The history of a crime of passion that revealed the sordid underside of the Gilded Age.
In 1906, millionaire Harry Thaw strode up to Stanford White (b. 1853), who was seated at a theater production in Madison Square Garden, and shot and killed him. Thaw claimed he was avenging the rape of his wife, actress Evelyn Nesbit, which had occurred in 1901, when Nesbit was a 16-year-old chorus girl. The shocking murder and the titillating details disclosed by Thaw’s two trials have been chronicled many times by historians as well as by the two protagonists in their gossipy memoirs. Baatz (History/John Jay Coll., CUNY; For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder that Shocked Chicago, 2008, etc.) takes a fresh—though groundbreaking—look at the scandal, drawing mostly on newspaper reports to create a fast-paced narrative. At the time of his murder, White was one of the most esteemed architects in New York, the designer, in fact, of Madison Square Garden. Although married, he was known for his liaisons with pretty young actresses and models, upon whom he bestowed pricey gifts. Anthony Comstock, in his campaign to suppress vice, claimed that White, along with other wealthy men, participated in orgies with young, vulnerable girls. Baatz questions just how vulnerable Nesbit was: even after the alleged rape, she benefited from White’s largesse. Thaw was astonishingly wealthy, too, and Nesbit overlooked his often strange behavior to marry him. During a European trip, Nesbit apparently—the author questions the veracity of some testimony—confided details of the rape, which incensed Thaw. Apparently, his anger fomented for years before the killing. Baatz recounts Thaw’s trials and testimony, including evidence of Thaw’s violent treatment of women. Finally, Thaw was deemed insane and incarcerated in a mental asylum. By the time he escaped, he “had achieved an almost mythic status as the heroic individual who had succeeded against the odds and had emerged victorious.” Nesbit, who continued to perform on stage and film, overcame drug addiction to live a quiet life.
An entertaining recital of a notorious scandal.