Forgotten Crime of the Century: Part I

For all of you true crime fiends, armchair detectives, Wikipedia mongers, and amateur researches, I wanted to start a series presenting a “Crime of the Century” that you maybe haven’t heard of. Even though I find “mainstream” cases like Jack the Ripper, the Lingbergh baby, Ted Bundy, the Manson Family Murders, the Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Unabomber, the Columbine Massacre, etc., to be tragic, horrific, bizarre, and fascinating, I really love discovering and researching crimes that are new to me, that have become obscure with the passage of time. I hope you enjoy Part I of the series!


The Murder at Madison Square Garden

Evelyn Nesbit, America’s first supermodel, was born on Christmas Day in 1884 in Pennsylvania to a Victorian housewife and a lawyer. After her father’s unexpected death at the age of 40, her family descended quickly into poverty. Eventually, the family moved to New York City and Evelyn, who was a stunningly beautiful, quickly caught the attention of a female artist while she was working at Wanamaker’s department store. This launched Evelyn’s career as a model. She was famously painted by Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his “Gibson Girls”, which epitomized the “new woman” of the time. She was beautiful, glamorous, healthy, active, independent, and fun loving.

“Woman: The Eternal Question” (1905) by Charles Gibson, modeled after Evelyn Nesbit

Through her connections, Evelyn entered into the world of acting. She became a featured player in the Broadway play that would change her life, The Wild Rose. She was introduced to 47-year-old Stanford White, a very successful and well-known architect known for designing major commercial and residential structures, predominately on the east coast, including the second Madison Square Garden, Pennsylvania Station, the Cosmopolitan Building, and various private estates for families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors. He was also a socialite in Manhattan, and he took notice of Evelyn while she was in The Wild Rose. He quickly took her under his wing as a protégé of sorts and he patronized her and showered her family with gifts, even paying for her brother to attend a military academy. He easily gained the favor and trust of Evelyn’s mother and eventually convinced her to take a trip back to Pennsylvania to visit friends while he promised to chaperone Evelyn.

One evening while her mother was away, he plied Evelyn with so much champagne that she blacked out and when she awoke, she realized she had been raped, though she couldn’t remember the assault. She was still a minor at this point and was over 30 years his junior. Stanford was a serial womanizer and was unfaithful to his wife. He remained emphatically in Evelyn’s life, but she came to the realization that he had no intention to leave his marriage. Evelyn had a brief romance with John Barrymore for a time, but declined his proposal. According to her mother, his salary as a cartoonist was not suitable and Stanford also disapproved, likely out of jealousy.

Architect and socialite, Stanford White

A strange man claiming to be a “Mr. Munroe” orchestrated a meeting with Evelyn after having seen The Wild Rose about 40 times. He eventually revealed himself as Harry Kendall Thaw, the heir to a 40-million dollar fortune from his grandfather’s success in the coal and railroad industries. Harry was a strange, mentally ill, sexually sadistic, very rich socialite and drug addict. He facilitated a European trip for Evelyn to recover from an appendectomy (or rumored abortion of Barrymore’s baby), but in actuality, instead of allowing her to recover, he created such a chaotic itinerary, that it drove a wedge between Evelyn and her mother. This eventually prompted Mrs. Nesbit to abandon her daughter and leave her with Thaw.

Harry Kendall Thaw

Harry ended up locking her in a gothic castle that he rented and beat her with a whip and raped her repeatedly for two weeks. He had already exhibited this same pattern of atrocity for years already, attacking both men and women, using his money and influence to shut up his victims and witnesses. Presumably, the Nesbits were not aware of this. Evelyn managed to escape back to New York and for three or four years, Harry relentlessly harassed her with mountains of flowers, gifts, and apologies. Sadly, she finally agreed to marry this maniac  in 1905 when it became clear that her affiliation with White had tarnished her reputation and that she was a marked woman, so to speak. She also wanted financial stability, which she felt Thaw could offer.

At some point, Harry managed to weasel out the truth about Stanford’s attack of Evelyn when she was 16-years-old, and this incensed him. At first, she thought he was trying to be helpful, but he would make her repeat the awful story over and over, which further developed his obsession with Stanford White. He already had a vendetta against White as he felt he was responsible for the many snubs and rejections within the elite of New York society of New York. While there may be some validity to this, Harry’ was delusional and already had a negative reputation. He’d been kicked out of many private schools as a youth and from Harvard as well, for his erratic, inappropriate behavior. His mother did little to curb his behavior, as she was also mentally ill and abusive to her servants. Mama Thaw’s priority was to protect the Thaw name and dish out hush money as needed, which was frequently.

This drama culminated during a performance of Mam’zelle Champagne on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. It was a sweltering day and Thaw wore a full tuxedo and a heavy overcoat, refusing to take them off. Stanford was in attendance, and Harry approached him multiple times, but retreated cautiously. Finally, he worked up the nerve to remove a pistol from his coat. He shot Stanford three times in the head and back, supposedly saying, “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then abandoned her! … You’ll never go out with that woman again.”

Harry incarcerated after his arrest in The Tombs. His money allowed for him to have a brass bed and wear his own tailored clothes, when usually, prisoners had a cot and had to wear a uniform. Here he is eating a catered gourmet meal.

Chivalrous? Um, no. Harry had two highly publicized trials. The first ended in a mistrial due to a deadlocked jury and the second ended in Harry being delcared not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to a mental institution for life, which he escaped with his mother’s assistance. He was extradited from Canada back to the United States and given a third trial in 1915. He was declared not guilt, found sane, and was set free. Evelyn, refusing to participate in the third trial, was quoted saying, “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.” She was promised financial reward by the Thaw family for her successful portrayal of Harry as the chivalrous white knight defending her honor. Eventually, they were divorced and her financial aid was diminished substantially. Thaw also denied paternity of their son, Russell, who eventually became a war hero and successful private pilot. Unsurprisingly, given his obsessive behavior, he had private detectives tail Evelyn for years after their divorce.

Evelyn and her son, Russell William Thaw

In 1916, Thaw was accused of kidnapping, sexual assault, and beating a nineteen year old boy that he maneuvered to get alone, much like he did with Evelyn. Again, he was committed but ultimately released and declared sane again in 1924. It’s believed that his mother arrived at a settlement with the boy’s family. Evelyn remarried and continued to act and found success in vaudeville, burlesque, and managing a speakeasy, though apparently she could not fully move on from her past. She passed away at age 82 in California. Before she died, she served as an adviser for the highly fictionalized version of her life, the 1955 film starring Joan Collins as Evelyn, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

Evelyn Nesbit with Joan Collins on set of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
News clipping from 1916 about Thaw’s arrest for assaulting 19-year-old, Frederick Gump Jr.

This is such a crazy story! Beyond the sensationalism and the inclusion of every type of salaciousness one can think of, I can’t get over the sexual violence against Evelyn, who was a child! Stanford White was a murder victim and while he was less abusive than Harry Thaw, he still took advantage of a teenaged girl when he raped her. It’s appalling. So is her mother’s complete irresponsibility and ineptness as a guardian and chaperon. Was she really that naive and stupid? I think partially, but I also think she viewed her daughter as a meal ticket. Apparently, she was also absent from Evelyn’s life during the trials. How awful is that?

Another thing that makes me sad is that Evelyn’s own choices were on account of money or lack thereof. She did not like or love Harry Thaw at any point; I’m quite confident of that based on my research and plain common sense. Evelyn’s beauty brought her fame but I’d argue, more misfortune. I wonder if she ever wished she had a quiet life. I’m guessing not. I think she was seduced by wealth and notoriety. You can’t blame her though. I think most teenaged girls would have done the same. It’s disappointing that with the whole “Me Too” movement has revealed that there are still so many lecherous old men taking advantage of young women, particularly within the entertainment industry.

To sum up, I’m surprised to have just learned about this case considering all of the research and true crime exploration I do. Have you ever heard about this one? Either way, I hope you enjoyed my iteration and analysis. Let’s hope that female empowerment and justice continues to prevail in the future!


SOURCES:
Motion picture on YouTube. (october 16, 1995). United States: PBS. Retrieved May 28, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEVcvkpVmnU
Evelyn Nesbit. (2018, May 28). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Nesbit
Harry Kendall Thaw. (2018, May 28). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Kendall_Thaw
Stanford White. (2018, May 28). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_White
The “It” Girl [Audio blog post]. (n.d.). Retrieved May 28, 2018, from http://www.thisiscriminal.com/episode-91-the-it-girl-05-18-2018/

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