The Strange Death of William Rice

The death of William Marsh Rice, the founder of what would eventually become Rice University in Houston, Texas, is one of the great forgotten mysteries of the early 20th century. One man admitted killing the rags-to-riches philanthropist and turned state’s evidence to help convict an alleged accomplice, but the question of whether Rice was even murdered remains an issue even to this day.
That the man convicted of killing Rice was guilty of at least attempted murder and trying to steal the man’s multi-million dollar fortune from Rice’s rightful heirs is indisputable, but claims that attorney Albert T. Patrick directed Rice’s valet, Charles Jones, to poison him in his sleep with chloroform are based solely on Jones’s uncorroborated testimony, which was offered by a desperate man trying to save his own neck. People were divided about Patrick’s guilt then, and the case remains one of scientific and criminal curiosity.
Born in Springfield, Mass., Rice came to Texas as a penniless young man eager to seek his fortune in the wild west. Although he was poor when he arrived, Rice quickly built up a sizable fortune and became well-known for his generous donations to build educational institutions and other charitable works in his adopted state.
The last years of Rice’s life were spent as a near recluse in New York City, where the sickly, childless widower was engaged in a bitter legal battle over his wife’s will with some of her relatives. Prior to her death in 1896, the couple had planned to leave the bulk of their fortune to William Rice Institute in Houston. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Mrs. Rice had changed the terms of her will, declaring herself and her husband to be residents of Texas and leaving all but $15,000 of her share of the estate to her relatives. Because Texas law at the time considered a married couple’s fortune to be community property, Mrs. Rice’s bequest would have taken $2.5 million (1900’s dollars) that William Rice had planned to give to the institute out of his control.
The benefactors of Mrs. Rice’s largess retained a lawyer named Holt to represent their claims, and Holt, in turn hired Albert T. Patrick, a New York lawyer, to handle the proceedings in the Empire State.
Legal ethics proved to be no bar for Patrick, who was bound and determined to prove, falsely, if necessary, that William Rice was a resident of Texas and thus Mrs. Rice’s will was valid.
“His first visit to Rice’s apartment was made under the assumed name of Smith for the purpose of discovering whether the valet could be corrupted into furnishing fictitious proof of Rice’s intent to reside in Texas,” wrote former New York County Chief Assistant District Attorney Arthur Train in 1908. “He flattered Jones; told him he was underpaid and not appreciated, and…persuaded him to typewrite a letter on Rice’s stationery … in which he should be made to say that he had lost hope of winning the suit against Holt, was really a citizen of Texas, and wanted to settle the litigation.”
After Jones failed to accomplish this task, the two men hatched a plot to steal the bulk of Rice’s estate by forging a new will.
Patrick’s plan started from the solid premise that Rice’s relatives, disinherited except for small bequests by his 1896 will, would not challenge a newer will that increased their shares of the estate at the cost of decreasing the Institute’s portion, while leaving the bulk of Rice’s property to his “friend” Albert Patrick.
“An ingenious part of the conspiracy was the decision to leave the 1896 will in existence,” Train wrote. “If Patrick had destroyed it and the relatives had succeeded in overthrowing the will of 1900, the estate would have been left without testamentary disposition and the relatives would have got more than was provided by either will. With the will of 1896 in existence, however, the relatives would get less if they overthrew the forgery. By retaining it, therefore, Patrick figured that the relatives would have selfish reasons for accepting the forgery as genuine.”
One problem was that although Rice was a sickly 84-year-old man, he wasn’t that ill and could conceivably live for some time, and according to Jones, Patrick wasn’t willing to wait. A second, seemingly insurmountable, problem was trying to explain why Patrick, who had participated in a bitter legal fight with Rice, would end up as the largest recipient of Rice’s largess.
Albert PatrickTo provide an answer to that question, Jones and Patrick forged a series of letters from Rice to Patrick showing that Rice had come to respect Patrick’s legal skills and was relying on him for advice. In addition, the men forged a settlement agreement with Mrs. Rice’s heirs. Patrick used a traced copy of Rice’s signature for all of these documents and the bogus will, but a comparison of the signatures easily reveals their forged nature.
“But title under the will might long be delayed and perhaps even eventually fail,” Train’s story continues. “Patrick was poor and in no condition to conduct adequately a serious litigation. The moment Mr. Rice died a large amount of cash would be necessary. For the procurement of this Patrick and Jones looked to the current balance of Rice’s bank account, which amounted to some $250,000.”
Even in 1900 the men knew that if they were forced to murder Rice, an autopsy could spell their doom. To avoid this contingency, Patrick forged another letter that became known as the “Cremation Letter” in which Rice expressed his deep distaste for traditional embalming and burial and directed that in the event of his death, his body was to be immediately cremated.
In August, 1900 all of the pieces of Patrick’s plan were in place. The only thing left was to wait until Rice died. Unfortunately, a month later, a refinery fire at one of Rice’s Texas investments forced the two conspirators to act. To rebuild the refinery required large amounts of capital, and Rice was asked to supply the cash. The conspirators realized this would have emptied the account they planned to use to defend the fake will against potential challenges.
“Jones endeavored to dissuade the old man from advancing the money, but without effect, and Rice sent a letter to Houston agreeing to supply $150,000 and more in installments of $25,000 each,” Train wrote. Jones pretended to telegraph Rice’s agreement, but instead withheld the messages and provided his employer with bogus confirmations.
By this time, Jones would later testify, at Patrick’s direction he was administering large doses of mercury to Rice, but succeeded only in giving the poor man indigestion. When a bank messenger arrived on Saturday to receive the $150,000, Jones told him Rice was too ill to conduct business and told him to return on Monday.
According to Jones, the conspirators planned to ensure that Rice was dead before Monday, rendering that agreement with the refinery moot.
Fate took a hand as well that evening, and thus the great mystery of the death of William Marsh Rice. The old man did die that evening, and Jones claimed that it was because he administered a dose of chloroform to Rice as he lay sleeping. In fact, it is just as possible that Rice died as his doctor originally ruled: “Old age and weak heart,” and “as immediate cause, indigestion followed by collocratal diarrhoea (sic)with mental worry.”
Once Jones reported to Patrick that his employer was dead, Patrick rushed to the scene and put the plan into place. He contacted an undertaker and produced the cremation letter and the death certificate stating Rice had died naturally.
Patrick’s ignorance of the cremation process, however, would help seal his fate. The undertaker informed him that while cremation was easily accomplished, it would take 24 hours to heat the crematory to appropriate temperature. In that time, Rice’s body would begin to decay. Embalming would help preserve it. Patrick agreed, thereby ignoring Rice’s “last wishes” that detailed his horror of being embalmed.
The undertaker injected embalming fluid through the brachial artery without removing the venous blood.
“Early Monday morning Jones, with Patrick looking over his shoulder and directing him, filled out the body of the checks, which covered all but $10,000 of Rice’s deposits,” Train wrote. The men then attempted to cash the checks, alerting the suspicion of bankers, who contacted police. An autopsy was ordered.
“The two physicians testified at the trial that the organs of the body, except the lungs, were normal in condition, save as affected by the embalming fluid,” Train wrote. “They and Professor Witthaus agreed in their testimony that the lungs were congested. Dr. Donlin spoke of their being ‘congested all over’; while Dr. Williams characterized it as ‘an intense congestion of the lungs—coextensive with them.’ Outside of the lungs they found no evidence of disease to account for death, and beyond the congestion these showed nothing except a small patch of consolidated tissue about the size of a twenty-five cent piece.”
Other pathologists asserted that such irritation could not have been caused by the embalming fluid flowing backward into the lungs.
“Such flow (it was alleged) would be prevented by the aortic and mitral valves, which permit flow only in a forward direction,” wrote Dr. Alan Van Poznak, a physician and professor of anesthesiology and pharmacology at Cornell University Medical School in a 1995 retrospective on the case. “How wrong they were! Every embalmer knows that the heart valves become incompetent after death, and retrograde flow of embalming fluid is routinely seen.”
As the conspiracy collapsed, Patrick and Jones were arrested and held on forgery charges in the Tombs, the city jail in New York.
“On the 26th of October Jones made a statement to Assistant District Attorney Osborne which was in large part false, and in which he endeavored to exonerate himself entirely from complicity in any of the crimes, and in which he charged the actual administration of the chloroform to Patrick,” Train wrote. Four days later, Osborne summoned Jones again and effectively refuted his story. At that time Jones admitted his role, implicated Patrick and, upon returning to his cell, attempted suicide.
In return for his testimony against Patrick, Jones was offered complete immunity. Patrick’s motive was the sole foundation of the case against him, and therein lies much of the mystery.
“That Patrick desired and would profit by Rice’s death in no way tends to establish that Rice did not die a natural death,” Train wrote, himself firmly convinced of Patrick’s guilt by the corroborative “evidence” of an admitted murderer and faulty expert testimony.
At the trial, Jones testified that he first placed a chloroform-soaked rag on the face of Rice and then left the room for about half an hour. He further testified that when he returned Rice was dead. “Jones then placed the chloroform-soaked rag in the stove where (he said) it burst into flame,” Van Poznak wrote. “With regard to Jones’s testimony, it should be pointed out that chloroform is nonflammable, which casts doubt on Jones’s story that the saturated cloth burst into flame in the range. In addition, it would have been almost impossible to place a high concentration of chloroform vapor on the face of a normally sleeping person without having some reaction of suffocation and attempt to remove or avoid the offending vapor. It is possible to induce inhalation anesthesia in a sleeping person only if the vapor is started slowly and at a very low concentration at first, with gradual increases as tolerated.”
Van Poznak also disputes the “medical experts’” claims that Rice’s lungs were irritated by the drug.
“One reason for the popularity of chloroform at the time was its lack of respiratory tract irritation as compared with diethyl ether which was the other widely used inhalation anesthetic of the era,” he wrote. “The medical ‘experts’ who testified to the pulmonary irritant effect of chloroform were again absolutely wrong.”
Not knowing the real science, the jury did not reach the same conclusion as Van Poznak and convicted Patrick of first degree murder. He was sentenced to death and sent to Sing Sing. In 1906 the Governor of New York commuted the death sentence of Albert T. Patrick to life imprisonment.
In 1912, Patrick, continuing to proclaim his innocence in the death of Rice was granted a full pardon by the State after a groundswell of support from the medical and legal communities convinced the governor of the errors involved in the expert testimony. He later moved to Oklahoma where he was remembered as an upstanding citizen and leading member of his church. The last public record involving Albert Patrick was his signature on the incorporating documents of a Unitarian Church in Tulsa in 1929.
For his part, Arthur Train never budged from his belief that Albert Patrick, with the help of Charles Jones, murdered William Marsh Rice.