After the death of her husband in 1893, Jane Lathrop Stanford became sole trustee of Stanford University. For the next ten years, she involved herself in the daily running of the institution. She worked closely and often butted heads with Stanford University president, David Starr Jordan—particularly over issues of academic freedom and political patronage. By 1904, the situation between the two had dramatically deteriorated, and it was rumored that Jordan would soon be losing his job. However, the death of Mrs. Stanford in 1905 short-circuited that outcome—and the fact that she actually died under very suspicious circumstances has remained a hushed and unsolved mystery to this day.
Nearly ten years ago, Stanford physician Robert W. P. Cutler published The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford (Stanford University Press, 2003). While most history books attribute Jane’s death at 76 to heart failure, Cutler’s studies reveal and confirm the original coroner’s ruling of death by strychnine poisoning. Meaning, of course, that she was murdered. Cutler, a neuroscientist and 30-year member of the Stanford faculty, did extensive research of the events, evidence, documents, and medical personnel that were present the night of Mrs. Stanford’s death. His conclusion of murder by poisoning opens the door to continued speculation as to “who dun it.”
On the evening of January 14, 1905, Jane Stanford was at home in her Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco. While sipping some of the Polish bottled water that was customarily delivered to her room each night, Jane detected an odd “bitter” taste. The water was sent to a pharmacist for analysis and a few weeks later the report came back—it had been poisoned with a fatal dose of strychnine. Shaken by the chemist’s news, stressed from her continuing adversarial relationship with David Starr Jordan, and suffering from a bad cold, Stanford decided to sail to Hawaii for rest and recuperation. The Stanford party departed San Francisco for Honolulu on February 15 and checked into the Moana Hotel upon arrival days later.
On the evening of February 28, 1905, Mrs. Stanford requested bicarbonate of soda to settle her stomach. Her personal secretary, Bertha Berner, prepared the solution for her. At 11:15PM, Jane Stanford cried out for a physician, declaring that she had lost control of her body and had been poisoned.
The hotel doctor arrived and tried to administer an antidote, but Stanford’s body convulsed and seized up, her breathing stopped, and she was dead. An autopsy by the Honolulu coroner made the determination that the cause was strychnine poisoning, intentionally put into the bicarbonate to kill. But before the story could even hit the newspapers, David Starr Jordan arrived in Honolulu—just in time to announce that Jane Stanford had died of heart failure. Was it a cover up? While it appears that murder motives for Miss Berner or Mr. Jordan (operating alone or possibly in tandem) may have been under consideration, little was seriously pursued and nothing was proved. (Berner certainly had the means as Mrs. Stanford’s longtime personal assistant; Jordan, a motive in the possible loss of his important position at Stanford.) Today, the truth about what happened to Jane Stanford at the Moana Hotel remains a quiet mystery. The room she died in no longer exists, having been absorbed by a hotel lobby expansion in later years. Stanford is buried with her husband and son in the family mausoleum on the grounds of Stanford University.
“Who Killed Jane Stanford?” (by Susan Wolfe, Stanford Magazine, OCT/NOV 2003)
Poisoned Palms: The Murder of Mrs. Jane Lathrop Stanford (by Dorothea Buckingham, 2005)