Death of William Marsh Rice

William Marsh Rice was born on March 14, 1816 and died September 23, 1900. Rice was eighty-four at the time of his death. During his lifetime, Rice had been a successful businessman in numerous fields. He left his fortune to fund the founding of the educational institution now known as Rice University in Houston, Texas. William Rice died in New York City though he had lived in Texas for many years.

His remains were set to be cremated when these proceedings and the funeral were halted by a New York City coroner by the name of Hart. The Chicago Tribune in its issue of September 26, 1900 carried this sensational headline, “Stop Burial of Rich Man.” The article went on to say that law officers halted the funeral of Mr. Rice until an inquiry could be made and that a lawyer had sought to hide the death of Mr. Rice pending the attempt to draw $25,000 on the account of Mr. Rice against $250,000 which he claimed was held in trust.

According to the article, a death certificate for Mr. Rice had been signed by a Dr. W. Walker Curry of East Sixty-first Street in Manhattan by the time a check was presented to the bank of S. M. Swenson on Wall Street. Coroner Hart acted “suddenly and arbitrarily” to halt the cremation and funeral, the article said, on receipt of additional information. Rice had died on a Sunday at his Madison Avenue home. At the time he was single, though he had previously been married twice, leaving no children. He lived alone with one valet and had been represented by an attorney named Albert T. Patrick who had an address on Broadway.

The article stated that soon after the bank opened on Monday morning, attorney Patrick presented the $25,000 check dated on Sunday, payable to Patrick and bearing a “signature” of Mr. Rice. Bank personnel declined to honor the check without first speaking with Mr. Rice, given the large amount. When they telephoned Rice’s residence, valet Charles F. Jones said that the check was all right and the bank should cash it, but the bankers still declined until they could personally speak to Mr. Rice. The article went on to say that the valet initially stated that Mr. Rice was sleeping and that he didn’t want to wake him, but Jones later admitted that Mr. Rice was dead.

Estimates of Mr. Rice’s estate varied but the Chicago Tribune article noted that it could have been as much as $8,000,000 at the time. The article concluded with a comment that valet Jones had said that Rice’s last illness was attributed in part to worry over losses estimated at $1,500,000 sustained by the Galveston hurricane which had made landfall on September 8, 1900 and the September 16, 1900 fire at the Merchants and Planters’s Oil Company works in Houston, in which Rice was the largest shareholder. Merchants and Planters’ Oil Company processed cottonseed oil and its plant was heavily damaged in the fire. Before his death, Rice had reportedly authorized repairs to the cottonseed oil plant.

William Marsh Rice was the son of David Rice (1790 – 1867) and Patty Hall Rice (1790 – 1877). He had at least two siblings, a brother named Frederick and a sister named Charlotte. He was twice a widower, having first married Margaret C. Bremond (1832 – 1863). Following her death, he married Julia Elizabeth Baldwin (1927 – 1896), the daughter of an early mayor of Houston. As an aside, Elizabeth Baldwin was also the sister of Charlotte Maria Baldwin (1832 – 1906) who was married to William Rice’s brother Frederick Allen Rice (1830 – 1901).

Over the years, William Rice had made several wills. In 1893 prior to Elizabeth’s death, a will was prepared that left half of his estate to fund the creation of the educational institution in his name with the other half to pass to Elizabeth and others. Presumably, this arrangement would have only taken effect if he had predeceased her. In this document, Rice was represented by Capt. James Addison Baker, Jr., grandfather of former presidential advisor and Secretary of State James Baker. Attorney James A. Baker, Jr. was a co-founder of the firm now known as Baker and Botts. Some accounts say that Elizabeth’s heirs reportedly sought a ruling that the couple’s domicile had been in Texas, a community property state, rather than New York. This would have resulted in a more favorable estate settlement for Elizabeth’s heirs, but apparently they were not successful in this effort.

In any case, following Elizabeth’s death, a new will was drafted leaving several bequests, and with the majority of the estate to pass to a Texas educational institution in his name. After Rice’s death, yet another will was presented that appeared to appoint different administrators of the estate and substantially revised the mix of beneficiaries, including attorney Patrick. This document which would have also decreased the portion to the educational institution was considered to be a fake, likely forged by Patrick with the help of Jones.

Suspects Patrick and Jones were arrested about two weeks after Mr. Rice’s death. Their accounts of events leading up to the death of Rice differed, but Jones confessed, perhaps in exchange for a promise of leniency, to smothering Rice with a cloth soaked in chloroform on the orders of Patrick. Patrick was eventually tried and convicted for the murder of Rice while Jones went free. Patrick received the death sentence that was later commuted to a life sentence. Finally, after serving about ten years of this sentence, Patrick was pardoned after which he relocated to Oklahoma. Jones relocated to south Texas.

Ultimately the bulk of Rice’s estate went to create the institution in his name. After a settlement with heirs of Rice’s late wife Elizabeth, the amount set aside for the school is estimated at between four and five million dollars. The school was originally called the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Art and Science, and first held classes on September 23, 1912, twelve years to the day after Rice’s death. Its original student body numbered seventy-seven students. James Addison Baker, Jr. served as its first board chairman and continued to be associated with the school until his death in 1941.

Albert T. Patrick died in early 1940 and is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Charles F. Jones died in 1954 and is buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Houston, Texas. William Marsh Rice was ultimately cremated. His ashes were kept in safekeeping at Rice University until 1930 when they were deposited beneath the Founder’s Memorial monument on the campus.

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