For all the sense of adventure with which President Lovett launched the infant university—“on the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival,” he said in his inaugural address in October 1912, “we too are setting out on a voyage of discovery”—no university had a more precarious beginning. William Marsh Rice, born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 14, 1816, had come to Houston in 1839, three years after its founding. As an import-export merchant with a shrewd business sense, his fortune grew with the frontier town. By the eve of the Civil War, he was one of the richest men in Texas. Even the war did not disrupt his accumulation of wealth, for he temporarily moved to Matamoros, Mexico, where he traded in cotton despite the Union blockade. After the war, Rice returned to the North, and for the remainder of his life he lived first on a farm in New Jersey and then in an apartment in New York City. Rice maintained his extensive business interests in Houston, however, returning often to supervise his far-flung activities.
Twice married but childless, Rice sometime in his sixties apparently began to think about what he would leave to posterity. In 1882, influenced by the example of the Stephen Girard Institute in Philadelphia, he drew up a will leaving the bulk of his estate to an orphans’ home to be established on his New Jersey farm property. That institution for parentless children might have been William M. Rice’s legacy to the ages save for a fortuitous conversation in the late 1880s with Cesar M. Lombardi.
Lombardi, a prominent Houston businessman and former president of the Houston School Board, felt deeply that the city needed a public high school. The city council, considering Lombardi’s plans “highfaluting nonsense,” refused to be persuaded. Shortly thereafter, when Rice visited Houston, Lombardi poured out his frustrations to him and suggested that since Rice had made his fortune in Houston, there could be no more appropriate monument to his memory than a building for a municipal high school. Cautious by nature, Rice promised to give the idea careful consideration without making a commitment.
Visiting Houston again in the late spring of 1891, Rice called his attorney, Captain James A. Baker, to his hotel room and told him that he had decided to endow not a high school but a separate establishment to be called The William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art. Obviously Rice had pondered Cesar Lombardi’s suggestion, and, in addition to the example of the Girard Institute (which provided a free home to the white male orphans of Philadelphia), he had learned something of the Cooper Union in New York City, established by Peter Cooper in 1854 to teach a variety of subjects to working men and the “arts of design” to women students. The charter that Rice brought to Houston incorporated aspects of both these institutions, although his intentions were simultaneously broader and more vague. His charter did not contain the words college or university, but it did call for the establishment of “a Public library,” “a Polytechnic school,” “scientific collections,” “scientific and philosophical apparatus,” various works of art, all for instructing “the white inhabitants of the City of Houston, and State of Texas.” Further instructions directed that this institute would be free of cost to both male and female students and that it would be nonpartisan and nonsectarian.
On May 13, 1891, Rice signed a deed of indenture with six trustees—including Captain Baker and Cesar Lombardi—whereby the trustees agreed to hold a note for $200,000. Income from the note would be used for the purposes broadly outlined in the charter of incorporation that was formally signed and witnessed on May 18 and filed in the office of the Secretary of State of Texas on May 19. By Rice’s instructions, nothing else was to be done until after his death, but the following year he gave the Institute several parcels of land, and in 1896, after his second wife’s death, he wrote a new will leaving the bulk of his fortune to the Institute.
On Sunday, September 23, 1900, the elderly William Marsh Rice apparently died in his sleep in his Madison Avenue apartment. An alert bank clerk noticed the next day that on a large check bearing Rice’s signature and made out to a lawyer, the lawyer’s name was misspelled. A telephone call for verification revealed that Rice had died the evening before. Sensing that something was wrong, the bank officials telegraphed Captain Baker in Houston that “Mr. Rice died last night under very suspicious circumstances.” Baker immediately set out for New York.
Meanwhile, the lawyer, Albert T. Patrick, stated in an interview that Rice had drawn up a new will on June 30, 1900, naming Patrick as legatee, with a subsequent assignment just two days before Rice’s death of most of the property to Patrick—leaving nothing else to the Institute. These actions did not seem typical of Rice, and Captain Baker, with the assistance of the New York City district attorney’s office, began an investigation of Rice’s suspicious death.
The case created a sensation in New York City, especially after Rice’s valet, Charles Jones, confessed that he and Patrick had practiced signing Rice’s signature, forged the new will, and chloroformed Rice to death after a steady diet of mercury pills had failed to kill the aging millionaire. The elaborate scheme had been undone by a careless slip of the pen. Jones had inadvertently misspelled Patrick’s first name on the face of the check. Because Jones provided state’s evidence, he was never imprisoned, but mastermind Patrick was convicted and sent to Sing Sing until 1912, the date of the opening of the new Institute, when the governor of New York pardoned him. Inadequacies in the 1900 autopsy of Mr. Rice make it impossible today to determine if Mr. Rice in fact died of natural causes or from the administration of poison. The 1900 will, however, was almost certainly forged.
Captain Baker had still one more hurdle to overcome in behalf of Rice Institute, a disputed will by the second Mrs. Rice that claimed a substantial portion of the estate. This complicated issue was finally settled in 1904, and The Rice Institute received a founding endowment of $4.6 million, the first major act of philanthropy to benefit an institution in Texas.