William Marsh Rice and His Institute: The Centennial Edition

William Marsh Rice and His Institute: The Centennial Edition

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by Randal L. Hall

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 In 1891 William Marsh Rice made a generous bequest in order to found the distinguished Houston institution that bears his name. Ironically, this very bequest helped to bring about his murder, an act of treachery perpetrated by a conniving attorney and Rice’s naïve, malleable manservant. This captivating tale—full of intrigue, legal twists and


 In 1891 William Marsh Rice made a generous bequest in order to found the distinguished Houston institution that bears his name. Ironically, this very bequest helped to bring about his murder, an act of treachery perpetrated by a conniving attorney and Rice’s naïve, malleable manservant. This captivating tale—full of intrigue, legal twists and turns, and sensational revelations—an important part of the full biography of Rice himself, received its first careful historical investigation by Andrew Forest Muir, a longtime professor of history at Rice University who, beginning in 1957, performed the fundamental research that forms the basis for this biography. At the time of Muir’s death in 1969, the work remained incomplete. Subsequently, at the request of the Rice Historical Society, Sylvia Stallings Morris shaped the fruits of Muir’s labor into the first edition of this book, which was published in 1972.

The new edition of William Marsh Rice and His Institute, edited by Randal L. Hall, returns this fine biography to print in connection with the celebration of the centennial of the opening of Rice University. Incorporating new and important sources unearthed since the publication of the original book, this revised edition retains all the flavor and meticulous care of the earlier work, especially the “finely crafted storytelling of Sylvia Stallings Morris Lowe and Andrew Forest Muir,” as characterized by Hall.

Rice University students, faculty, staff, and alumni; scholars and students of Houston, Texas, and regional history; and those interested in the history of American higher education will all welcome William Marsh Rice and His Institute: The Centennial Edition.

Editorial Reviews

Bonus: Rice History Corner

"Hall has updated this long-out-of-print book by incorporating new information that has become available and new research on various aspects of the times."
Bonus: Rice History Corner
"Hall has updated this long-out-of-print book by incorporating new information that has become available and new research on various aspects of the times." —Bonus

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William Marsh Rice and His Institute

The Centennial Edition

By Randal L. Hall

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 Rice University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-688-4


The Early Years

"Just below Springfield," wrote the Reverend Timothy Dwight, that indefatigable traveler and preacher who was soon to become the president of Yale University, as he journeyed northward along the Connecticut River Valley at the end of the eighteenth century, "we crossed a vigorous millstream on which, a little eastward, is erected the most considerable manufactory of arms in the United States."

By 1812, when David Rice, the fourth to bear that name, moved his young family to Springfield from Norfolk County, Massachusetts, and went to work in the forging shop at the Springfield Armory, the town had changed very little. For "a few hundred dollars," David Rice bought a square clapboard house of one and one-half stories on Hickory Street, perhaps not anticipating that four-month-old Louisa was to be the first of ten children. A son, David, was born in 1814, and a second, William, in March 1816. Josiah and Lucy Ann, who followed in 1819 and 1821, respectively, both died in infancy; but Minerva, Caleb, Charlotte, and Frederick, who followed at intervals of about two years, lived and thrived. The last of David Rice's daughters, Susan, did not long survive her birth in 1833.

The Hickory Street house stood at no great distance from the Armory's Middle Watershops; with an accessible and abundant supply of waterpower, these continued to expand, and David Rice advanced from working in the forging shop to boring gun barrels and making bayonets, until in 1833 he was appointed an inspector of the Watershops. It was a position of some importance, which brought with it added responsibilities, and undoubtedly neither David Rice nor Patty, his wife, had the time to single out any one of their children for particular notice; certainly, there is very little known about their second son, William Marsh Rice, during this Springfield period of his life.

Central Massachusetts must nonetheless have been a pleasant place to grow up. Timothy Dwight observed that Springfield was the oldest town in Hampshire County (from which, in David Rice's day, Hampden County had been separated), lying along a single street on the western side of the Connecticut River: "An uncommon appearance of neatness prevails almost everywhere, refreshing the eye of the traveller." By 1816, the year of William Marsh Rice's birth, the established pattern of New England existence, manufacture and trade, had been firmly laid down; merchandise went inland all over upper New England and, via a line of stages and transport wagons, as far to the west as Albany. The Springfield Armory, whose only federal counterpart was at Harpers Ferry on the Potomac River, was turning out ten thousand muskets annually as well as bayonets, fieldpieces, mortars, and howitzers. Prosperity was on the rise: the next few years were to see the establishment in Springfield of a paper mill, a brewery, and factories that turned out cutlery and cotton goods, while by 1828 Thomas Blanchard's stern-wheeler, the Blanchard, had already made the trip downstream to Hartford in an astonishing two hours and twenty minutes.

Reverend Dwight, always prompt to round off his journal entries with an edifying moral, found one ready-made in the Connecticut Valley. Its inhabitants, he remarked, "are so remote from a market as to be perfectly free from that sense of inferiority customarily felt by the body of people who live in the neighborhood of large cities. Hence a superior spirit of personal independence is generated and cherished." He added, "There is no tract of land of the same size in which learning is more, or more uniformly, encouraged," and that observation is borne out by the character of men like David Rice.

In only one extant document, so far as is presently known, did William Marsh Rice speak directly about his parents—a letter written to one of his sisters (most probably Charlotte) in the spring of 1899. Reflecting that he and she were no longer young, he looked back toward the past: "Our childhood had many pleasent hours ... and the troubles were soon forgotten. Fathers and Mothers thoughts were mostly devoted to their children. I do not think they worried very much. Father had so firm a reliance upon providence that nothing seemed to lay heavy on his mind—though he was sensative which could be seen at times." (Rice's spelling was always distinctly his own.) Providence, however, could not be made responsible for that which man could effect; as a freeholder of Hampden County David Rice served at various times both as tax assessor and as tax collector for the town of Springfield and "climaxed his political career in 1827 by representing the town in the General Court of Massachusetts." When he left his position at the Armory in 1843, after its administration had undergone a substantial change, and moved his family to South Belchertown, Massachusetts, he was again elected tax assessor and subsequently justice of the peace.

This much public service was expected of almost any New England property owner; where David Rice went further than most was in his lifelong efforts on behalf of his church and the cause of education. Although Methodist preachers had occasionally come through Springfield as early as 1796, holding meetings in private homes wherever those were made available, the first regular Methodist Episcopal Society was organized in 1815 at the Upper Watershops by the Reverend William Marsh, of the Tolland, Connecticut, circuit. The first two members to be admitted were David and Patty Rice, and the son who was born to them the following spring, although he was not christened until June 1820, was named for William Marsh, the pioneering circuit rider.

In that same year, 1820, the Society got together $300 with which to put up a "house for publick worship," having up till then still met wherever occasion offered, including such places as the courthouse and David Rice's barn. The Centennial Souvenir of the New England Conference records that "David Rice offered to give the land, a building committee was appointed and materials were upon the ground before the people knew what was going on. Monday the frame was put up, and the following Sunday services were held in Asbury Chapel." David Rice, never a man to rest on his laurels, went on to serve at different times as parish steward, trustee, moderator, overseer of the poor, member of the parish committee, and superintendent of funerals for this growing congregation.

Timothy Dwight's observations on the encouragement of learning in the Connecticut Valley were not altogether accurate for the town of Springfield. Until 1825, the common district schools of that place were conducted, according to a history of Hampden County published at the turn of the century, "with reference to economy rather than the welfare of the youth." An article that ran in the Houston Chronicle in 1916, on the one hundredth anniversary of William Marsh Rice's birth, described in rather arch detail the "one-story school" (probably a one-room schoolhouse) where the smallest children were sent more to get them out from underfoot than for the sake of educating them; one Springfield worthy who claimed to have been a schoolmate of Rice's recounted that the teacher used to sweep a spot clean on the schoolhouse floor so that the littlest ones could curl up there and go to sleep.

In 1826, however, most likely through the efforts of men like David Rice, an act was passed that required every town in Massachusetts of five hundred families or more to provide for the benefit of its children a schoolmaster who could give instruction in United States history, bookkeeping, geometry, surveying, and algebra. Springfield had by then extended itself along both banks of the river and numbered something over a thousand householders; in the following April a committee of seven, including David Rice, was formed to see to the construction of a new school, and the town voted $500 toward this purpose. On the first of September 1828 the Classical High School with its cupola, bell, and "proper outhouse" stood ready to receive the first classes, composed of fifty-three boys with an average age of twelve years. At the first annual examination in August 1829 the fifty boys taking part showed "special proficiency" in algebra, natural philosophy, and mental arithmetic.

William Marsh Rice was exactly twelve years old in that opening autumn; it seems safe to assume that he would have been one of the first to be enrolled. Yet four years later, in the spring of 1832, his name was not included on the roster of students. This may have been due merely to error, but most of the anecdotes told about his early life agree that he left school at around the age of fifteen to go to work as a clerk in the Family Grocery Store owned and operated on the ground floor of the town hall on State Street by a retired whaling captain named Henry L. Bunker. Perhaps after three years young William felt he had absorbed all the surveying, geometry, and natural philosophy he was likely to need; perhaps the presence of so many children in the small house on Hickory Street meant that Patty Rice found it hard to make ends meet. Or schoolboy games and recitations may simply not have held as much interest for William Marsh Rice as the intricacies of making money. If indeed he did drop out, it cannot have given his father much satisfaction, for David Rice's commitment to education was as firm as ever: the Wesleyan Academy, newly transplanted to Wilbraham, Massachusetts, from South Newmarket, New Hampshire, listed him among its earliest trustees. Both Charlotte and Frederick Rice, William's favorite sister and brother, went on in later years to graduate there.

David Rice lived to be seventy-seven, dying in 1867 on the farm at Three Rivers, Massachusetts, where he had moved from South Belchertown in the last year of his life. A photograph apparently made in his late sixties shows a handsome man with thick white hair, high cheekbones, and a determined set to his jaw: the face of a highland crofter or an old Indian fighter. In his will he left five dollars to each of his surviving sons, "if demanded within one year from my decease," instructions for the payment of his just debts, and the remainder of his estate, subsequently valued at $1365, to his "faithful and beloved Wife Patty." Along with a horse, a cow, furniture, stoves, and bedclothes, Patty Rice inherited one "string of old sleigh-bells."

Of Patty Hall Rice there is almost nothing on record. William Marsh Rice, in that same letter quoted above in which he spoke of his father's reliance on Providence, goes on to say that his parents "both worked so hard. It was a great comfort to me that I was able to relieve them towards the end." Rice's sisters, Charlotte and Minerva, spoke in their old age of the continual stream of gifts for his parents and sisters that found its way to Massachusetts after the end of the Civil War. "When he was visiting father he left $100 with me for him" was a fairly common statement in their correspondence. With a good deal of care, William Marsh Rice chose a set of cameos for Minerva, "trinkets" and jewelry for his nieces, and "sixty or seventy yards of silk" to be made into dresses for his mother and Charlotte. The house at Three Rivers in which his father and mother spent the last years of their lives, Patty Rice living on there until 1877, was his gift. In the year after its purchase he sent up carpets and parlor furniture from New York to accommodate the household, which by then included Charlotte McKee and her husband and children.

Charlotte Rice McKee, giving testimony in the long litigation suit that followed the death of William Marsh Rice's second wife, made one brief but telling observation that reflected on the character of both her mother and her late sister-in-law. Her brother William, she made clear, had never brought his new bride up to Massachusetts after their marriage to meet his relatives; Patty Hall Rice, a "spunky old lady," had taken against the newcomer sight unseen, and William felt that his wife's presence at Three Rivers would mean nothing but trouble. Patty Rice's spunkiness is not to be wondered at, considering the history of her father, the old Revolutionary War soldier Josiah Hall, who in so many ways seems to have served as the model for his grandson William.

Josiah Hall was born in South Walpole, Massachusetts, on December 26, 1753, and died in the same township on July 15, 1855, at the not inconsiderable age of 101 years, 6 months, and 20 days. His photograph, preserved with his name and dates recorded on the back in what appears to be his grandson's handwriting, is as clear as if it had just been taken. Evidently well into his eighties, in an admirably cut broadcloth coat, high collar, and what looks like a black satin cravat, the old soldier folds his hands on the head of his cane and gazes squarely into the camera. His hair, as thick as his son-in-law's, curls crisply over his ears, and the source of those "expressive" blue eyes that in William Marsh Rice "seemed to pierce through a stranger at a glance" is easily apparent.

The affinity between William Marsh Rice and his maternal grandfather went deeper than appearances. In April 1775 Josiah Hall had responded to the alarm at Lexington by marching off to join Captain Seth Bullard's company near Roxbury, Massachusetts. Reenlisting twice before the war's end, he campaigned as far south as New Jersey, took part in the battle of Port Chester, and was there struck by a musket ball on the "ancle." Off and on during the last thirty-five years of his life, Josiah was involved in a brisk running engagement with the United States War Department over the matter of his pension. Granted in 1818 in an order signed by John C. Calhoun, it was revoked in 1820 on the grounds that Hall was the owner of considerable property. Undaunted, Josiah submitted a fresh claim under a new Act of Congress of 1832 and succeeded in having the pension reinstated. By November 1845 it had occurred to him that his original ten days' service after the call to arms at Lexington had never been allowed for and that this entitled him to an additional $1.10 a month. William Ellis, certifying in 1845 as to the authenticity of claim and claimant in Ellis's capacity as justice of the peace for the county of Norfolk, Massachusetts, could not refrain from adding a comment of his own: "I would just say that said Hall tho aged appears to have a very clear and correct memory about Revolutionary transactions." The War Department evidently felt the same way, for the requested increase was granted without further delay, which did not prevent Josiah, some three months before his death, from initiating a whole new action to obtain bounty lands under yet another act recently passed by Congress. It is hard not to assume that he would have been successful.

In all likelihood, William Marsh Rice did not see his grandfather's exchanges with the War Department and so was spared a phrase that appears as part of the claim of 1820 and that could only have pained him. "I am indebted to sundry persons," declared Josiah without ceremony, "in the sum of $629." From his first days with Captain Bunker, debt was something that Josiah's grandson scrupulously avoided. After between four and five years on State Street, filling customers' orders for the wheat and flour that the Captain habitually kept on hand and the fresh fruit that he offered as a delicacy at Thanksgiving, young Rice struck out on his own. With David Rice to cosign his note, since he himself had not yet attained his majority, William Rice bought out another store closer to the Watershops and in less than two years had cleared $2000 in this first business venture.

The earliest financial statement that exists concerning this man who went on to become a millionaire several times over, and the only one associated with Springfield, is in the Springfield city clerk's offices among the mortgages of personal property. Against the sum of forty dollars tendered him by William M. Rice in December 1837, one William W. Bowles pledged to said Rice various articles of personal property, including "1 live geese feather bed," one "French Bedsteadd," one mahogany table and one made of cherrywood, six chairs, one stove, and "one gilt looking glass," should Bowles fail to repay the loan at the end of a year. No doubt Charlotte, Louisa, and Minerva would have enjoyed admiring themselves in the gilt mirror and Patty Rice could only have been glad of a featherbed in the Massachusetts winters, but there is no record of whether William Marsh Rice ever took possession of these items. By the following December, when the loan fell due, Rice had gone like so many others to seek his fortune in Texas.

James A. Baker Jr., a close personal and business associate of Rice during his later years, in an address delivered in 1931 at the sixteenth commencement convocation of the Rice Institute, did not hesitate to attribute Rice's removal to Texas to romantic motives. "His young and ardent soul was fired with the spirit of patriotism and adventure, and he then and there resolved to emigrate to Texas and cast his fortune with those heroic souls who at San Jacinto had humbled the Napoleon of the West." With all due respect to Baker, it seems more likely that Rice left Springfield for hardheaded practical reasons. General Antonio López de Santa Anna's defeat by Texas separatists and the emergence of a new republic in the Southwest had been widely reported throughout the East, and men whom Rice may have known, like the Springfield tailor, Elam Stockbridge, had already moved on to try their luck on the frontier, drawn by the rumors of wealth beyond the Sabine River. In 1837 the Springfield newspapers took the view that the proposed admission of Texas to the United States would be an economic disaster for the rest of the country and also poked fun at the frontiersmen by solemnly asserting that currency under the Lone Star consisted of "cows for large sums" with calves thrown in for change.


Excerpted from William Marsh Rice and His Institute by Randal L. Hall. Copyright © 2012 Rice University. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

RANDAL L. HALL, adjunct associate professor of history at Rice University, serves as managing editor of the Journal of Southern History. His PhD was earned at Rice University.

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William Marsh Rice and His Institute: The Centennial Edition 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The forest shines with life. The sun rises at 4:30 am and sets at 10:15 pm all year round.