In the annals of higher education in the United States, academic scandals are a dime a dozen. College presidents routinely find themselves in trouble with trustees, the faculty, or the public for some egregious demonstration of poor judgment. The same could be said for deans and college professors.
That being said, it is hard to find anything that compares to the murder, by poison, of Jane Stanford, who, along with her husband, Leland, Sr., founded the Leland Stanford Jr. University in Palo Alto, CA. The couple, who had lost their prodigious son to typhoid fever at the age of 15, wanted to honor Leland, Jr.’s memory by establishing a west coast version of the famed Ivy League universities of the east coast, especially Cornell, that would lead the nation in making higher education accessible, non-sectarian, and open to women as well as men.
The college accepted its first class in 1891, and two years later, Leland Sr. passed away, leaving his wife, Jane, as the primary steward and principal donor to the fledgling campus. And it was Stanford Sr.’s death that marked a significant turning point in how the new school would be governed over the next ten years.
Independent of Stanford University’s remarkable rise in those early years, including the hiring of David Starr Jordan as its founding president and the recruitment of some of the best intellectual minds in the country to relocate to California to form the new facility, Leland Sr’s death began one of the most bizarre chapters of higher education history.
While Jane Stanford remained in mourning for her child and husband for the rest of her life, she also began working with spiritual mediums to speak frequently to them on college matters. Those consultations would lead her to interact with the family’s view of faculty appointments, academic freedom, curriculum policy, and even attempt to radically modify the school’s founding intentions, including the abandonment of accepting women.
As current Stanford professor Richard White recounts in his new book, Who Killed Jane Stanford, the years 1893 to 1905 would see the new University president Jordan, struggle with the uncanny and torturous experience of being directed by the whims of Jane Stanford and her deceased family while attempting to elevate Stanford University’s prestige and standing as one of America’s finest institutions.
But want makes this story all the more delicious is the overwhelming evidence presented by the author that Jane Stanford was murdered in Hawaii in 1905. Beyond the antagonism between Jane and President Jordan, there was a long list of possible suspects who wanted to do her harm. In fact, by the time Jane was killed by poisoning in February of that year, White documents how many people wanted one of the country’s wealthiest women dead.
And, of course, after her murder, Stanford trustees embarked on one of the greatest cover ups of the time, which led the public to believe for decades that Jane Stanford had died of natural causes. This not only took away the smell of scandal but protected the $50 million the University received as part of Stanford’s will. To this day, the University remains ambiguous about the facts and fate of its founder.
The Spy was so intrigued by the story that we sought a long-form interview with the author.
This video is approximately 18 minutes in length. To purchase Richard White’s book please go here.