By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.                                 

For The Sunday Gazette

Once upon a time—and stories that begin that way always have at least a grain of truth in them—Jane Lathrop Stanford was murdered in Honolulu. Or committed suicide. Or died of natural causes. All three versions of the cause of death have their adherents. At the very least, the death was suspicious. That it occurred on February 28, 1905, makes this a very cold case, the very kind that are now so popular on Sunday night TV.

Jane Stanford was a very wealthy and very famous widow. Her husband, Leland Stanford, had been governor and senator from California, founder and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, and, with his wife, co-founder of the Leland Stanford Junior University, named in honor of their son, who had died at age 15 in 1884. Of course, today we know the institution as just “Stanford University.”

The relevance of the Stanfords to this area is that in 1859, his parents bought and occupied “Locust Grove,” a mansion at the intersection of State Street and Balltown roads that forms a part of the current Ingersoll Memorial Home. Two years later, they deeded the property to Leland’s brother Charles Stanford, who lived there until his death in 1885, and the home then passed to Charles’s son Welton who was named after his uncle, (Thomas) Welton Stanford, another of Leland’s brothers, who engraved his full name on a glass pane during a visit to Locust Grove. That pane is now owned by the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Charles was at one time an Assemblyman and State Senator from districts that included Niskayuna. Of more lasting impact, he led the effort to build the infrastructure that forms the backbone of Schenectady’s water system to this day. And “something in the water” played a role in the tale at hand.

Certain basic facts about the death of Jane Stanford are not in dispute, and are related in great detail in “The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford” by Stanford physician Robert W.P. Cutler (Stanford University Press, 2003).  She first complained that her nightly bottle of Poland Spring water had been poisoned on January 14, 1905 as she prepared to retire. The dose did not prove lethal, her servants agreed that their sips tasted bitter, and a subsequent analysis showed that the toxic ingredient was strychnine, typically used in rat poison.

Poland Spring water from Maine was first marketed in 1859 and continues to be today, though it now has many competitors. They all cost more per gallon than gasoline and taste better, but— thanks to Charles Stanford and our world-class aquifer—not as good as Schenectady County tap water, nor are they as good for your teeth. I don’t understand why anyone around here with decent plumbing buys bottled water.

By this time and ever since the death of Leland in 1893, Mrs. Stanford had been the sole trustee of Stanford University, and she was feeling great stress because of deteriorating relations with university president David Starr Jordan. Only she could fire Jordan, and only Jordan could fire faculty, so they were often of differing minds as to when Jordan’s power should be exercised. She decided to try to put these cares behind her and embarked on a vacation to Hawaii.

On the evening of February 28, shortly after her arrival at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu, Jane Stanford once again claimed to have been poisoned, this time through a bicarbonate of soda. She collapsed in agony, her body ending up in a rigid twisted posture. Once again chemical analysis confirmed a case of strychnine poisoning, and a coroner’s jury unanimously concluded that she had been murdered by a person or persons unknown.

The cast of characters involved in the incidents was large, but few could reasonably be called suspects. One was Jane Stanford herself, of course, who may have taken her own life. But why, after perhaps a first failed attempt, would she have journeyed all the way to Honolulu to try again?  She was known to frequently indulge in spiritualism, and never stopped mourning Leland, Jr. She often said she wished to join him in heaven, but gave no indication that she was in any hurry.

The only other person present at both poisonings was Bertha Berner, Mrs. Stanford’s constant aide and personal secretary of 21 years. She certainly had opportunity, but what could have been her motive? She did inherit $15,000 (at least $100,000 in 2006 money), plus a home, but she may not even have known that she was mentioned in the will. And the inheritance was not enough to keep, for very long, the elegant life style she enjoyed while living with the benefactress whom everyone testified that she loved very much.

The Cutler book contains this interesting photo of Jane Stanford at the Sphinx in Egypt:


(See also the website www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2003/sepoct/features/jane.html.)  Ms. Berner and butler Alfred Beverly are each sitting on a standing dromedary, while Jane and maid Elizabeth Richmond are each sitting on reclining ones. Legend has it that Jane’s beast had become disabled, so she sent Bertha to fetch a new one. Perhaps Berner held a grudge from that day forward for having to walk a mile for a camel.

And then there was David “Lone Starr” Jordan, who behaved rather suspiciously in the aftermath of the alleged murder. He sped to Hawaii himself and paid $7,000 to Ernest Waterhouse, a doctor of questionable credentials and rectitude, to conduct a separate investigation. Waterhouse quickly compiled a secret report that he claimed proved that Mrs. Stanford died of natural causes and sailed off to Ceylon, never to return.

Was Jordan’s only concern protection of his university from scandal? Or, knowing that Mrs. Stanford was on the verge of firing him, did he have a strong motive for murder—a motive but no opportunity? But there is always the possibility that he had worked with one or more co-conspirators.

In addition to two butlers, Mrs. Stanford also employed houseboys Ah Wing and Ah Young (but no Ah Shucks). On the afternoon of her death, she had entertained a visitor, a certain Mrs. Peacock, whose husband later served on the jury for the inquest. Jane also knew a Mrs. White, wife of the president of Cornell. But where were Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, and Colonel Mustard? I haven’t a Clue.

So who put the poison in the bicarb? I suggest it was Mrs. Peacock in the kitchen with an eyedropper.


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., President of the Schenectady County Historical Society, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.