Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Extraordinary Murder of Stanford White

Imagine that you are part of High Society in New York at the turn of the 20th century.  You are relaxing with your friends, the drinks are flowing and you are all enjoying the premiere of a new musical show called ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ being staged at the fashionable Madison Square Roof Garden when all of a sudden a smartly dressed man in an unseasonably heavy overcoat walks up to a table and shoots another man in the face three times at point blank range.  At first you and your friends laugh as you think that it is just another of the famous practical jokes that are so in vogue at that time, but then people start screaming and you see the blood – you have just witnessed the extraordinary murder of Stanford White.

So what led to this cold-blooded killing in a social venue thronged with potential witnesses?  As with so many acts of violence it was born out of one unbalanced man’s rage and jealousy, as he failed to come to terms with the fact that the woman he wanted had, initially, been with someone else.  This man was a millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, who had been born in 1871, the son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw.  Harry Thaw, according to his own mother, had been trouble since the day he was born and even all of his father’s immense fortune and social clout could prevent him from being expelled from several elite private schools.

He went to the University of Pittsburgh to do a law degree, and used his father’s money and contacts to get a transfer to Harvard.  He spent much of his time in College drinking, taking drugs, gambling and chasing women.  He was eventually sent down after an incident where he pursued a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun, although Thaw claimed it was not loaded at the time.

He moved on to mingle with the rich and famous of New York society, where he carried on his dissolute ways and spent much of his time watching Broadway shows and trying to ingratiate himself with the chorus girls.  It was here in New York that he became aware of a much older man called Stanford White who was a great socialite, very sophisticated and very popular with the ladies. Stanford White’s popularity and prowess with the fairer sex drove Thaw to a frenzy of jealousy and paranoia. This was allegedly triggered by an incident when Thaw was desperately trying to impress a trio of chorus girls without success and White, who just happened to be present, made some denigrating remarks about Thaw to the girls. When all of the chorus girls turned Thaw down, he became convinced that it was the fault of Stanford White and from that day on his jealous obsession was born.

Evelyn Nesbit

So who was Stanford White?  He was an older, sophisticated man about town in his late forties.  He was born in 1853 and was a well known architect in New York who designed palatial homes for the wealthy and grand public buildings. Ironically he had been the architect who drew up the plans for the Madison Square Roof Garden where he would be murdered fifteen years later.  Despite his age, White was a great success with women and was rumoured to have several apartments where he would entertain chorus girls and actresses. One of these apartments on West Twenty Fourth Street was especially notorious, as it was where Stanford White had installed a red velvet swing, so that he could enjoy watching scantily clad young girls disporting themselves.

In 1901 Stanford White stated paying court to one very beautiful and very young chorus girl – she was sixteen and he was forty seven – called Evelyn Nesbit.  Evelyn Nesbit had been born in Pittsburgh in 1884, but her father died young leaving his widow to struggle to bring up their two children.  As Evelyn was a very beautiful girl, she started working as an artist’s model at a very young age.  Her mother moved the family to New York and Evelyn started modelling for some very famous artists and was also one of the first popular photographic models, and was a favourite model of Charles Dana Gibson.  She also started working in the shows and when she was sixteen was dancing as a gypsy in the chorus of Florodora. This is where Harry Thaw spotted her and, mainly because he knew that she was connected romantically to Stanford White, became infatuated with her.  He was determined to lure her away from White and pursued her ardently.

Stanford White tried to warn Evelyn about Harry Thaw and for a while she stayed out of his way, but then she was sent to hospital with suspected appendicitis and Thaw started to visit her, showering her with gifts and bouquets of flowers.  White arranged for Evelyn to convalesce in a sanatorium in upstate New York and for a time both men visited her there, but White lost interest, leaving the field open for Harry Thaw. He whisked both her and her mother away to Paris on her release and lavished money and designer clothes on her.  Certain of success he proposed to Evelyn.  She refused him, but he wouldn’t give up and eventually she admitted that she didn’t feel she could become his wife as Stanford White had taken her virginity, after drugging her with champagne. Eventually he persuaded her mother to return to New York and took Evelyn to a castle in a remote region of Germany where he repeatedly beat her and forced himself on her to try and get her to accept his offer of marriage.

Despite this bad treatment, Evelyn did not part from Thaw and eventually she persuaded him to let her return to New York.  For several years Thaw continued his pursuit of Evelyn’s hand, but it wasn’t until Thaw’s mother turned up on her doorstep begging Evelyn to marry her son and get him to settle down a bit that she gave in and went to Pittsburgh to marry him. Fairly predictably, once Evelyn Nesbit was his, Thaw lost interest in her and continued his drinking, womanising and drug taking ways.  He would regularly take long trips abroad on his own and would disappear for days on end.

Fatefully, in the spring of 1906 the couple decided to take a trip together to New York and then on to Europe.  While they were out socialising in New York, Thaw encountered Stanford White in the Cafe Martin and found out that they would all be attending the premiere of the new show ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ that evening.  Thaw immediately hustled his wife back to their hotel, and disappeared, returning only in time to escort Evelyn to the show.  Although it was a hot summer night, he also insisted on wearing a heavy, black overcoat, and would not hand it over to the hat check girl however many times she asked him for it.  He was seen acting suspiciously during the show, often seeming to approach Stanford White’s table and then backing away, and it wasn’t until the final provocative number ‘I Could Love a Million Girls’ that he did march up to Stanford White and shoot him in the face, killing him instantly. Thaw then coolly walked through the crowd and out of the room, meeting Evelyn who was waiting for him by the elevator and informing her that he had probably just saved her life.

The ensuing trial of Harry Thaw in 1907 became a media sensation and became known as the ‘Trial of the Century’. Harry Thaw had pled insanity and the jury was deadlocked over their verdict.  Evelyn Nesbit had refused to testify at this trial, but as the retrial was being prepared for Thaw’s mother asked her to testify and say that son had only being trying to protect her from Stanford White’s unwanted advances.  If she agreed Harry Thaw would give her a divorce and $1 million.  Evelyn testified, and though she got her divorce, she never saw the money.  Harry Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was placed in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was not restrained there in any way and in 1913 he just decided to leave and crossed the border into Canada.  He was extradited back to the United States, where a court deemed him to be sane and he was released in 1915.

Harry Thaw would go on to live until the age of 76, although he had to undergo another period of incarceration for insanity as he attempted to slit his own throat after being accused of sexually assaulting and horsewhipping a young student called Fred Gump Jr whom he had brought to New York. Evelyn Nesbit’s career after the trial did not mirror her earlier success, and she also made several suicide attempts as she had become an alcoholic and dependent on morphine.  She, however, overcame these addictions and during her life she wrote two memoirs and lived to the grand old age of 82.

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