This article originally appeared on the IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy blog on October 31, 2022.


In the second of the two 1889 essays known as “The Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie tries to identify the “best uses” for philanthropic giving. At the top of his list, “standing apart by itself,” is founding a university, as exemplified by Leland Stanford’s recent commitment to establish “a complete university” in California. Stanford and the benefactors of other universities deserved “credit” and “admiration,” Carnegie wrote, “as much for the time and the attention given during their lives, as for their expenditure, upon their respective monuments.”

However, a recent book by Richard White, a retired Stanford history professor, casts considerable doubt on whether Leland Stanford deserves such accolades. His gift not only led to various legal and administrative problems, but also may have contributed to the 1905 murder of his widow, Jane. White aims to solve the mystery of Who Killed Jane Stanford? by sorting through numerous suspects, including David Starr Jordan, who was recruited from Indiana University to serve as the university’s founding president. But in the process, he also shows how a seemingly generous gift went badly, perhaps fatally, awry. For today’s philanthropists, the story should serve as a reminder of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

The mystery begins in 1884, when the Stanfords’ only son, Leland Jr., died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy. Supposedly inspired by a vision of their deceased son, they decided to devote their considerable fortune—derived principally (and, critics said, corruptly) from railroad investments—to founding a university in their memory. After faculty from other universities were recruited, the first class entered in the fall of 1891. Less than two years later, Leland Stanford passed away, and his widow assumed control of the fortune—and until her death, the university.

According to White, Jane Stanford was a complicated and demanding woman. Though co-education was not yet widely accepted in higher education, she favored it, but at the same time, she worried about the influence young women might have on the school’s young men. Deeply religious, she also embraced spiritualism and thought she could receive messages in seances from her late husband and son. (In the late nineteenth century, this belief was not uncommon and attracted interest from renowned scholars, clergy, and authors, as well as society matrons.) She could at times be generous to her staff, bringing them on her extensive international trips while insisting they put their responsibilities—such as, in one instance, caring for an ailing mother—behind their duties to her.

Most of all, she wanted to shape the university that was to be a monument to her beloved son and husband. From her paid position of “co-founder” and head of the board of trustees, she launched a major building program, erecting a chapel, museum, and memorial arch (that was nearly as large as Paris’ Arc de Triomphe). She micro-managed incessantly. Especially worrisome, she sought to insert herself into decisions about hiring faculty and university officials, which under Stanford’s governance rules at the time, were mostly to be made by President Jordan. In one instance, Mrs. Stanford’s insistence on dismissing a prominent social scientist, E. A. Ross, because he had spoken publicly in support of Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan resulted in a national controversy over academic freedom at Stanford.

Even so, the university put up with her. It was still a young, financially challenged institution far from the centers of American academic and cultural life. The bulk of the Stanford fortune remained under Mrs. Stanford’s control. Even the “deed” she prepared to transfer the remainder of her estate to the school upon her death contained provisions that enabled her to modify it (and relatives were urging her to do so). Without continued support from Jane Stanford, the university’s future was at risk. At great cost to his reputation (and in White’s view, more than a little duplicity), David Starr Jordan tried to navigate through these turbulent waters, but as she left for a trip to Asia in 1905, Mrs. Stanford had made up her mind to force his ouster when she returned.

She never came back. At a stop in Hawaii en route, Mrs. Stanford died a “horrible death” (her own last words) in her hotel after drinking a potion of bicarbonate of soda. A coroner’s jury concluded that the brew contained enough strychnine to kill her, but did not identify the culprit. (A few months earlier, Mrs. Stanford had survived an attempt to poison her using strychnine in a bottle of mineral water.) Jordan, a family lawyer, and a private detective soon traveled to Hawaii, ostensibly to accompany Mrs. Stanford’s body home to Palo Alto and launch an effort to question the jury’s findings. With the help of the San Francisco police department, which was, in White’s telling, unduly responsive to the interests of the rich and powerful, the final judgment became that Mrs. Stanford had died of natural causes: a weak heart.

This verdict was important for Stanford University. At the time, strychnine poisoning was one of the favorite ways people committed suicide. If that is what Mrs. Stanford had really done, a variety of claimants could have charged she was of “unsound mind” when she drew up her wills and contested them. (Her belief that she spoke to dead people would have bolstered these charges.) If a murder had been committed, the resulting trial—assuming the culprit was caught at all—could have embroiled Stanford in scandal. But if Mrs. Stanford had died a natural death, the school could conduct a respectful funeral—in the chapel she had built—and in due course, receive the endowment President Jordan and others had endured so much to obtain.

Could a situation like the one that resulted in Jane Stanford’s death occur today? The laws and practices regarding gifts to universities and other institutions have become far clearer and more widely accepted than they were a century ago. (At one point in the Stanford saga, California had to amend its constitution to legitimize the gift to the university.) Still, conflicts and misunderstandings between donors and recipients occur regularly and sometimes result in well-publicized lawsuits. Although no one might admit it, there are undoubtedly some executive directors and development officers who would have liked to strangle difficult donors (after getting their money, of course) or some donors who would have liked more control over how their money was being used (and less interference from pesky administrators).

Such conflicts are probably inherent in philanthropy. Fortunately, they do not usually result in murder.