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The Butler Did It! Rice University and the Law

Houston’s Rice University is rightfully famous as a small school that provides a superior education for the money. Rice is well known as an engineering school and is now equally famous for its humanities and business programs. For all its fame as an institution of higher learning, Rice first became famous for its connection to the law.

The William Marsh Rice Institute was founded by a bequest from William Marsh Rice, a businessman who came to Houston in 1837 to find his fortune. Rice made his money in cotton, shipping, real estate, and railroads, and by 1860 was the second richest man in Texas. Rice fled Texas during the Civil War, first moving to Matamoros, Mexico and later to Dunellen, New Jersey. In 1891, while living in New Jersey, Rice came up with the idea for the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art. The Institute was to be endowed from his estate when he died. In 1896 he was worth approximately $3 million.

On September 23, 1900 William Marsh Rice was found dead by his valet. It was assumed that he had died in his sleep. Or did he? Soon after Rice’s death a bank teller noticed a very large check made out to Rice’s New York lawyer, Albert T. Patrick, on which the lawyer’s name was misspelled. An investigation by New York police uncovered a plot. Patrick, along with Rice’s valet Charles F. Jones conspired to murder Rice and present a forged will leaving Rice’s estate, not to his proposed institute, but to Patrick. Jones, at the direction of Patrick, had administered the chloroform to Rice which killed him. This was a rare case; the butler did it!

Patrick was convicted of the murder based on the forgery and Jones’ testimony. Jones had earlier tried to commit suicide with a knife he claimed had been provided to him by Patrick. In addition, Rice’s Houston attorney, James A. Baker, Sr. had also testified as to Rice’s intentions. This James A. Baker was the grandfather of Secretary of State James A. Baker and a founder of the Houston law firm Baker Botts, LLP. Patrick was later released on appeal due to problems with the forensic evidence.

While this case is fascinating (the butler did it!) Rice University was not yet done with legal controversy. William Marsh Rice did a great thing; he established a university and made it free for both men and women; a co-educational institution being very rare at the time. But Rice was also a man of his time and the charter for Rice University stated that the purpose of the institute was, “the instruction of the white inhabitants of the City of Houston, and State of Texas. . . .” While that may have made sense in the Jim Crow south of 1900 (in fact, Rice had been a slave-holder prior to the Civil War), it would not fly in the 1960’s. Something had to be done. The trustees of William Marsh Rice University filed a suit to amend the trust documents to allow them to begin admitting students of color and charging students tuition. A group of alumni contested these actions. The trustees won and won again on appeal (Coffee v. William Marsh Rice University ,et al., 408 S.W. 2d 269). The court found that “instruction of the white in habitants. . .” wasn’t the primary purpose of the trust and that the trustees had the power to change the trust. The court stated that “The courts will direct or permit a deviation from the terms of the trust where compliance is impossible or illegal, or where owing to circumstances not known to the settlor and not anticipated by him compliance would defeat or substantially impair the accomplishment of the purposes of the trust (408 S.W. 2d 269 at 285). The court further declared that, “it is impossible or impracticable under present conditions to carry out said intent.” (408 S.W. 2d 269 at 283).

Whether it is the Rice Institute, the William Marsh Rice University, or just Rice University, one of Houston’s local institutions has had very noteworthy interactions with the law.

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