Murder in the Time of Robber Barons: the Goddess, the Architect, and the Millionaire, Part II
In my last post, we left Evelyn Nesbit at the peak of her career as a model, showgirl, and sex symbol of the new century. Though her virtue had been stolen through trickery and rape by the much older Stanford White, nonetheless they began an affair that lasted about a year. Even more surprising, their relationship survived the end of the affair. He continued to support Evelyn and her family in the style befitting a goddess adored by the media of the day. Evelyn’s life became quite glamorous as wealthy and/or famous suitors presented themselves and her career continued to expand. Into this complicated mix of fame and sex appeal stepped a young man of dubious character wholly unsuited to marry anyone, much less a girl with Evelyn’s history.
Harry Kendall Thaw (February 12, 1871-February 22, 1947) was the son of Pittsburg coal and railroad magnate William Thaw. From an early age, Harry exhibited the warning signs of a violent and paranoid personality. His own mother declared he had been so in the womb. As a boy, he did not remain in any given school for long because his behavior was unacceptable and his teachers despaired of being able to teach him. His family name got him into the University of Pittsburg and then Harvard. He was to read law at Harvard, but spent his time in pursuits that had nothing to do with academics. By his own admission, he “majored in poker” instead. He also chased women and participated in binge drinking. He was expelled from Harvard after being arrested for threatening a cab driver with a shotgun. It appears Harry was a young man who never suffered the consequences of his choices, and as a result, never learned to control his emotions and actions. With his academic career over, Harry continued spending time in his preferred pursuits, but added cocaine and other recreational drugs to his list of debaucheries.
Harry became aware of and then obsessed with Evelyn because of an interest he shared with the much older Stanford White, an interest in beautiful, young show girls. Harry attended at least forty performances of The Wild Rose, in which Evelyn had a speaking part. He sent flowers, cards, letters, and gifts. He introduced himself as Mr. Monroe. At first, Evelyn rebuffed his advances, but eventually she agreed to start seeing him. Harry worked to impress both Evelyn and her mother ultimately revealing his true identity, which both Nesbits found very satisfactory.
Harry took mother and daughter to Paris, where he managed to convince the older woman to return to New York. From Paris, Thaw and Evelyn traveled on through Europe, Harry all the while pressing Evelyn to become his wife. She rejected his proposals until they reached Germany. During their stop at Katzenstein Castle, Evelyn revealed the true nature of her relationship with Stanford White. She explained being drugged and raped, which even the worldly Harry found shocking. Since she was no longer a virgin, she felt unworthy of being Harry’s wife. Though he promised she would never be subjected to such again, one must wonder if Harry blamed Evelyn in part for what happened with White or perhaps it was that she went on to have an affair with White after the rape. It could not have helped that Thaw already had a seething hatred of White. Whatever his reasons, Thaw kept Evelyn locked in a castle room for two weeks where he repeatedly beat her with a whip and raped her. Despite this, the girl returned with Harry to the States and eventually married him in April 1905, later saying, “I was so sorry for him. And…we’d been so terribly poor.”
The seeds of Harry’s hatred for Stanford White were planted long before he began his relationship with Evelyn. Over the years, White had snubbed Harry at social gatherings and had blackballed him from several clubs. Given Harry’s nature, this proved most unwise. Harry did not let grudges go lightly. Layer over this the knowledge that White had “gotten there first” with his wife and Harry’s anger continued to heat until it boiled over on the night of June 25, 1906 during a performance on the roof of Madison Square Garden. In full view of the audience, Harry shot White in the head, killing him instantly. The show did not stop immediately because pranks were common fare in shows at the time. It was not until ladies in the audience screamed upon realizing that part of White’s skull was exposed and there were powder burns on his skin that the singing stopped. A witness told the New York Times that upon learning White was dead, Harry stated, “Well, I made a good job of it, and I’m glad.” The same witness reported Evelyn running to Harry, kissing him, and saying, “I didn’t think you would do it in this way.”
Thaw went on trial in February 1907 amid a tabloid frenzy. A selection of newspaper front pages from across the country have been digitized by the Library of Congress. They demonstrate how widespread public interest was in the “Crime of the Century.” It comes as no surprise that for the first time in U.S. history, the jury was sequestered.
He dined on steaks and wine catered by Delmonico’s, slept in a bass bed, wore his own clothes, and enjoyed clean, starched linens on table and bed.
The trial ended in a hung jury in April 1907. During his second trial, Harry pled temporary insanity, was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in New York. In 1910, Evelyn gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw, who she claimed was conceived during a conjugal visit at the asylum. Harry denied the boy and never accepted paternity. His confinement at Matteawan was to have been for life, but his lawyers were not finished. They filed a writ of habeus corpus, which was denied. At that point, it is believed his mother arranged for him to simply walk out of the asylum. He fled to Canada, but was extradited back to the U.S. and Matteawan. In 1915, he was granted a third trial where he was found no longer a danger and was released. Evelyn and Harry divorced in 1915, as well, and all financial support for Evelyn ceased. She was left to make her way as best she could. Unfortunately, none of his experiences effected any of the desired changes in Harry. He was arrested for nearly beating a boy to death on Christmas Eve 1915. He was found insane and committed to Kirkbride Asylum in Philadelphia until April 1924.
After his release, Harry moved to Clearwater, Virginia where his neighbors viewed him as an eccentric, but harmless individual who served in their volunteer fire department. Harry died of a heart attack while in Miami in 1947. He left Evelyn $10,000 (about $115,000 today) or 1% of his total wealth.
As for Evelyn’s later life, she returned to the stage and later performed in a few silent films. She had a second brief, unhappy marriage to a dancer, Jack Clifford. They married in 1916; he left her in 1918; she divorced him in 1933. Their marriage could not survive Evelyn’s notoriety and the public’s refusal to see her as anything other than the wife of a playboy killer and featured witness in the Trial of the Century. She never again achieved the success she experienced as a teenager. In 1926, there was a rumor of a possible reconciliation with Thaw. He visited her in a Chicago hospital after her suicide attempt and they were photographed together, but nothing came of it. She served as a technical advisor for the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a highly fictionalized version of her life with White and Thaw, for which she received $10,000. She was not pleased with the portrayal of her relationship with White, saying the film made it seem she had seduced White. Evelyn died in a California nursing home in 1967 at age 82.
Linda Bennett Pennell is the author of five published works of historical fiction. Her latest, a gothic romance entitled All That Glitters, can be found here on Amazon. Set in the Glided Age, it tells the story of Sarah Anne, a young woman who finds her true purpose in a most unexpected place.