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The Alma Mater Mystery

Stanford's cofounder was poisoned, an academic sleuth contends. He suspects its first president of a cover-up -- or worse.

October 10, 2003|Lee Romney | 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.

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