In 1905, someone murdered the founder of Stanford University. They've never been caught.
Someone got away with murder. But who killed Mrs. Stanford — and why?
Updated 8:40 am, Sunday, January 14, 2018
There was a great deal of gossip in San Francisco when Mrs. Jane Stanford suddenly left her Nob Hill mansion for Hawaii on February 15, 1905.
Ill health was one theory. Low spirits another. But, most shocking of all, the persistent rumor that, one month prior, someone had tried to murder the co-founder of Stanford University.
A few days after her departure for Honolulu, San Francisco newspapers began reporting that Mrs. Stanford, then 76 years old, had been the subject of a nefarious murder attempt. Since the death of her husband Leland 12 years before, Mrs. Stanford had lived alone in their palatial home with just a few trusted servants. January 14 was an ordinary evening at the Stanford residence; Mrs. Stanford had gone up to her bedroom after dinner and the servants, including maid Elizabeth Richmond, were relaxing in the living room. Around 9, San Francisco newspapers reported, Mrs. Stanford began frantically calling for Richmond.
"Come and see what is the matter with the Poland water!" she said. "I drank some, and it nearly choked me. It burned me so that I ran my fingers down my throat and threw it all up."
Richmond took a sip from the bottle of mineral water and immediately spit it out, choked by the intense bitterness. Mrs. Stanford’s private secretary Bertha Berner was fetched to corroborate their suspicions. She, too, noted the water’s taste. In the morning, Richmond and Berner took the remainder to Wakelee’s drug store in the Financial District. There, a chemist who tested the bottle’s contents came back with a grim diagnosis: The water had been poisoned with enough strychnine to kill an elephant.
Deeply shaken, Mrs. Stanford quickly planned a trip to Hawaii to leave the city — and the assassination attempt — behind her. When news of the poisoning broke, she’d been at sea for four days. In her stead, Stanford president Dr. David Starr Jordan gave an emphatic statement to reporters.
“The fact is that Mrs. Stanford was threatened with pneumonia and her physician advised a warmer climate than San Francisco,” he said. “It was for this reason alone that she started on her trip. She did, however, tell me a month ago that she had been served with a bottle of mineral water which had a peculiar taste, but she did not drink it. She did not think for a minute that any attempt was being made to poison her, and I do not believe there was.”
Mrs. Stanford was not quoted in the story, nor was she ever reached for her thoughts on the poisoning. The next San Francisco heard, she was dead.
Jane Lathrop was born in Albany, New York in 1828, the daughter of a local shopkeeper and his wife. When Jane was 22, she married fellow New Yorker Leland Stanford, a lawyer from a well-to-do farming family. The couple moved to Sacramento in 1856, where Stanford built up a lucrative mercantile business. With the profits, he invested in the newly formed Central Pacific Railroad, and within the decade he’d become one of the richest men in the country.
But personal happiness eluded the Stanfords, who longed for a child. For nearly 18 years, the Stanfords were barren. Then, the miracle they’d prayed for happened: Jane, at 39 years of age, was pregnant.
Their son, Leland Stanford Jr., was born in 1868 and, for a time, it seemed the Stanfords’ happiness was complete. As he approached his 16th birthday, Jane and Leland planned a Grand Tour of Europe to celebrate. Not long into the trip, though, young Leland fell ill. While in Athens, he was diagnosed with typhoid. He was sent to Italy for treatment, but doctors could do nothing to aid him. He died, two months shy of his 16th birthday, on March 13, 1884.
The Stanfords brought their son’s body back to California and tried to plan for a future without him. Although their dream of raising a family had died with him, there was one thing they could do. “The children of California shall be our children,” Stanford told his wife. And, with that, they planted the seeds of what would become Stanford University.
The school opened in 1891, the pride of the Stanfords and the state, with Father Leland and Mother Jane at the helm. Two years later, Leland Stanford died, joining his son in the family mausoleum on the university campus. Jane was left alone to run the school and the family estate.
Although tremendously popular with the students, Mrs. Stanford was rumored to sometimes clash with the university’s board of trustees. There were even murmurs that some members of the board would prefer to run the university without her influence, a wish they were granted in 1903 when she transferred all rights as a co-founder to the board.
By all accounts, Honolulu was just what Mrs. Stanford needed. She seemed to be shaking off her earlier melancholy and had enjoyed a charming picnic on the afternoon of Feb. 28. Held on the grounds of the Moana Hotel, Mrs. Stanford partook in the hotel’s packed lunch of cucumber sandwiches and gingerbread. She ate so heartily that, come dinnertime, she still wasn’t hungry. She asked her secretary Bertha Berner to bring her a laxative and bicarbonate of soda at 8:15 p.m., and retired to bed soon after.
What happened next was analyzed for months by detectives, the curious public and an official coroner’s inquest. According to Berner, she was sound asleep when she was awoken by the moans of her employer around 11 p.m. Berner looked up to see the outline of Mrs. Stanford clinging to the door frame.
“I have got no control of my body,” she said. “I think I have been poisoned again.”
Berner helped Mrs. Stanford back to her room, by which time she was undergoing full-body spasms. A doctor also staying in the hotel was called.
“Bertha,” Mrs. Stanford gestured to her secretary. “Tell the doctor what happened.”
Berner took her to mean the earlier poisoning attempt, and she informed the doctor of it. He had a stomach pump fetched, but it was too late. Mrs. Stanford’s body twisted with back-breaking convulsions for three straight minutes. During a brief break in the suffering, she groaned, “What a horrible death to die!”
At 11:30, Jane Stanford shuddered once more and died.
As the rest of the hotel guests slept on, police descended on the crime scene. In Mrs. Stanford’s room, they found a bottle of cascara capsules — a laxative — and the glass of bicarbonate of soda, a common treatment for indigestion. Police speculated one or both were poisoned with strychnine and had them bagged up to be analyzed by a chemist. An autopsy was also ordered.
“The [Honolulu] officers are satisfied Mrs. Stanford was poisoned,” the Press-Democrat reported, “but whether it is murder or suicide they are unable to solve.”
As was customary, Hawaiian officials called an inquest. Dr. C.B. Wood testified before a coroner’s jury that the symptoms he found at the autopsy were typical of strychnine: extreme rigidity of the limbs, a locked jaw and purple discoloration of the corpse. Tests done to Mrs. Stanford’s organs revealed the presence of strychnine, and an analysis of the laxative pills also showed the poison. When asked for an official cause of death, Wood confidently stated it was strychnine poisoning.
Bertha Berner was also called to testify, although she was less enthusiastic about the murder theory — a reaction no doubt influenced by the fact she was the only person present at both poisonings.
“If she had been schooled for the stand she could not have done better, and there can be no question that she has schooled herself carefully during the time that has elapsed since the death of her patroness,” the Call reported. “Miss Berner had not left her own room until today since the tragedy occurred.”
Berner confirmed details of the earlier San Francisco poisoning and admitted the prescription for the cascara capsules was hers; she’d filled it in San Francisco for years, often for her own personal use as well as Mrs. Stanford’s.
At the end of the inquest, the jury didn’t take long to come back with its verdict: Mrs. Stanford, they concluded, had been murdered.
She died from strychnine poisoning, the signed verdicted read, “said strychnine having been introduced into a bottle of bicarbonate of soda with felonious intent by some person or persons to this jury unknown.”
Back home in the Bay Area, Stanford officials and San Francisco police were already feverishly disputing the police findings. When reporters asked President Jordan about the inquest, he dismissively said he knew “all about them and their work.”
Mrs. Stanford had died of natural causes, Jordan assured the public. Despite exhibiting no known symptoms of a heart condition, his analysis of the autopsy report led him to conclude that the layer of fat around her heart — exacerbated by the full meal of picnic sandwiches and treats earlier that day — had killed her.
“I do not care what the people think nor what the constables say,” Jordan told the Chronicle. “I am firm in my opinion.”
Detective Reynolds of the SFPD, who had been sent to Honolulu to investigate Mrs. Stanford’s death, was in agreement.
“I believe the examination will show that Mrs. Stanford died from natural causes,” Reynolds told the Chronicle, rejecting entirely the autopsy done by Hawaiian officials. He explained her twisted, tortured corpse as a side effect of the existing “deformity in her limbs” and maintained, like Dr. Jordan, that she died of a heart condition.
But after so completely dismissing their findings, he hedged himself. “I’m not a doctor,” Reynolds admitted to a reporter. “I don’t know.”
On March 21, Mrs. Stanford’s remains arrived in San Francisco. The flags of every vessel in the bay were at half-mast. As her hearse traveled down the waterfront, thousands lined the sidewalks to pay their respects. At Stanford, the halls and classrooms were quiet. All activities were canceled for a week.
She was buried in the family mausoleum, reunited with her beloved son at last.
For the next century, Dr. Jordan’s opinion became the official story. Talk of her poisoning quieted, people forgot, and all accepted the university’s stance that Mrs. Stanford had died of heart failure while on vacation in Hawaii. Her murder only re-entered the public consciousness in 2003 when retired Stanford neurologist Robert Cutler published “The Mysterious Death of Jane Stanford.” In it, Cutler lays out the case for her murder and the subsequent cover-up by Stanford officials.
“From clinical grounds alone there can be little doubt that Mrs. Stanford died in the suffocating grip of a tetanic spasm characteristic of strychnine poisoning…” Cutler writes. “The conclusion that Mrs. Stanford was murdered is difficult to avoid...
“It seems remarkable today that the considered opinions of the attending and autopsy physicians, the toxicologists, the Honolulu police department, and the coroner's jury could be so easily dismissed on the basis of a brief declaration by President Jordan.”
Although the book makes a compelling case for her murder, it leaves the greatest mystery of all unresolved: Who killed her and why?
Without a thorough police investigation — and with all the participants long dead — the unsatisfying truth is that it’s impossible to know for sure. Although there’s no doubt he orchestrated the cover-up, it seems unlikely Dr. Jordan had a hand in the actual murder. Rather, he was hoping to keep the young university from descending into scandal. They’d recently endured several highly publicized spats with faculty members and losing their founder to a grisly murder was hardly the press they needed. By whitewashing her gruesome end, maybe Jordan also hoped to preserve the memory of the school’s beloved founder, free of sorrow and controversy.
The most obvious suspect — really, the only one — is Bertha Berner, Mrs. Stanford’s longtime personal secretary and the only person present at both poisonings.
Berner was born in Wisconsin in 1861 to German immigrant parents and moved to California in her late 20s. She was hired by Mrs. Stanford in the 1880s to a position that would take her around the world and ensure her lifelong financial stability. As Mrs. Stanford’s secretary, Berner accompanied her on business and pleasure trips, helped run the household and maintained a close personal friendship with the solitary widow. Unmarried and childless, Berner’s world revolved around Mrs. Stanford.
After Mrs. Stanford’s death, the papers announced she had left $15,000 to Berner in her will — almost $400,000 in today’s money.
“I give and bequeath to Miss Bertha Berner, secretary and devoted friend to me through nineteen years of trial and sorrow, the sum of fifteen thousand dollars,” the will stipulated.
With the money, Berner built herself a lovely two-story home in Menlo Park; she lived there until her death in 1945.
Over the years, Berner's story changed multiple times, both in interviews with Hawaiian and San Francisco police and in public statements. Her final written account of Mrs. Stanford's last day included the claim Mrs. Stanford ate four Swiss cheese sandwiches, two tongue sandwiches, two lettuce sandwiches, two or three large pieces of gingerbread, two cups of cold coffee, and 12 or 14 pieces of French candy at lunch, a dubious-sounding justification of the "heart-failure-by-overeating" theory.
There is no question Berner had the means and ability to commit the murder. 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. Her motive is more mysterious. Berner was already living comfortably with Mrs. Stanford. Perhaps, in a moment of weakness, Berner grew impatient for the payoff she knew was coming.
Poison does, after all, have the reputation as a woman’s weapon.
A decade before her death, Berner published a biography of Jane Stanford. It was not particularly well-received. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle criticized its lack of detail, especially when dealing with the circumstances around Mrs. Stanford's final weeks.
"That over 200 closely packed pages of incidents, dates and names could go almost completely without blessing of comment or observation is a credit to the author's reputation as a secretary," the Chronicle wrote, "but unfortunately not as a biographer."
Berner concluded in the work that Mrs. Stanford died of heart failure, brought on by overeating at the afternoon picnic. Of her own role in the mystery, she had nothing more to say.
"It seems a tragic waste of such a wealth of memories," wrote the Chronicle. "... Incident after incident simply cries out for elaboration while the readers is left with curiosity aroused and unrelieved."
It seems only fitting, in the end, that Bertha Berner's last tribute to the woman leaves us all eternally wanting.