The Histrionic Historiographer I: Leland Stanford, Sr.

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Welcome, dear reader, to the first installment of The Histrionic Historiographer.  Over the next few weeks, I’m going to use this space to inform you of (expose you to?) the darker—or at least more interesting—past of Stanford’s legends.  Too often these giants of Stanford’s history are reduced to names of buildings, lecture halls where IHUM is taught, graduate residences that no one’s ever heard of (sorry, Lyman).  This is a trend that’s constantly repeated in history—no one remembers Aaron Burr’s plan to crown himself emperor of the western United States, Teddy Roosevelt’s moose rodeo, or Hitler’s days as a gospel singer.[1]

Epitome of the great American ideal of rugged individualism, or actually just batshit insane?

But now I’m going to delve—and I’m dragging you with me—into the hidden lives and stories of Stanford’s eponyms and antiquities.  Take a deep breath.

* * *

There’s no better place to start than the big man himself: Amasa Leland Stanford, Sr. (Yeah, first name Amasa.  Pretty obvious why he didn’t go by that.)

And I do mean the big man.

Stanford was a lot of things: politician, business magnate, lawyer, railroad tycoon, father, and, above all, fairly awesome dude.  Not many people can make the transition from middling Wisconsin lawyer to one of the most prominent figures in the 19th century, but Stanford pulled it off.  He left law, started a general store with his brothers that sold supplies to California gold rush miners, and later served as the first president of the Central Pacific Railroad.  And along the way he managed to make what is generally considered to be more money than God.

The rest of the story’s probably known—tragic death of only son, conversion of stock farm to The Farm, etc., etc., etc.—but one of the most interesting stories from Stanford’s life comes from the time before Stanford University (which makes sense, really, because Stanford and Stanford only overlapped for about two years before Stanford the person was interred in Stanford the university like some sort of morbid matryoshka doll).

Stanford apparently liked to gamble, because in 1877 he commissioned photographer Eadweard Muybridge (who suffered from an unfortunate rare genetic condition that gave his name an exorbitance of vowels) to test whether or not all four of a horse’s legs left the ground during a gallop.  Rumor says Stanford bet $25,000—or, in modern USD, the entire GDP of a small European country—that all four legs do, indeed, get airborne simultaneously.  Muybridge set up a series of 24 cameras connected to trip wires to photograph Sallie Gardner, one of Stanford’s horses, at full gallop.

The result?

Pictured: the rich get richer

Stanford won the bet, and also was awarded a producer credit on what was arguably the first motion picture ever made: “Sally Gardner at a Gallop,” a heart-wrenching three-second-long short film about a noble horse’s struggle to ascend to the firmament while bound by the wretched chains of gravity.

Yeah, that’s right.  I’ll say it.  Leland Stanford, Sr. invented the indie film.

So Amasa Leland Stanford: politician, business magnate, lawyer, railroad tycoon, and original hipster.  If you thought Seattle or Brooklyn had all the street cred, well, pop open the PBR and give a toast to Stanford.  Because he was into indie filmmaking before filmmaking even existed.

[1] Note: one of these examples is actually true.