Sex, Murder and Madness: Lessons From a Gilded Age Trial

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evelyn nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw

Evelyn Nesbit may have been America’s first celebrity model. In the early years of the 20th century, the 16-year-old was courted by companies hoping to market her beauty and by some of the country’s richest men hoping to win her favors.

But a murder trial turned her into a notorious footnote of U.S. legal history.

On June 25, 1906, her then-husband, railroad heir Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered New York architect Stanford White, in what his lawyers argued was a fit of insanity to avenge White’s alleged rape of Nesbit a few years earlier. Quickly dubbed by New York media “the trial of the century” (arguably, the first time the phrase was ever used), it has fueled multiple books and even a movie. But the debate over the facts of the case—and Nesbit’s role in the trial continues to this day.

The newest book in the genre is “The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century.” In a conversation with The Crime Report, author Simon Baatz, a professor of history at John Jay College, argues that the trial offers some intriguing modern lessons about the role of money in sensational criminal cases, the use of the insanity defense, and the politics of prosecuting rape.

This is an abridged and slightly edited version of the conversation.

The Crime Report: Unlike many non-fiction books, yours reads like a literary piece of work. What did you rely on in your research to be able to write so intimately about what the characters were feeling?

Simon Baatz: Evelyn Nesbit was the main witness in the first trial. There were 14 daily newspapers in New York at the time, and I went through probably about eight of them. It was page after page after page in all of the newspapers, and they printed all of the testimony verbatim. After the trial, her autobiography Prodigal Days: The Untold Story of Evelyn Nesbit goes into all the detail again and says what she was thinking and feeling. Nothing is imagined. Evelyn was also paid $30,000 to be a consultant on the 1955 movie, Girl on the Red Velvet Swing. But as I said right at the end of the book, you never know what the truth is. You never know if that rape ever happened.

TCR: Throughout the trials, Nesbit’s rape is used to justify Thaw’s murder of Stanford White. It’s only in the Afterword that you mention it is impossible to verify the veracity of the rape.

Baatz: In her autobiography, she does not say the rape didn’t happen, but she presents the whole evening as a much more benign thing, that in fact she was unconscious, but White didn’t deliberately try. She testified under oath at two trials that the rape had happened. But Thaw’s lawyers may have put pressure on her to testify that the rape happened and to lie. She was only 21 when the first trial happened. The lawyers were paid very high fees. They wanted to get [Thaw] off the electric chair—there was a real possibility that he could have ended up on the electric chair. So you have no idea where the truth lies.

TCR: There is a precedent of women having the veracity of their sexual accusations questioned, so why in Evelyn’s case would she be lying about the assault unless her rape was a tool that Harry Thaw was using to justify Stanford White’s murder?

Baatz: But that’s the way he did use it. Everything that comes out of the trial is to appeal to the jury, is to say this was a terrible thing that happened to his wife. She was raped, she was drugged, and therefore the jury would acquit him out of sympathy. And the thing that I found very curious and interesting was that this defense, although there is no law anywhere that says, yes, a husband can kill a man who assaulted his wife, on many, many occasions, especially in the southern states, a husband would kill the man who was having an affair with his wife over adultery, and the jury would decide a verdict of not guilty, so this defense had been used many times before.

Simon Baatz

TCR: Like a form of vigilante justice?

Baatz: Yes, exactly, and the jury would disregard the fact that a murder had actually happened and would vote not guilty. So they were hoping to use this defense again in this case. But I tried to avoid being very explicit on doubting her word. It was very delicate for me. I don’t want to say Evelyn Nesbit is lying. What I said is she may have perjured herself because of the attorneys. All those men may have put pressure on her to do that. You know, she had no education, no profession, nothing on which she could fall back on.

There was no social security, there was nothing that we now take for granted in terms of safety net. She was on her own, so she was in a very powerless position, and those attorneys and her husband could have cut her off without a penny if she hadn’t testified the way they wanted her to testify.

Stanford White

Stanford White via Wikipedia

TCR: Let’s discuss Stanford White’s role in Evelyn Nesbit’s life when she first moves to New York from Philadelphia. He finances the family’s lifestyle. How is it that Evelyn’s mother Florence accepts his money without ever questioning his motives?

Baatz: It’s probably difficult for us to put ourselves into the situation that Evelyn’s mother was in. That she also had no way to make a living. There was literally no safety net. Her daughter has found some means of employment, some income as a model, but that’s still kind of precarious because how long is that going to last? And suddenly White comes along, portrays himself as this kind of disinterested guardian and, under the circumstances, who is to judge Florence? Is Florence going to turn down White’s money when he seems to be just treating her like royalty? That’s part of the explanation.

Everyone said he was a very charming man, a very genial character, and she would have had no reason to believe otherwise. She would have had no evidence about the things that he did or didn’t do.

TCR: After her association with Stanford White, Evelyn ends up marrying Harry Thaw, heir to the Pittsburgh railroad fortune, who has a bit of a sinister reputation even before the murder. What do you make of her relationship with Harry?

Baatz: Why would you marry someone who might have come across at times as mentally unstable? A lot of people would recount that for instance if he was in a restaurant and something happened that displeased him, maybe a waiter didn’t bring his meal quickly, he would often just pull the cloth and all the dishes would fall smash onto the floor. You know, he would just trash a restaurant and then he would just give over however much money needed.

It’s difficult to explain unless you realize that she was someone who had no resources to fall back upon, and here was this seemingly nice man who was willing to have her as a wife, who was offering her security.

But Evelyn stood by her husband. It’s quite amazing that she was willing to go in public and testify on the aspects of her life that really reflected poorly on her. It was humiliating. The only way you can explain it is that she was very, very young.

TCR: There is a recurring theme in the book that Evelyn didn’t have to testify in Harry Thaw’s trials. You write that “the tragedy of Evelyn’s life” was that there had been no necessity for her testify, or to give up her privacy and reputation in the process.

Evelyn Nesbit testifying at trial via Flickr

Baatz: The first trial is in 1907 and she testifies then. She is the principle witness. In the second trial in 1908, she repeats exactly the same story. By then he’s in a mental asylum [where he was confined after a verdict that found him not guilty by reason of insanity], and he wants her to move to the village of Fishkill, NY, to be near him in the asylum. She doesn’t want to do that. She stays in Manhattan and there are reports of her being seen in restaurants with men. He’s sitting in the asylum reading the newspaper accounts and he gradually begins to stir himself up into this frenzy of jealousy and very quickly after he is in the asylum they basically separate and have nothing to do with each other.

And I think that causes her to think: Should I then be testifying on his behalf in the future? What am I getting out of it? And the answer is, I am getting nothing out of it. And then he stops making the payments on the house on Park Avenue. She has to move into a small studio, and eventually she becomes a witness for the state when he’s in the asylum.

He goes through all these appeals afterwards. What I left out of the book is that there are all these other lawsuits. So for example, he would go through all these lawyers and fire them as soon as the case was over and hire a new set of lawyers. But the family was very slow in paying the lawyers. So the lawyers took the family to court for payment, and when those lawsuits were heard, details came out that revealed that the lawyers in previous trials had perjured themselves over bribed witnesses, so the district attorney would then go after those lawyers and prosecute those lawyers.

TCR: The trial raises issues that are relevant today. People with means can hire lawyers who will build a strong defense case for their clients. Someone who can’t afford a lawyer doesn’t have the same advantages. That was one of the questions I had as a reader: was Harry Thaw acting rationally and with intent when he killed Stanford White?

Baatz: On one side you could say, yeah he was acting rationally because here is this man walking around. Suppose Harvey Weinstein got away with no punishment? A lot of people would find that outrageous, and in fact a lot of people have found it outrageous that for many, many years he’s been doing all these things and there’s been absolutely no consequences whatsoever. In fact, the consequences are whether he becomes more and more famous, more and more Oscars. So a lot of people would be very upset and angry about that; but we have some reasonable thought that Weinstein is going to be prosecuted. That people like Kevin Spacey are probably going to be prosecuted, and therefore no one is taking the law into their own hands.

With White, he was not going to be prosecuted, he was walking around, this was five years after the rape had happened. White was a man about town, and I could understand that Harry Thaw would get upset to see this, and he’s in love with his wife. He treasures his wife. He wants the marriage to work out, and she’s telling him about this dreadful rape that happened, which was that she was drugged, she was lured to the building under false pretenses, she thought there was going to be a party. She was then drugged with the wine, she was unconscious. She wakes up naked next to this man who is three times her age, and there is blood on the sheets.

All the previous authors described this as a seduction but that word never appears in my book. There is nothing about this that is seducing because when you say seduction there is an implication of consensual behavior. If you’re 16, can anything really be consensual?

What really annoyed me no end was all these people calling it a seduction. How did it come about that people are calling this a seduction? And my best answer is that in the 1950s people started to rediscover McKim, Mead, and White, and rediscover Stanford White. By the 1920s all that architecture fell out of fashion, and in 1925 Madison Square Garden, which was a beautiful building, was torn down. Part of the reason why they described this as a seduction was because they are writing these books about Stanford White as the best architect in New York City’s history, and it would be really inconvenient to have him as a pedophile and as a rapist.

A lot of people actually claim that she was the person at fault. That she was responsible for all of this. It’s so false. He is 47, she is 16. She has no knowledge of society. How could she be responsible? It’s just absurd.

TCR:  Evelyn’s story is very much tied to America’s Gilded Age, with wealthy industrialist families such as the Thaws and the Carnegies exerting great influence on American society and culture. Please put that in the context of the transformation New York was undergoing at the time.

Baatz: New York City is changing enormously in these years. From about 1880 onward, huge numbers of immigrants are coming in from Southern Europe and Eastern Europe. I think, though, there is very little contact, almost zero contact, between what’s going on on the Lower East Side with the immigrants coming in, Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, there is almost no contact between that world and the world of Stanford White, which is separate uptown.

The only contact probably would have been prostitutes from the immigrant neighborhoods who were coming uptown and working the streets around Madison Square and that part of town. But Stanford White himself probably never went down to the immigrant neighborhoods, and the only time Harry did was when he was in the police station in Mott Street, which is right in the heart of the Italian immigrant neighborhood, and I think the book reflects the reality that there was no contact between these worlds.

The other thing we have difficulty understanding is that people in those days didn’t really travel. They certainly didn’t travel outside New York City because it was too expensive to go anywhere. They certainly didn’t travel to Europe. Only the rich could do that.  I don’t think people even traveled much within New York City. If you were living down on what is now Canal Street, and your work is there, and your apartment is near Canal Street, there is little reason for you to be wanting to go uptown to Madison Square.

TCR: During Thaw’s trials, Anthony Comstock, who founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873, campaigned for decades against obscenity. And yet, Harry Thaw’s situation and subsequently lurid trials actually generated a lot of sympathy from the public. What was the criminal justice system like in early 20th century New York?

Baatz: The Society for the Suppression of Vice was a private organization and somehow Comstock got enormous influence, perhaps because it was seen as the only effective agency campaigning against pornography, against birth control. Congress can only deal with things that are across state lines. So the only influence they could have was to prevent anything being sent by mail across state lines, and within a state you would have to go to the state legislature to deal with it, so he was very successful in getting Congress to pass this law against transmitting obscene literature across state lines.

There is a wonderful book called Crimes Against Children by Stephen Robertson and there were a whole lot of articles written by historians within the last 15 years, about child abuse in this period, about pornography, about prostitution. In 1895 the New York State legislature passed a series of laws, including one that raised the age of consent from ten to 18. And they also vastly changed the laws on rape.

Before 1895, to prosecute someone on the charge of rape you had to have corroboration that it had occurred, which of course is close to impossible. [You had] to demonstrate that the woman had resisted, that she had fought back, and this would be evidence that this was presumably not consensual.

It’s quite a radical change. After 1895 just to have intercourse with someone younger than 18, by definition was illegal, was rape, and the penalty was a minimum of ten years in the penitentiary, plus a fine. So it’s very significant.

The other thing as you say is that whenever Harry Thaw appeared in public, huge crowds turn out for him, and the popular feeling was that Thaw should be released, he did nothing wrong, so the public attitude towards all of this is incredibly favorable.

TCR: Did Stanford White’s murder and Harry Thaw’s trials affect law enforcement at that time?

Baatz: I can’t say I know a great deal more about this because the other thing is that it’s not easy to find out information. Someone made the point: how much attention were the newspapers paying to a normal rape case when the people were not famous? And the answer is very little. If it appeared in the newspaper at all it would be two or three lines.

What’s different about this case is that it just took up pages and pages because of the celebrity of the people involved. You have Stanford White whom everybody knows, who is responsible for some of the most beautiful buildings in New York; you have this chorus girl and the fact that she is in the theater, anybody involved in the theater was by definition disreputable; and you have very, very wealthy people involved. It all made for a very sensational case.

evelyn nesbitt

Nesbit dodging photographers during trial. photo via Flickr

TCR: What role did newspapers play in the trials?

Baatz: Evelyn’s testimony was deliberately graphic, because the more graphic she made it, the worse it would portray Stanford White, and therefore the more justification Harry would have for killing him. I think what appeared in the daily newspapers was so unprecedented, for Americans to read about, and very shocking. To us it wouldn’t appear shocking at all.

It was also really the golden age of American newspapers.  Chicago in 1924 had six daily newspapers; New York City had 14 daily newspapers. There was no radio, no television, no internet. So the newspapers had enormous influence in what was reported and what was written about, and everybody bought a newspaper. these newspapers were tremendously influential, tremendously powerful, and very accessible. They played a role in shaping how people perceive these things.

TCR: If as you say the trials were printed in such a way to justify Thaw’s murder charges, the newspapers at the time didn’t demonstrate any journalistic objectivity. Why were the newspapers taking Thaw’s defense?

Baatz: Partly because Stanford White wasn’t around to defend himself. The other thing is that the Thaw family was very energetic in pushing their case. I didn’t mention it in the book but they financed a play that was playing in a theater in New York City. They financed at least one movie, a silent movie, which was probably one of the first movies ever produced, and they made this huge publicity campaign. I think there were also clues that they were actually paying some journalists to write articles for magazines that would be favorable to the Thaw family, and all of Stanford White’s friends kind of scattered.

TCR: No one came to White’s defense?

Baatz: Very few people came to his defense. His wife Bessie lived in Long Island, and she was obviously completely humiliated because she’d been living this upper-class life as a respectable society lady, and suddenly all this information about her husband’s secret life is coming out, so she’s really not going to be out there defending him.

TCR: In 1913, Harry Thaw manages to successfully escape from the asylum in Fishkill and flees to Canada, where he also experiences public support, but Canadian authorities still want him out of the country. Since he couldn’t be prosecuted for a crime he had committed in New York State, what grounds do they have to force him to return to the US?

Baatz: Canada had passed immigration legislation only a few years before. Thaw’s lawyers in Canada were going to claim that the legislation, which was going to be used against Harry Thaw was unconstitutional. The Canadian government knew that the Thaw family were willing to spend as much money as it took, and they were afraid that Thaw would then tie up their courts in Canada with appeal after appeal, which is what he’d done in New York. They don’t want that to happen, so they throw him back into the United States and in those days the border was not guarded, you could drive back and forth without it being questioned, so he’s back in New Hampshire, and New York wants to extradite him from New Hampshire.

But you can’t just say to New Hampshire we want so and so; you can only extradite someone on the basis that there is an indictment against that person. So first they have to indict Harry on some charge, and the charge they come up with is escaping from the asylum, conspiracy to escape, and then New Hampshire extradites him back to New York.

TCR: And then in 1915 the Supreme Court of New York takes on Harry Thaw’s case?

Baatz: Yeah, because the authorities in New Hampshire said we can’t really decide this because this seems to be an extradition request on a whim. How can New York State claim that Thaw is conspiring when he was insane? An insane person can’t conspire, an insane person can’t be part of the conspiracy, so they get him back to New York, but they get him back on the basis of an indictment against him for conspiracy.

Well, New York State can’t just drop that indictment and pretend it never existed, and throw him into the asylum. They now have to put him on trial on the basis of the indictment, which was an indictment for conspiracy, so now he goes on trial. The judge allows the jury to hear the case, and the jury, because popular support is so strong, then declares that he is sane and not guilty of the conspiracy, and then he is released. He is a free person.

TCR: The book focuses on Evelyn Nesbit’s entanglements with the men at the center of the case, but her own life as an actress post-trials merits attention.

Baatz: At the end of her life, she was quoted as saying “The lucky person was Stanford White,” and she gave the impression that old age was very lonely and sad, but I don’t really think that was true. She got to move to California to be with her son who was supporting her; she had three grandchildren, she was in a pottery studio.

But her life immediately after the murder was a little bit up and down because she married again, she was in vaudeville, she becomes addicted to morphine and to cocaine, and she has her son; and then in the 1920s and 1930s she had to make a living singing in the cabarets in New York and Atlantic City, but then her son is her savior and he supports her.

TCR: Do you consider your book a sort of redemption of Evelyn Nesbit?

Baatz: She is a very young, 16 years old when all of this happens, very naive, what experience does she have? She’s never been to college, she’s had no high school education to speak of. She’s come to the big city, she’s caught in between these two men, one is 47, one is 31. I felt that nobody in previous accounts respected her as a person.

I think my editor was a little bit frustrated that there was too much Harry Thaw and not enough Evelyn Nesbit, but the problem with that is that once this murder case happened and the trials were over, there was very little information about her. But I think my book redeems her.

Julia Pagnamenta is a TCR news intern. She welcomes comments from readers.

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