State Quarterlies is a series of articles uncovering the hidden histories behind the designs seen on American coins. From 1999–2008, the US Mint released a succession of quarters commemorating each of the country’s 50 states, amounting to the release of roughly five new, independently curated designs per year. For years, interest in these shiny notes of legal tender sat solely with nit-picking coin collectors and wizened packrats. But, the further you look into the stories behind these benign images of wildlife, covered wagons, and ships at full mast, the more intriguing these pieces become. From bloody betrayals, to political corruption, to outright murder, the secret history behind state quarters brings us closer to understanding what it means to be an American — and how we can learn from what’s all too easy to write off as boring.
State Quarter: Utah
Main Design: The Golden Spike superimposed over the meeting of two trains at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad; “Crossroads of the West” tag; Statehood year
Calling Utah the “Crossroads of the West” always struck me as odd. Not just because it’s all the way over in the Mountain Time Zone, but the phrase also implies the state is nothing more than a pitstop between big cities. With striking natural rock formations and the largest salt lake in the Western Hemisphere, this piece of land has plenty of beauty to offer visitors.
Much of the hype surrounding the source of this “crossroads” nickname comes from the Transcontinental Railroad Project, the first singular stretch of track to connect California to the Midwest. Like many industrial feats of the 19th century, the most fascinating parts of this project come from the stories of those that built it, not from the train tracks themselves. The key players for the Transcontinental Railroad didn’t live in Utah itself. Those with the political influence and buying power capable of creating a project this size came from more established areas like California and Nebraska. So, just as a warning, this article will mostly cover people living outside of Utah, not events within the state itself.
Utah’s state quarter design celebrates the 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony, which commemorated joining tracks built by Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad by nailing in, you guessed it, sets of golden railroad spikes. Both sides of the Transcontinental were built with essentially slave labor, the Midwest side with mostly Irish immigrants and the California side with Chinese immigrants. Their work was dangerous, and their treatment horrendous.
Working upwards of 3 shifts around the clock, these men had to manage dynamite, hand-drill holes into solid rock, and inhale hazardous chemicals without protection. Their treatment, especially when it comes to Asian Americans working on the Union Pacific Railroad, should come as no surprise if you know the people running the operation. UPC’s President (read: robber baron), Leland Stanford, had the following opinions to share in his inaugural address as Governor of California (emphases mine):
To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged, by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population…There can be no doubt but that the presence of numbers among us of a degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and, to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration. It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.
What a long-winded way to say “I am a scumbag racist. Thanks for electing me, fellow whites!” Keep the context in mind here: this guy used his first public speech as governor to draw a hateful line in the sand on immigration. It’s no wonder he felt comfortable forcing his predominantly Asian workforce into dangerous situations. Treating people as animals comes much easier to someone who considers themselves to be part of a superior race.
And, like many members of the so-called superior race, Leland eventually showed how exceptional his people are — by totally embarrassing himself on the public stage. During the Golden Spike Ceremony in Utah, Stanford and Thomas Durant, a representative of the Central Pacific Railroad team, planned to hit in their giant, 17.8 karat nails at the same time. Both missed their first strike. And their second. According to some reports, they missed hitting their targets 9 TIMES before getting it right. I could only imagine what it must have felt like for marginalized, abused workers to see their tycoon bosses completely whiff the simplest part of their jobs. It must’ve been like watching some wheeze-bag CEO struggle to open a spreadsheet right after whining about how “millennials don’t know how to do anything.” Except, you know, with more dynamite, steel spikes, and oppression everywhere.
Leland Stanford eventually went on to co-found Stanford University with his wife, Jane, as a tribute to their son who died at 16 years old. At that time, Leland was the Senator of California and had a modern equivalent of $1.5 billion to his name after the Transcontinental Railroad solidified his position as an all-American magnate. He would die of congestive heart failure in 1893, just two years after his school officially opened. Jane, suddenly a childless widow, spent the rest of her life scouring over every little detail, down to individual lesson plans, at the university. Without child or partner, her family’s legacy hinged on the success of the school. This intense scrutiny, however, gave Jane Stanford plenty of enemies — and might have contributed to a century-long coverup of her gruesome murder.
Specifics of Jane’s life are hard to come by besides accounts of her harsh exchanges with faculty and staff. Although her micromanagement must have been hard for her employees, it’s an understandable reaction to her situation. Think about it — this school would become synonymous with the name she and her husband curated (read: by exploiting immigrant workers) over decades. In her planned, but undelivered, speech for Stanford University’s opening day, she wrote about the sacrifices she and Leland made for the school:
“Our hearts have been more deeply interested in this work than you can conceive. It was born in sorrow but has now become a great joy to our hearts… I desire to impress upon the minds of each one of these students, both male and female, that we have at heart and very closely the hope that you will each strive to place before yourselves a high moral standard; that you will resolve to go forth from these classrooms determined in the future to be leaders…that it will be said of you that you are true to the best you know.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on college freshmen. It only makes sense her expectations would be even higher for those she employed.
Jane had her biggest clashes with David Starr Jordan — a name that makes him sound like either a porno actor or a presidential assassin (maybe both). As the first president of Stanford University, he bore the brunt of her disapproval. Some of his frustration with Jane sounds like sexism to me — but I’ll admit that’s pure speculation on my part. A part of me doubts the board of trustees would have treated the same words equally if they came from Leland instead of his widowed wife. What we do know is eventually the Board curbed Jane’s power over the school, but couldn’t completely undo her influence. The students liked her, and, well, she did have enough money to bury each board member ten times over. In a few years, though, it turns out she would end up in a coffin before all of them.
On January 14, 1905, Stanford took a sip of Poland Spring mineral water and immediately spit it out. The taste was bitter — peculiarly so. She made herself vomit and went to her staff at the Nob Hill Mansion to get their input. They agreed the taste was off and threw most of it out. The rest went to a local pharmacy for testing. Weeks later, the verdict was in: the bottle had enough strychnine in it to kill a T. Rex.
Death by strychnine is no walk in the park. It involves violent, retching spasms, agonizing abdominal pain, and severe fever. Within less than an hour, victims die of asphyxiation after it destroys the neural pathways controlling the diaphragm. Essentially, you suffocate from paralysis.
It’s pretty safe to say there wasn’t a strychnine leak at Poland Spring’s HQ. This came from someone who knew Jane, someone she probably talked to daily. Stanford hired a detective agency to scour her home for evidence and pick apart her staff to get some answers. Although investigators found a work environment filled with petty jealousies, they didn’t uncover the culprit.
It must’ve been horrible to hear their final, inconclusive report. How could you continue to live in that house, to find a way back to normal? As a woman with today’s equivalent of over billion dollars at her disposal, she didn’t have to stick around to find out. A month later, she packed up and set sail for Hawaii.
On the evening of February 28, 1905, Stanford requested a glass of bicarbonate soda from her personal secretary before heading to bed at the Moana Hotel in Honolulu. She ate a huge dinner and wanted something to help with indigestion. A little after 11:00pm, she woke up her staff by screaming:
She tried to throw up, but the muscle spasms made it impossible. Lockjaw soon set in and prevented doctors from forcing a tube down her throat to pump her stomach. Dr. Robert W.P. Cutler, a Stanford professor who wrote a book about Jane’s death, describes her final moments on earth as pure agony:
As Humphris [the physician on duty] tried to administer a solution of bromine and chloral hydrate, Mrs. Stanford, now in anguish, exclaimed, “My jaws are stiff [Humphris confirmed the contraction of her jaw muscles by palpation]. This is a horrible death to die.” Whereupon she was seized by a tetanic spasm that progressed relentlessly to a state of severe rigidity: her jaws clamped shut, her thighs opened widely, her feet twisted inwards, her fingers and thumbs clenched into tight fists, and her head drew back. Finally, her respiration ceased.
She was right. It is a horrible death to die. Why would anyone do this to her? Or, more importantly, who? Thanks to a massive coverup by Stanford’s then-President David Starr Jordan, we’ll probably never know.
(Note: Most of what I discuss here is profiled in a Stanford Magazine article cited here. It goes into much more detail about the murder — it also includes quotes from Dr. Cutler, who uncovered the hidden fate of Jane almost an entire century after it happened. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it.)
Officials in Hawaii had her glass of water and bicarbonate capsules tested — both results came back with traces strychnine. The doctors on the scene did everything in their power to save her, and the local police had every intention of finding her killer. After hearing the news of her death, though, Jordan, wanted to squash this story before it got any more scandalous. He paid a local physician named Ernest Coniston Waterhouse today’s equivalent $7,000 to conduct his own investigation negating the findings of those who tended to Stanford. Unsurprisingly, he concluded she died of heart failure, not poisoning. After issuing his report, Waterhouse skipped town to start a rubber plantation in Sri Lanka.
Jordan went on the PR warpath to paint the officials and physicians in Hawaii as backwards hicks, as people who couldn’t spell the word “strychnine” if their lives depended on it. Jordan, a revered doctor in his own right, used his name and position in California society to undermine the investigation at every turn. He even claimed one of the doctors tending to Stanford added the strychnine to her drink after she died. The press eventually started to fall in line with Jordan’s version of what killed his late boss. After all, he was an esteemed professional — a voice responsible for a program to forcibly sterilize 20,000 people of color and individuals with disabilities. What do those islander doctors know about medicine compared to him?
To this day, no one knows who killed Jane Stanford. Some speculate it was her personal secretary, since she was the only one present for both poisoning incidents — and she stood to gain a lot of money once her boss kicked the can. Others think it might have been Jordan who orchestrated it, since Jane wanted him ousted from his position at the school. But, each of these theories are just that. Theories. Nothing more. It’s equally possible that the personal secretary’s proximity was pure coincidence, or that Jordan only covered up the murder to make sure his young university stayed away from negative publicity.
Homicide detectives say the chances of catching a murderer decreases dramatically without uncovering a lead within the first 48 hours of a killing. So, closing a case as old as this one would be next to impossible. The only thing we truly know is the legacy she curated, Stanford University, remains one of the top research institutions in the world. Hopefully, those students she planned to address at her school’s opening day lived to the standards she demanded.