Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University
Named One of the Best Nonfiction Books of 2022 by the Los Angeles Times
A premier historian penetrates the fog of corruption and cover-up still surrounding the murder of a Stanford University founder to establish who did it, how, and why.
In 1885 Jane and Leland Stanford cofounded a university to honor their recently deceased young son. After her husband’s death in 1893, Jane Stanford, a devoted spiritualist who expected the university to inculcate her values, steered Stanford into eccentricity and public controversy for more than a decade. In 1905 she was murdered in Hawaii, a victim, according to the Honolulu coroner’s jury, of strychnine poisoning. With her vast fortune the university’s lifeline, the Stanford president and his allies quickly sought to foreclose challenges to her bequests by constructing a story of death by natural causes. The cover-up gained traction in the murky labyrinths of power, wealth, and corruption of Gilded Age San Francisco. The murderer walked.
Deftly sifting the scattered evidence and conflicting stories of suspects and witnesses, Richard White gives us the first full account of Jane Stanford’s murder and its cover-up. Against a backdrop of the city’s machine politics, rogue policing, tong wars, and heated newspaper rivalries, White’s search for the murderer draws us into Jane Stanford’s imperious household and the academic enmities of the university. Although Stanford officials claimed that no one could have wanted to murder Jane, we meet several people who had the motives and the opportunity to do so. One of these, we discover, also had the means.
Praise for Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University
Offering a detective story with more twists and turns than a Dashiell Hammett novel, Mr. White leads us through his research into the labyrinth. Along the way, [he] uncovers a century-long campaign kicked off by the university’s first president to cloud the circumstances of Jane Stanford’s death.…[A] brilliant, acerbic guide into a world that resonates with the present,…Mr. White has done an astonishing job of sifting through the available clues—and turning up an impressive array of new details. In this fascinating 'whydunit,' he makes a convincing case for why Jane Stanford’s murder was covered up for so long.
— Julia Flynn Siler - Wall Street Journal
Superb…White writes with clarity, precision and a bone-dry sense of humor….Who Killed Jane Stanford? shows that the fealty great wealth demands is an enduring cog in history’s gears. And the fact that Stanford University rose from this swamp of murder and conspiracy to become today’s renowned institution? That is perhaps the strangest plot twist of all.
— Mary Ann Gwinn - Los Angeles Times
Who Killed Jane Stanford? is a true-crime thriller, revivifying a very cold case and portraying the early decades of the university…as more tenuous than one might imagine. It’s astonishing that Jane Stanford’s murder went unacknowledged for so long.
— L.A. Taggart - San Francisco Chronicle
[I]n his engaging new book…White uses his historian’s rigor to answer a detective’s question.
— Maia Silber - The New Yorker
White…is a formidable detective. Others have examined pieces of this mystery, but White solves it by unearthing evidence of motive and opportunity and means….White picks apart differing recollections and testimonies, rules out potential suspects, tracks down potential accomplices, and makes connections no one did at the time.
— Susan Berfield - The American Scholar
[A] rollicking account of Jane Stanford’s final years and violent death, all set against the seamy San Francisco carnival culture of the era.
— Meryl Gordon - New York Times
Jane Stanford’s death was one of the most sensational of the 20th century….Luckily for readers, White has solved the mystery and the record can finally be set straight on this century-old cold case.
— Susannah Calahan - New York Post
Combining a prosecutor’s zeal for uncovering evidence with a crime novelist’s flair for suspense, White shows that Stanford died from ingesting strychnine…. Exactly who gave her the lethal dose is the book’s central mystery, but far from its only revelation. The unsolved murder of the college’s founding matriarch, it turns out, is integral to understanding how Stanford eventually became one of the world’s great universities.
— Romesh Ratnesar - Air Mail
A brilliant historian turns detective to unravel a Gilded Age crime and cover-up that recasts the origin story of one of the world’s preeminent universities. These characters will stay with you for a long time.
— Miriam Pawel, author of The Browns of California
Something was rotten in the kingdom that would become Silicon Valley, that hydra sprung from the loins of Stanford University. Stanford itself was built with plundered public money, eccentric ideas, and endless hubris by railroad baron and baroness Leland and Jane Stanford. Then someone poisoned Jane. This delightfully sordid story of malice and mendacity is a triumph of historical detective work.
— Rebecca Solnit, author of Orwell’s Roses
Our finest chronicler of the Gilded Age has produced another masterpiece—a riveting true crime tale set in the gaudy era he knows better than anyone else. Not to be missed.
— Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First-Class Temperament
An absorbing history and murder mystery, laced with envy, greed, corruption, vengeance, mysticism—and strychnine. Stranger than fiction, Who Killed Jane Stanford? will have you guessing and wondering to the last page.
— Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd
Richard White delivers a masterpiece that captivates as he unravels the long-hidden truth behind a perplexing murder.
— Harry N. MacLean, Edgar Award–winning author of In Broad Daylight
A page-turner that explores the class divides of Gilded Age California and the sordid history of a great university. This is micro-history at its best.
— Martha A. Sandweiss, author of Passing Strange
Irresistibly fascinating.… Richard White has brought Jane Stanford and her peculiar entourage vividly to life—and also has persuasively figured out who killed her.
— Nicholas Lemann, author of Transaction Man
[L]ikely to be the last word on the case, including a plausible solution.…This is an instant genre classic.
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A lively detective story…involving an unsolved murder and the tumultuous early years of a prestigious university. An entertaining tale of money, power, and malfeasance.
— Kirkus Reviews