Who killed Jane Stanford? : a gilded age tale of murder, deceit, spirits, and the birth of a university

by White, Richard, 1947-

Format: Print Book 2022
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In 1885 Jane and Leland Stanford cofounded a university to honor their recently deceased young son. After her husband's death in 1893, Jane Stanford, a devoted spiritualist who expected the university to inculcate her values, steered Stanford into eccentricity and public controversy for more than a decade. In 1905 she was murdered in Hawaii, a victim, according to the Honolulu coroner's jury, of strychnine poisoning. With her vast fortune the university's lifeline, the Stanford president and his allies quickly sought to foreclose challenges to her bequests by constructing a story of death by natural causes. The cover-up gained traction in the murky labyrinths of power, wealth, and corruption of Gilded Age San Francisco. The murderer walked.

Deftly sifting the scattered evidence and conflicting stories of suspects and witnesses, Richard White gives us the first full account of Jane Stanford's murder and its cover-up. Against a backdrop of the city's machine politics, rogue policing, tong wars, and heated newspaper rivalries, White's search for the murderer draws us into Jane Stanford's imperious household and the academic enmities of the university. Although Stanford officials claimed that no one could have wanted to murder Jane, we meet several people who had the motives and the opportunity to do so. One of these, we discover, also had the means.

Published Reviews
Booklist Review: "Reading like a conversational history lecture in book form, Stanford professor emeritus White's (California Exposures, 2020) mostly captivating book chronicles the deception around the death of Jane Stanford, cofounder of Stanford University. More than 100 years after Stanford's death from strychnine poisoning, White seeks to uncover why the university, citing Stanford's death as "natural causes," covered up the details all those years ago. At the same time, he digs into the politics of the university's founding, and it's here that White at times gets bogged down in responding to all the questions presented by the mystery. Outside those chapters, though, this is an eminently clear, sharp, and readable account, featuring staccato sentences and breezy chapters. As he interrogates the past, White leaves the reader wondering if the truth is always in the answers."
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review: "True crime doesn't come more stranger than fiction than the unsolved murder of Jane Stanford (1828--1905), the widow of robber baron Leland Stanford, who died in Hawaii of strychnine poisoning a month after a previous attempt to kill her the same way in San Francisco. Despite her wealth and power (among other things, she and her husband founded Stanford University), her murder was covered up; the true cause of death was concealed from the public for years; and it was reported that she'd died from heart failure. White (Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America), an emeritus professor of American history at Stanford who has taught an undergraduate seminar on the mystery, provides the fruits of decades of research and analysis, in what is likely to be the last word on the case, including a plausible solution. He examines multiple suspects, including Stanford's private secretary, Bertha Berner, who was present during both poisoning episodes; a Chinese servant; and university president and noted member of the university's science faculty, David Starr Jordan, who both had access to strychnine and motive, because Stanford threatened his position after a series of disputes about the direction of the academic institution. This is an instant genre classic. (May)"
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Additional Information
Subjects Stanford, Jane Lathrop, -- 1828-1905.
Stanford University -- History.
Murder -- Hawaii -- Case studies.
Conspiracy -- Hawaii.
Case studies.
True crime stories.
Publisher New York, NY :W.W. Norton & Company,2022
Edition First edition.
Language English
Description xviii, 362 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Bibliography Notes Includes bibliographical references (pages 303-349) and index.
ISBN 9781324004332
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