Amasa Leland Stanford was born and grew up in New York; he was a lawyer. Stanford married Jane Eliza Lathrop on September 30, 1850; they first lived in Port Washington, Wisconsin, then New York, and then they moved West after the gold rush, like many of his wealthy contemporaries.
Stanford made his fortune in the railroads; he co-founded and was president of the Central Pacific Railroad (it formed part of the “First Transcontinental Railroad” in North America; It is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.) He served as California Governor and US Senator.
In 1868, the Stanfords had their only child, a son, Leland DeWitt Stanford (later known as Leland Stanford Jr.) In 1876, Stanford purchased the Rancho San Francisquito for a country home and began the development of his famous Palo Alto Stock Farm.
Tragically, in 1884, while travelling in Italy, young Leland died of typhoid fever (2-months before his 16th birthday.)
Within weeks of his death, the Stanfords decided that, because they no longer could do anything for their own child, “the children of California shall be our children.” They quickly set out to find a lasting legacy to memorialize their beloved son.
Ultimately, they decided to establish two institutions in Leland Jr’s name. The ‘Leland Stanford Junior University’ was founded in 1885; on October 1, 1891, it opened its doors with 15 faculty and more than 400 students (David Starr Jordan served as president.) The Leland Stanford Junior Museum opened in 1894.
They were built on the 8,000-acre Palo Alto Farm; a provision in the school’s founding grant stipulated that the land could never be sold. The campus still carries the nickname ‘the Farm,’ it is more commonly called, ‘Stanford.’
The university was coeducational, in a time when most were all-male; non-denominational, when most were associated with a religious organization; and avowedly practical.
The Founding Grant states the university’s objective is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life” and its purpose “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”
On June 21, 1893, Leland Stanford died at his Palo Alto home at the age of 69. For a decade following her husband’s death, Jane Stanford was the sole trustee of the University; she doted on the fledgling institution with “the commanding meddlesome love which an unbridled maternal instinct thrusts upon an only child.” (Wolfe)
Jane involved herself in Stanford’s daily management, corresponding with Jordan on every operational matter. When she disapproved of a faculty member, 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. (Wolfe)
On June 1, 1903, Jane granted control of the university’s endowment and management to the Board of Trustees, although she remained a member of the board and continued to be involved in its operation.
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.” (Wolfe)
Then a small story appeared in a couple out-of-town papers, reporting on a January 14, 1905 incident, “… private detectives are working on an alleged attempt to murder Mrs Jane Stanford … in her home here, by placing poison in mineral water.”
“The contents vomited from the stomach and found in the water were analyzed and showed sufficient poison to kill a dozen people.” (Spokane Press, February 18, 1905.)
Of the incident, Mrs Stanford said: “How dreadful if I had died that time. People might have thought I committed suicide.” (The San Francisco Call, March 7, 1905) Following the incident, she planned a trip.
“If I am not to stay in my San Francisco home, and as the wet season is coming on, rendering it inadvisable for me to go to my country residence, I prefer to go to Honolulu, as it is warmer there.” (Jane Stanford; San Francisco Call, March 7, 1905)
“Mrs Stanford arrived in Honolulu … accompanied by her maid and her secretary (Bertha Berner,) and went at once to the Moana, announcing that she had come here to rest for a few weeks.”
“She seemed, however, very cheerful and received the many friends who called on her in that spirit, although to one at least of the more intimate ones she threw aside her cheerfulness and spoke of the fears that beset her (the prior poisoning attempt.)”
“Mrs Stanford went on a drive to the Pali, and down into Koʻolau, where the party had a picnic dinner. Mrs Stanford ate very heartily, and seemed to enjoy every moment of the drive. The party returned to the Moana hotel, and at dinner time Mrs Stanford went into the dining room.”
“She did not remain more than three minutes, but made no complaint of feeling ill. In fact, she said that she felt remarkably well. … Leaving the dining room, Mrs Stanford sat on the lanai talking very cheerfully until bed, time. At a little after ten o’clock … she went to her room on the second floor of the hotel, and retired.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, March 1, 1905)
“After Mrs. Stanford retired on February 28 I was aroused from my sleep by hearing my name called. I recognized Mrs Stanford’s voice calling out: “Bertha – May – l am so sick.’“
“We rushed out and found her clinging to the frame of her door. Mrs Stanford said: ‘Bertha, run for a doctor.’ Mrs Stanford walked two steps and then said: ‘Bertha, I am so sick.’“ (Bertha Berner; San Francisco Call, March 7, 1905)
Doctors were called; but Jane Lathrop Stanford died in room 120 of the Moana Hotel on February 28, 1905. (The room numbering system has changed at the Moana Hotel; her room is still used in the hotel pool.)
After a 3-day Coroner inquisition, a unanimous verdict in less than two minutes was returned, “The Coroner’s jury to-night returned a verdict that Mrs Jane L Stanford died from … strychnine poisoning, the poison having been introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to the jury unknown.” (San Francisco Call, March 10, 1905)
Dr Robert WP Cutter wrote a book, ‘The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford,’ wherein he implies that Stanford’s President at the time, David Starr Jordan, was involved in a cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Mrs Stanford’s death.
Immediately following her death, Jordan was en route to Honolulu. Jordan and Timothy Hopkins, Stanford Trustee, stated, “In our judgment, after careful consideration of all facts brought to our knowledge, we are fully convinced that Mrs Stanford’s death was not due to strychnine poisoning nor to intentional wrong doing on the part of any one.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, March 16, 1905)
“We think it probable that her death was due to a combination of conditions and circumstances. Among these we may note in connection with her advanced age, the unaccustomed exertion, a surfeit of unsuitable food and the unusual exposure on the picnic party of the day in question.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, March 16, 1905)
Jordan also said, “Dr Humphris (the hotel Doctor) and his associates don’t know what they are talking about.” (Evening Bulletin, March 15, 1905) And later said, “Mrs. Stanford died a natural death in Honolulu”. (Hawaiian Gazette, January 2, 1906)
However, Honolulu papers suggested a bribe, “Hopkins interviewed the physicians and told them that if things were satisfactory, their bills would be paid at once.”
“In different interviews it was plainly shown that it would be satisfactory … if the physicians could arrange to revise their findings and agree that poison had nothing to do with the tragedy, and, in that event the amount of the bills would not be questioned, but it happened that not one of the medical men could or would change what he had said In the first place.” (Hawaiian Star, August 23, 1905)
The Stanford website, in telling the life story of Jane Stanford notes, while “Trace amounts of strychnine were found in her body and in her bottle of bicarbonate … Her cause of death was never conclusively determined.” (Lots of information here from Stanford.)