By the late 19th century, William Marsh Rice, business tycoon and benefactor of Rice University, had amassed an estate roughly equivalent to $200 million today. Originally from Massachusetts, he moved to Texas as a young adult, building his business empire across the industries of cotton, railroads, lumber and real estate.
Given the fact that he had no children to whom he could bequeath the funds and property, he drew up a will that called for the establishment of a university in his adopted hometown of Houston, Texas. But it appears everyone else in his life had other plans for his fortune. His later years would serve as a tale of scandal and intrigue that rocked turn-of-the-century America.
His second wife, Julia Elizabeth Baldwin Brown, or Libby as she was known, was furious over the arrangement as the will left little to her nieces and nephews. Utilizing Texas community property law that allowed a wife to construct her own will and unbeknownst to the mogul, she drew up a document that left her family wealthy.
Fortunately for him, Libby died before he did and he discovered the will in 1896. In turns out that there was a solution, but the solution required him to reside permanently outside the state of Texas. Having a residence near New York, he settled there for the rest of his life. But his troubles followed.
His wife’s family, upset over Rice’s actions, hired legal counsel in the attempt to settle the matter. Enter yet another money-grabber into Rice’s life. Albert Patrick, attorney-at-law and New York representative of the law firm hired by Libby Rice’s family began working with Rice. Despite the contentious nature of their relationship, the men continued to have dealings.
With Rice nearing his death in the fall of 1900, Patrick saw an opportunity to stake his own claim to the fortune. In Rice’s final days, Patrick was able to forge a new will listing himself as primary beneficiary of the estate, which Rice signed. He also wrote several checks totaling $250,000, supposedly for work he had done on the magnate’s behalf.
Now he just needed to knock off the old man. Not wanting to dirty his own hands, Patrick persuaded Rice’s personal assistant, Charles Jones, to do the deed in exchange for a cut. Using chloroform, Jones killed his employer and sent the following telegram to Texas announcing his death:
“Mr. Rice died last night under the care of a physician. Certificate of death old age, extreme nervousness. Funeral tomorrow morning at nine o’clock.”
Though Patrick filed the will a few days later, the men’s arrival on Easy Street did not come so easily. Instead, an autopsy was conducted which highlighted the presence of chloroform in the body. Jones, ravaged by guilt, confessed the entire scheme and pointed the finger squarely at Patrick.
Albert Patrick was convicted shortly thereafter and sent to Sing Sing where he awaited the death penalty. The ever-wily lawyer, Patrick worked tirelessly to overturn his sentence, eventually receiving a commutation of his sentence to life in prison in 1906. He didn’t stop there—in 1912, he received a full pardon from outgoing New York Governor John Dix. He lived his remaining days in Oklahoma, disbarred by New York attorneys.
Charles Jones moved to Texas where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1954. Whether his role in Rice’s murder led him to this decision is undeterminable.
As for the lusted-after estate of William Marsh Rice, it eventually made its way to its rightful home. In 1912, the same year Patrick was released from prison, the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science, and Art opened its doors. Directors have since adopted the much more succinct name, Rice University.
I suppose for all of us who wish to be wealthy, Notorious B.I.G. had it right in his 1997 posthumous hit, “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Maybe I’ll just stay middle class.