On September 23, 1900, William Marsh Rice lay down to sleep, and he would never wake up again. He had an upset stomach from medications he’d taken. At 5-foot-4 and 90 pounds, he made an easy target for Charles Jones, his valet and quasi-secretary.
Jones clamped a rag soaked with chloroform over the 84-year-old Rice’s face and killed him. The murder ended a rather remarkable life that began from humble beginnings in Springfield, Mass., wound through Texas and back to Manhattan. There Rice was murdered by Jones and A.T. Patrick, one of his lawyers.
Patrick and Jones had plotted for months, looking for a way to get at Rice’s fortune. When they killed him they thought they had succeeded. In the end, however, police uncovered the plot to murder Rice and steal his estate. Ultimately the money went to establish Houston’s Rice University, named for the Massachusetts entrepreneur. But it didn’t happen without a lot of effort and misery.
William Marsh Rice
William Marsh Rice was born in Springfield on March 14, 1816. His father, David, worked at a forging shop at the Springfield Armory making rifle barrels and bayonets. His mother, Patty, raised their family, which consisted of 10 children (William was second oldest).
David was active in town and church affairs, serving as tax assessor and donating land for the Methodist Church, which he and Patty avidly supported. They named William for a Methodist Minister, William Marsh.
As a child, William was not much of a student, and he left school at 15 to clerk in a grocery store run by a retired whaling captain. At the store he began mastering the art of making money. Within three years, he had established his own store. He was so young that his father needed to co-sign for him to start the business, but William soon made it a success, adding $2,000 to his name.
In 1838, like many young men seeking their fortunes, Rice headed west for Texas. He initially faced some headwinds. First he tried to establish a store, but he lost of shipment of goods to bad weather. Then a speculative bubble caused a recession that dampened the economy. But soon, Marsh prospered. He sold a little bit of everything and had his hand in many businesses. He shipped cotton, started a railroad, loaned money for mortgages, bought and sold land and timber, made bricks, ran a hotel and refined vegetable oil.
By 1860, he probably ranked as the second wealthiest man in Texas, with a fortune of $750,000. The Houston-based William M. Rice and Company name was becoming well known. Though he didn’t oppose slavery (he owned several at one point, received as payment for debts), he never owned a plantation. He didn’t like the boom and bust of cotton prices. Rice most likely opposed the Civil War, seeing it as harmful to trade.
Following the war, his railroad and other business interests began expanding rapidly. He also dabbled in selling insurance. But he saw another change sweeping the country. Just as going west had made sense in the 1830s, going north made sense following the war. That’s because northern financiers would have a lot more influence in the South.
In addition, a Yankee in the South was always suspect in the harsh years that followed the Civil War. So Rice removed himself from Texas and moved to New York in 1866.
William Marsh Rice Gets Married
He married his second wife in New York. His first wife Margaret Bremond died in 1863. His second, Elizabeth Brown, died in 1896. Her death ultimately led to his own.
The Rices had no children, and William had planned for years to leave a share of his fortune to an orphanage in his adopted home state of New Jersey. The bulk of it he would leave to establish Rice University.
But in the last year of her life, Elizabeth suffered several strokes. During that time, she met an unscrupulous lawyer and signed a will separate from William’s and unknown to him. The will would have distributed parts of the estate to family, as well as the orphanage. It also provided for 10 percent payment to the lawyer to distribute the funds.
It wasn’t until after she died that William learned of the will. A court battle ensued in Texas to invalidate it on the grounds that Elizabeth was not a resident of Texas, as the will claimed. It’s not clear how much of the will was Elizabeth’s idea and how much was the lawyer’s, but it seems unlikely she would have claimed Texas as her residence.
With the lawsuits underway, Rice returned to New York from Texas. But before he left he hired a new valet, Charles Jones. In New York Jones began to scheme to get part of the Rice fortune for himself. A.T. Patrick, a local lawyer, managed to ingratiate himself with Rice, probably with Jones’ assistance. The two began manipulating the old man, all the while slowly poisoning him with mercury.
Then in September of 1900, the two men saw their chance. Patrick had already forged a will that left the Rice estate to himself. But he didn’t know how much Rice actually was worth. That month a hurricane and fire destroyed a vegetable oil plant that Rice owned in Louisiana. Rice decided to use his available cash to rebuild it. He had checks drawn up for $180,000 to pay for reconstruction.
The size of the amount alarmed Jones and Patrick. They managed to get Rice to sign the checks, but made them out to pay the funds to Patrick. Soon after, they murdered Rice.
The scheme began falling apart almost immediately. Among other problems, Jones had misspelled Patrick’s name on one check. When Patrick attempted to cash them, the bank decided to investigate before making payment.
When it came to light that Rice had died, suspicions grew. And then Patrick produced the forged will.
As police began asking more questions, Jones learned about the content of the will – including the fact that he was not named in it, just Patrick. He then began cooperating with prosecutors.
Throughout his life, William Marsh Rice sent money and gifts to his Massachusetts family, at one point buying his parents a house. He visited often, but his heart was not in Massachusetts. Nor was it in New York, but in Texas where he had made his fortune.
Lawyers for the budding university successfully wrestled his estate from not one but two sets of lawyers who had tried to abscond with it. By the end, more than $1 million was spent on legal fees. But $4.6 million remained to found the university of Rice’s dreams.
As for the men who killed him, Jones was allowed to return to Texas in exchange for his testimony. Years later he would kill himself.
Patrick was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Later his wealthy family managed to win him a pardon. He ended his life practicing law for an oil company.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Nichols-Cherry-Rice House By little black spot on the sun today – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9432797. William Marsh Rice statue By Ed Schipul – https://www.flickr.com/photos/16638697@N00/10213400874, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=94640453.