This story would be a tragic one if it didn’t involve two men who were undoubtedly creeps. Illustrious creeps, but creeps nevertheless. One was a world-famous architect, and the other a rich scion, from an even richer family. There are no nice guys here, and the girl in the middle, although considered the most beautiful woman of her time, and one of artist Charles Dana Gibson’s famous “Gibson Girls,” was no lily-white lassie herself.
So why do we care? Simply because it was the most deliciously decadent murder story of the early 20th Century.
On June 25, 1906, it was high society’s night out. It was the opening of the new musical Mamzelle Champagne, on the outdoor roof garden of Madison Square Garden, which at the time was bounded by Fifth and Madison Avenues, and 26th and 27th Streets. The structure, which included an amphitheater on the ground floor, was designed by world-famed architect Stanford White. In fact, White had a front row table, in which he sat by himself, to enjoy the show, which was not going over too well with the crowd, since people were milling about from table to table, kibitzing, instead of paying attention to the show.
Suddenly, the audience heard three loud shots. At first, they thought it was a part of the show. But when they saw White topple to the floor, his head encased in a pool of blood, they knew the theatrical scene was for real.
Harry Kendall Thaw, a spoiled, rich punk, had casually walked over to White, pulled out a pistol from beneath his long black coat, and plugged White three times: twice in the shoulder and once through his brain. After he fired his final shot, Thaw screamed at White, “You deserved this! You ruined my wife!”
Seeming to be not in any particular hurry, Thaw casually pointed the gun up over his head and strode to the elevator. Thaw took the elevator down and met his wife, the beautiful actress Evelyn Nesbit, in the lobby by the elevator. Mamzelle Champagne being the awful spectacle that it was, Thaw and Nesbit had left with another couple moments before the shooting. Nesbit did not realize her husband did not ride down the elevator with her. Nesbit heard the shots, and a few seconds later, when her husband strode out of the elevator holding a smoking gun, she screamed at him, “Good God Harry, what have you done?”
Back on the rooftop garden, the stage manager was trying to sort out exactly what had transpired. He jumped on a table and shouted to the orchestra, “Keep on playing! And bring out the chorus!”
The musicians, actors and actresses, dumbfounded over a real live murder being perpetrated right in front of their eyes, sat, or stood dumbfounded. A doctor, who was in attendance, rushed to White’s body. White’s face was disfigured from the powder burns. Still, the doctor announced with certainty that White was indeed dead.
Down in the lobby, a firemen in attendance wrestled the gun away from Thaw, who did not offer any resistance. Moments later, a policeman arrived and immediately arrested Thaw. The policeman brought Thaw to the nearest police station, which was located in the Tenderloin District, an area known for its gambling, prostitution, and various other crimes, both violent and nonviolent. When Thaw arrived at the police station, he identified himself as John Smith, a student at 18 Lafayette Square in Philadelphia.
The desk sergeant asked Thaw, “Why did you do this?”
Thaw seemed disinterested. “I can’t say why,” he said.
By this time, several news reporters, who were familiar with Thaw, had followed him to the police station, and identified him to the police by his real name. Thaw immediately clammed up and refused to say another word, unless he was represented by an attorney.
The following day, the killing of Sanford White was on the front page of every newspaper in New York City. The New York Times, usually staid and proper, ran this blaring headline.
THAW MURDERS SANFORD WHITE!
Shoots him on the Madison Square Garden rooftop
ABOUT EVELYN NESBIT
“You ruined my wife,” he cries and fires.
AUDIENCE IN PANIC
Chairs and tables overturned in a wild scramble For the Exits
Stanford White, who was born in 1853, was the most famous architect of this time. White was a partner in the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White, for which he designed houses and mansions for the rich and famous. White also designed the upscale gated community Seagate in Brooklyn. Besides designing Madison Square Garden, White designed the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the New York Herald Building, the First Bowery Savings Bank (at the Bowery and Grand Street), and the Washington Square Arch. The final two White achievements are still standing to this day.
However, White, despite his exalted status, was a quirky man, who had several fetishes, some bordering on illegality. Even though he was married, White was a man-about-town, who courted several young ladies, some of them young enough to be his daughter. It was his encounter with a 16-year-old Evelyn Nesbit that was the cause of his demise.
Evelyn Nesbit was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on Christmas Day 1884, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Her father was a struggling lawyer, who died in 1893, leaving his wife and daughter in considerable debt. Even at a young age, Nesbit was a stunning beauty. She began modeling in Pittsburgh, but she and her mother decided it was best she moved to New York City, to enhance her career. Almost immediately Nesbit was a hot New York City model. She modeled for such famous photographers as Frederick S. Church, Herbert Morgan, Gertrude Kasebier, Carl Blenner, and Rudolf Eickemeyer.
Nesbit’s beauty was such, newspaperman Irvin S. Cobb describe Nesbit as having, “The slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat like a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half dollars, a mouth made of rumbled rose petals.”
In 1901, Nesbit met White for the first time. Nesbit and a girlfriend, who was accompanied by another man, were invited to have lunch at White’s apartment on W. 24th Street. Shortly after they finished their meal, her girlfriend’s male companion left. White then invited the two girls to an upstairs room, where he kept a red velvet swing. Like a father doting on his two young children, White gave both the girls a turn on his swing, gleefully pushing them back and forth, until their legs almost touched the ceiling.
“He had a big Japanese umbrella on the ceiling,” Nesbit said. “So when he swung us very high up in the air, our feet past through the umbrella.”
White became very smitten with Nesbit. Using her mother as a chaperon, White dated Nesbit quite often. At the time, White was the perfect gentleman, and he tried to make sure Nesbit had every advantage, as she pursued her career in modeling, and in acting.
However, everything changed when Nesbit’s mother decided to visit friends in Pittsburgh. White was so magnanimous, he even paid for Nesbit’s mother’s trip. By this time, Nesbit had gotten a bit part in a play called Floridora. On the second night that her mother was gone, White sent Nesbit a note at the theater, inviting her to a party at his apartment on 24th Street. When Nesbit arrived at White’s apartment, she was surprised no one else was there.
“The others have turned us down,” White told Nesbit.
“Then he poured me a glass of champagne,” Nesbit said at Thaw’s trial. “I don’t know whether it was a minute after, or two minutes after, but a pounding began in my ears. Then the whole room seemed to go around.”
Nesbit lost consciousness, and when she awoke, she was lying in bed, naked. The room, in which the bed was located, was completely mirrored, even on the ceilings.
“I started to scream,” Nesbit said. “Mr. White tried to quiet me. I don’t remember how I got my clothes on, or how I went home, but he took me home. Then he went away and left me. I sat up all night.”
The following day, White visited Nesbit at her apartment. He found her there in an almost hypnotic state, just staring out the window.
“Why don’t you look at me, child,” White said.
“Because I can’t,” she said.
White told Nesbit not to worry. “Everyone does those things,” he told her. White also told Nesbit her fellow starlets in Floradoa all were involved in sexual escapades with assorted men. White told Nesbit the most important thing was not to be found out. He made Nesbit promise not to say anything to her mother about what had transpired in his apartment the night before.
Harry Thaw was born in Pittsburgh, in February of 1871, the son of coal and railroad baron William Thaw. As a child, Thaw shuttled in and out of several schools. He was an insolent child, considered by this teaches not to be very bright, and a troublemaker. Yet, because he was the son of William Thaw, Harry Thaw was admitted into the University of Pittsburgh, supposedly to study law. However, Thaw was not much of a college student, so his father used his influence to get him transferred to Harvard University. At Harvard, Thaw did little more than drink, carouse with the ladies, and play night-long poker games.
Thaw left Harvard without a degree, and he became an expert in getting into trouble. It was about this time that Thaw began his systematic drug use. Thaw consumed large amounts of cocaine and heroin, and it was rumored that Thaw was heavy into “speedballing,” which was the process of injecting a combination of cocaine and heroin into a vein. High as a kite, Thaw once rode a horse into a New York City nightclub, from which he had been banned. Adding to his reputation of being an out-of-control lunatic, Thaw also drove a car through a display window of a department store, lost $40,000 in a single poker game, drank a full bottle of the narcotic laudanum, and hosted a decadent party in Paris, where the majority of his guests were the top whores in town. The tab for this party was said to be over $50,000.
When Thaw’s father passed away, Thaw was dismayed to discover, that even though he was left $5 million of his father’s $40 million estate, it was stipulated in the senior Thaw’s will that his son would only get an allowance of two hundred dollars a month. This small allowance would continue until Thaw showed he was responsible enough to handle such a large sum of inheritance money.
In 1905, Thaw became smitten with Nesbit. Thaw courted Nesbit with much enthusiasm, and when White found out about Thaw and Nesbit, he warned Nesbit to stay away from Thaw; telling her that Thaw was an erratic and dangerous man. White knew that Thaw maintained a New York City apartment in a brothel. White also knew that Thaw would entice young girls into his apartment, then he would whip them in a bizarre sex routine, that left the girls in conditions that would sometimes require hospitalization.
However, Thaw could not be discouraged from pursuing Nesbit. He repeatedly begged Nesbit to marry him, and she consistently refused. While they were on a cruise together, Thaw became outraged when Nesbit again refused to marry him. In an act of a madman, Thaw whipped Nesbit like he did the other young girls in his New York City apartment. During this whipping, Nesbit confessed to Thaw about the manner in which he had lost her virginity to White. Thaw said he still loved her and wanted to marry her anyway. Despite the fact that Thaw had whipped her, and was certainly not of sound mind, Nesbit married Thaw on April 4, 1905.
After they were married, Thaw maintained an extreme hatred for Sanford White. So contemptuous of White because of what White had done to Nesbit, Thaw forbade his wife to even mention the name “Sanford White.” Thaw insisted that Nesbit refer to White as, “The Bastard” or “The Beast.” Yet, Nesbit, more often than not, simply referred to White as “B.”
While Thaw was in prison awaiting trial for the murder of White, Thaw’s mother, known in the newspapers as “Mother Thaw,” was in England visiting her daughter, the Countess of Yarmouth. Upon hearing of her son’s predicament, Mother Thaw announced that she was going back to the United States to help her son. “I am prepared to pay one million dollars to save my son’s life,” Mother Thaw told the press.
Part of Mother Thaw’s strategy was to use her considerable wealth to orchestrate a campaign in the press to discredit Sanford White. Suddenly, several newspapers began writing exposés on White, portraying him as a tyrannical abuser of young girls. Mother Thaw went so far as to hire a press agent to generate newspaper publicity detrimental to White, and favorable to her son.
One particular story, Mother Thaw paid the press to print, was extremely damaging to White’s credibility, decency, and honor (if he had any to start with). It seemed White had become infatuated with a 15-year-old girl named Susie Johnson. White had met Johnson at a wild party, at which Johnson had sprung from a large cake, almost totally naked. That night, White fed Johnson enough champagne to render her quite drunk. When Johnson became so inebriated she was barely conscious, White took Johnson back to his apartment, and he did to her, what he had done to Evelyn Nesbit. Soon after, White banished Johnson from his apartment, and threw her out into the street, totally broke. As White pushed Johnson out his front door, he told Johnson, “Girls, if you are poor, stay in the safe factory, or in the kitchen.”
Johnson lasted eight years hustling on the streets, before she died at the age of 23, and was buried in a pauper’s grave.
In order to influence the New York City potential jury pool, Mother Thaw hired a playwright to write a play almost identical to the circumstances surrounding Harry Thaw, Sanford White, and Evelyn Nesbit. The play featured three characters named Harold Daw, Emeline Daw, and Stanford Black. In the final scene of the play, Harold Daw proclaimed from his cell in the Tombs Prison, “No jury on earth will send me to the chair, no matter what I have done, or what I have been, for killing the man who defamed my wife. That is the unwritten law made by men themselves, and upon its virtue I will stake my life.”
Mother Thaw’s money even made it into the hands of Rev. Charles A. Eaton, who had John D Rockefeller as one of his parishioners. Rev. Eaton made an impassioned speech to his congregation defending Thaw’s actions. Rev. Eaton said, “It would be a good thing if there was a little more shooting in cases like this.”
While Thaw was in prison, his mother spread enough money around so that Thaw could enjoy extravagances no other prisoners in the Tombs were allowed. Instead of eating the standard prison grub, Thaw had all his meals delivered from Delmonico’s, a downtown restaurant, which was considered the finest eatery of its time. While other prisoners dressed in standard prison garb, Thaw was allowed to wear the finest clothes, including silk shirts and silk ties.
Thaw’s first trial for the murder of Sanford White commenced on January 21, 1907. Mother Thaw hired the illustrious California trial lawyer Delpin Delmas to represent her son. District Attorney William Travers Jerome, the uncle of Winston Churchill, prosecuted the case for the state.
Jerome told the jury in his opening statement, “With all his millions, Thaw is a fiend. In the conduct of this trial, I shall prove that no matter how rich a man is, he can’t get away with murder in New York County!”
The sensationalism of the trial was so extreme, tickets to the trial were scalped at $100. More than 80 world-famous artists and writers flocked to the courtroom to see if maybe they could benefit by either writing a book, or making a movie about the sordid affair.
The defense’s shining hour was when Evelyn Nesbit took the stand in defense of her husband. Rumors had it that Mother Thaw enticed Nesbit to testify by promising Nesbit that her son would agree to a divorce. Mother Thaw also promised Nesbit one million dollar after the trial, but Nesbit never received one penny of that money.
On the stand, Nesbit told of the bizarre sexual behavior of Sanford White. Nesbit said that White made her wear little girl’s dresses when she came to his apartment. Nesbit also told the jury the manner in which she lost her virginity to White, and that White had plied her with champagne, in order to render her unconscious, so that he could have his way with her.
The prosecution countered Nesbit’s words by eliciting testimony from a leading toxicologist, Dr. Rudolph Witthaus. Dr. Witthaus said that Nesbit’s story about how White had gotten her drunk in order to take advantage of her, did not hold water, because no drug known to science would have worked as rapidly as Nesbitt said that champagne did to render her unconscious.
Although a group of psychiatrists declared Thaw to be totally sane, during the trial Thaw acted erratically, by constantly crying like a baby, and flying into rages, in which his eyes bugged out, and his face turned nearly purple.
In his final summation, Delmas told the jury that his client, when he shot Sanford White, had been consumed by “Dementia Americana, a form of insanity which makes every home sacred, makes a man believed that his wife is sacred. Whoever strains the virtual life has forfeited the protection of human laws, and must look to the internal justice and mercy of God.”
Attorney Delmas had done such a remarkable job, the jury was not able to come to a unanimous verdict. It was revealed later that seven jurors had wanted to convict Thaw on a first-degree murder charge, while five jurors decided on a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. However, at Thaw’s second trial, in January of 1908, the jury unanimously voted Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity.
Still, the verdict of not guilty did not set Thaw free from prison. Thaw was declared criminally insane and imprisoned for life at Matteawan, New York. In August 17, 1913, Thaw escaped, and with a limousine waiting for him outside the asylum, Thaw fled to Canada, where he took refuge.
While Thaw was on the run, Nesbit, obviously angry at the fact she had been not paid the one million dollars she was promised by Mother Thaw, made an announcement to the press.
She said, “Harry Thaw has turned out to be a degenerate scoundrel. He hid behind my skirts through two trials and I won’t stand for it again. I won’t let lawyers throw any more mud at me.”
Soon afterwards, Nesbit signed a contract to appear in a vaudeville show, at a salary of $3500 a week.
In September, 1913, the United States government forced the Canadian Minister of Justice to return Thaw to the United States. Thaw faced a third trial in 1915. Bolstered by a cadre of the best lawyers money could buy, Thaw was found to be sane, and the jury found him not guilty of all charges.
Back on the streets, Thaw went back to his old evil ways. Eighteen months after he was released from prison, Thaw was arrested for kidnapping and whipping Frederick Gump. At his trial, Thaw was again declared insane. Yet, before Thaw went back into the asylum, he gave Nesbit her promised divorce. Nesbit spent the next decade appearing in vaudeville, occasional movies, and as a dancer in nightclubs throughout New York City.
In 1924, after seven years in the asylum, Thaw was finally declared sane, and was released from prison. Thaw spent the rest of his life in and out of lucidity. Thaw died on February 22, 1947, at the age of 76, of a heart attack in Miami, Florida. Thaw left a mere $10,000 of his vast fortune to Evelyn Nesbit.
Nesbitt, beset by alcohol addiction, morphine addiction, and several suicide attempts, somehow lasted until January 17, 1967, when she died at the age of 82. Nesbit served as a technical advisor on the 1955 movie “The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing,” which was loosely based on her life story.
Marilyn Monroe was originally scheduled to play Evelyn Nesbit, but ultimately, she refused to play the part, which then went to Joan Collins. Ray Milland played Sanford White, and Farley Granger played Henry Thaw.