February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
William Rice

For most of the plot the story of Rice University and its benefactor followed a classic blueprint: young man leaves Springfield, Massachusetts for opportunity in the West, opens commission business, invests in cotton processing and real estate and railroads, becomes one of richest men in Texas before the Civil War, marries twice but is childless and decides to donate fortune to education.

A classic tale until the final chapter.

As William March Rice would down an active business career in the 1870s he drew up a plan for the care and education of indigent children. Although living in New York City his business interests still lay in Houston, a town he had helped build. He was approached to contribute to Houston public education but he begged off, explaining that he had outlined an entire education plan in his will.

Rice was prevailed on to act sooner and he established the William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science & Art in 1891. He endowed the proposed school with a 9-acre parcel of land in Houston but still refused to implement the school in his lifetime.

Unexpectedly Rice’s wife died in 1896 and when her will was revealed it contained provisions that threatened the Institute’s future. She left some $1,500,000 of Rice’s money, which under Texas law she was entitled to, to her relatives. Stunned, Rice contested the will on the grounds that the Rices were living in New York for over 30 years at the time of her death.

The legal haggling dragged on for years until the 86-year old Rice was found dead in his New York apartment in 1900. At first his death was attributed to “eating nine bananas on the advice of some woman that caused an attack of acute indigestion and resulted in a general weakening of the body.”

But it quickly came to light that one of the attorneys hired by his wife’s estate, Albert Patrick, was connected with substantial sums of Rice’s money. It seems Patrick had forged a will in which he was named as principal beneficiary. Upon further investigation Charles Jones, Rice’s secretary, confessed to chloroforming the millionaire in his sleep on instructions from Patrick.

Rice’s estate was not settled until 1904. The Rice Institute received, to the penny, $4,631,259.08 - the seventh largest endowment to that time. The school finally opened in 1912, the same year Patrick was pardoned from his life sentence for ineptly orchestrating William Rice’s murder.

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