Houston 101: Rice University's Twisted, Tangled Birth

Rice University's foundation story is amazingly checkered and includes spousal double-dealing, a secret will, a lengthy court battle, and finally, murder. A murder committed by the butler, no less, and one involving many of Houston's first families. Dominick Dunne would love this one...

William Marsh Rice arrived in malarial Houston as a 22-year-old in 1838, and after a few false starts, hit it big in the cotton business. By 1850, several of his siblings had moved to town and joined the family firm. (Two of these siblings settled on land that is now the headquarters of Music World Entertainment, the nerve center of the Beyonce/Destiny's Child Empire, and the antebellum house on that land was once the property of William Rice's nephew.)

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In 1867, the widowed Rice, by then one of the richest men in Texas, married an unintentional femme fatale. The widow Elizabeth Baldwin Brown was what passed for a blueblood in Victorian Houston, a niece of city founder Augustus Allen's wife Charlotte Baldwin Allen and the daughter of former mayor Horace Baldwin, who is not to be confused with her nephew Horace Baldwin Rice, who also served as mayor before and after the turn of the 20th Century.

Perhaps tired of all their spouses dying of tropical diseases, William and Elizabeth moved to the more salubrious climes of New York. Rice oversaw his Texas business from there, and on a trip back to Houston in 1891, he became enamored with the idea of devoting his estate to the foundation of an institute of higher learning here. Little did he know his devotion to that dream would wind up getting him murdered in his own bed...

Five years later, Elizabeth's health started to fail, and she and William decided to move back to Houston, this time for her health.  But was that really the only reason she wanted to come back to Texas? Some believe she had an ulterior motive; namely, Texas was a community property state and New York was not. At any rate, shortly after returning to Houston, Elizabeth called her lawyer Orren T. Holt to her suite in the Capitol Hotel and secretly drew up a new will, claiming half of William's property as her own, and leaving huge bequests to various family members. She also left a hefty sum to the City of Houston for the establishment of a park.

As Marguerite Johnson put it in Houston: The Unknown City: "Capt. James A. Baker, Mr. Rice's lawyer [and the grandfather of Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III] was to comment drily, 'She was very, very liberal.'"

Rice only found out after Elizabeth died and was thunderstruck. His legacy seemed doomed. He brought in Baker to contest the will, claiming that Elizabeth was not really a Texan, and thus not under the protection of community property laws. Baker was opposed in court by Holt and a scandal-dogged, Texas-bred New York lawyer by the name of Albert Patrick.

Meanwhile, while in Houston, Rice hired a man named Charles Jones to be his valet. In a primitive form of what is now known as identity theft, Patrick befriended Jones, and through him learned a great deal about Rice, as Jones typed all of Rice's letters and was privy to Rice's banking details. Patrick started practicing William Marsh Rice's signature and typing himself affectionate letters, ostensibly from Rice, the better to establish what swell friends they were.

Meanwhile, the court battle dragged on and on. Patrick, by then back in New York along with Jones and Rice, felt like he had enough of a handle on Rice's personal writing style and signature -- not to mention enough bogus letters of friendship in hand -- to forge a will, this one leaving the entirety of Rice's estate to Albert Patrick. And so he started waiting for Rice, by now a frail 84-year-old, to die naturally. But he tired of that, so he instructed Jones to start mixing a little mercury in with Rice's meals.

Rice's businesses were ravaged by the 1900 hurricane, and Patrick panicked. He fretted that Rice would be ruined before he could get his hands on his loot. He instructed Jones to hasten the poisoning, and on September 23, Jones chloroformed the sleeping Rice into the great beyond.

The next day Rice's personal doctor cited natural causes on Rice's death certificate. Patrick hustled over to the house and told everyone that Rice wanted to be cremated, and that they needed to get a move on. An undertaker told Patrick it would take 24 hours for the oven to warm up adequately, but despite that snag, it seemed Patrick had pulled of the perfect crime.

Then he made a big mistake. He attempted to cash a $25,000 check from Rice to him, and in the process, misspelled his own name as "Abert." And despite his painstaking attempts to perfect Rice's signature, bank officials thought it was a little off, as was the fact that this check was far larger than most old man Rice had been willing to write. A bank manager attempted to phone Rice to verify the check; Jones told the banker that Rice was dead. That was enough for the banker to decide to get in touch with James Baker. Baker was told that Rice's death had been "very suspicious," and the banker went on to spill the beans about the hasty cremation.

Baker flew into action. He ordered a stop to the cremation and caught the first available train to the Big Apple.  When Baker arrived at William's apartment, he was stunned to be greeted by Patrick, who was comporting himself as if he had lost his surrogate father. To Baker's knowledge, Patrick and William Rice had never met and were on opposite sides of a nasty court battle. How, he wondered, had they become such good friends?

When Patrick had offered up an easier, out-of-court resolution to the court case, Rice had warmed to him, Patrick claimed. He trotted out those sheaves of warm letters he wrote to himself, along with the forged will as evidence. Baker didn't buy it, and within two weeks, he had amassed enough evidence to see that Patrick and Jones were charged with forgery.

Patrick claimed innocence, but Jones buckled and sang like a Texas mockingbird. Patrick made bail on the forgery charge but was quickly re-arrested, this time for first-degree murder, based on Jones's confessions. There followed a spectacular trial which ended in Patrick's conviction and sentence to the newfangled electric chair. He managed to avoid that fate, first by the commutation of his sentence to life, and then, in 1912, to a pardon. Jones was given immunity in exchange for his testimony, and walked despite being the "triggerman" of sorts.

But Baker had saved Rice's dream: the future of Rice Institute was secure when he managed to steer over $4.5 million of Rice's estate to the foundation of the school. Old man Rice eventually was cremated, and today his ashes are interred under his memorial statue on Rice campus, which also sports several buildings named after various members of the Baker family.

And as for Elizabeth Baldwin, today, there's a memorial fountain and a lovely grove of ancient live oaks in the Midtown park that bears her name, Houston's official remembrance of her single-minded ways that wound up ending her husband's life prematurely.

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