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Who Killed Jane Stanford?

New investigations confirm she was poisoned by strychnine, but the case will never be solved. Someone got away with murder.

Courtesy Stanford Archives

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By Susan Wolfe

Haunting the hallowed halls of Stanford for almost a century is a hushed-up whodunit that has reared its head only from time to time, and only in whispers. It concerns the mysterious death of the University’s co-founder, Jane Stanford.

Though most history books attribute Mrs. Stanford’s death at 76 to heart failure, a closer look at the documents and drama surrounding her demise reveals a quite different picture. With the publication of his new book, The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford (Stanford University Press, 2003), Stanford physician Robert W.P. Cutler unequivocally answers the question of how Mrs. Stanford met her end: she was murdered.

Yet even the investigators most familiar with the case hesitate to speculate on who the culprit might have been.

The basic facts are these:

On the evening of January 14, 1905, at her Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco, Mrs. Stanford drank a glass of Poland Spring mineral water from a bottle placed in her room, as it was every night, by a household servant. Detecting a bitter taste, she immediately induced herself to vomit and called for her secretary and her maid. They each tasted the water and agreed that it had a “queer” and “bitter” taste. It was sent to the pharmacy for analysis, and some weeks later the verdict was returned. The Poland water had been poisoned with enough strychnine to prove fatal in a matter of minutes.

Deeply troubled by the chemist’s report and suffering from a chest cold made worse by San Francisco’s winter fog, Mrs. Stanford decided to sail for Hawaii, where she could rest and recuperate. Apart from the poisoning, worry enfeebled her: recent reports from a faculty confidant had led her to doubt whether University President David Starr Jordan was the right man to lead the institution.

The Stanford party left San Francisco on February 15, 1905.

On the night of February 28, before retiring to bed at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu, Mrs. Stanford requested bicarbonate of soda as a digestive aid, which her personal secretary, Bertha Berner, prepared. At 11:15 p.m., Mrs. Stanford woke her servants with cries of “I am so sick!” and “Run for the doctor! I have no control of my body! I think I have been poisoned again!”

In his book, Cutler, an emeritus professor of neurology and neurological sciences who served on Stanford’s faculty for some 30 years, notes that Berner was the only person present during both poisoning incidents. He describes the scene that Dr. Francis Howard Humphris found when he entered Mrs. Stanford’s hotel room:

As Humphris tried to administer a solution of bromine and chloral hydrate, Mrs. Stanford, now in anguish, exclaimed, “My jaws are stiff [Humphris confirmed the contraction of her jaw muscles by palpation]. This is a horrible death to die.” Whereupon she was seized by a tetanic spasm that progressed relentlessly to a state of severe rigidity: 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.

With the help of several other physicians called to the hotel, Humphris evidently did everything he could to revive Mrs. Stanford. He tried to administer an emetic, he called Dr. Francis R. Day to hurry over with a stomach pump, he sent for his medical bag and for another colleague, Dr. Harry Vicars Murray, but none of these steps was enough to keep Mrs. Stanford alive.

An autopsy and an inquiry by a coroner’s jury followed. After reviewing the autopsy report and hearing three full days of testimony, the jury took only two minutes to reach its conclusion: “... Jane Lathrop Stanford came to her death ... from strychnine poisoning, said strychnine having been introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.... ”

By this time, Jordan was en route to Honolulu with a party of his own—and apparently with a mission. Upon his arrival, he quickly hired a local physician, Ernest Coniston Waterhouse, to dispute the cause of death. How he chose Waterhouse is not certain, but with that doctor’s brief report in hand, and Mrs. Stanford not yet laid to rest, Jordan made a pronouncement to the press. Contrary to the earlier reports of poisoning, Mrs. Stanford had died of heart failure, he said. That is the story that made the history books.

For a decade following her husband’s death in 1893, Jane Lathrop Stanford was the sole trustee of the University the couple had established in memory of their son. As historians Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger put it in Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (1955), she doted on the fledgling institution with “the commanding meddlesome love which an unbridled maternal instinct thrusts upon an only child. ”

Jane involved herself in Stanford’s daily management, corresponding with Jordan on every operational matter. When she disapproved of a faculty member, for whatever reason, she told Jordan to oust him. And when she began to second-guess some of Jordan’s decisions, she found a faculty confidant, German professor Julius Goebel, to keep a paper trail on him.

It wasn’t until 1903 that Mrs. Stanford finally was persuaded to turn over the reins to a board of trustees, and when she did, she retained the presidency of the board herself.

Cutler says he gained insight into the relationship between the University’s president and its founder while researching a paper on Mrs. Stanford’s death, which a friend had asked him to prepare for an informal meeting of Stanford history buffs. At the University Archives, he bumped into an old acquaintance who, curiously, seemed to be asking for all the same files. It turned out that emeritus humanities professor Bliss Carnochan was researching the firing of Goebel. (Carnochan’s full account appears in the summer 2003 issue of the American Scholar, quarterly magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.)

Coincident with the time of the poisonings, Carnochan learned, Goebel had been poking into University matters at the matriarch’s request, reinvestigating a number of controversies surrounding Jordan. Goebel, whom Jordan fired after Mrs. Stanford’s death, was in Carnochan’s words “a confidant, if not a spy for Jane Stanford.”

In his article, Carnochan writes, “The relationship between Jane Stanford and Jordan, despite a veneer of civility, was a vexed one.” Jordan, he observes, “could hardly have enjoyed being under the thumb of Jane Stanford.”

By 1904, it appears that Mrs. Stanford had lost her toleration for Jordan. In June, Goebel had reported in a letter to her that Jordan’s favoritism and political patronage were endangering faculty recruitment. In a letter to trustee Horace Davis, who was another in her inner circle, Goebel wrote that she had reached the point of “final remedy … the removal of the President.”

Which brings us back to Honolulu and Jordan’s surprising announcement, with only the slapdash report from Waterhouse to support his conclusion that Mrs. Stanford had died of a heart ailment. Whether to shield the University from ugly gossip or to shield himself from suspicion of wrongdoing, “Jordan rushed out to Hawaii,” writes Carnochan, “and basically whitewashed Jane’s death.”

The perception of Hawaii as “an outpost of primitive people that didn’t know what they were doing must have factored into Jordan’s belief that he could sweep this whole thing under the rug,” Cutler says.

In his book, Cutler carefully documents how Jordan smeared Humphris and his medical colleagues in personal correspondence and press reports in an orchestrated effort to cast doubt over them. The president went so far as to accuse Humphris of adding the strychnine to the bicarbonate of soda after Mrs. Stanford had died, and “after he had time to read up [on] the symptoms a little.... [He is] a man without professional or personal standing,” Jordan wrote in a March 22 letter to new Board president Judge Samuel F. Leib. In addition, Jordan advised authorities in Honolulu to “keep watch of the actions as well as of the past history of the two physicians at the Moana Hotel,” Cutler writes.

When Humphris confronted him directly, Jordan denied making the derogatory statements. Yet he never publicly corrected his denigration of the skills and judgment of the Honolulu physicians and the toxicologist, leaving a record that impugns their competence and integrity.

One hundred years later, as Cutler delved into the careers of the doctors who attended Mrs. Stanford on the night of her death and those who performed the autopsy and inquest, he discovered a group of individuals held in high esteem, personally and professionally. Their unwavering unity of opinion on this case was compelling. Once it was clear there was nothing more to be done for Mrs. Stanford, Humphris and Murray took great care to gather the material evidence at the death scene: the bicarbonate of soda, the glass and spoon used to prepare it, the chamber pot, an ounce of gastric vomit and the cascara capsules on the nightstand. They gave these items to the sheriff in the presence of Judge William Stanley, who in turn watched the sheriff hand off the evidence to the chief sanitary officer of the Hawaii Territorial Board of Health.

The autopsy was conducted by seven physicians and a toxicologist, including three doctors who had not attended Mrs. Stanford on the night of her death. A mortician and a morgue assistant were witnesses.

“Dr. Jordan characterizing Dr. Humphris as he did was just wrong, and I am quite sure that he knew it,” Cutler says. “There is ample evidence that Mrs. Stanford was poisoned, that she was given good care, and that Jordan went over there to hush it up.”

It’s not surprising that the authoritative statement by Jordan—a university president and prominent scientist—would be given more credence than the statements of “a bunch of hick doctors on a recently annexed island,” Cutler says. Although Jordan referred to an “investigation” when he revised the cause of death, the Waterhouse report was never made public.

Jordan would later hint at conspiracy among the medical practitioners in Hawaii. In Cutler’s judgment, however, the rapid unfolding of events on the night of the death, the sheer number of people involved in the incident, eyewitness accounts made public by the coroner’s inquest, and the independent autopsy evidence render that notion “preposterous.”

The only doctor of questionable character, he says, was the one Jordan hired. On September 7, 1905, the San Francisco Call described Ernest Waterhouse as “the only medical man in Honolulu who ... would express an opinion in accordance with the views held by Dr. Jordan.”

Jordan paid Waterhouse the present-day equivalent of $7,000 for a four-page report slapped together without much independent investigation. Confronted by Humphris, who accused him of unethical conduct for consulting on the case without any firsthand knowledge, Waterhouse sought an attorney. Then, within days of receiving his payment from Stanford, he sailed for Ceylon.

It is unclear whether he fled to escape threats of exposure by his colleagues or to explore agricultural ventures. Waterhouse had always wanted to start a rubber plantation.

“It seems reasonable to suppose that his sizable fee from Stanford facilitated his Far Eastern enterprise,” Cutler writes. “When he returned to Honolulu three months later . . . charges of unethical conduct awaited him.” But there is no evidence that the accusations were ever formally pursued.

Neither Cutler nor Carnochan is quick to speculate on who murdered Mrs. Stanford.

The records show that only one person was present at both poisoning incidents, and that was the personal secretary, Bertha Berner. (A maid—and yes, the butler—had been questioned and exonerated by San Francisco police; they were not in the Hawaii party.) Berner had been Mrs. Stanford’s companion for 30 years, and every indication is that a caring association had developed. Berner was treated well and accompanied Mrs. Stanford on all her exotic travels; the two seemed fond of each other. While the rest of the household staff each received $1,000 in Mrs. Stanford’s will, Berner inherited $15,000—equivalent to about $100,000 today—plus a home.

Although police and private investigators interviewed her after the death, and she testified at the inquiry, Berner was quickly discounted. “Bertha was whispered about, but she was not considered a serious suspect,” Cutler says.

She wasn’t a credible witness, either. Cutler considers her two memoirs (Incidents in the Life of Mrs. Leland Stanford, by Her Private Secretary, Bertha Berner, and Mrs. Leland Stanford: An Intimate Account) more fiction than fact and disputes many of the fanciful details she describes. For example, Berner claims that she and her employer watched the moon rise over the Pacific on the fatal evening, but astronomy charts show the moon didn’t rise until 2:53 the next morning. By then, Mrs. Stanford had expired. And the secretary’s recollection of the death itself varies from one book to the other.

“Most historians don’t put much credence in her accounts, and I certainly don’t,” says Cutler. Still, Berner was getting on in years when she wrote her memoirs, and they seem to him more a grasp at creating a romantic and colorful fantasy than a calculated set of lies.

Cutler is reluctant to say much more about possible suspects. “Berner seems to have had ample opportunity but no obvious motive,” he says. “Jordan seems to have had motive but no obvious opportunity.”

Could the two have worked together?

“If anyone wishes to draw such conclusions, they should have evidence to support them. I couldn’t find any, so I will leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”

Carnochan is less guarded. “We need not skirt the question of Jordan’s possible involvement,” he writes in the American Scholar:

Could David Starr Jordan have been responsible for Jane Stanford’s death? He had the motive . . . but could he have brought it off without help from a pharmacist and a household servant? Even the most vivid conjecture resists the notion of Jordan slipping into Mrs. Stanford’s San Francisco pantry, bath, or bedroom to spike her mineral water or lace her bicarbonate of soda with strychnine. In no printed source that I have seen was Jordan ever implicated as a suspect, but who at the time would have known that his presidency was at risk? A letter … from Goebel, written after he had moved on to Harvard, implies that Jordan was capable of doing whatever he needed to do . . . But no conclusion is to be had, beyond the most obvious: Anything is possible.

Robert is a terrific sleuth,” Carnochan says of his longtime faculty colleague. “The level of detail that he has uncovered and his skill as a storyteller combine for a scholarly work that’s entertaining and newsworthy. If you find the thought of Mrs. Stanford being murdered wildly implausible, you might want to have a look at The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford.”

Indeed, Cutler’s detective work proved too much for the friend who initially asked him to research the story, then decided the paper would not be presented because the implications were too unseemly. That only whetted Cutler’s curiosity and prompted the book.

University archivist Margaret Kimball commends both authors for looking at all the documentation they could find, both in the Bay Area and in Hawaii, and evaluating it carefully.

“Their accounts provide another take on what happened,” says Kimball, ’80.

Speculating on an unsolved, century-old murder is risky business—something serious scholars tend to shy away from, except, perhaps, when they speak off the record. But for the record, Cutler effectively makes this case: Jane Stanford did not die a natural death.


Susan Wolfe, ’81, is a Palo Alto writer and co-author of From the Ground Up: Building Silicon Valley (Stanford U. Press, 2002).

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