The Robber Baroness of Northern California

As he investigates her murder, White finds that Jane Stanford’s sanitized public persona masked a reality that was both more scandalous and more strange. A spiritualist who attended the elaborate séances of professional mediums, Stanford sought counsel and comfort from her departed son and husband. But more importantly, for White’s purposes, she often clashed with the living.

Those clashes, according to White, began in the home. Despite her professions of devotion, Berner often fought with Stanford over the conditions of her employment. She briefly quit, in 1889, when Stanford denied her time off to care for her sick mother. Similar disputes arose again on several of Stanford’s extended domestic and international trips. Stanford, who was deeply religious, also suspected that Berner was romantically involved with two male employees in the household, and made no secret of her disapproval. Berner got her revenge by taking kickbacks on household expenses.

Though White portrays her as a particularly tyrannical employer, Stanford was all too typical in the control that she sought over her employees’ time and bodies. Live-in servants often worked twelve-hour days, and even when not formally working were “on call.” “Mistresses,” like Stanford, typically permitted the members of their staff to leave the house only one evening during the week, and every other Sunday afternoon and evening. They positioned themselves as the moral guardians of their working-class employees, and disciplined servants found flirting or socializing with men. Romantic suitors, after all, were competitors for employees’ time and loyalty. In this sense, Berner’s relationships weren’t only a threat to Stanford’s Christian sensibilities—they also threatened the smooth operations of a household that was every bit as much of a business as Leland’s railroads. The maids, cooks, and secretaries who play a key role in the events in White’s book were only the innermost circle of the Stanfords’ much larger staff.

White focusses on the dramas that unfolded in the household and the university, but the Stanford estate’s most bitter labor conflicts took place on the family farms. Besides their primary residence, situated in downtown San Francisco, the Stanfords owned three rural properties: a seventy-two-hundred-acre residential estate and stock farm, in Palo Alto; the Gridley wheat farm, in Butte County; and the Vina Ranch, straddling Butte and Tehama County, which contained a country house and what was, by some accounts, the world’s largest vineyard. The properties constituted the original endowment for the university that the Stanfords founded and, after Leland’s death, a potential source of cash.

When Jane Stanford inherited the farms, she set out to make the typically money-losing properties profitable by leasing sections of the land, selling off some of Leland’s horses, closing a distillery, and firing employees who wouldn’t take pay cuts. When Stanford visited Vina in the winter of 1894, newspapers reported that a group of local men surrounded her private car, shouting and firing their revolvers into the air.

Stanford also took a page out of her late husband’s business playbook, hiring indebted migrant workers through the labor contractors who operated throughout the region. Not long after the shooting incident, rumors began circulating that she had replaced Vina’s entire staff of white vineyard workers with Japanese migrants contracted at lower wages. That wasn’t quite true, but newspaper coverage, visitors’ accounts, and records in the Stanford family’s archives all indicate that Jane Stanford employed hundreds of both Chinese and Japanese workers across the farm properties, typically paying them less than whites in comparable jobs. As the historian Cecilia Tsu has written, the popular image of Northern California as a haven for the idyllic white “family farm” masked the region’s reliance on a large, skilled Asian labor force.

In August, 1898, Stanford told her friend May Hopkins that she was in Vina trying to “pacify a bitter feeling existing between white employees and Chinese.” The white workers, it turned out, had set fire to the vineyard, protesting the reduction of their daily wages and the employment of Chinese grape pickers. The arsonists destroyed six hundred pounds of hay and alfalfa, along with all of the vineyard tools, though it seemed that their real targets were nearby cabins belonging to the Chinese pickers. Stanford claimed that she diffused the tension with “a few kind words,” and the newspapers praised her as a “peacemaker.” A week later, fifteen cabins burned down.

The papers attributed the fire to a “careless smoker,” but the incident had all the markers of the anti-Chinese violence that the historian Beth Lew-Williams has shown was endemic in the Gilded Age. Against the backdrop of California’s surging battles over labor and immigration, the goings on at Vina couldn’t entirely escape controversy. Yet the farm’s owner retained her image as a gracious homemaker. In her biography, all Berner mentioned of Stanford’s management of Vina were the preserved fruits, fruit cordials, and choice meats that the widow brought back to share among the residents and guests of her residence in the city.

Valued at twenty million dollars in 1891, Leland Stanford Junior University’s land-backed endowment exceeded the worth of Harvard’s by a factor of nearly five. The Stanfords envisioned the school as an alternative to the élite universities of the East, which sought to educate wealthy gentlemen for a life of cultured leisure. Their university, in contrast, would admit men and women of all classes. It would accept high-school shop work as an entrance prerequisite, offer extension courses on agricultural science to local fruit growers, and dispense with both grades and tuition.

It’s tempting to view the school merely as a kind of money laundry, recycling the Stanfords’ ill-gotten gains for the noble purposes of educating the common people. But the couple’s aims, especially Jane ’s, were more ambitious. She did not only want to gain the favor of California’s working classes. As the scholar John Ott has argued, she also wanted to mold them.

The university’s most vital purpose, Stanford explained in an address to its Board of Trustees a few years after her husband’s death, was the development of the student’s “soul germ.” She urged the trustees to eschew classrooms in favor of shops and workshops that would “dignify labor” by teaching future workers to “use their hands deftly and usefully.” Stanford believed that, in addition to providing vocational training, the university should inculcate the values of faith, thrift, and abstinence of various kinds. She and her husband banned alcohol from the dormitories and capped the number of women undergraduates at five hundred.

Élite Western women of this period, as the historian Peggy Pascoe has written, sought moral authority in a male-dominated world by insisting on their unique capacity for piety and purity. Seeking influence in relation to men, they would exert their power over nonwhites and the poor. Like peers who established “rescue homes” for sex-workers and single mothers, Stanford made her generosity contingent on adherence to her moral code.

Unsurprisingly, students chafed at Stanford’s supervision of their social lives. White finds that administrators and professors also objected to her meddling in academic affairs. “In the eyes of the law the university professors were Mrs. Stanford’s personal servants,” the university president, David Starr Jordan, wrote in “The Story of a Good Woman,” based on a speech he gave to honor the school’s co-founder. Jordan was referring to a judge’s order, during the dispute over Leland Stanford, Sr.,’s estate, that the university pay its employees’ salaries from the same allowance reserved for household staff. But White’s characterization of the relationship between Jordan and Jane Stanford suggests that the statement might have had another meaning. Despite the flowery praise he offered her in public, Jordan privately fumed over Stanford’s interference in matters of hiring and firing.

The tensions between Stanford and Jordan came to a head over the fate of the economics professor Edward Ross. Ross had advocated publicly for populist causes such as adding silver to gold as the monetary standard, the public regulation of private utilities, and a ban on Japanese immigration—reportedly saying the U.S. should turn its guns on every ship crossing the Pacific. Stanford was outraged by the statement, less because of its horrifying genocidal implications than because it represented an attack on the labor practices of capitalists like her husband and herself. Jordan tried to persuade Stanford to retain Ross in the name of freedom of speech, to no avail. Ross resigned, at Stanford’s behest and amid great scandal, forcing Jordan to take the blame for the decision and defend his benefactress in order to save the university’s reputation. For once, the public wasn’t fooled. “Mrs. Stanford selects a president and faculty as she would a butler with a staff of footmen, cooks, and scallions,” one newspaper reported.

The damage to the university’s standing resulting from the “Ross Affair” and other academic scandals set the stage for what White argues was Jordan’s cover-up of Jane Stanford’s murder. Wills and trusts were vulnerable to legal challenge if the testator was deemed insane, and those episodes had inspired whispers about Stanford’s erratic decision-making and her communions with spirits. A murder trial would bring more unwanted attention to some of the less savory aspects of the benefactress’s past, and suggestions of suicide could be taken as evidence of insanity. With the university’s financial and reputational grounds threatening to collapse under the weight of another scandal, the only solution was to redirect the public’s attention away from the suspicious circumstances of Stanford’s death.

Only once in her biography, on the third-to-last page, does Bertha Berner come close to telling something like the truth about Jane Stanford. “Mrs. Stanford came to rule people through her wealth,” Berner writes, “and no crown or title could have made her rule more absolute nor the realization of her power more clear in her mind.” Still, Berner couches that blunt assessment in praise. She tells us that Stanford modelled her monarchical style on Queen Victoria’s, doggedly devoting herself to the welfare of her people. When Stanford had done all that she could to improve their lot, Berner writes, she was ready to die.

White also lays out his cards in his book’s final pages. Berner, he concludes, killed Jane Stanford—maybe because of the money that Stanford left her in her will, maybe because Berner feared that Stanford would find out about the kickbacks, maybe because she’d simply had enough. Jordan, too, had a plausible motive for murder—Stanford planned to fire him upon returning from her trip—but White thinks that the bumbling administrator didn’t have it in him. Instead, the historian concludes, Jordan hid Berner’s crime to protect the university’s image, and his own.

White supports his theories with some crucial pieces of overlooked evidence, such as a brief mention in a newspaper story connecting Berner to a druggist who would have had access to strychnine. But, more than anything, it’s the constantly shifting stories that Berner and Jordan told about their employer that seem to expose their guilt. Like Debs, both Berner and Jordan had incentives to uphold Stanford’s image as a guileless widow.

The mystery of Jane Stanford’s death turns out to hinge on the mystery of her life: how a woman at the turn of the twentieth century could amass such power, and how she could disguise that power from the public. Instead of seeking equality with men, Stanford insisted on her difference, and capitalized upon her authority as a wife and mother. She extended her dominance well beyond the household by operating under the pretense of feminine care and generosity. Her achievement, in the end, was not emulating her husband, but acting with a ruthlessness that was entirely her own.

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