Summer Reading….The Story of Jane Lathrop Stanford (1)

I wrote this in 1999.

Jane Lathrop Stanford was the wife of U.S. Senator Leland Stanford; together they founded Stanford University in 1891. Leland passed away in 1893. This is Jane Stanford’s story and the strange circumstances surrounding her death (based on contemporary newspaper accounts.)

“Get me a doctor quick. I have been poisoned!” Jane Lathrop Stanford cred out shortly after swallowing a glass of mineral water and bicarbonate of soda on February 28, 1905. It was about midnight when the 77-year-old co-founder of Stanford University collapsed and died in her Honolulu hotel suite.

Was the famous philanthropist murdered by poisoning?

Mrs. Stanford confided to friends that someone had tried to poison her with strychnine at her Nob Hill mansion one month earlier; she said she fled her San Francisco home for the safety of Hawaii.

Dr. Humphris, a physician who was staying at Honolulu’s Moana Hotel, rushed to Mrs. Stanford’s room but was unable to save his patient’s life. The doctor observed Mrs. Stanford’s symptoms and later stated that she died of strychnine poisoning, leading to a full investigation of the strange circumstances surrounding Jane Stanford’s death.

Until she died in Hawaii, Jane Lathrop Stanford’s life had been a range of extremes: a mixture of joy and sorrow.

One of six children, Jane Eliza Lathrop was born in Albany, New York on August 25, 1828. Her father, Dyer Lathrop, was a successful merchant and humanitarian, founder of the Albany Orphan Asylum, an institution his daughter, Jane, often visited. Her education included the Albany Female Academy, where reading, grammar and arithmetic were emphasized, a common curriculum for young women of that era.

Jane met and fell in love with Leland Stanford, a farmboy who resided nearby. By the time the couple wed in 1850, Leland had studied law and passed the state bar exam.

Two of Leland’s brothers already had moved West, establishing a prosperous mercantile business in Sacramento. They encouraged Leland to become a partner, and he pioneered his way across the Plains, driving his own team to California. His wife, Jane, joined him in Sacramento after her father’s death in 1855.

Ambitious and talented, Leland soon took over the Stanford brother’s store. With Jane’s considerable help, Leland made wise financial decisions, and the business flourished. In Sacramento, the energetic couple constructed a luxurious 44-room mansion.

There, he also helped to found the California Republican Party.

As Leland’s interest in the family business began to wane, he concentrated all his efforts on moving ahead in the exciting world of politics.

Leland’s impressive and growing Republican Party affiliations resulted in an invitation for Jane and himself to President Lincoln’s inaugural ball held in Washington, D.C. in 1861.

When the Stanfords returned to the West, Leland’s political star was ascending. Barely 38-years-old, he was inaugurated governor of California in 1862. Simultaneously, he was named president of the Central Pacific Railway Company, the western part of the newly formed trans-continental railroad.

Leland turned down a second term as governor, preferring to devote all his energy to the great challenge of linking the East and West by rail with partners Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington.

Despite the geographical barriers, the Central Pacific pushed its rails over the formidable Sierra. With the melding of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific at Promontory, Utah, the iron link between East and West coasts was completed on May 10, 1869.

As the railroad’s most widely recognized public figure, Leland Stanford drove home the last symbolic golden spike, opening up the West to unprecedented growth, while bringing extraordinary wealth to the railroad’s founders.

(next Part 2)

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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