Summer Reading: The Story of Jane Lathrop Stanford (3)

This is the story of Jane Lathrop Stanford and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death in the early 1900s.

Part 3

By June Morrall

When Leland Jr. sailed to Europe in 1884, it would be their last time together. The teenager collected his souvenirs, but while visiting Florence in Italy, he fell seriously ill with typhoid fever. Jane and Leland Stanford’s only child failed to rally, and Leland Jr. died at age 16.

Their son’s tragic death devastated the Stanfords. Jane’s migraine headaches intensified, and she felt a crushing sadness, lessened only by occasional visits to spiritualists. Constant travel also became a palliative to dull her pain.

One account releates that while Leland Stanford sat at his feverish son’s beside he fell asleep and dreamed his son said: Father, don’t say you have nothing to live for, you have a great deal to live for, live for humanity, father.

Perhaps the dream led Jane and Leland Stanford to co-found Leland Stanford Jr. University on the site of their Palo Alto Farm soon after their son’s death. About the same time Leland Stanford was elected US Senator by the California State Legislature.

The cornerstone of Stanford was laid in March 1887. Four years later, the first class of 559 students was enrolled, with David Starr Jordan, a doctor of medicine, named president of the new institution.

Deep sorrow struck Jane Stanford again when husband Leland passed away at age 69 in 1893. To blunt this second sorrow, the widow became absorbed in the work of the university. When visiting the college she stayed at her home located near the campus.

The major portion of the university’s endowment came after her husband’s death. In 1897, while reserving life tenancy for herself, Jane gave the university trustees a deed to her Nob Hill mansion for the establishment of departments of economics, history and the social sciences.

Seven years later, the melancholy Mrs. Stanford had long slipped into a routine of traveling extensively, with her longtime private secretary and a butler in tow. While away from San Francisco, she maintained a servant staff at the Nob Hill mansion, including a maid, Chinese housekeeper, houseboy and two cooks.

When at home, she waas kind but distant to the servants, allowing little familiarity on their part.

This rule did not extend to Bertha Berner, Mrs. Stanford’s well-groomed, private secretary–a spinster earning a $200 monthly salary who traveled the world with her employer in utmost comfort.

Wearing her gray hair in a becoming pompadour, Bertha Berner was treated as a companion or guest. Strong and assertive, Bertha, more than anyone else, understood Mrs. Stanford’s whims and eccentricities. Her bedroom at the Nob Hill mansion was located up the grand staircase on the second floor next door to Jane’s bedroom. Bertha’s room served both as her office and as a quiet place where she passed most of her personal time.

By 1904 Jane Stanford dwelled unnaturally on the sad events in her life, demanding more attention from those around her. There were rumors Bertha threatened to quit more than once and that Mrs. Stanford’s brother, Charles Lathrop, paid Bertha an additional salary to stay on–all negotiated without his sister’s knowledge.

(Part 4 coming)

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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