William Marsh Rice, merchant, financier, and philanthropist, was born at Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 14, 1816, the son of David and Patty (Hall) Rice. He was named William Marsh for the circuit rider who organized his family's church in 1815. He left school at the age of fifteen to begin business life as a general store clerk, and at twenty-one purchased an enterprise of his own. After the panic of 1837 Rice moved to Houston, Texas, where he contracted to furnish and serve liquor in the bar of the Milam Hotel in return for the cost of the liquor, three dollars a day, and board. He was issued a headright certificate to 320 acres of Houston land and soon received a first-class license for a mercantile business from the city on June 28, 1840. He was associated with a number of partners, and with Ebenezar B. Nichols was a senior partner in the mercantile firm of Rice and Nichols, a large export and import business that supplied plantations and settlers inland with goods from New Orleans and New York and acted as banker for many of its customers; by 1856 the business was known as William Rice and Company. In 1841 Rice offered a gold cup to the planter who brought in the first twenty bales of cotton and a silver cup for the first five. In 1851 he and other investors established the Houston and Galveston Navigation Company, and by 1858 he was the owner of a brig called the William M. Rice, which carried ice from Boston to Galveston during the summers. Rice also served as a director of the Houston Insurance Company, which insured carriers and freight. These enterprises, with others, enabled him to amass thousands of acres in Texas and Louisiana, along with a considerable fortune. Among his landholdings was a large farm on the outskirts of Houston, near Bellaire. In 1859, with other investors, Rice incorporated the Houston Cotton Compress Company. He was also an incorporator and director of several railroads, including the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado, the Houston Tap and Brazoria, the Washington County, and the Houston and Texas Central, as well as a stage line from Houston to Austin. Rice represented the Second Ward as an alderman from 1855 to 1857 and served on the petit jury and grand jury in Harris County. By 1860 he may have been the second richest man in Texas, with real estate and personal property valued at $750,000.
At the outbreak of the Civil War he left his home to be used as a military hospital and transferred his business to Matamoros, where he operated through the federal blockade. Though he was a slaveowner with fifteen slaves in 1860 and served on the slave patrol for a year, he identified with the Unionist cause. After the war he moved to Dunellen, New Jersey, where he was an agent for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, which he had helped to promote. Rice retained his interest in Texas, however, for in 1885 he bought the Capitol Hotel, which became the Rice Hotel, and in 1891 he endowed and incorporated the William Marsh Rice Institute for the advancement of literature, science, and art. Rice married Margaret C. Bremond on June 29, 1850. After her death in 1863, he married Julia Elizabeth (Baldwin) Brown, on June 26, 1867. Rice had accumulated a fortune of about $3 million when he moved to New York City after the death of his second wife on July 24, 1896. There, on September 23, 1900, he was murdered by Charles F. Jones, his valet, and Albert T. Patrick, a lawyer who made a series of forgeries in order to acquire the Rice estate. Years of litigation ensued and, though Patrick was sentenced to death, he received a full pardon in 1912, when the bulk of the estate went to Rice Institute. Rice was an Odd Fellow, a Mason, and an Episcopalian. He was a director of the Houston Academy and a trustee of the Houston Educational Society, the Second Ward School, and the Texas Medical College. His ashes are buried under John Angel's statue of him on the Rice University campus in Houston.