Jane Stanford had been 39 when she gave birth to the couple’s only child, Leland Stanford Jr. Devoted to the education of their precocious son, his parents underwrote his every whim and took him to Europe frequently. When he died in Florence, Italy, of typhoid fever at 15, his devastated father vowed to create a university in his honor on their Palo Alto estate.
The founding documents gave the Stanfords full authority in operating the university. Jane insisted the school be coeducational, an unusual and progressive stance. After several venerated scholars turned down the presidency, the couple hired Jordan, an Indiana professor who had made his name in ichthyology (the study of fish) and was also a strong believer in eugenics. When Leland Stanford died in 1893, his widow had to untangle his complicated finances. (The federal government sued the estate for $15 million and froze its assets but eventually lost the court case.) She kept the university afloat during this period using her own money while trying to shape its identity.
For all her accomplishments, in White’s portrayal Jane Stanford is a remarkably unpleasant woman, vicious to family members and staff, controlling and devious, easily swayed by advice she thought her late husband and son were trying to share. “Ghosts ran the university,” White writes. Wielding her money as a cudgel, she fired faculty members whose opinions she disliked and tried to inject religion into the curriculum. Although she is the story’s central character, White does not make much effort to understand Stanford’s behavior, the dynamics of her marriage or what drove her cruelty. Had she been embittered by loss? After decades in which she was unable to wield any power of her own, was she now reveling in her ability to bend others to her will? Did the sexism of her era color how contemporaries characterized the actions of a woman defying the wishes of patronizing men?
By the time White details all the people she wronged by word or deed, the list of potential suspects for her murder is long even by Agatha Christie standards. Jane Stanford had made it known, for starters, that she planned to fire President Jordan upon her return from Hawaii — but she never made it home. Many people had motive; but means and opportunity narrow the field significantly.
There’s pleasure in watching an author revel in his material. White has taken a deep dive into the archives, and he gleefully analyzes the conflicting testimony, newspaper accounts, Stanford documents, old city directories and memoirs written by the key players. As he observes, “Memoirs may seem to be built on the accumulation of actions, relationships, thoughts and words over the course of a life, but they are really built from the elimination of everything that would complicate, or falsify, the morals and meanings the author wishes to impart.”
In the last chapter, White reviews the evidence a final time and, in conjunction with his crime-fiction-writer brother, Stephen, points a finger at the likely culprit. The conclusion is anticlimactic given that the signs have been pointing in this direction all along — although White does come up with the name of a plausible accomplice. Despite the catchy title, solving the murder isn’t really the point of this book. Instead, it’s an intriguing look at the sordid Gilded Age history of a respected and storied academic institution.