William Marsh Rice, founder of Houston’s Rice University, was found dead on September 23,1900. The story surrounding his death is questioned to this day. Was he murdered? Or did the man who confessed to killing him get there too late?
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William Marsh Rice was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1816. The third of ten children, Rice left school at the age of 15 to work as a clerk at a general store. By the age of 19, Rice negotiated a deal for his father to co sign a loan for Rice to purchase the store.
In 1838, the 22 year old made the decision to head west for new opportunities on the frontier. He packed up the stock of his store and shipped it by sea. He travelled to Houston by land and by the time he arrived he learned the stock, everything he owned, had been lost at sea.
William Rice was penniless in a frontier town so he went back to work as a clerk in a general store. His business skills helped him quickly turn things around. Within a matter of years, Rice was prospering and formed a business partnership with Ebenezer Nichols, to open an import and export firm known as Rice and Nichols.
The wealth and growth opportunities Rice and his business partners pursued were associated with real estate, timber and railroads along with his import and export business investments.
As a local merchant in Houston, William Rice also profited from the Texas slave economy. Houston did not have banks at this time which meant business owners like Rice and his partners were the source of loans and credit lines for the community. Some of the loans included terms that stated collateral on defaulted loans would include payment in the form of slaves. Enslaved men, women and children were offered as security for loans and could be seized as payment if that loan went into default. This was a common practice in the antebellum South which helped make William Rice, and businessmen like him, very wealthy.
Rice wasn’t a plantation owner, but he benefited from and helped fuel the slave economy. Census records show William Rice was a slave owner with some of the 15 slaves he owned were slaves he had seized as debt repayment.
William Marsh Rice was known for his wealth and his philanthropy in Houston, along with volunteering as a member of the first volunteer fire department and offering his time for what was known as the slave patrol. The patrol organized searches for the enslaved who went missing from plantations. They tracked and often re-captured slaves to return them to plantations.
In 1850, William Rice married Margaret Bremond. When the civil war began the couple remained in Houston, hoping the war would not last long. Rice continued to run his business ventures and was known to be a Unionist. To be clear, many people who lived in the South at this time and called themselves Unionists, meaning they were Constitutional Unionists. They wanted to preserve the Union but did not advocate for abolition of slavery. This is reflected in Rice’s volunteer work for the slave patrol and the business decisions William and Margaret Rice made during the war.
Rice had a lot invested in the slave economy. His import and export investments relied on the slave trade. The Rice Historical Review notes records and ledgers from this era show William Rice’s largest accounts were the state of Texas and the Confederate States of America. The confederacy relied on his businesses to help pay about $15,000 in salaries to their officers. Records also show Rice’s wife Margaret supported the Confederacy by donating uniforms to troops and money and resources to their families.
Following the death of Margaret Rice in 1863, William Rice left Houston for Mexico. Many believed he left because he was heartbroken, but it appears Rice had other motivations when he headed for Matamoros, Mexico. Rice’s wealth relied on the import and export of Southern cotton, which was being blocked by Federal forces. In 1863, when Rice left Texas for the Mexican port city, he knew he was headed straight for a smuggling hub. The Rice Historical Review found that historians estimate 320,000 cotton bales were smuggled out of that port city during the war, some for the Confederacy and some smuggled out by private merchants like Rice and his partner E B Nichols whose letters during this time reflect a cotton enterprise that was being facilitated from both sides of the border.
Following the civil war, Rice returned to Houston in June 1867. The 51 year old married 40 year old widow, Elizabeth “Libbie” Baldwin Brown, the daughter of one of the early mayors of Houston. Soon after the marriage, a yellow fever outbreak was moving through Houston and William and Libbie Rice left the state. For nearly three decades, the Rices would split their time between hotel suites and apartments in New Jersey and New York. They would often summer in Houston where Rice remained active in his business ventures.
Friends described the Rice marriage as a “stormy” one and we know that in the early 1890s, Libbie met with an attorney to discuss the possibility of a divorce but she never filed.
During one of his business trips to Houston, Rice met old friend, Cesar Maurice Lombardi, the president of the Houston School Board. Mr. Lombardi asked Rice to consider investing educational efforts in the state, and asked Rice to help build a high school in Houston. An aging Rice wanted to leave a grander legacy which led him to launch his vision for an institute that would be separate from the public system in Houston. Rice began planning for the future William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art in 1891.
A few years later, in 1896, William and Libbie returned to Houston. Doctors recommended the warmer climate which they hoped would help with Libbie’s failing health. In June of that year, Libbie met with her lawyer, Orren Holt, and drafted a new will which listed Holt as executor of her will but William Rice was not told of the changes. In her new will, Libbie claimed the Rices were residents of Texas which was a community property state. Claiming Texas residency meant Libbie could bequeath half of the Rice estate as she saw fit.
Libbie Baldwin’s new will made no mention of an endowment for Rice Institute. It did bequest ten percent of her estate to Orren Holt for his service as executor, about $400,000 to members of the Baldwin family, and $250,000 to establish the Elizabeth Baldwin Home for “indigent gentlewomen.” She also noted her desire for a park to be created in her name in Houston.
The issue with Libbie’s new will was that William believed Libbie had agreed to leave the vast majority of their fortune to the William Rice Institute.
William and Libbie’s marriage continued to be stormy and William Rice claimed Libbie was losing her mind. He arranged for Libbie to be moved to a sanatorium in Waukesha, Wisconsin where she died on July 24, 1896.
Following Libbie’s death, William Marsh Rice returned to New York City. He asked his lawyer, Captain James Baker to draw up a new will that left the bulk of his estimated 7 million dollar estate to the Rice Institute and named Captain Baker executor of his estate and president of the Rice Institute Foundation. Rice’s also left a significant amount of money to his siblings.
As you can imagine, William Rice was shocked to learn months after Libbie Rice died that her lawyer, Orren Holt, had admitted her will to probate in Texas and Holt was the executor of her estate.
If her will was validated, it would have meant millions from her husband’s estate would be distributed as directed by Mrs. Rice. The millions Rice had bequeathed to the future Rice Institute would be compromised, along with the legacy William Rice planned to leave.
Captain Baker filed suit claiming William and Libbie Rice were residents of New York for the duration of their marriage. Baker argued Libbie had no right to claim half of their estate as community property.
The case was complex and Captain Baker made it clear to Rice that the legal battle could take years because Libbie’s family were fighting for her will to be validated. Neither William nor Libbie had children so after Libbie died her relatives were informed of her final wishes and filed their own suit against Rice in their effort to claim the inheritance Libbie had promised them.
This complex and lengthy legal battle gave two men the opportunity and time needed to create a plan to benefit from the confusion around the Rice estate. Rice’s valet, Charlie Jones, and a lawyer named Albert Patrick, would plot to forge a new will and then murder William Rice. Well, they claimed they murdered him, but that’s up for debate to this day.
Hear the rest of the story of the mystery of Rice’s murder in this episode…
Remembering Rice: How Should the University Acknowledge And Represent Its Founder’s Past? Rice Historical Review Spring 2019
The Strange Death of William Rice. The Malefactor’s Register.
84 Years of Capitalism: The Story of William M. Rice. The Rice Thresher (Houston, Tex.), Vol. 59, No. 27, Ed. 1 Thursday, April 27, 1972
The Murder of Millionaire William Rice by Albert Patrick, 1900. Celebrated Criminal Cases of America by Thomas Duke. 1910
William Marsh Rice and the Founding of Rice Institute. Woodson Research Center, Rice University. 2011-1012.
Rice Students Continue to Protest Willy’s Statue. Houston Press. September 2020.Task Force on Slavery, Segregation and Racial Injustice. Rice University
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