Evelyn Nesbit and “the Trial of the Century”

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The premiere of “Mam’zelle Champagne” did not go well. Despite the lovely songs and beautiful ingenues, the show was simply a bore. The performance took place on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden – a lavish venue designed by Stanford White, an accomplished architect and a socialite about town. That fateful night he was enjoying the evening watching a show in a venue of his own design. It’s hard to imagine that a civilized scene would turn deadly halfway through the performance… A man approached the famed architect, took out a gun and unloaded it directly into White’s face, proclaiming “I did it because he ruined my wife!”. There was blood, screams, and gasps from the public, and general confusion. The assassin was escorted out by the police.

Evelyn Nesbit in 1901
Evelyn Nesbit in 1901

The “ruined wife” was none other than the rarest beauty, the “it” girl of the turn-of-the-century, the first American supermodel – Evelyn Nesbit. Her beauty was discovered by photographers and artists when she was a young teenager back in Pittsburgh; in fact, her modeling was her family’s meal ticket. The opportunity for more work brought young Evelyn, along with her mother and brother, to New York City. Her beauty captured many artists – she posed for endless works of art, and her face appeared all over newspapers, magazines, advertisements, on souvenir items, chocolates, and perfumes. She even became the inspiration of Charles Dana Gibson, one of the most popular artists of the time and became the face of the “Gibson Girl” – the absolute ideal of feminine beauty of the time.

Gibson Girl, 1903
Gibson Girl, 1903 By Charles Dana Gibson

Before long, Evelyn became a celebrity and found herself on the Broadway stage as a chorus girl in the most successful show – “Floradora”. It was a musical with a silly plot, but it made up for its shortcomings with catchy tunes and the most gorgeous performers. 16-year-old Ms. Nesbit, a model and a Broadway starlet, attracted much notice. Most importantly for this story, she invited attentions of a prominent, famous, and prosperous architect – Stanford White.

Madison Square Garden
Madison Square Garden designed by Stanford White – a postcard

Their courtship quickly turned into an affair which, sadly, started with a rape. Stanford White invited the young lady into his studio equipped with a seductive red velvet swing. There was a sumptuous meal, followed by copious amounts of champagne. The girl passed out and was taken advantage of. Regardless, they carried on an affair for about a year following the incident. They spent a lot of time together, alone (despite the fact the Stanford White was married) and at many social functions. White genuinely cared for the young lady and took care of her and her family financially from the time they met, generously paying for their lodgings, her and her brother’s education, trips, and medical needs.

Stanford White’s assassin was a very wealthy young man by the name of Harry Thaw. Like many “sporting men”, aka wealthy idle heirs of immense fortunes, he occupied himself with entertainment mostly. Harry Thaw had a terrible reputation of a psychopath and allegedly engaged in a sadistic pastime which involved luring young ladies into a rented apartment and whipping them. Stanford White, respected in high social circles, was apparently instrumental in blocking Harry’s acceptance to certain clubs which caused quite a bit of animosity between the two men. Harry Thaw became obsessed with Evelyn’s beauty and decided that he had to have her. He persuaded her relentlessly, showering her with gifts and taking her on elaborate European holidays. Despite White’s warnings against the wealthy suitor, Evelyn married Harry Thaw. His family was adamantly against one of their own marrying an actress while the rest of them were wedded to blue bloods and big money. Thaw’s mother agreed to the marriage on the condition that her future daughter-in-law would give up theatre and modeling, and that her past life be forever forgotten.

Predictably, the marriage turned into a miserable affair. Thaw was psychotic and a sadist. With the idea in mind that a trip to Europe could save their unhappy marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Thaw traveled to New York in order to board a ship headed for Europe and attempt to lighten their marital discord. While getting ready, the couple, accompanied by friends, decided to spend an evening on the town, aka dinner and a show. They picked the hot, new thing in town: the premiere of “Mam’zelle Champagne!” What was supposed to be a light evening of entertainment ended with a murder.

Trial of the Century
Front page, New York American, June 26th, 1906.

It is now that the story gets unbelievable. Harry Thaw got arrested, but in his mind, he had done no wrong as he was protecting the honor of this bride. However, he committed a murder which is punishable by death. To save the life of her precious ill-behaved boy, Mama Thaw hired the best lawyers in town. The legal team understood that their best chance was tarnishing Stanford White’s reputation as a rapist while proving to the courts that the defendant experienced temporary insanity routed in jealousy. Evelyn was instructed to reveal all the colorful details of the rape in order to turn public opinion against White. She testified and the story became the major juicy gossip all over town. It was in every newspaper, portraying Evelyn as an innocent victim, White as social piraya and Thaw as a romantic hero chivalrously defending innocent womanhood.

Evelyn Nesbit by Sarony Studio
Evelyn Nesbit by Sarony Studio, 1901

The subsequent trial gripped New York as it became known as “the Trial of the Century.” The process (two trials) lasted for almost two years. Thaw was found insane and, to his surprise, was committed to the state institution for the criminally insane. All this time Mary Thaw, the devoted mama, kept paying money to ensure his release.

During the legal proceedings, it was revealed that Harry Thaw was a sadist and an abuser. Evelyn was forced to testify to that effect, which caused Thaw’s family to ask her for marriage annulment in exchange for a considerable sum of money. She happily agreed, got divorced but… never got any money.

Hollywood made a couple of movies featuring the story of Evelyn Nesbit, where the story ended with the murder. It’s very surprising to me that the rest of the tale never was made into any movie. Harry Thaw, after five years in the institution without the possibility of being released, ran away. The escape involved gangsters, car chases, being recognized on the train, switching vehicles, illegally crossing the Canadian border and being caught by Canadian authorities. After being detained in Canada and extradited to the US, he escaped again(!) and hid in New Hampshire. It took two years to get him back to New York for another court hearing. While in Canada and New Hampshire, he was treated as a romantic hero, a lone warrior who took it upon himself to protect his lady’s honor. After the hearing, with the help of much money from his mother, he was found sane and let go a free man.

However, this is not how the story ends! Thaw’s sadistic nature was exposed to the public in a bizarre incident. He met a 19-year-old boy, offered to pay for his education, invited him to come to New York, and lured him to his hotel room where he severely whipped him. The boy escaped, and his family decided to prosecute. The matter was hashed again with lots of money from a devoted mama and Thaw found himself in an insane asylum once more. Again, due to the wealth pumped into the system, he was released and lived a free man into his 70s.

After the divorce, Evelyn Nesbit, whose fame as a model turned to infamy as a woman in the center of the Trial of the Century, finally moved on with her life. She got remarried (unsuccessfully), had a child, and resumed her stage career as a cabaret singer, burlesque performer, briefly as a restaurant owner on West 54th Street in Manhattan, and finally as a star of the silver screen. Sadly, at some point in her life journey, she discovered drugs. Highly addictive morphine became her daily habit and ended her stage and modeling presence.

In the end, Evelyn’s greatest success in life was her son – a distinguished pilot. She moved out to California to live peacefully with his family and died at the age of 82.

The Girl in the Read Velvet Swing
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing based on Evelyn Nesbit story

In her advanced age, she wrote a memoir where she retold the tale of her romance with Stanford White, her marriage, and the trial. The romanticized version of the liaison between the young starlet and the famed architect was made into a Hollywood movie ‘The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing’. Evelyn Nesbit herself served as an adviser for the movie where she was played by the young Joan Collins.

1884 – Evelyn Nesbit is born
1900 – Evelyn Nesbit moves to New York with her mother and younger brother
1901 – Evelyn Nesbit becomes a member of the chorus line in Broadway show “Florodora” and meets Stanford White
1905 – Evelyn Nesbit marries Harry Thaw
1906 – Stanford White is murdered by Harry Thaw
1908 – Harry Thaw is found insane and sent away to a mental institution for the criminally insane
1910 – Evelyn Nesbit has a son whose paternity is disputed
1913 – Harry Thaw escapes from the insane asylum
1915 – Upon his capture and return, he is found sane and is set free. Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit divorce
1916 – Harry Thaw is committed again for kidnapping, sexual assault, and beating a nineteen-year-old boy
1924 – Harry Thaw is declared sane and released again
1925 – Madison Square Garden is torn down
1967 – Evelyn Nesbit dies in California at the age of 82

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