The Unsolved Murder of Jane Stanford
Case File Overview
Jane Stanford and her husband Leland founded Stanford University in 1891. The university was created to memorialize their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who tragically died from typhoid fever when he was only fifteen years old.
Leland, Jane, and Leland Jr. in 1880
It all began on the evening of January 14th, 1905, at the Stanford Nob Hill mansion in San Francisco. Jane drank from a bottle of Poland Spring mineral water and instantly detected a strong, bitter taste. She quickly induced vomiting with the aid of an emetic.
Her staff sipped the water and confirmed its “queer taste.” Later, testing found that the water contained enough strychnine to kill Jane within minutes.
Police investigated but failed to pinpoint a suspect in the poisoning attempt. Morse, a private detective agency employed by the university, concluded that one of the servants likely put the poison in the water after Jane took a sip of the drink. It was thought this was done by a disgruntled servant in order to implicate another one of the staff. The case was abruptly closed by both the police and Morse’s agency with no resolution.
Stanford Nob Hill Mansion
Disturbed by the confirmation that she had nearly been killed, and seeking relief from a persistent chest cold worsened by San Francisco’s relentless winter fog, Jane set sail for Hawaii on the steamship Korea on February 15th.
During her stay at Honolulu’s Moana Hotel, Jane enjoyed a large picnic on February 28th. Later that evening, Jane suffered from indigestion and took some sodium bicarbonate and a cascara capsule to aid her digestion.
At 11:00 p.m., cries rang out from Room 120. Jane shouted to her staff: “Run for the doctor! I have no control of my body. I think I have been poisoned again!”
Although the resident physician Francis Howard Humphris arrived on the scene while Jane was still conscious, and another doctor a few minutes later, her life could not be saved. Jane was pronounced dead at 11:40 p.m.
The Moana Hotel, 1905
A three-day long coroner’s inquest was held. The autopsy findings, doctors’ testimony, and toxicology results all indicated that Jane had died from strychnine poisoning. It took the coroner’s jury only two minutes to return with the following verdict: “Jane Lathrop Stanford came to her death … from strychnine poisoning, said strychnine having been introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.”
Jane’s murder remains unsolved.
Case File Theories
Was Jane murdered by Bertha Berner? Much of the evidence points to Berner. She served as Jane’s personal secretary and was the only person present during both poisoning incidents. Berner also prepared the sodium bicarbonate that was the vehicle for the strychnine on the night of Jane’s death. Berner was also set to inherit $15,000 (adjusted for inflation, this is more than $415,000 today) and a home in the event of Jane’s death, which could be considered motive for murder.
On the other hand, Berner had been Jane’s close companion for 30 years, and everyone who knew the women insisted that a solid friendship had developed between them. The authorities investigated Berner, but she was “not considered a serious suspect.”
I think it is possible that Berner killed her employer. Ultimately, “she filled Mrs. Stanford’s prescriptions, had unrestricted access to her food and drink, and could come and go in her private quarters without suspicion.” I cannot, however, help but question if money alone would have been enough to compel her to poison her longtime employer and friend. Berner was already living comfortably, and killing Jane seems like a big risk to take.
David Starr Jordan
Jane was extremely involved with the university’s daily management, and often corresponded with Jordan on every operational matter. This micromanaging undoubtedly was unappreciated by Jordan. Moreover, there had been a recent sex scandal among the staff that had further pitted Jane and Jordan against one another. As a result, Jane had apparently become disillusioned with Jordan’s leadership and was attempting to oust him.
Immediately following Jane’s death, Jordan rushed to Hawaii and escorted her body back home. Questioning both the veracity of the official coroner’s findings and the competency of Honolulu’s physicians and toxicologist, Jordan publicly declared that Jane had died from heart disease.
Jordan went as far as to hint that the coroner’s findings had been the result of a grand conspiracy. He hired a doctor of questionable repute, Ernest Coniston Waterhouse, to write a four-page report that concluded, “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,” all without even examining Jane’s body.
Jordan dealt with the strychnine findings in an almost comical manner: he vacillated between arguing: 1) strychnine was never present at the scene of Jane’s death; 2) strychnine had been added to the sodium bicarbonate after Jane’s death to make it appear to be a murder; and 3) Jane purposefully ingested strychnine for medicinal reasons, but it was not what killed her.
David Starr Jordan
Given the above, I have no doubt that Jordan participated in a cover-up of Jane’s murder. But what was his motivation? Did he play a role in Jane’s actual murder? Or were his actions those of a man hellbent on shielding his young university from scandal? Already embattled by public infighting between faculty members and a percolating sex scandal, losing the institution’s remaining founder to a horrifying murder just might have been too much of a controversy for Stanford University to successfully navigate.
I can buy that Jordan’s bizarre behaviour could have been motivated by a desire to save his school and that he may not have been involved in Jane’s murder. But this belief stands only if the unsubstantiated rumours of his affair with Berner are untrue. If there is any truth to them, then it is highly probable that Jordan and Berner acted together to poison Jane.
Who do you think murdered Jane?
Although it seems impossible to know for sure who murdered Jane, one thing is clear: she did not die from natural causes. However, according to most of the history books, and the Stanford University archives, Jane died of heart failure after picnicking in Honolulu. The time has come for the conspiracy of silence surrounding Jane’s death that has lasted for over a century to come to an end.
The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford – book by Robert W. P. Cutler
“The Alma Matter Mystery” – Los Angles Times article
“The Murder of Jane Stanford” – The American Chronicle article
“Who Killed Jane Stanford?” – Stanford Magazine article
Days Gone By: Jane Stanford’s Mysterious Death Still Raising Questions a Century Later – The Mercury News article