Century Later, Death of Stanford Founder a Mystery

The suspicious demise of Jane Stanford sure looks like a homicide
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 16, 2018 6:25 PM CST
Did Someone Murder the Founder of Stanford?
Jane Stanford   (Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone's heard of Stanford University, but perhaps not the story of the suspicious death of co-founder Jane Stanford back in 1905. The San Francisco Chronicle looks back and finds that it sure looks like Stanford was poisoned by strychnine while in Hawaii—as opposed to succumbing to a heart attack, as university officials at the time insisted. But who would have done it? The most likely culprit would be Bertha Berner, Stanford's longtime personal secretary who received the equivalent of $400,000 in today's money in the subsequent will. She had brought Stanford a bicarbonate of soda for an upset stomach hours before Stanford's death, and an inquest held in Hawaii concluded that the bottle had been poisoned with strychnine. Berner was never charged.

Perhaps more damning for Berner is this jarring fact: The reason the widowed Stanford had left for Hawaii in the first place is that she nearly drank water found to be heavily laced with strychnine while at home, before spitting it out. Berner was the only person present at both incidents. Though officials in Hawaii were certain foul play was involved—though they did not name a suspect—the issue largely faded away as Stanford's body was returned to California. University President David Starr Jordan stated emphatically, perhaps looking to avoid a scandal, that Stanford had suffered a fatal heart attack because of a big lunch. His explanation, however, does not gibe with accounts of Stanford enduring a painful death while wracked with convulsions. Click for the full, fascinating story. (More Longform stories.)

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