Resident Profiles

William Marsh Rice

From his humble beginnings as orphaned child, to a Texas tycoon, and then to the victim of a bizarre murder plot, William Rice was certainly one of Green Brook's most interesting residents. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1816, Rice made his way to Houston by 1839, just three years after the city was founded. As an import-export merchant with a shrewd business sense, his fortune grew along with the town as he expanded into banking, real estate, and oil. By the eve of the Civil War, he was one of the richest men in Texas.

Sometime after the Civil War, he provided funds to his sister and brother-in-law, Charles McKee, to purchase property in New Jersey. The 78-acre farm was located in Green Brook, along Greenbrook Road between Cramer Avenue and Mountain Parkway. When Charles died in 1878, Rice received title to the farm and built a large mansion on the property.

By 1885, Rice was involved in a legal dispute over part of his fortune. Before she died, his first wife made up a will disposing of half of Rice's money. Under the community property law in Texas, where the couple had been living, she was entitled to half of his assets. Rice countered that he was actually a resident of New Jersey, although he also spent time in New York City were he owned an apartment on Madison Avenue. Since he only visited Texas for business to oversee his far-flung investments, he claimed that all the money rightfully was his.

Although he was married twice, Rice had no children. At one point, he began to consider what he should leave to posterity. In 1882, influenced by the example of the Stephen Girard Institute in Philadelphia, he drew up a will leaving the bulk of his estate to an orphans' home to be established on his Green Brook farm. Had it not been for a chance conversation in the late 1880s with Cesar M. Lombardi, an orphanage in Green Brook might have been Rice's legacy.

Lombardi, who was a prominent Houston businessman and former president of the Houston School Board, felt that the city needed a public high school. The city council was not interested. On one of Rice's many visits to Houston, Lombardi suggested that, since Rice had made his fortune in Houston, there could be no more appropriate monument to his memory than a building for a municipal high school. Visiting Houston again in the late spring of 1891, Rice called his attorney, Captain James A. Baker, to his hotel room and told him that he had decided to endow not a high school, but a separate establishment to be called The William M. Rice Institute for the Advancement of Literature, Science, and Art. He instructed that the institute should be free; open to both male and female students; and that it would be nonpartisan and nonsectarian.

On May 13, 1891, Rice signed a deed of indenture giving the institute its initial endowment. He instructed that nothing else was to be done until after his death; however, the following year, he gave the Institute several parcels of land, and in 1896 after his second wife's death, he wrote a new will leaving the bulk of his fortune to the Institute.

On Sunday, September 23, 1900, William Marsh Rice died in his sleep in his Madison Avenue apartment. The next day, a large check bearing Rice's signature was presented for deposit. An alert bank clerk noticed that the check was made out to a lawyer, but that the lawyer's name had been misspelled. When the clerk telephoned Rice to verify the name, he learned that Rice had died the evening before. Sensing that something was wrong, the bank officials telegraphed Captain Baker in Houston that "Mr. Rice died last night under very suspicious circumstances." Baker immediately set out for New York City.

Meanwhile, the lawyer, Albert T. Patrick, stated in an interview that Rice had drawn up a new will on June 30, 1900, naming Patrick as legatee. A subsequent assignment, just two days before Rice's death, gave most of the estate to Patrick, leaving nothing else to the Institute. Because the change was out of character, Captain Baker, with the assistance of the New York City district attorney's office, began an investigation of Rice's suspicious death.

The case created a sensation in New York City, especially after Rice's valet, Charles Jones, confessed that he and Patrick had practiced signing Rice's signature, forged the new will, and that he had chloroformed Rice to death after a steady diet of mercury pills had failed to kill the aging millionaire. Because Jones provided state's evidence, he was never imprisoned, but mastermind Patrick was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing.

Patrick's long fight for freedom has been described as one of the blackest chapters in New York's legal history. A wealthy brother-in-law reportedly poured thousands into the battle. Patrick spent four years and seven months in the death house, during which time he saw 17 others go to the chair. Finally, in December 1906 Gov. F. W. Higgins commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Patrick, the star boarder on death row, announced: "I refuse to accept the governor's commutation. I propose to continue my fight for freedom."

He shuttled back and forth to various courts with all sorts of arguments. In one court he argued that he was legally dead and, as such, could not be kept in Sing Sing. It could be that everyone wearied of the entire matter, but in any event, on November 28, 1912 Gov. John A. Dix gave Patrick a complete pardon, noting in a brief comment that "an air of mystery has always surrounded the case." The governor's act was, to say the least, controversial, but so was the fact that Jones, the actual killer, had not even been tried for the murder.

Captain Baker had still one more hurdle to overcome in behalf of Rice Institute, a disputed will by the second Mrs. Rice that claimed a substantial portion of the estate. This complicated issue was finally settled in 1904, and The Rice Institute received a founding endowment of $4.6 million, the first major act of philanthropy to benefit what was to become Rice University.

William Marsh Rice


Rice barns (1899 photo) Greenbrook Road

Rice mansion (1899 photo) Greenbrook Road

Lillian (Ford) Feickert - Green Brook’s Iron Lady

When Lillian Feickert and her husband moved to Green Brook in 1908, the area was still part of the Township of North Plainfield. Lillian purchased the historic Ephreim Vail house on Greenbrook Road from Abram Vail, Ephreim Vail’s son. The property included a 64-acre tract that ran from Greenbrook Road to the top of the first Watchung Mountain and a water-powered cider mill with 3 acres on the south side of the road.

Six years earlier, Lillian had married Edward Foster Feickert, a 28-year-old banker from New York. The couple had initially moved to Plainfield, where Edward had joined the newly formed Plainfield Trust Company. During the next several years, the company flourished, along with Edward’s career, and he quickly became vice-president of the bank, which was re-named the State Trust Company.

For the first few years, Feickert spent much of her time tending to her new house and surrounding gardens. Following the tragic death of their infant child several years before, she had occupied herself with volunteer work for her church - the Grace Episcopal Church of Plainfield – and a number of women’s organizations. As the wife of a successful banker, she appeared to be headed for a quite life of obscurity. But just twelve years later, Feickert was to become a major player in New Jersey politics, as well as the first woman from New Jersey to run for the United States Senate.

Among the organizations that she joined were the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association. Feickert’s life changed in 1910, when Clara Laddey, New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association president, appointed her enrollment chairman. She took on the job with great enthusiasm putting her native organizational and political skills to good use. Riding the wave of renewed interest in suffrage that was gripping the nation, she quadrupled the association’s membership in just two years by door-to-door canvassing and organizing community rallies.

In 1912, Feickert was elected president of the organization. She developed her public reputation and political skills during an unsuccessful fight to win male voter approval of the state suffrage amendment in October 1915. She opposed the mote militant tactics of some suffragists in the New Jersey State branch of the National Woman's Party, and guiding the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association on a more moderate path as it gained new adherents from both men and women during the war years.

In July1919, Feickert was chosen to lead the combined effort of a number of the state’s suffrage organizations to convince the New Jersey State Legislature to ratify the federal suffrage amendment. By then the membership of her association had grown to 120,000 giving her a load voice in Trenton. The legislature finally voted to ratify the amendment on February 10, 1920.

With the ratification of the amendment, Feickert had become a supremely confident politician who was convinced that the power of the vote gave women the ability to achieve many of the important objectives of the suffrage movement. Early in 1920, the state Republican party, respecting Feickert's achievements as New Jersey's leading suffragist, named her vice-chairman of the Republican State Commit tee and assigned her the task of organizing the Republican women in the state.

Feickert had also accepted the position of treasure of the newly formed New Jersey League of Women Voters; however, she resigned from that position a year later because of its nonpartisan leanings. Instead, she chose to focus on the New Jersey Women’s Republican Club, which had a reported membership of 100,000 and backing from the state Republican organization. In making the move, she had apparently received assurances from Edward Stokes, chairman of the Republican Party and former governor, that all political committees would have equal numbers of men and women, that women would be represented on juries, and that at least two women would be included on the State Board of Education and the Department of Health. Feickert’s organization organization also successfully passed the Night Work Bill, which prohibited women from working at night in manufacturing establishments, laundries, and bakeries.

Support for the Women’s Republican Club had started to wane by 1925 due to Feickert’s insistence on passage of other women’s related legislation and the demand for strict party support of prohibition. She was also under fire for her public criticism of the Republican controlled legislature in Trenton. As a result, Feickert was defeated in her reelection bid to the Republican State Committee, and therefore lost her position as vice-chairman.

About the same time, she received word that her husband, after 23 years of marriage, had become a resident of Nevada and was suing her for divorce. He claimed that her nonstop political activity had caused him extreme suffering. Six weeks after the divorce was final, Edward married his secretary Iva Dayton.

As sentiment shifted in favor of the repeal of prohibition laws, the Republican State Committee was becoming increasing frustrated with the "independent minded" Women’s Republican Club. In 1929, the organization was replaced by the newly formed Women’s State Republican Club of New Jersey, which put party loyalty ahead of women’s interests. It did not participate in the writing of party platforms, nor did it seek to extract political pledges from the party leadership as Feickert had done. The Republican Party now had what it wanted: women on whose loyalty it could depend.

Feickert returned briefly to the public stage when she ran unsuccessfully as a pro-prohibition candidate for the United States in 1928. Her public life ended finally in the early 1930s with the defeat of prohibition.

After the election, she settled down in Green Brook and devoted her time to remodeling her home and furnishing it with antiques; maintaining her elaborate garden; traveling; and reading history. Lillian Feickert died in 1945 following a brief illness and her body was cremated. Having lived though such a turbulent period in American history, Feickert’s iron will and leadership skills where important factors in the successful outcome of the movement that finally established women’s political rights.