Jane Stanford

Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University

Jane Stanford, California, circa 1855

It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up. Someone murdered Jane Stanford, the cofounder of Stanford University, on Tuesday, February 28, 1905, putting a precisely calibrated dose of pure strychnine in her bicarbonate of soda. The murderer had made an earlier attempt, introducing rat poison into Stanford’s nightstand bottle of Poland Spring water. We can’t be sure who the murderer was, but in Who Killed Jane Stanford? the Stanford University historian turned sleuth Richard White conducts a thorough investigation that includes showing who covered up the murder: David Starr Jordan, the founding president of the university.

Jordan was at least an accessory after the fact. White reaches his own conclusion about who dunnit, but the real interest of his book is his use of the crime and especially the cover-up to lay bare the forces at work in the early days of Stanford. This institution (where I also teach), with its intimate ties to Silicon Valley, its $36 billion endowment, and its outsized prestige—it generally ranks among the top three universities worldwide—has a gothic heritage that might surprise you, as well as some skeletons in the closet that, alas, might not.

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford, a recent book by the journalist Roland De Wolk, offers important background because, although the murder took place after the death of Leland Stanford, Jane’s husband and the other cofounder of the university, his life set the stage for her death. Despite its glorifying title, American Disruptor penetrates the thicket of hagiography surrounding Leland Stanford, the son of a farmer and innkeeper near Albany, revealing him to be a typical American success story: he blundered and swindled his way to wealth, propelling himself upward by the liberal use of other people’s bootstraps.

A reluctant student who never graduated from secondary school, Stanford dropped out of, or was expelled from, a succession of schools, one after only a single night, apparently because he disliked dining at the same table as Black students. By spending two years clerking for a lawyer in the hamlet of Port Washington, Wisconsin, he received a certification to practice law in the state and established a reputation there—not as a good lawyer but as a man who could drink anyone under the table. In 1850 he went home to marry Jane Lathrop, the daughter of an Albany merchant, and she returned with him to Port Washington. But his legal career was a bust. What next?

The Gold Rush was on, and Leland’s four brothers were in Gold Country. The eldest had gone as a forty-niner, but now they were operating Stanford Brothers general store in Sacramento, having discovered a mother lode in the miners themselves: as Mark Twain probably never said, don’t dig for gold; sell shovels. In the summer of 1852 Stanford’s father disposed of his shiftless son by paying for his passage around Cape Horn to join his siblings. (Before the transcontinental railroad, the sea voyage was cheaper than the land route.) Upon arrival in California, Leland was sent by his brothers to represent their interests in remote mining outposts. In one, called Michigan City, he bought a saloon with a gambling operation, began marketing whiskey, and got the local board of supervisors to appoint him justice of the peace. The dropout and failure, by the alchemy of the golden frontier, was now a businessman and politician.

Back in Sacramento in 1856, having fetched Jane from Albany, Leland lucked out again: his brothers went on to other things and left him the store. Stanford Brothers was adjacent to the hardware store of Collis Potter Huntington and Mark Hopkins, while nearby Charles Crocker was selling carpets, clothing, and shoes. These men, too, had arrived from the East Coast with the Gold Rush and discovered bilking miners to be a more comfortable method of gold digging. The four joined forces, with Stanford as their front man. Building a railroad became their bigger and better brand of bilking, and the nascent Republican Party their racket.

Calling themselves “the Associates” and known in the press as “the Big Four,” Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Stanford formed the Central Pacific Rail Road Company of California in 1861, with Stanford as its president. For several years they’d been trying to get him into a statewide office on the Republican ticket; they now succeeded in getting him elected governor on Lincoln’s coattails. This victory helped position the Big Four to build the railroad and their fortune, which they did by misappropriating tax funds and land grants, bribing legislators, manipulating press coverage, establishing monopolistic control by covertly acquiring the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, siphoning money into their own pockets, and hiding their profits from shareholders and creditors, notably the United States government. A quarter-century later, when the California Legislature appointed Stanford to the US Senate, his term was overshadowed by the congressional Pacific Railway Commission’s investigation of the railroad companies’ books and accounts, or rather by its outraged attempt at an investigation, given the mysterious disappearance of all the documents, which turned out to have fueled a prehearing bonfire.


Stanford’s railroad companies employed 10,000 to 12,000 Chinese laborers, whom they exploited even more brutally than they did the smaller number of mostly Irish white immigrant workers. To lay the rails and build stations, they displaced Native Americans from their lands: the federal Pacific Railway Act of 1862 undertook to “extinguish as rapidly as may be the Indian titles to all lands falling under the operation of this act.” The journalist and writer Ambrose Bierce called the Big Four the “rail-rogues” and referred to Leland Stanford as “Stealand Landford.”

During his term as governor, as in his business ventures, Stanford promoted white supremacy, partly by continuing a genocidal war against California’s native population. Even in his opposition to the extension of slavery, in keeping with the Republican Party’s populist platform, Stanford trumpeted “the cause of the white man.” He elaborated:

I am in favor of free white American citizens. I prefer free white citizens to any other class or race. I prefer the white man to the negro as an inhabitant of our country. I believe its greatest good has been derived by having all of the country settled by free white men.

Regarding the influx of Chinese immigrants, White says, Stanford had it both ways: as a politician he called them “a degraded and distinct people” who would “exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race” and favored checking their immigration; meanwhile, they built his fortune.

Leland Jr. was born in 1868, five years after Leland Sr. finished his term as governor and one year before he drove in the “last spike” establishing the first transcontinental railroad by joining the Central Pacific and Union Pacific rails. A late arrival—his mother was almost forty and his father forty-four—Leland Jr. was a coddled princeling. Accompanying his parents on European tours, he met the pope and the leading French painters and collected art and antiquities to found a museum in San Francisco.

In 1884, at age fifteen, while traveling in Florence, Italy, Leland Jr. died of typhoid fever. His parents’ anguish was limitless; the unappealing Stanfords are at their most sympathetic in their grief for their dead child. The night he died, his parents said, he appeared to his father in a dream, inspiring their resolve to build a university in his name: the childless parents would make the children of California their own. There’s no doubting the authenticity of their emotion. There’s also no doubting that the university served the alchemical purpose of transforming an ill-gotten and tenuously held fortune into a golden posterity, a trick so popular among the robber-baron set that Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, defined “restitution” as “the founding or endowing of universities and public libraries by gift or bequest.”

A gothic atmosphere pervades Stanford University’s early history. The family mausoleum, with its three giant marble sarcophagi and bosomy sphinxes, was Leland Sr.’s first priority. He designated no specific sum in his will for the university overall. For the library, he reckoned something like a gentleman’s private collection would suffice, costing “four or five thousand dollars.” But he allocated $100,000 for the mausoleum. Perhaps this showed foresight, since he came to occupy it soon afterward, in 1893.

The following year, the US Department of Justice sued Leland Stanford’s estate for more than $15 million: the thirty-year loans for the construction of the railroad had come due. The government lost the suit and never got repaid, thanks to a Stanford family ally on the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Jane Stanford and university president David Starr Jordan had to figure out how to maintain and develop the university in strapped and uncertain circumstances. They generally disagreed. Jane saw the university as a monument to the dead, its most important aspect being a museum containing Leland Jr.’s collection and an exact replica of his bedroom with all its original contents. That building collapsed in the earthquake of 1906, the year after Jane’s death; the university’s current art museum still devotes a couple of rooms to reliquary items like Leland Jr.’s baby shoes, some of his toys, and his death mask. Jane also built the Memorial Arch, which like the museum was destroyed in 1906, and the Memorial Church, which was severely damaged and later rebuilt. The arch’s frieze, entitled The Progress of Civilization in America, showed Leland Sr. and Jane crossing the mountains on horseback, indicating the path of the railroad to an obliging locomotive.


Jordan thought faculty salaries more important than gigantic monuments and referred to this period of construction as the “Stone Age.” Adding to the gothic ambience, Stanford arranged séances to converse with her dead son and husband and had the Memorial Church inscribed with a babel of esoteric inscriptions. Leland Sr. had been a Mason, Jane was drawn to spiritualism, and she filled the Memorial Church with symbols of both, including the Masonic God’s eye in the dome and a blizzard of angels transporting Leland Jr. up to heaven.

Spiritualism, or communication with the dead, was popular at the time in America and throughout the British Commonwealth. Queen Victoria, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and President Ulysses S. Grant were spiritualists; William James chaired the Society for Psychical Research’s American division. James appealed to Jordan’s and Jane Stanford’s disparate tastes: while Jordan admired James’s pragmatic philosophy, Stanford liked his dedication to psychic science. They invited him to visit the university, where he ultimately spent a macabre season, arriving ten months after Stanford’s murder and remaining until the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, released him.

Leland Stanford Jr. riding his pony, Gypsy, Palo Alto, California

Stanford Family Collections

Leland Stanford Jr. riding his pony, Gypsy, Palo Alto, California, 1879; photographs by Eadweard Muybridge

One of Leland Sr.’s brothers, Thomas Welton Stanford, had also become deeply involved in spiritualism, after his wife’s death. Jane visited T.W. Stanford in Australia, where he had emigrated and made a fortune selling Singer sewing machines. He arranged several séances for his sister-in-law during her visit. The two agreed that occult sciences were essential to higher education, and he endowed a fellowship at Stanford University in psychic research. (I was disappointed to learn that T.W.’s endowment is now just part of the psychology department’s general funds, but the university still holds his collection of “apports,” or objects delivered to him by spirits.) Jane also proposed to subordinate the academic departments to the church, for which she would hire a spiritualist minister.

These developments constituted an ever-worsening headache for Jordan, who was laboring to give the university a different profile. Jordan rejected spiritualism and considered mediums frauds. He began publishing articles in popular science magazines ridiculing the claims of spiritualists and psychics.

Jordan, like the Stanfords, came from upstate New York; he was a member of Cornell’s third graduating class in 1872. He then joined the summer school for zoology teachers run by the Harvard creationist naturalist Louis Agassiz on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, a few months before Agassiz’s fatal stroke. That summer was transformative for young Jordan, who idolized Agassiz and resolved to become an ichthyologist like him. Although Jordan ultimately became an evangelist of evolutionism (with his own eugenic flavor), he never shed his devotion to the staunchly anti-Darwinian Agassiz, who Jordan said showed students “the necessity of going directly to nature, the fountain head—thus teaching us to recognize the truth as truth.”

Here are some of the things Agassiz recognized as “truth”: that a divine creator had made each species by direct action, that this same creator had made the human races separately from one another, that only white people descended from Adam and Eve, and that one could see the distinct origins of the human races by contemplating “the submissive, obsequious, imitative negro” and “the tricky, cunning, and cowardly Mongolian.”

Having learned Agassiz’s methods for consulting nature, Jordan got a job transmitting them to high school students in Indianapolis, meanwhile picking up a kind of a medical degree at a short-lived school called Indiana Medical College. He then taught zoology at Indiana University, where he later served as president before Leland and Jane Stanford recruited him in 1891. While Leland personifies the American success story, Jordan typifies a certain heroic image of science that became powerful in tandem with that story. This new science defined itself by its separateness from all other modes of understanding—by its reductionism, instrumentalism, utilitarianism, and pragmatism. It had no time for Greek or Latin, literature or history, speculations or interpretations, or any idea without immediate industrial and economic application. It had little time for books: “Study nature not books” was one of Jordan’s mottoes.

Leland’s populist anti-intellectualism suited Jordan. He liked Leland’s notion that a university should train students for “usefulness in life” and his emphasis on science, placing the humanities in a subservient role, including them merely to show the university’s readiness to compete with the old schools on the East Coast. The Stanford University presidency was also attractive to Jordan because it promised an unusual degree of power: since it was a private institution, he wouldn’t have to worry about a state board of regents, and he wouldn’t even answer to the board of trustees, which was to be “without function during the lifetime of either founder.” He would also have the power to hire and fire faculty.

Jordan’s mode of science and Leland’s mode of business were twin expressions of an aspiring industrial class that envisioned itself elbowing aside a senescent elite mumbling in Greek and Latin. Also like Leland’s business model, Jordan’s science model was gilding over dirty tricks: a veneer of objectivity covered a sinister interior in which science not only reaffirmed every social prejudice but armed it with fearsome new powers.

Progress was Jordan’s guiding theme, whether he was writing about fishes, higher education, moral cleanliness, or racial purity. Take fishes. In some conditions they would progress, but not in others, Jordan explained. Rivers, where fish lived in comparative isolation and had less competition, were “ages behind the seas, so far as progress is concerned.” The best conditions for piscine progress were to be found in the tropics, which served “to intensify fish life, to keep it up to its highest effectiveness,” such that a tropical fish must rid itself “of every character or structure it cannot ‘use in its business.’” As the pathetic, backward river fishes and brilliantly successful tropical business-fishes demonstrated, Jordan explained in his lectures and writings on evolution, natural selection made progress possible but not inevitable. Competition, given the right selective pressures, would bring progress, but a lack of competition or the wrong selective pressures would bring regression and degeneracy.

War was among Jordan’s leading examples of a situation that would lead to regression. He promoted pacifism during the period before World War I, arguing that war impedes progress by producing the survival of the unfit, since the strong young heroes die, leaving the weaklings to procreate. Jordan developed this argument in The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit (1907). The book went through many editions, including an expanded one under the even more sinister title The Human Harvest. Here Jordan lays out his two reciprocal guiding principles: “the blood of a nation determines its history” and “the history of a nation determines its blood.” Of course, he explains, “blood” is figurative, since heredity is carried not in the blood but in the “germ-plasm” (then the current view). “Blood” simply means “race unity.” Jordan’s prose acquires a lilt as he offers examples: “A Jew is a Jew in all ages and climes…. A Greek is a Greek; a Chinaman remains a Chinaman.”

Jordan’s commitment to progress also informed his advocacy of coeducation, though you couldn’t really mistake him for a feminist. A woman must be educated, he argued, in order to produce that pinnacle of social evolution, the “civilized home.” Furthermore, associating with cultivated young women in college would inspire in young men, as Jordan expressed it, “the highest manhood.” Jordan’s eugenic logic didn’t always lead him to creditable ideas such as pacificism or coeducation. He chaired the Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeders Association and cofounded the Human Betterment Foundation, which later provided information and propaganda to Nazi officials. In these capacities, he vigorously advocated forced sterilizations, and his efforts were very successful: over the course of the twentieth century, about 20,000 people in state-run hospitals and other institutions were the victims of forced sterilization in California, and about 60,000 people nationally. (In 2021 California became the third state to begin a reparations program for survivors of state-sponsored sterilization.)

Eugenics programs such as these were the sort of progress through science to which Jordan wanted to dedicate Stanford University. But Jane Stanford kept getting in the way with her psychic sciences and gothic construction projects. In 1900 a crisis occurred that created a rift between Jordan and Stanford and between the sciences and the humanities, and that ultimately assumed formative importance for universities throughout America. Edward Ross, an economics professor and one of the highest-profile members of the Stanford University faculty, angered Stanford in various ways. He criticized Leland in class, telling his students that “a railroad deal is a railroad steal” and that “all great fortunes [are] based on theft.” He lectured against the gold standard and turned the lectures into a widely disseminated pamphlet; Jane Stanford, along with the Republican Party, supported the gold standard. He gave a speech to a group of socialists; she hated socialists. He spoke at the Unitarian Church of Oakland, denouncing private streetcars, which were in Stanford’s stock portfolio, and addressed the United Labor Organizations of San Francisco, attacking “coolie labor,” which had built Leland’s railroad.

Stanford asked Jordan to fire Ross, who like Jordan believed in progress through evolutionary science and in using eugenics to prevent “race degeneration.” Jordan didn’t want to; Harvard president Charles Eliot assured him that doing so would be “a great calamity” for the university’s reputation. But ultimately Jordan had no choice; Stanford forced Jordan to force Ross to resign, saying he had threatened the university’s reputation for “serious conservatism.” The firing set off a landslide. George Howard, a history professor, denounced Ross’s ousting with dramatic flair during a class on the French Revolution and soon afterward resigned, beginning an exodus that Horace Davis, later president of the board of trustees, referred to as the “great secession of 1900–01.” The scandal provoked a nationwide discussion of academic freedom that inspired the creation of the American Association of University Professors in 1915, which in turn established the current system of academic tenure.

Stanford began seriously entertaining the idea of getting rid of Jordan himself, while Jordan started confiding to students how much better things would be once Stanford died. He also began working to fire faculty members he thought disloyal to him. The battle lines formed along disciplinary lines, with the humanities on the anti-Jordan side. The head of the Latin department, Ernest Pease, refused to sign a letter condemning Ross; Jordan fired him. Then Julius Goebel, the head of the German department, complained to Stanford about the disproportionate power and money of the university’s science departments and the weakness of the humanities departments. He explained to her how things worked in German universities, where the Geisteswissenschaften retained their prestige alongside the rising Naturwissenschaften. Goebel proposed a set of reforms to curtail the sciences and strengthen the humanities; in the summer of 1904 Stanford drafted a memorandum supporting them. Jordan began maneuvering to block the reforms. A few months later Stanford was dead, and Jordan fired Goebel.

Which brings us back to Jane Stanford’s murder. On January 14, 1905, someone put rat poison in her bedside bottle of Poland Spring water. When she took a sip before going to sleep, it tasted bitter, and she called for help. Her maid, Elizabeth Richmond, and secretary, Bertha Berner, came running and helped her vomit up the poison. When the maid brought the bottle to be analyzed, it turned out to contain strychnine.

Six weeks later, on February 28, Stanford was at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu during a stopover on her way to Japan when it happened again: she took a dose of bicarbonate of soda at bedtime and soon began to feel very sick. She called for help, and Berner, who was traveling with her, came rushing to her aid, as did her new maid, May Hunt, and a hotel guest staying across the hall. Francis Humphris, a doctor who lived in the hotel, tried to induce vomiting and called another doctor to bring a stomach pump and a third to assist. Stanford was suffering convulsions, exclaiming that she was terribly sick, that her jaws were stiff, that she had been poisoned and was dying. She cried out, “Oh God, forgive me my sins,” then “Is my soul prepared to meet my dear ones?” and finally “This a horrible death to die.” She died in the classic posture of strychnine poisoning victims: knees widely separated, soles of the feet turned inward, insteps arched, toes pointed, eyeballs protruded, pupils dilated, jaws fixed, fingers contracted, thumbs digging into the palms of her hands.

Witnessing this and knowing of the previous episode of attempted poisoning, the three doctors had no doubt of the cause of death, but they were thorough. They examined the body and kept the bicarbonate of soda, the glass and spoon used to mix it, and some vomit. The next morning they participated in the autopsy, and eight days later, on March 9, the coroner’s jury inquest returned a straightforward verdict: “Death by poison conclusive.”

The next day, Jordan arrived in Honolulu and set about overturning the verdict. He hired his own medical expert, Dr. Ernest C. Waterhouse, who asserted that Stanford had not been poisoned. Rather, she had overeaten at lunch, which had caused gas, which had provoked hysteria, which had brought about a fatal heart attack. Jordan insinuated that the doctors and authorities in Honolulu had fabricated the evidence of poisoning. He smeared Dr. Humphris as incompetent and dishonest, saying the doctor had put the strychnine into the bicarbonate of soda after the fact.

Jordan bolstered his case in Honolulu and San Francisco by promising favors and bribing corrupt investigators, so that Humphris’s astonished protests fell on deaf ears. Jordan’s version of events became the official one and remained so for the next century.* Waterhouse’s reputation was shot, since people in the medical world knew the truth, but no matter: he immediately left Hawaii, and the practice of medicine, for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he planned to cultivate rubber trees. Jordan, who invested in rubber plantations, no doubt promised help as well as payment for Waterhouse’s services. But the rubber venture didn’t work: Waterhouse died decades later as a transient in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. As for who killed Jane Stanford, you’ll have to read the book to find out White’s conclusion, but as you can see, clearly someone did.

What about those skeletons in the closet? To acknowledge that Stanford had been poisoned would have exposed the corruption and illegitimacy of the university’s funding, the whimsical autocracy of its governance, and the incompetence of its founders. Corruption, autocracy, and incompetence skulk here alongside white supremacy in its various guises, from exploitation to genocidal elimination. But there’s also a malignant force less familiar as such, one that doesn’t skulk but declares itself proudly: “science” in Jordan’s mode, the kind that claims to cast off history, culture, and politics in order to go “directly to nature” and speak in nature’s name. The story of Stanford University’s early years reveals the evil in this mode of science and its intimate affiliation with those other evils.

William James encountered this last iniquity—the scientific university in the mode of Leland Stanford and David Starr Jordan—when he arrived for his visit in January 1906 to teach a course in the history of philosophy. “If I can only get through these next 4 months and pocket the $5,000,” he wrote to a friend, “I shall be the happiest man alive.” He had 300 students and 150 guests, and in his own estimation he lectured excellently, but his efforts were wasted: his students didn’t understand basic concepts such as “hypothesis” or “analogy.” He could hardly “aim too low.” While he appreciated the California landscape, James warned that the university’s governing powers had failed to make a sufficient priority of intellectual teaching and scholarship. It was a relief when, on April 18, the earthquake sent him back east early.

The next year James gave an address to the Association of American Alumnae at Radcliffe about the social importance of a college education, arguing that the humanities were its very crux. The humanities, he observed, were nothing less than the “sifting of human creations” and should encompass all teaching on a college campus, including the social and natural sciences: “Any subject will prove humanistic” if only it were taught “historically”—as an integral element of an ever-developing culture and society. To disconnect the sciences from the world of human pursuits and relations, James warned, was to remove all meaning and integrity from the subjects, reducing them to “a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.”

Hope lies in the incongruities of history. Because people like Leland Stanford and David Starr Jordan don’t have the transcendent powers to which they lay claim, things can develop in unpredictable ways. Stanford University, for instance, became the scene of the pivotal case in the foundation of academic freedom and eventually offered the humanistic teaching of all subjects, including the sciences.

Let me then tell you a story to end this poisonous tale with a small taste of antidote. It begins, to be sure, in darkness, in the winter of 2020. Donald Trump has just expanded his travel ban to include people from several more of what he has called “shithole countries.” Given the number of international students and faculty at Stanford, each such Trumpian act causes particular consternation and chaos, and we’re scrambling to see what we can do for our Ph.D. students from the affected countries. But a ray of light in the form of an undergraduate student has entered my office. He’s a history major concentrating in the history of science, writing his honors thesis on the history of eugenics in California. His name is Ben Maldonado (now he’s a Ph.D. student in the history of science at Harvard) and he’s done a prodigious amount of research, partly for his thesis, partly for a column in The Stanford Daily, and partly for a movement he’s founded with other students—the Stanford Eugenics History Project—with the goal of demanding that the psychology building, Jordan Hall, as it is known at this time, be renamed.

Neither Ben nor I would have fallen into Leland Stanford’s or David Starr Jordan’s top category of humans, but to be fair, neither of them falls into ours. “I don’t understand why people don’t want to talk about the history of eugenics at Stanford,” he says to me. “It’s not our fault; we weren’t here then! But now, Stanford is us, so we have to do what we can to make it right.” His logic is unexceptionable, and his means of making things right is historical scholarship. History didn’t fall into Stanford’s or Jordan’s top category of endeavors, but to be fair, their pursuits don’t fall into ours.

The following autumn, the Stanford Eugenics History Project won its cause. The building formerly known as Jordan Hall is now nameless, awaiting a new name. A month later, Trump failed to retain the presidency, and a few months after that, our students from his “shithole countries” got visas and arrived on campus.

Two years later, a visitor to campus stops me as I’m walking to my office. He’s on his way to a colloquium in the psychology department. He too would have fallen into one of Jordan’s categories of inferior humans. In accented English, glancing worriedly at the map on his phone, he asks if I can direct him to Jordan Hall. “Well now,” I tell him, “yes and no! There’s an interesting story there, do you have a minute?” And although he’s probably already late for his meeting, he pauses to listen, with a dawning smile.