Who poisoned Jane Stanford? Her private secretary? A Stanford University official? A possible heir? Natalia Gurevich, who wrote and narrated the podcast Bitter Academic, looks at these questions in her six-episode true-crime series that airs its final show on Monday.
The whodunit by Audacy and KCBS looks at the woman who co-founded Stanford with her husband, Leland Stanford, a robber baron who thrived during California’s Gold Rush era and served as the state’s governor for one year, and as a U.S. Senator from 1885 until his death in 1893.
The five episodes aired so far delve into Jane Stanford’s mysterious demise. At the time of her death in 1905, university president David Starr Jordan said Jane had died of heart failure. But in the early 2000s, it became clear that she was poisoned during a trip to Hawaii. She died on Feb. 28, 1905, at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu.
In addition to restoring the details of this century-old mystery and vividly describing the social landscape of San Francisco’s Gilded Age, Bitter Academia adds human elements to the case. “I try to look at what made Jane who she was as a person. I delve into her interests and spiritualism,” said Natalia Gurevich, a former intern at Mission Local. “I try to get a better picture of who she was as a person, and not just focus on the fact that she was murdered.”
Although Leland and Jane Stanford opened Stanford University together in 1891, her husband died shortly after building commenced, and Jane oversaw its creation. And she ensured that, both her husband and son remained on campus at the Mausoleum in the Stanford University Arboretum.
Informed by her strong belief in spiritualism, Jane believed the university had become a new home for her late son and husband. When Jane was poisoned in 1905, with the killer walking free, the university was also one of the main players in covering it up, according to Bitter Academia. Even now, the university prefers to keep the story of Jane’s death hidden, and paints her purely as an incredible philanthropic woman, said Gurevich.
Throughout the process, Gurevich found herself inevitably sympathizing with Jane. “I also feel like she didn’t get quite the life that she wanted,” she said, particularly Jane’s time with her precocious son, Leland Stanford, Jr., who died at 15. She also missed out on many years with Leland Stanford, one of the wealthy few who controlled San Francisco at the time. “But in the end, she’s at peace,” Gurevich said.
Gurevich’s journey started last summer. She had just finished her highly acclaimed Sausage King podcast and was scouring topics for her next story. That was when her uncle, a writer of novels, brought up a couple of details about Jane’s story. Gurevich, a native of the Bay Area, was immediately fascinated. “Stanford is right in our backyard. So I was kind of like, ‘Why haven’t I heard about this?’” she said.
What followed was a lot of driving around. More than a century after Jane’s death, all the participants had long since died, and there were no audio archives for Gurevich to go to. To make matters worse, the 1906 earthquake altered the history of the city forever, and much was lost. To fill in the gap, Gurevich found experts in Gilded Age poisoning, talked to spirit mediums, and tracked down a few of Jane’s descendants in Reno, where she marveled at some of the beautiful antiques and possessions of Jane’s.
Jane’s position made her one of the wealthiest women nationwide in her era, and the only woman single-handedly running a university. “For better or for worse, she is a symbol of feminism,” said Gurevich. “She might not have liked being called a symbol of feminism.”
Jane Stanford implemented co-education at Stanford (which made it one of the first universities to do so), and was a quiet supporter of the suffragist movement, but she was also a very conservative woman at the end of the day. “I think that’s a big part of being a woman and being a person at that time. She definitely reflects a lot of what society was going through at that time,” said Gurevich. Often, Stanford was the only woman in a room full of men. At every turn, university officials, lawyers, and financial guides questioned and undermined her. At one point, she got into an especially muddied situation when an employee publicly questioned the way she and Leland had become fabulously rich: By brutally exploiting workers during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
With betrayal after betrayal, Jane gradually learned that her large fortune made it impossible to trust anyone. Not only that, some people might like it better if she were dead. Many described her as unpleasant or unlikable, and this may also explain her attraction to spiritualism, where women were offered more of a voice that time.
In Bitter Academia, Gurevich actually carried out a seance with an established spiritualist church in San Francisco, which was formed around the time that Jane Stanford died. Unlike the dramatic performances featured in Hollywood movies, however, the real-life seance had no chanting, no candles, and nothing creepy.
Though the 1906 earthquake destroyed many of the buildings Stanford originally built, even today, her influence is still present in the Cactus Garden she cultivated, the Memorial Church where she worshiped and, of course, at the Mausoleum where the family of three was laid to rest.
In next Monday’s episode, the story is going to end at “the place where she probably was at her happiest,” according to Gurevich. The setting will be the governor’s mansion in Sacramento, where Jane gave birth to her son and raised him when he was still very young.
Bitter Academia is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and all other major podcast venues.
Richard Whites book “Who Killed Jane Stanford” published last year covers her death in great detail and is a worthy read to this podcast.