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Corruption, Ghosts and Strychnine: ‘Who Killed Jane Stanford?’ is a Portrait of San Francisco’s Gilded Age
Thursday, June 30, 2022

Corruption, Ghosts and Strychnine: ‘Who Killed Jane Stanford?’ is a Portrait of San Francisco’s Gilded Age

Though many had their suspicions—and others knew for certain that it was a lie—the official story of the death of Jane Stanford held for nearly a century. Even after the ugly truth of her murder was laid bare, the identity of the killer of the co-founder of Stanford University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning on the West Coast, remained a mystery for another two decades.

Now, a detective of sorts has finally untangled the coverup and named the person he’s convinced is responsible for murdering Stanford—wife to railroad tycoon Leland Stanford. That detective is Richard White, an eminent historian of the American West and emeritus Stanford professor.

In Who Killed Jane Stanford? White lays out a convincing argument that the coverup of Stanford’s 1905 murder was orchestrated by the university’s then-president, David Starr Jordan. The point was to protect the financial pipeline to the fledgling university that would be filled with ill-gotten railroad money from Leland’s fortune.

Astonishingly, the university clung to the fabrication that its namesake had died of natural causes until a Stanford physician concluded in a scathing evaluation in 2003 that she was actually murdered.

To this day, the killing of Jane Stanford remains a topic the administration would rather not discuss.

White, however, is more than happy to spill the tea. In his new book—published by W.W. Norton—the author uncovers a story that was buried soon after Jane joined her husband and son in the university’s mausoleum.

Richard White, author of “Who Killed Jane Stanford?” | Jesse White

In his painstakingly reported account, White traces the tendrils of the conspiracy from the nascent Stanford campus in what is now Palo Alto, to the Hawaiian island of Honolulu where she drew her last breaths, and all the way back to San Francisco, where a cabal of corrupt cops, officials and private detectives helped the university to keep the truth hidden.

In the process, Who Killed Jane Stanford? reveals itself to be far more than a true-crime page-turner—providing a fascinating and detailed picture of San Francisco during the Gilded Age. 

Here are five of the most interesting takeaways from White’s book.

SF: The Epitome of a Gilded Age City

San Francisco was not like other American cities in the late 1800s—it was much richer, thanks to gold and silver found around the Sierras and the Central and Southern Pacific railroads controlled by Leland Stanford and his three partners. Stanford, who also served as California’s governor, was among the wealthiest of San Franciscans, with a four-story, 50-room Nob Hill mansion fit for a king. 

Stanford’s wealth didn’t come from his business acumen. As White details, he didn’t have any. He failed at most things he touched. Stanford and his partners had mastered the art of fraud and bribery. They deployed their talents to build and operate the railroads, using the assets to create subsidiaries that were essentially slush funds to build their fortunes.

“The fraud was rampant,” White said in an interview. “To sell bonds they are saying things that are not true. They are planting false stories in papers to manipulate the stock market and giving gifts to public officials to vote on bills favorable to them.”

How Spiritualism Guided Jane Stanford

Jane Stanford was a devoted mother but otherwise led an unremarkable life surrounded by her servants. Her relationships with those who catered to her are central to White’s thriller; her drinking water was poisoned with strychnine on two occasions—once in her own bedroom in Nob Hill and six weeks later in a hotel room in Honolulu. While she survived the first attempt, the latter dose proved to be fatal. 

Jane used her money to manipulate everyone from relatives to servants, and most of her personal relationships were highly fraught. “This is about the rich controlling people and not allowing them to have their own lives,” White said. “There is class resentment constantly boiling over among them.”

But what set her apart from other rich San Franciscans was a deep belief in spiritualism, whose devotees believed they could communicate with the dead. During seances Jane thought she was speaking with Leland, who died in 1893, and her deceased son, getting advice from them for her biggest decisions. 

Jane’s spiritualism raised questions about her mental competency to agree to turn over her fortune in trusts to the university. That became the central concern of those carrying out the coverup of her murder.

“Jane is clearly taking instructions from the dead,” White said. “Does that mean she’s crazy? A lot of people around her thought, in fact, she was.”

Stanford Leaves Her Soulprint on Campus

After Leland’s death, Jane took control of parts of the university that the couple established in the memory of their son and deepened her involvement in its day-to-day operations over the next decade until her murder. 

After initially working to steady its troubled finances, she then tried to revamp instruction, firing professors she didn’t like. She became most passionate about imposing her deepening religiosity on the secular school, pushing it to place “soul germ theory” at the heart of the curriculum. It’s the idea that death is not a big deal and just another phase in an eternal life. The faculty shot that down.

“By the end of her life, she’s in control of the board of trustees, and becoming more of a dominant force, not just on the financial side, but on the intellectual side too.”

You Can’t Destroy All the Evidence 

In order for historians like White to excavate the truth from the past, they need documents, letters, diaries—something. 

See Also
Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford (1850) from Days of a Man the autobiography of David Starr Jordan 1922. | Wikipedia Creative Commons

In the many books White has authored, including Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, rarely has he faced such a massive evisceration of evidence as he did with this one. Most of Leland’s records were destroyed because they would have incriminated the railroad baron. Some of Jane’s papers vanished as well but she did keep letters of praise from famous people. The university’s own autopsy of Jane disappeared too. “I have to think it was purposely destroyed,” White said. 

But the tenacious historian found plenty of evidence that points to the killer and a motive. Readers looking for a grand conspiracy driven by the greed and corruption of the Gilded Age will be disappointed. Murder can be as prosaic and petty as the person who commits it. 

Is White satisfied that he found the true villain more than a century later? “I was able to narrow it down to who had the motive and opportunity to poison her twice,” the historian says. “There are plenty of legitimate suspects, but I’m pretty satisfied.” 

A Coverup Made in San Francisco

At the time of the murder, San Francisco’s political machine was remarkably dirty. It was controlled by Abe Ruef, boss of the Union Labor Party, and his handpicked mayor, Eugene Schmitz. They ran elaborate bribery schemes for which they would later go to jail.

Detective Jerry Dinan, who controlled San Francisco’s criminal underworld, funneled payoffs to local politicians. Dinan was assigned to the Jane Stanford investigation on his way to becoming police chief as soon as it was over. 

Dinan and other cops had shown little interest in the pursuit of justice. So when they received instructions from the District Attorney, who was working with university president Jordan and a Stanford estate attorney, to find that Jane died of natural causes, that’s what they did. This, despite a coroner’s jury and sheriff’s finding in Hawaii that she died of strychnine poisoning.

“Dinan is in line to be chief of police,” White said. “He had every reason to cooperate. The police were already in the midst of a corruption scandal and the last thing he needed was another one.” 

Dinan rose to become the chief and soon after was indicted for bribery in 1906.

So why was Jordan so intent on suppressing the truth? He knew that in a criminal trial, the defense would likely raise questions about Jane’s mental competency and behavior. This evidence could then be used by her relatives who believed they had a claim to her fortune, threatening the financial support to the university. 

It’s an old story. Money trumps justice.

Vince Bielski can be reached at [email protected].

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