Rice has become a top-tier university and a leading research
institution since its founding 100 years ago. But if a pair of scheming thieves
had had their way, Rice might not have existed at all.
The university got its start with a wealthy businessman who
wanted to give back. William Marsh Rice moved to Houston in 1839, leaving his
native Massachusetts behind to seek his fortune in the Republic of Texas. He immediately
began to amass that fortune, trading cotton and investing in land and railroads.
After the Civil War, Rice retired to the East Coast, but he maintained
investments in Houston and returned to the city often. In the 1880s, Rice
decided to give back to the city that made him wealthy, and in 1891 he called
together a group of friends and his lawyer, Capt. James A. Baker, to charter the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science
and Art. The charter was vague – in fact, it didn’t even contain the words “college” or “university” – but Rice did specify that
nothing should be done until after his death. What Rice didn’t know was that his
death would be part of a plan that imperiled his fortune and the institute’s future.
Rice died Sept. 23, 1900, but not of natural causes. An
unscrupulous lawyer named Albert T. Patrick had conspired with Rice's valet,
Charles Jones, to steal Rice’s fortune with a forged will. Rice had left
most of his estate to the Rice Institute, but Patrick drafted a phony will that
redirected the money to him. Then, impatient for Rice to die, the crooked
lawyer and greedy valet suffocated him.
They might have gotten away with their scheme; the next day, however,
they tried to withdraw money from Rice’s account with a forged check made out
to Patrick. In a rush, the valet – who wrote the check – had misspelled Patrick’s
name. An alert bank clerk noticed the discrepancy, and the bank president
called Rice's apartment for verification. With Baker pressing the
investigation, the plot soon unraveled. The valet confessed, Patrick was sent
to Sing Sing prison and Rice's fortune was saved. In 1904, after more legal
wrangling, the funds at last became available to fulfill the intentions of the
But what kind of institution would develop from Rice’s imprecise
mandate? To guide them, the trustees chose an imaginative first president, a
young mathematician and astronomer at Princeton University named Edgar Odell
Lovett. Lovett had earned doctorates from the University of Virginia and
the University of Leipzig, and he had taught at Johns Hopkins, the University
of Chicago and Princeton, the most innovative American universities of the
time. The trustees sent him on a worldwide tour of the "competition,"
where he interviewed faculty, inspected facilities and developed an inspired
vision of what might be accomplished on the plains of Texas with a blank-check
charter, a generous endowment and high ambitions. The goal was a
university "of the highest grade" that kept "the standards up
and numbers down." Lovett shaped the university that Rice would become.
And so a school with
shaky beginnings – founded on a vague charter and nearly derailed by a murder
plot – became a serious place of learning and research. The Rice Institute
opened Sept. 23, 1912, the anniversary of Rice's murder, with 77 students and a
dozen faculty members. An international academic festival celebrated the
opening three weeks later – a spectacular event that brought Rice to the
attention of the entire scholarly world. Four years later, at the first commencement,
the Rice Institute awarded 35 bachelor's degrees and one master's degree. The
first doctorate was conferred in 1918. And Rice has committed – for 100 years
now – to do what Lovett proposed in 1912: “to assign no upper limit to its
"William Marsh Rice, Founder of Rice University" - Fondren Library exhibit
Handbook of Texas: "A University So Conceived: Brief History of Rice University" by John B. Boles
"Edgar Ideal Lovett and the Creation of Rice University"