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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

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.

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