Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Butler Did It!

Sometimes reality is stranger with fiction. That’s surely the case with the history of Rice University. Students hurrying to classes on the campus of this renowned research university have no idea that there almost was no Rice University. It’s a tangled tale of greed, conspiracy, forged and contested wills.William Marsh Rice’s second wife, Elizabeth Baldwin Rice, was, shall we say, a bit insecure and self-centered. She loved to entertain and demanded adequate quarters to do that in grand style. The couple kept apartments in hotels in New York City and Houston, where they stayed at the Capitol which her husband owned. She referred to herself alternately as Mrs. Rice of Houston and Mrs. Rice of New York, though she preferred the social scene in New York. When she had a stroke, her husband sent her to a facility in Minnesota because he thought she would benefit from cooler weather. Mrs. Orren Holt accompanied her and was among her constant companions.
Mrs. Rice’s mind was affected by the stroke, and urged by lawyer Orren Holt, she made out a new will. Instead of leaving everything to her husband, she distributed large sums far and wide to relatives and causes of her own choosing. She would have the will filed in Texas, where her estate would be entitled to half her husband’s considerable fortune. Holt was executor, for which he would receive the enormous sum of $100,000.

Rice himself meanwhile knew nothing of this new will and was devoted to the idea of establishing an institute in Houston to be known as the Wm. M. Rice Institute of Literature, Science and Art, and to which he would leave his entire fortune. The institute was incorporated in Austin, and Rice’s attorney, James A. Baker, Jr., chaired the board.

After a second stroke, Elizabeth Rice died and the will was filed. Rice was shocked. If the will stood, he would not have the funds to establish his institute. He appealed, and the case hinged on residency. Rice claimed his wife’s primary residence was in New York and the will was not valid in Texas.

Rice, now an octogenarian, established himself in an apartment in New York City, with one Charlie Jones as his man servant. He had Houston businessman Emanuel Raphael looking after the institute’s business and a young but highly capable Arthur Cohn handling all other business affairs in Houston.

It began to look as if Mrs. Rice’s lawyers were not going to be able to establish her Texas residency, so Holt hired Albert Patrick, an unsuccessful and unscrupulous lawyer, disbarred in Texas, to investigate in New York City. Patrick befriended Charlie Jones and convinced him he had earned a legacy from Rice. Slowly, he drew Jones into a complicated scheme of forged wills and correspondence, had him convince Rice to take mercury pills for his digestion, and finally convinced the gullible Jones to smother his already-weakened employer with chloroform.

The story gets even more exciting after Rice’s death when newspapers had a field day with the story of the millionaire who, in life, had shunned publicity. But read it for yourself in the new edition of the 1972 biography, William Marsh Rice and His Institute, edited by Randal Hall, written by Sylvia Stallings Morris, and based on the research notes and papers of Andrew Forest Muir.

You can guess the outcome, of course: Rice University is today one of the nation’s leading universities. But how its legacy was saved by one determined lawyer and what happened to the villains makes pretty interesting reading. It’s as good as a lot of modern-day whodunits.

Written By: Judy Alter

Judy Alter is the author of the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, and the forthcoming Trouble in a Big Box, as well as the Blue Plate Mysteries which will debut in January. For twenty years, she served as director of TCU Press.


  1. Wow, this story had to be written. I'm glad it was. Thanks for the excellent review!

  2. Oh, my goodness! What a web of evil! Now I have to read the book to find out how everything was untangled.

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