With a name associated with the famous university in Palo Alto, Leland Stanford is among the best-known of the famous “robber barons” of the 19th century. Yet as Roland De Wolk
explains in American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford
(University of California Press, 2019), much of his fascinating life has been obscured by efforts to hide some of his most nefarious activities. Growing up in New York, Stanford became a part of the general movement of many ambitious Americans westward soon after reaching adulthood. After a few years in Wisconsin as a lawyer and political candidate he followed his brothers to California, where Stanford operated a general store that provisioned the miners in the gold rush of the era. His burgeoning business and political career made him an ideal partner for the group that formed in Sacramento to build a railroad connecting California with the rest of the United States. De Wolk demonstrates how Stanford used his term as the state’s governor to benefit the Central Pacific Railroad, the success of which made him one of the country’s wealthiest men. Yet for all his success Stanford’s life was marred by personal tragedy and dissension with his partners, leaving a dubious legacy upon his death that was salvaged in large part thanks to the persistent efforts of his wife Jenny.