The Alma Mater Mystery

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Times Staff Writer

Who murdered Jane Stanford?

According to the Stanford University archives, nobody. For now, the official version says the sturdy matron who co-founded the university with her husband died of heart failure after a picnic in Honolulu in 1905.

That, says a retired Stanford physician, is a cover-up.

Jane Stanford, concludes Dr. Robert Cutler in a slim volume just published by the university’s press, was poisoned with strychnine in the second such attempt on her life in as many months. But someone saw to it that the truth was buried.

Another Stanford professor, writing recently in an academic journal, raises a tantalizing possibility: Could the murderer have been Stanford’s revered first president, David Starr Jordan?


The two professors are turning the university’s carefully tended mythology upside down.

“A lot of people inherently think Stanford represents something good and great and almost beyond any imaginable reproach,” said Stephen Requa, a Stanford alumnus and distant relative of Leland Stanford -- the railroad magnate and U.S. senator who founded the Palo Alto university with his wife, Jane.

“Now comes a great evil at the heart of the myth,” Requa said. “It’s a blemish on the university. It can’t just be brushed off.”


Tall and lean with a shock of white hair, Cutler was forced from the rigors of teaching by emphysema. These days, the 70-year-old emeritus professor of neurology is tethered to an oxygen line in a rustic ranch home that overlooks the oak-stubbled Livermore Hills.

Even a trip to the porch is off limits. So Cutler has connected with the wider world by pulling on the threads of history. It was while researching his second book -- on the controversies of magnesite mining in the hills that cradle his land -- that Cutler came across his first clue.

Harry Morse, a gun-slinging Alameda County sheriff turned private eye, had battled the mining companies with verve in the early 1900s. Morse’s gumshoe agency, Cutler learned, had also investigated an attempt to poison Jane Stanford -- just six weeks before she fell dead.

Why, he wondered, was this tale not widely known? He offered to prepare a talk on the subject for fellow medical school retirees who gather regularly to ponder Stanford’s past. But his draft met resistance.


The friend who had planned to present it said “it was just too controversial,” Cutler said. “I took that as a bit of a challenge.”

Cutler waded through archived newspaper accounts. He dissected a nearly century-old autopsy report and a coroner’s inquest. He pored over dozens of letters written by Jordan in the wake of the death. Archivists and other helpers from Hawaii to Great Britain helped him pull off his sleuthing, and his wife, Maggie, made dozens of trips across the San Francisco Bay to retrieve documents from Stanford’s many libraries.

“I went into this with ill feeling toward Jordan,” Cutler said of his initial response. “It got worse as I went along.”

In August, Stanford University Press published Cutler’s “The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford,” a graceful little hardcover that many say lays out the facts of the poisoning -- and the subsequent spin-job -- with such medical expertise and detail as to be irrefutable.

The drama begins on the night of Jan. 14, 1905, at Stanford’s Nob Hill mansion, from which she had steered the university since her husband’s death in 1893.

She had guided the institution through near financial collapse when the federal government successfully sued her husband’s estate to recover $15 million in railroad loans. She had weathered a faculty walkout after she compelled Jordan to fire a professor whose ideas she disdained. And she clashed increasingly with Jordan, the fair-haired ichthyologist whom she and her husband had recruited to lead their coeducational experiment.


Jordan was the youngest U.S. college president when he took the helm of Indiana University in 1885 at age 34. When he accepted the Stanfords’ mandate six years later, he had a single concern: that Leland and Jane wielded too much influence.

Tensions between the physically imposing young Jordan and the aging Jane Stanford are well documented. But to the outside world, the university seemed to be entering a period of peace when Stanford took her customary drink of Poland Mineral Spring Water at her home that January night.

She immediately noted its bitterness, Cutler recounts, and forced herself to vomit. Her maid, Elizabeth Richmond, and personal secretary, Bertha Berner, sampled the tonic and noticed a “queer taste.” Laboratory tests later confirmed the presence of strychnine.

Richmond fell under suspicion and was fired. A former butler was interrogated. So was a Chinese manservant lambasted by a racist press as shifty. But, unable to nail down a motive, Morse’s private detective agency, retained by the university, deduced that the poison was added after Stanford took a sip, in a ploy by one servant to implicate another. The case was closed.

Depressed and distraught, Stanford set sail for Hawaii. On Feb. 28, she swallowed a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and a cascara capsule to aid her digestion and went to bed in Room 120 of Honolulu’s Moana Hotel. She soon cried out in distress.

“Bertha, run for the doctor,” she said. “I have no control of my body. I think I have been poisoned again.”


A resident physician -- Francis Howard Humphris -- arrived while Stanford was still lucid, he would later testify at a coroner’s inquest. As her jaws stiffened, he administered mustard water. But her spasm was in full force.

“This is a horrible death to die,” Stanford was said to have exclaimed. Then, Cutler recounts, “her jaws clamped shut, her thighs opened widely, her feet twisted inwards, her fingers and thumbs clenched into tight fists, and her head drew back. Finally, her respiration ceased.”

A second doctor arrived just before Stanford died, a third minutes after. A coroner’s jury was assembled to view the body. At an autopsy, all the physicians agreed: The body’s rigid posture screamed of strychnine. A toxicologist confirmed its presence in the soda, and indications of it in Stanford’s organs. The autopsy found no other likely cause of death.

Jurors convened for the three-day inquest deliberated two minutes before deciding: Jane Lathrop Stanford, age 76, had been poisoned with strychnine “introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.”

But the next day, Jordan disembarked from the ship Alameda in Honolulu’s harbor -- and the spin began, according to Cutler’s book.

The university president retained his own expert -- a little-known surgeon named Ernest Coniston Waterhouse. Without viewing the body, Waterhouse issued a four-page report that concluded that Stanford had died of heart failure, caused by overexertion, hysterical panic, a chill breeze and the piggish consumption of tongue sandwiches, undercooked gingerbread and chocolates at a picnic.


In the coming weeks, Jordan would vacillate in an effort to dismiss all evidence to the contrary. He was “morally certain” the strychnine had been added after her death, probably by Humphris himself, he told the press.

He later ventured that there was no strychnine at all. Berner had ingested the bicarbonate too, and tasted nothing unusual, he cabled Associated Press. He later retracted the statement. There was strychnine present, he conceded, but it was onlymedicinal.

The Honolulu physicians were outraged.

“It is imbecile to think that a woman of Mrs. Stanford’s age and known mental characteristics might have died of an hysterical seizure in half an hour,” they wrote in the Honolulu press. “No Board of Health in existence could allow a certificate based on such a cause of death to go unchallenged.”

But Jordan saw to it that it did. A U.S. territory for just five years, Hawaii suffered a reputation as an outpost of primitives. That, Cutler said, no doubt emboldened Jordan to brush the doctors’ convictions under the rug.

At Jordan’s direction, another physician later examined Stanford’s heart -- shipped home in a jar -- and declared evidence of coronary disease. But Cutler notes that the report was not made available to university trustees. It cannot be located.

As the months stretched to two decades, each man who had had a role in the inquest was tossed into Jordan’s conspiratorial pot. Humphris was dismissed as “dazed, as if under the influence of some drug.” Jordan accused the toxicologist of fraud.


Jordan eulogized Stanford with emotion, then moved on the following year to rescue the university from the devastation of the San Francisco earthquake and build an institution that would cherish his memory. As Jordan lay on his deathbed in 1931 -- suffering in part from heart disease -- Time magazine called him “one of the grand old men of U.S. pedagogy.”

Cutler came to a less generous view: “He was a scoundrel who would stop at nothing to have his own point of view accepted.”

In recent years, some scholars have taken an interest in Jane Stanford, whose character has morphed through the lens of each passing era, said Roxanne Nilan, a former Stanford University archivist and historian.

In the early years, she was Mother of the University. By the 1950s, she was a doddering widow mocked for her penchant for spiritualism. In the 1960s, she was a robber baroness; by the 1970s, a feminist icon; then, a no-nonsense chief executive. Now there is work underway to unveil a more complete picture. Researchers even excavated the Stanfords’ Palo Alto home.

Many of the documents and press clippings that Cutler relied on have been sitting in Stanford’s archives since the late 1960s.

His first help came from Karen Bartholomew, a board member of the Stanford Historical Society who had written about the death for an in-house publication. In her file: a 12-point letter from Jordan to board of trustees President Samuel F. Leib that suggests he choose whichever alternative to poisoning he thinks most suitable.


“If the tonic theory of strychnine is not acceptable, you have the other, that it was put in by the doctor to bolster up his case, after he had had time to read up on the symptoms a little ... [he is] a man without professional or personal standing,” Jordan wrote.

“That was the defining moment,” Cutler said of his souring sentiment toward Jordan. “To finger the doctor who had worked all night to help her as having done this himself -- that ain’t playing around.”

But when Cutler obtained the autopsy report and coroner’s inquest, he was all the more stunned. “There’s nothing more characteristic than strychnine poisoning, nor is there confusion between strychnine poisoning and heart disease,” said the neurologist. “It would have been clear to anybody.”

Bartholomew did not review the coroner’s documents for her piece, which concluded that Jordan probably acted to protect the institution. Nor did a biography of Stanford -- written in the 1970s by a now-deceased medical doctor -- make reference to the documents. The details sat buried -- not, it seems, by an overt cover-up, but by a sin of omission.

“I didn’t know there was this strong culture of protecting the campus in all respects,” Cutler said. “I now believe there is.”

For their part, university officials say that they are pleased with Cutler’s scholarship and hope it leads to a more thorough examination of Jordan.


“I think he makes a very good case,” said Stanford’s current archivist, Margaret Kimball. “As a physician with a knowledge of poisoning, he had additional questions to ask.”

Cutler not only picked apart the medical documents, but also took pains to investigate the reputations of the physicians in Hawaii. All had respectable careers -- all save Waterhouse.

Jordan’s recruit abandoned his medical practice to invest in Far East rubber plantations, and, after a stint as a clothing salesman, ended up destitute on the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. He died at Stanford Medical School’s teaching hospital.

Still, the book raises more questions than it answers.

Why, Nilan the historian wonders, would Charles Lathrop -- Stanford’s brother and the university’s treasurer -- not have resisted the cover-up? What about her personal secretary, Bertha Berner? Was it merely a coincidence that she was present at both poisonings? And if not Berner, who did it and why?

A damning piece by another academic sleuth, recently published in the American Scholar, sidles a little closer to an answer. W.B. Carnochan, a Stanford humanities professor emeritus, details Jordan’s firing of Julius Goebel -- a German professor who was closely allied with Stanford. Stanford was intent on firing Jordan when she died, Carnochan says. The timing of Goebel’s firing -- set in motion just days after the first poisoning -- suggests that Jordan may have known Stanford’s days were numbered.

“He had the motive,” Carnochan writes, quickly adding that “no conclusion is to be had.”

On the latter, Stanford officials are happy to concur.

They have declined to hold a special Requiem for Jane Stanford, and Isaac Stein, chairman of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, said that Cutler had not proved that Jordan played a role in Stanford’s death or that she was poisoned.


Stein called Cutler’s scholarship “responsible and readable,” but added, “I don’t think this is conclusive evidence of anything.”

Stein said there “would not be a Stanford today if it were not for a David Starr Jordan” and that if he had launched a cover-up, “he might very well have felt he was simply protecting her reputation. The most likely person to put strychnine in her drink would have been her.”

The university Web site notes rumors of poisoning, but officially lists heart disease as the cause of death. That could change, and elements of Cutler’s book might be added to the Web site, although Stein said the university would not attempt to conclude she had been poisoned.

But Gordon Earle, Stanford’s vice president of communications, adds that Jordan’s legacy remains a strong one.

“When you look at the entirety of President Jordan’s career at Stanford, it is clear that he was one of our finest presidents,” Earle said. “He deserves to be remembered -- and memorialized.”

Does it even matter? To some, nothing short of the Stanford mythology is at stake.

“When you have an institutional story that enshrines David Starr Jordan as a heroic figure and you find out that he seemed to have feet of clay, if not lead, you are bound to wonder whether you have been deluded,” Carnochan said, “whether the whole grand story is on very fragile foundations.”