Summer Reading: The Story of Jane Lathrop Stanford (9)

I wrote this in 1999.

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

Jane Stanford canceled all engagements, even the much anticipated society debut of her favorite niece. With Bertha Berner she feld to her Palo Alto country estate. She confided to friends that she intended never to return to the Nob Hill mansion. Fearing for her life she planned a voyage accompanied by Bertha and May Hunt, bound for Honolulu and safety.

Before embarking in early February 1905, a strange conversation took place.

With Mrs. Stanford’s consent, a representative of the Stanford estate informed Bertha that Mrs. Stanford had signed a new will. Bertha was told she was not a beneficiary of the revised testament, and neither were any of the other servants.

Aboard ship, Bertha observered Jane Stanford’s melanchly mood, but she noted that the widow recovered her high spirits at Honolulu’s Moana Hotel, mingling with friends and taking invigorating drives around the scenic island of Oahu.

She chatted with May Hunt about continuing to Japan, then became depressed once again.

How dreadful it would have been if I had died that time (Jan 14),” she said. “People might have thought I committed suicide.” Indeed there were a few proponents of the attempted suicide theory, a notion abhorred by representatives of the Stanford estate.

At the Moana Hotel, Mrs. Stanford met with Mrs. Henry Highton, a friend from California. The “poisoning” attempt was foremost in her mind, said Mrs. Highton, adding that Mrs. Stanford was “terribly worked up over the whole affair and said she feared another effort would be made to kill her. She told me that enough poison to kill 20 people had been placed in a bottle of mineral water in San Francisco last month.”

On February 28, Mrs. Stanford enjoyed a hearty lunch but only ordered a bowl of soup for dinner before retiring to her hotel room. She asked Bertha to prepare her medicines including a half-teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda and a glass of mineral water.

About 11 p.m. she awoke and realized she had forgotten to take the bicarbonate of soda which she then swallowed with the mineral water. She was gripped by nausea, suffered severe pain and waves of convulsions. She called for May Hunt and Bertha Berner, who were asleep in a room across the hallway, and they rushed to Mrs. Stanford’s side

Get me a doctor quick. I have been poisoned. This is a terrible death to die,” cried Mrs. Stanford.

Dr. Humphris, a guest on the same floor of the Moana Hotel, was quickly summoned. In between convulsions, she told the doctor: “This is the second time they have tried it. They tried it last January, and I came here to avoid them” She did not identify who “they” might be.

Dr. Humphris could not save his famous patient’s life, and minutes later the co-founder and “mother” of Stanford University died.

The doctor was certain the medicine, not the water, contained strychnine. Breaking the rules of preserving evidence, he took the bicarbonate of soda to his hotel room, holding it there until the Honolulu authorities arrived.

As soon as the San Francisco police learned of Mrs. Stanford’s death, a possible murder by poisoning, they sought to share jurisdiction with Hawaiian officials. If this was a poisoning case, the poison was prepared in their city.

(coming Part 10)

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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