Millionaire Harry K. Thaw Shoots Architect Stanford White At Madison Square Garden June 25, 1906
The Beautiful Evelyn Nesbit Is At The Center Of It All
In the annals of 20th century crime there are many cases that claim the title of the “crime of the century.” From the Lindbergh kidnapping case to the O.J Simpson saga, the public has always had an unquenchable thirst for following the media coverage of lurid crimes.
Harry Thaw’s murder of Stanford White at the roof garden theater of White’s creation, Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, was as big a story that has ever played out in the public eye. If it was not the “crime of the century,” it certainly qualifies for being in the top five.
A brief summary of the principal players in this drama and the events leading up to the murder goes like this.
In 1901, Stanford White, partner in the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White wants to meet artist’s model and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, who is 16. White is known in certain circles for being a scoundrel and having many sexual affairs with actresses, models and other pretty girls. After meeting Nesbit under the approval of Evelyn’s mother, White becomes Evelyn’s benefactor over the course of several months paying for a multitude of things for Evelyn, her brother and mother. White arranges for Evelyn’s mother to take a trip back home to Pennsylvania while he promises to “look after Evelyn.” One night, while Evelyn’s mother is away and Evelyn is at White’s bachelor apartment, he plies Evelyn with liquor. Evelyn passes out and White has his way with his virgin teen beauty. Evelyn wakes up in bed naked with White and is in shock after being raped. White begs Evelyn not to talk about what has happened.
Evelyn weighs her options, tells no one about the rape and decides to stay in a relationship with the very much married White. Their relationship is perplexing, but after about a year it wanes.
In 1902, Harry Kendall Thaw, Pittsburgh heir to a multimillion dollar fortune, becomes enamored with Evelyn from afar. He also happens to be a sadistic, mentally unbalanced drug addict. The paranoid Thaw hates Stanford White whom he strangely believes has kept him from joining all the best clubs in New York. Thaw, not possessing the social skill and graces of White, believes he cannot move in the same circles that allow White his libertine lifestyle. While professing chastity Thaw is secretly a sexual deviant and jealous of White. Thaw wants what White possesses; which happens to be Evelyn.
Through dogged persistence Thaw eventually meets Evelyn using the pseudonym Mr. Munroe and dines with her. Evelyn is unimpressed. After he reveals his true identity, he is unyielding in his quest to win Evelyn’s heart. Thaw resorts to a long period of lavishing gifts, incessant badgering and courting Evelyn to little avail.
But finally after Evelyn is recuperating from having her appendix removed, Thaw convinces Evelyn in 1903 to travel to Europe with him, see the sights and convalesce. Everything will be on the up and up as Evelyn will be escorted by a chaperone and Evelyn’s mother. Of course, Evelyn’s mother gets sick of Thaw and abandons the trip, leaving Evelyn with the unbalanced Thaw.
Now free from scrutiny, he relentlessly questions Evelyn about White and she finally breaks down and tells Thaw how Stanford White despoiled her. Thaw is beside himself and is now all but consumed by his hatred for White.
One night soon after Evelyn’s revelation, Thaw enters Evelyn’s room in a castle he has rented in Austria and he flogs Evelyn with a riding crop and rapes her.
Returning to America, Evelyn avoids Thaw for a while, but inexplicably decides he’s not all that bad and agrees to marry him in 1905.
On June 25, 1906 Thaw and Evelyn attend a musical show at the outdoor rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden. Stanford White comes in towards the end of the show and sits alone at his usual table. About fifteen minutes later with the show still going on, Evelyn and Harry Thaw and the rest of their party get up to leave. Thaw slips away and comes right behind Stanford White and deposits three bullets from a revolver at point blank range into the architect. White’s face is a mass of blood and brains and he slumps over dead. Some in the stunned crowd think the gunplay is part of the show. Those close enough to White know better and many in the crowd go into a panic trying to get away from the assassin. Thaw, raises the gun over his head and announces to anyone within earshot, “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then deserted her.”
White’s reputation was tarnished forever. Thaw would have a couple of trials and in 1908 was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to life at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York. Thaw escaped in 1913 and fled to Canada. Thaw was extradited back to New York and granted a third trial in 1915 where he was found to be sane, not guilty of White’s murder and set free.
It’s all told splendidly in Paula Ururburu’s biography of Evelyn Nesbit American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century (2008) Riverhead Books, which reminded me that today was the 109th anniversary of the murder.
Evelyn Nesbit was a complex woman. Looking past her bad decisions, she was intelligent and independent. Her unique looks changed the modern conception of beauty and ushered in a new era of the 20th century woman, one of natural proportions without corsets and bustles.
While Stanford White was the murder victim, Evelyn Nesbit was a victim in her own right who struggled with the infamy of being cast as the cause of the crime of the century for the rest of her life.