Sunday, February 12, 2023

spoiler alert book review

Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White (Norton, 2022)

In the dictionary of contemporary terms, next to the entry for "TMI" is a picture of the cover of this book. It is absolutely drowning in detail concerning the question posed in its title.

Jane Stanford, widow, railroad heiress, co-founder of Stanford University, maintained power and influence over the university even after nominally ceding control to an academic president and a board of trustees. She died in 1905, and most people think she just died, but in fact she was murdered by strychnine in her bicarbonate of soda, a fact publicly known in the wake of the event but later hushed up. Even stranger, there'd been another attempt at the same thing a month earlier, which puzzled Jane. Like the Queen in the Dunsany play, she claimed to have no enemies, and couldn't imagine who'd want to kill her.

The first source of TMI in this book is the revelation of all the mismanagement and corporate politics in running the university. The president wanted to grow it into a major research institution - obviously this eventually succeeded - while Jane was having second thoughts about the whole co-ed university project and wanted to reduce the place into a boys' school for Christian moral training. On top of which the president was being accused of hiring professors on grounds of academic politics rather than quality of work, and refusing to fire ones who said things Jane didn't like, and so on. Jane was on the point of wanting to fire him.

The second source is the feuds and backbiting going on around Jane's household staff, often involving Jane as well. Some of the staff were Chinese immigrants, so we get some excursions into Chinese tong wars also.

And the third is the details of the poisonings. Who was what where when, do the stories of different people conflict, do one person's stories from different times conflict, are the newspaper reports which are often all that survive accurate, all gone over in painful detail.

The obvious candidate for poisoner is Jane's secretary, who was the only other person present for both incidents.* But where would she have gotten the pure strychnine used in the second poisoning? Most people could only get strychnine in rat poison without leaving a record of having bought it. White thinks he's solved the question when he notes the secretary's connection with an elusive druggist whose name appears only a few times, usually misspelled, in the surviving documents, after which he mysteriously disappears.

So White says the secretary, who lived out her life unmolested, did it, with the university president as accessory after the fact for hushing it up. But does he ever take the long way round, chronicling every step of the path, to reach that conclusion.

*So what would be her motive? That lies buried somewhere in the feuds and backbiting part of the tale. I didn't really follow all of that. I don't think the tong wars had anything to do with it, but in that case, what are they doing in the story?

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