William Marsh Rice: A Story of Money, Poison, and Murder

“Willy’s Statue” is also the gravesite of William Marsh Rice (Kathy M. Slaughter photo)

One of America’s finest universities might not exist today if it were not for a botched murder plot.

The victim was William Marsh Rice, a financier, merchant, and philanthropist. He made most of his fortune in Houston, and wanted to create an institute there after his death using money from his estate. The murderers succeeded in killing Rice, but failed to make off with his money, and today Rice University has earned respect in academic and civic circles.

Rice was born in 1816 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His parents, David and Patty (Hall) Rice, named him after circuit rider William Marsh, who organized their family church.

Rice left school at age 15 to work as a general store clerk. When he arrived in Texas in 1837, he was poor but soon began building his sizable fortune. In Houston he contracted to provide and serve liquor at the Milam Hotel. For compensation, he received the price of the liquor, $3/day, and room and board. The hotel, since demolished, was at the intersection of Crawford Street and Texas Avenue, across the street from Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros play. Rice partnered with Ebenezer B. Nichols in an export and import business. It supplied plantations and inland settlers with goods from New Orleans and New York.

Rice also acted as a banker for many of the company’s customers. With other investors, he established the Houston and Galveston Navigation Company. By 1848 he carried ice from Boston to Galveston during the summer in his brig, the William M. Rice. Rice was also a director of the Houston Insurance Company. The firm insured carriers and freight. Rice’s involvement in these businesses enabled him to acquire thousands of acres of land in Texas and Louisiana, and amass a fortune. He had a large farm in Bellaire, which at the time was west of Houston. Rice, along with other investors, incorporated the Houston Cotton Compress Company.

Among his activities, Rice was director of several railroads. He also served as a Houston city alderman from 1855-1857, representing the Second Ward. By 1860, he was one of the richest men in Texas, having real estate and personal property valued at $750,000, which would be about $21.1 million today.

During the Civil War, Rice moved his business to Matamoros, Mexico. He allowed his Houston house to be used for a military hospital. After the war, Rice moved to New Jersey, and became an agent for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. In 1885, he bought the Capitol Hotel, later known as the Rice Hotel. The hotel was located at 909 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston and is known today as the Rice Lofts.

Rice married Margaret C. Bremond in 1850, who died in 1863. Four years later, Rice married Julia Elizabeth (Baldwin) Brown. Despite his two marriages, Rice fathered no children. After Elizabeth, as she was known, died in 1896, Rice moved to New York City. At that time, his net worth was about $3 million, which would be about $48.4 million today.

Elizabeth’s will was in direct opposition to Rice’s. It left all but $15,000 to her relatives. His will, meanwhile, left the bulk of his estate for the establishment of the Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Arts in Houston.

Apparently, Elizabeth had changed her will without Rice’s knowledge. Her will claimed that she and Rice were Texas residents. At that time, Texas law stated that a married couple’s estate was community property. If her will was valid, it would have taken approximately $2.5 million from her husband’s control. Because Rice had an apartment on Madison Avenue, he considered himself to be a New York resident and not subject to Texas law.

Lawyers were asked to help resolve the dispute. O.T. Holt, a Houston lawyer, was the executor of Elizabeth’s will. Holt retained Albert Patrick, another Houston lawyer, to find evidence from anyone that had known Rice to prove that he was legally a Texas resident.

Patrick was a native Texan who practiced law for several years there. In his time, he was considered to be a shady character. Concerns about Patrick arose upon the suspicious death of a wealthy fertilizer magnate, who sued Patrick for restitution of $5,500. To escape disbarment charges due to misconduct, he moved to New York City.

When Holt filed to probate Elizabeth’s will, Captain James Baker, Rice’s Houston attorney, told Rice of its contents. A court battle subsequently began with Rice disputing his Texas residence.

While investigating, Patrick met Rice’s valet, Charles F. Jones. Jones could not provide the evidence that Patrick needed, so the two men decided to murder Rice. They would cash checks from Rice’s New York bank account and forge a will that would name them as beneficiaries. Patrick drafted the forged will and bequeathed generous amounts of money to Elizabeth’s relatives hoping that they wouldn’t challenge the will.

Patrick also drafted and forged a letter stating that Rice did not like the traditional embalming and burial. The letter went on to say that Rice requested that he be cremated immediately upon his death. This letter was known as the Cremation Letter. It would prevent an autopsy that might implicate Jones and Patrick in Rice’s death.

Even though Rice was 84 years old and sickly, his death did not seem imminent. Jones and Patrick decided to take matters into their own hands. Jones was taking some mercury pills prescribed by his doctor and gave Rice a few. Instead of making Rice worse, they made him feel better.

The second attempt was to mix oxalic acid with powdered ammonia to be diluted with water. This would not have required Jones to be in the room when Rice died. The attempt failed because Rice refused to drink the concoction.

The third attempt involved chloroform. On September 23, 1900, Rice’s housekeeper was off for the day, leaving Rice and Jones in the house by themselves. Shortly after 6 p.m., when Rice was asleep, Jones saturated a sponge with chloroform, made a cone out of a towel, put the sponge in the cone, and placed the cone over Rice’s face. Jones left the room and waited for 30 minutes before returning to find Rice dead. He then opened all the windows and burned the evidence in the kitchen range. Next, he called the building elevator operator and asked him to call Dr. Curry, Jones’s physician. Finally, he called Patrick to inform him of Rice’s death. Dr. Curry ruled that Rice died of old age and a weak heart.

Patrick showed the Cremation Letter and death certificate to the undertaker. The undertaker said it would take at least 24 hours for the crematory to heat to the correct temperature. He suggested that the body be embalmed. Even though Patrick had the forged letter saying that Rice did not want to be embalmed, he told the undertaker to proceed. He arranged a cremation as soon as possible.

Jones and Patrick’s scheme failed. Captain Baker was suspicious. He traveled to New York City and demanded an autopsy and an investigation. When Patrick tried to cash forged checks from Rice’s accounts, bank officials became concerned and alerted the authorities.

Shortly afterwards, Jones and Patrick were arrested. Jones unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide. He confessed to his involvement in the murder in exchange for his immunity. During Patrick’s trial, the doctors who performed Rice’s autopsy said that Rice died by chloroform poisoning. Patrick defended himself at the trial. He suggested that Rice died because he was old and in ill health.

Patrick was convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution. His wealthy brother-in-law was convinced of Patrick’s innocence and hired lawyers for his appeals. The case was tied up in the courts for years. New York Governor Frank Higgins commuted the sentence to life in prison. In 1912, Governor John A. Dix pardoned Patrick. Dix believed there was always some mystery about the case because the medical evidence was inconclusive.

Ironically, the year Patrick was pardoned was the same year that classes began at the newly established Rice Institute. In 1960, the institute changed its name to Rice University, which it is known as today.

Rice envisioned the institute and provided the initial financing for it. His remains were eventually cremated. Today they are buried on the campus under a statue of him created by sculptor John Angel. His epitaph, in Latin, translates as Hail forever, and forever hail.