Will Stanford University Acknowledge its Bloody Origin Story?Historians in the News
tags: Gilded Age, Richard White, Stanford University, Jane Stanford
A work of history billed as a murder mystery, “Who Killed Jane Stanford?” has been positively reviewed by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED, among others. Not bad for a book by an academic about a little-known woman who died more than a century ago.
But the institution that inspired the book’s telling — Stanford University — has so far made no mention of the May 17 publication through its well-staffed communications division. This is strange and suspicious, as the author, Richard White, is not an unknown scholar. He is Stanford’s Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, a MacArthur “genius” fellow, two-time winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, past president of the Organization of American Historians and the author of critically acclaimed books about the American West, the Gilded Age, railroads, capitalism and environmental history.
“What I expect Stanford to do, as I always expected, is that they’ll ignore it,” said White in a telephone interview. “I don’t think they see any good in revisiting the origins of the university” or bringing attention to "anything that endangers its endowment.”
White’s book centers on the poisoning of Stanford University’s female founder and its cover up to ensure the school’s endowment. Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, originally intended to endow the university with $30 million in honor of their dead child’s “beyond-the-grave” instruction to educate the citizens of California. But by the time Leland died in 1893 he left the university only $2.5 million in cash. The rest of the money from the Central Pacific Railroad was tied up in a bankruptcy proceeding. And by 1897, the federal government was suing Jane Stanford’s estate for $15 million, freezing assets, including the bequest to university.
White’s book, whose subtitle is “A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits and the Birth of a University,” follows an investigator’s credo: follow the money; and an historian’s hunt through multiple archives, especially Stanford’s. Its subtext is that behind every great endowment lies an allegory about wealth.
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