got impatient for her bequest, and just couldn’t wait for nature to take its course.”
“Then again Dr. David Starr Jordan is a credible suspect,” said Marty. “He was an ambitious man who resented her control over university affairs, and did not want his career and prestige blighted by a dismissal. After her death he went from strength to strength, and was considered an outstanding leader of the university. She could have derailed his progress.”
“But surely he could have had no access to her household,” argued Will. “He could not have personally introduced the poison. He would have needed an accomplice on her staff!”
“I agree it’s a long shot,” agreed Marty, “but somebody did her in. That’s for sure!”
“Granted,” said Will. “But why won’t the boss let you run with the story. It sounds like a sure-fire winner. It would sell a lot of papers.”
“He says he doesn’t want to smear the reputation of a prestigious institution such as Stanford University by raking this thing up again,” said Marty sadly. “He says that he’s not going publish unsubstantiated speculations.”
“But what about the coroner’s report?” asked Will. “That’s not speculation!”
“The boss just doesn’t want to go there,” continued Marty. “I happen to know that he’s acquainted with Mr. Jordan. They are both members of the Bohemian Club. Probably doesn’t want to cause him distress. I’m disappointed, but I’m afraid the death of Jane Elizabeth Lathrop Stanford is going to remain a mystery for the present. Fortunately I have other stories to cover.”
“Never mind, Marty,” said Will sympathetically. “You can’t win them all! Come on down to the Grosvenor Hotel, and I’ll buy you a beer.”
“That’s an offer I certainly can’t refuse!” exclaimed Marty Reilly, reaching for his coat and hat.
The details of Mrs. Jane Stanford’s mysterious death in the Moana Hotel in Hawaii on February 28, 1905, can be found on the internet. The fact that investigations of her death were suppressed, and that for almost one hundred years the cause of her sudden demise was accepted as heart failure is remarkable. Did this cover-up occur to protect the reputation of the University of Stanford from scandal or was it to conceal the true identity of those responsible for her death. Perhaps we will never know. The above story, although containing numerous true facts concerning her murder, is entirely fictional and the product of my imagination. To the best of my knowledge no journalists of the time made any attempt to investigate the mystery. Indeed many newspapers made every effort to enable the cover-up. It was not until Robert Cutler published “The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford” in 2003 that fresh attention was paid to her death.