Murder on the Roof – Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and the Trial of the Century

As much as people hate to admit it, everyone loves a good scandal. The more sensational the story and the more depraved the players, the better. What comprises a “scandal” these days is little more than an idiot NY congressman sending pictures of his dick over Twitter. But “old school” scandals are much more salacious in comparison. There must have been something in the air during the Gilded Age because those folks found themselves embroiled in some seriously sordid business.

Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas Day, 1884 in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Her father, Winfield Scott Nesbit, was a moderately successful lawyer who, upon his death, left his family in a severe financial crisis, without savings or assets of any kind. Young Evelyn, her mother, and her brother Howard, struggled with poverty and Mrs. Nesbit tried to make ends meet by selling off furniture, taking in boarders, and working as a laundress. Bills piled up, debt mounted, and the fatherless family often went without food. They moved from place to place.

But the Nesbits’ fortune began to change as Evelyn grew into her early teens and something became overwhelmingly clear – she was beautiful. Her flawless skin, delicate features, and luxurious light brown hair took peoples’ breath away. Evelyn’s enchanting beauty would be the Nesbit family’s ticket out of poverty. And into trouble.

Evelyn Nesbit:

At the suggestion of a family friend, Evelyn Nesbit began posing for artists in the Philadelphia area. One referral led to another and another, and the family eventually moved to New York so Evelyn could pursue more modeling opportunities. Soon Evelyn’s image was appearing in paintings, drawings, and magazine illustrations. She was very much in demand.

Careerwise, Evelyn is perhaps best known as the epitome of the “Gibson Girl”, the creation of the popular American artist Charles Dana Gibson whose illustrations appeared in all the major publications of the day. Evelyn’s modeling résumé also included posing for artists James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick Church, and photographer Rudolf Eikemeyer.

Evelyn Nesbit by Rudolf Eikemeyer:

But it was Evelyn’s part as a chorus girl in the stage musical “Florodora” which brought her the attention of rich, powerful, predatory men, specifically New York City’s most preeminent, highly influential architect – the one and only Stanford White.

You could say that Stanford White WAS New York architecture. Through his vision, ambition, and design talents, White and his firm McKim, Mead, and White, were responsible for so many of the city’s structures it’s almost impossible to list them all: private mansions along Fifth Avenue, the iconic arch at Washington Square Park, the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Club, Columbia University, the Manhattan Municipal Building, and the Brooklyn Museum just to name a few. And that’s only New York.

Stanford White moved in the most elite, monied circles of New York society. He hobnobbed with the Astors and the Vanderbilts. He was, both professionally and socially, a player. Make no mistake about it. This was a very, very prominent man.

This was also a married man with children. A man who led the proverbial double life. He kept an apartment on West 24th Street for recreational activities. In this lavish apartment, decorated with antiques, tapestries, paintings, gilded mirrors, and plush furniture, White had also installed a red velvet swing for erotic fun. He entertained young ladies, usually showgirls, and threw parties for his friends. White made arrangements to meet Evelyn Nesbit, the fresh-faced 16 year old beauty he spotted in the chorus.

Being the rich entitled man that he was, who could have whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it, White of course got Evelyn up to his apartment along with her friend from the show. And like all his young, naive conquests, Evelyn agreed to hop into the swing and have a playful time. She was not worldly enough to know that she was indulging a middle-aged man’s sexual fetish. During a later visit, this time unchaperoned, White treated Evelyn to a nice meal and gave her champagne. A lot of champagne. More champagne than a young girl can handle. He then had her put on a yellow silk kimono. And then, 16 year-old Evelyn became groggy and passed out. She woke up hours later feeling she had been violated. Sadly, it was her first time. White made Evelyn promise not to tell anyone, including her mother. She obeyed.

So a 47  year old married man with children took sleazy advantage of an unconscious sixteen year old girl. This is undisputed. Nice move, Stanford 👿 And things would only get worse.

White continued to see Evelyn as a mistress. Evelyn’s mother, who appreciated White’s generous financial assistance to the family, approved of the arrangement. Besides, Evelyn claimed to be fond of Stanford White despite the incident and felt some degree of affection for him, probably as a father figure. She took to calling him “Stanny”. During this time, other men expressed interest in Evelyn. The actor John Barrymore was one. Another was a man named Harry Thaw.

Harry Kendall Thaw was a complete jerk and lowlife. He was the delinquent. deadbeat son of a wealthy Pittsburgh family. A spoiled brat heir to a multi-million dollar mining and railroad fortune. He was a sicko, a sadist, and a braggart with a miserable attitude who was prone to belligerent outbursts, such as physically assaulting people and overturning tables in restaurants. He never held a job. He was a morphine and cocaine addict. He was expelled from Harvard for a violent incident with a shotgun. When he lived in New York he falsely claimed to be a theater producer and lured young girls, who had dreams of careers on Broadway, back to his apartment where he tied them up, abused them, raped them, and beat them with whips. So basically, Thaw was a piece of shit.

Evelyn Nesbit actually married this dirtbag – very reluctantly – under intense pressure from Thaw’s mother. She convinced Evelyn that settling down in marriage would change her son for the better and straighten out his wild ways. Evelyn also reasoned that since Stanford White’s interest in her was waning and seemed to have no more use for her, few other men would either. Except for Shaw who was completely obsessed with her. He pursued her aggressively and refused to leave her alone. After rejecting his marriage proposals several times and suffering his physical abuse, Evelyn, with no one looking out for her best interests and well-being, married the monster Thaw in 1905. She was 21 years old.

Evelyn Nesbit circa 1901:

Bad blood existed between Harry Thaw and Stanford White even before Evelyn came into the picture. The two men simply despised each other, but Thaw’s hate for White was more extreme and paranoid. He was convinced that the respected architect was badmouthing him around town, using his considerable influence to bar Thaw from all the elite clubs and keep him relegated to the fringes of New York’s high society.

Thaw had also heard the rumors about White and Evelyn, but he wanted her to confirm them. Obsessed, Thaw harassed Evelyn relentlessly to tell him every detail about what happened. Even though Evelyn said she didn’t want to talk about it, she broke under the pressure and finally admitted to Thaw that Stanford White had in fact taken her virginity. Thaw seethed with rage and plotted revenge against Stanford White, the man who had “ruined” his wife.

On the night of June 25th, 1906, Harry Thaw brought Evelyn to attend a musical production on the rooftop theater of the old Madison Square Garden, a building designed by who else but the architecture firm of McKim, Mead, and White. It was a glamorous, glittery night of affluent well-dressed patrons clinking champagne glasses and having a grand old time. Stanford White sat at a front table while Harry Thaw and Evelyn sat toward the back. Thaw wore a long black overcoat that the coatroom girl attempted to check for him several times, but Thaw refused to give it up.

Then, as a performer broke into the song “If I Could Love a Million Girls”, Harry Thaw made his way through the audience toward Stanford White. He pulled a gun out of his coat and shot White three times at point blank range, in the face. At first, the clueless crowd thought it was either a practical joke or part of the performance. But once everyone got a glimpse of Stanford White’s bloody body slumped on the floor near his table, screams and panic ensued. The theater manager pleaded for calm. The tablecloth that had been hastily placed over Stanford White’s dead body had already, within minutes, been soaked through with blood. It was pandemonium. Chorus girls were terrified, musicians were confused, waiters were flustered, and the beau monde of New York’s high society fled for the exits.

Like the OJ Simpson trial of 1995, the Thaw-White murder trial was a sensationalistic media circus. It was actually worse in terms of scandalousness. The mukraking press was all over it and newspapers, many owned by scandal-monger William Randolph Hearst, exposed all the dirty laundry and ugly secrets. Everything came spilling out, every salacious detail, mainly those of Stanford White’s seductions of young girls. It was blaring headlines, witnesses testifying, tales of debauchery and underage chorus girls, self-indulgent rich men, sex, jealousy, insanity, champagne, and red velvet swings. One New York paper editorialized that “the flash of that pistol lighted up the depths of degradation, an abyss of moral turpitude” brought on by “powerful, reckless, openly-flaunted wealth”. Although Harry Thaw was the defendant in the case, Stanford White’s character was also on trial. He was painted as a lecherous middle aged man whose life of decadence finally caught up with him. And his reputation was tarnished forever. In the meantime, the ever-deluded  Harry Thaw was confident he would be acquitted and hailed as a husband who did what he did to defend his wife’s honor.

The first trial resulted in a hung jury. Shaw was retried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to eight years in an asylum for the criminally insane in Fishkill, NY. Thaw was released in 1913, granted a divorce from Evelyn, and within a year had committed another violent crime; the kidnapping and beating of a 19 year old man named Fred Gump. Terrified of facing new criminal charges, Thaw attempted to slash his own throat while hiding in a boarding house in Philadelphia. He was once again confined to an asylum for another seven years. The charges were eventually dropped.

In 1947, Harry Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami, Florida. He was 76 years old. Of his estimated $1 million fortune, he left a mere $10,00 to Evelyn Nesbit in his will.

After the second trial Evelyn tried to get on with her life. In 1910 she gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw. Although she claimed that Harry was the father, the baby the result of a conjugal visit during Thaw’s confinement, Thaw denied it. Evelyn worked as a vaudeville perfomer and appeared in some silent films. She married Jack Clifford in 1916 but he abandoned her two years later. Evelyn struggled with alcoholism and depression, and made several suicide attempts. But she made it through those dark periods. She wrote a memoir and served as a technical adviser on the 1955 film “The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing”, a fictionalized account of her life. Joan Collins portrayed Evelyn Nesbit in the film. In 1981, Elizabeth McGovern portrayed Evelyn in the film “Ragtime”, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel. In her later years Evelyn found contentment teaching ceramics classes. In 1967 Evelyn Nesbit died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California. She was 82.

This is my favorite picture of Evelyn. It is more candid than her posed shots, and if you look at it closely you can almost see, in her eyes and radiant smile,  just the regular, very pretty, fun, free spirited, turn-of-the-century American girl that she was, before she was corrupted and betrayed by unscrupulous privileged men. Just a lovely portrait.

My dear readers, as much as I really enjoyed writing this blog post there is, believe it or not, still much more to the story! Lots of interesting details, anecdotes, transcripts, photographs. It is a very well-documented event, and the abundance of information made it more difficult to condense into a blog post. So I had to pick and choose what to include and consider length issues. Here are links to sources on the topic in case anyone is interested in reading more.

Stanford White Murder on TruTV Crime

Evelyn Nesbit – The Stories Behind the Stones

The Harry Thaw Trials

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing/Dead Men Do Tell Tales

Evelyn Nesbit

Stanford White Murder Trial with transcripts

The Girl, the Swing, and a Row House in Ruins/NY Times

McKim, Mead, and White New York Architecture

Bygone Fashion – Evelyn Nesbit – Gibson Girl Story

Book Review – “American Eve” -NY Times

16 thoughts on “Murder on the Roof – Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and the Trial of the Century

  1. Kimberly Adams says:

    This popped up in my email just as I was turning in for the night. I’d heard of White and the “Gibson Girl” but of course knew of no connection. Frustrating as always that a young woman got taken advantage of for her appearance and innocence; reminds me of an Ani DiFranco lyric, “You should pay me for my beauty, I think it’s only right. I have been paying for it all of my life.”

    • artmodel says:

      Kimberly, that’s a great lyric. I wasn’t familiar with it, so thanks for sharing.

      Loving your blog, by the way. Keep up the good work! 🙂

      Claudia

  2. eurobrat says:

    Thanks for the great story! The nineteenth century definitely had a dark and seedy underside…no less scandalous than our times.

    • artmodel says:

      eurobrat,

      You’re welcome, and thanks! Yes, many of the darkest, most scandalous episodes took place during that turn-of-the-century period. And a hundred years later nothing much has changed!

      Thanks for commenting.

      Claudia

  3. pengo says:

    I never heard about her final chapter. It is comforting to think of her teaching ceramics in California, I hope she was happy. It’s so at odds with her youth, like another planet.

    I love history, thank you for this lesson.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Good grief – that’s one hell of a story! Yes, the final portrait certainly shows Evelyn’s beauty. Glad to hear that she survived to find some kind of contentment …

  5. Fred says:

    What a beauty, and what a story! Sometimes I think the sense of entitlement felt by the privileged is the root of all evil.

    I believe Evelyn Nesbit was the model for Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Diana, which is one of the sculptures at the American Wing in the Met.

    • artmodel says:

      Fred,

      Yes, I’m pretty sure that Evelyn was the model for Diana. One of my favorite pieces at the Met. And the sense of entitlement you describe rarely leads to anything good, I agree.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  6. violinhunter says:

    You are right about old scandals – there were plenty back then. All one has to do is read the old big-town newspapers. Thank you for this post.

  7. Ana Barrocas says:

    Very good story! Thank you!

  8. Ken says:

    What Stanford White did to Evelyn is unforgivable. With her astonishing beauty there are so many things she might have accomplished. She was truly a very bright young girl with a beautiful voice and a love for playing classical piano. Unfortunately, these talents were never fully developed. Not enough can be said about that crazy Thaw and what his actions did to ruin Evelyn’s life.
    All, so vert tragic.

    • artmodel says:

      Ken,

      It is indeed a tragic, scandalous, disturbing story. Stanford White was an unethical man and Shaw was a lunatic. Both very destructive men. And I agree with you that Evelyn had the potential – in both her talents and her beauty – to live a fulfilling, creative life. Horrible shame.

      Thanks for commenting and bringing this post back to my attention!

      Claudia

  9. Mary S. says:

    Very interesting and sad! Thank you!

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