Centennial video series: The Rice murder mystery

The founding of the Rice Institute reads like a made-for-Hollywood movie script. A millionaire is poisoned by his valet, who conspires with an East Coast lawyer to attempt to steal the fortune. All the while, it is believed that the millionaire died of natural causes. But wait — the millionaire’s Texas attorney fights back to prove the death was nothing more than a money grab and honors the true intention of the millionaire to open an endowed educational institute for higher learning.

This is all a true story. William Marsh Rice was murdered Sept. 23, 1900, by his valet, Charlie Jones. Jones had conspired with an unscrupulous lawyer, Albert Patrick, to kill Rice and claim his estate by using a forged will.

When an autopsy ordered by Rice’s Houston attorney, Capt. James A. Baker, revealed evidence of poisoning, Jones agreed to turn state’s evidence against Patrick in return for immunity from prosecution. Patrick was convicted of murder and sent to Sing Sing prison in New York in 1901. Baker’s quick action and the favorable legal resolution in 1904 of the claim against Rice’s estate cleared the way for the institute to fulfill its charter’s mandate.

Rice University and the Baker family have maintained close ties over the years. Baker was the first chairman of the Rice Board of Governors and served from 1891 to 1941. His grandson, James A. Baker III, is the namesake and honorary chair of Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.  The former U.S. secretary of state served on the Rice Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2002 and continues to be active with the board, serving as a trustee emeritus.

Working with Centennial Historian Melissa Kean, video producer Brandon Martin takes a look at the murder of William Marsh Rice and the founding of the Rice Institute. For more information on Rice’s history, visit Kean’s blog at www.ricehistorycorner.com.

To help celebrate the university’s centennial Oct. 12, Rice University is producing weekly videos exploring the school’s unique history.

To see other stories in the centennial video series, go to http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL60D6D71E71B66B3D&feature=plcp.

About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.