Harry Kendall Thaw
(February 12, 1871 - February 22, 1947), son of Pittsburgh coal
and railroad baron William Thaw, brother of South Fork Fishing
and Hunting Club member Benjamin Thaw. He is known for the
murder of architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden in
Violent and paranoid almost since birth (his
mother claimed his problems had started in the womb), Harry
spent his childhood bouncing from private school to private
school in Pittsburgh, never doing well and described by teachers
as unintelligible and a troublemaker. Still, as the son of
William Thaw, he was granted admission to the University of
Pittsburgh, where he was to read law, though he apparently did
little reading. After a few years he used his name and social
status to transfer to Harvard University.
Thaw later bragged that he had studied poker
at Harvard. He also went on long drinking binges, attended
cockfights, and spent much of his time romancing young women. He
was expelled after being picked up for chasing a cab driver
through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun — though he
claimed the shotgun had been unloaded.
After his expulsion, Thaw bounced around
between Pennsylvania and New York, shooting up with both
morphine and cocaine and frequenting Broadway shows, which he
described as "studying." In fact, Thaw made a habit of studying
chorus girls, and this hobby first brought him into contact with
noted architect Stanford White.
White, who had a similar hobby, had made some
disparaging remarks about Thaw to a group of chorus girls Thaw
was engaged in wooing, and Thaw blamed their subsequent snub on
White's influence. White soon became a focus of Thaw's
disjointed rage, and so when Thaw learned that White had begun
paying special attention to Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl from
the show Florodora, Thaw arranged to meet her at a party.
White warned Nesbit of Thaw, and Nesbit for a
while avoided him. But a bout of presumed appendicitis put
Nesbit in the hospital and provided Thaw with an opening. Harry
came in bearing gifts and praise, managing to impress both
Nesbit's mother and the headmistress at the boarding school she
attended. Later, under Stanford White's orders, she was moved to
a sanatorium in upstate New York, where both White and Thaw
visited often, though never at the same time.
White's attention soon waned, but Thaw
remained an ardent admirer of Nesbit, and after her release from
the sanatorium, Thaw invited her and her mother to visit Paris
with him. In Europe, Thaw spent vast sums of money on Evelyn and
her mother, and eventually proposed marriage to Evelyn, who
demurred. Thaw, however, was not to be swayed, and for several
weeks continued to press Evelyn for her hand.
Finally, under duress, Evelyn admitted to
Thaw that Stanford White had indeed taken her virginity, and she
claimed that she was unworthy to be Thaw's wife. This enraged
Thaw, but did not dissuade his desire for her hand in marriage.
He soon packed Mrs. Nesbit off to New York and took Evelyn to an
isolated German castle, where he forced himself on Evelyn and
beat her repeatedly with a dog whip. Perhaps out of fear, Evelyn
nonetheless stayed with Thaw, eventually convincing him to let
her return to New York.
Thaw remained enraptured with Evelyn, and
over the course of several years he managed to wear her down.
Then his mother arrived at Evelyn's doorstep and announced that
she wished for Evelyn to marry her son. Settling down, she said,
would help curb Harry's "eccentricities." Evelyn at last gave in
and returned to Pittsburgh to live with Harry and Mother Thaw.
Harry's obsession with her seemed to wane as soon as the two
were married, and Harry sometimes disappeared to Europe or
elsewhere for days at a time.
Thaw ultimately killed Stanford White. After
the first murder trial, Thaw moved back to Pittsburgh and
immediately divorced Evelyn. Evelyn had given birth during
Thaw's incarceration, and she claimed the child, Russell Thaw,
was Harry's. Harry vehemently denied this. Throughout his life
he continued to occasionally offer money to Evelyn, but it was
never much and she never outlived her reputation as Mrs. Harry
In the spring of 1906, Harry and Evelyn
decided to travel to Europe and New York. On June 25, while in
New York, Evelyn and Harry saw Stanford White while dining at
the Cafe Martin. After learning that White was to attend the
premiere of Mam'zelle Champagne, a show the Thaws were
also planning to attend, Harry took Evelyn back to their hotel
and disappeared, returning just in time to pick up Evelyn and
head to the show — curiously dressed in a black overcoat, though
it was a hot evening.
At the rooftop theatre of Madison Square
Garden, the hat check girl repeatedly tried to relieve Harry of
his heavy coat, but he refused. He wandered through the crowd
during the show, approaching White's table several times, only
to back away on each occasion. During the finale, "I Could Love
A Million Girls", Thaw fired three shots at close range into
Stanford White's face, killing him.
The crowd initially suspected the shooting
might be part of the show, as elaborate practical jokes were
popular in high society at the time. Soon, however, it became
apparent that Stanford White was dead. Thaw, holding the gun
aloft, walked through the crowd and met Evelyn at the elevator.
When she asked what he'd done, Thaw said that he had "probably
saved your life."
There were two trials. At the first, the jury
was deadlocked: at the second, pleading insanity, Evelyn
testified. Thaw's mother told Evelyn that if she would testify
that Stanford White abused her and that Harry only tried to
protect her, she'd receive a divorce from Harry Thaw and one
million dollars in compensation. She did just that, and
performed in court wonderfully: he was found not guilty by
reason of insanity. Evelyn got the divorce, but not the money.
Thaw was incarcerated at the Matteawan State
Hospital for the Criminally Insane, now known as Fishkill
Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York, enjoying nearly
complete freedom. In 1913 he walked out of the asylum and was
driven over the border to Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was extradited
back to the United States, where he had become something of a
folk hero. In 1915 another jury found him sane.
For his part, Thaw continued to live as he
had always lived. The year after his release, he was accused of
sexually assaulting and horsewhipping Fred B. Gump, Jr., a teen-aged
boy, and was adjudicated insane, and sent to an asylum where he
spent seven years, being released in 1924.
That year, he purchased a historic home known
as Kenilworth in Clearbrook, a farming community in Frederick
County, Virginia. While living at Kenilworth, Thaw ingratiated
himself with the locals, joined the Rouss Fire Company, and even
marched in a few local parades in his fireman's uniform. He was
regarded as an eccentric by the citizens of Clearbrook but does
not seem to have run into a great deal of additional legal
In the late '20s, Thaw went into the film
production business, based on Long Island. At first, he
attempted to make short comedies and stories about fake
spiritualists. In 1927, he contracted with John S. Lopez and
famed detective-story author, Arthur B. Reeve, for a batch of
scenarios continuing the fake spiritualism theme. This resulted
in a lawsuit when the scenarios weren't paid for; Thaw had
switched emphasis, attempting to film a story of his own life,
so claimed he owed nothing. The suit eventually resulted in a
$7000 judgment for Lopez in 1935.
In 1944 he sold the Kenilworth home and moved
to Florida. Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami in 1947 at the
age of 76, leaving $10,000—less than 1% of his fortune—to Evelyn
Nesbit in his will. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery,
Actor Jack Oakie recounted that in the
1930's, while doing a stage routine, he mentioned "Madison
Square Garden — where Harry Thaw murdered Stanford White".
According to Oakie, a man in the audience screamed and fainted —
reportedly it was Harry Thaw.
The Architect of Desire - Suzannah
Glamorous Sinners - Frederick L.
Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love
and Death in the Gilded Age - Michael Mooney
The Murder of Stanford White -
The Traitor - Harry K. Thaw
"The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" -
Charles Samuels - 1953
"The Story of my Life" - Evelyn Nesbit
Thaw - 1914
"Prodigal Days" - Evelyn Nesbit Thaw -
A fictionalised Thaw also appears in Jed
Rubenfeld's 2006 novel The Interpretation Of Murder
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
The 1975 historical fiction novel
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow was adapted into the two below
The film Ragtime.
The musical Ragtime.
"Dementia Americana" - A long narrative
poem by Keith Maillard (1994)
My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon
– play by Don Nigro
La fille coupée en deux – movie by
Claude Chabrol (2007)
Harry Thaw Trials: 1907-08
Defendant: Harry Kendall Thaw
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Delphin M. Delmas, John B. Gleason,
Clifford Hartridge, Hugh McPike, and George Peabody; Second trial: Martin W.
Littleton, Daniel O'Reilly, and Russell Peabody
Chief Prosecutor: William Travers Jerome
Judge: First trial: James Fitzgerald; Second trial: Victor J. Dowling
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trials: First trial: January 23—;April 12, 1907; Second trial:
January 6-February 1, 1908
Verdict: First trial: None, jury deadlocked; Second trial: Not guilty by
reason of insanity
SIGNIFICANCE: Harry Thaw married the
glamorous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, who had previously been the
mistress of the famous architect Stanford White. Thaw shot White
during a public performance in Madison Square Garden and was
subsequently tried for murder. Thaw's attorneys took the insanity
defense to murder to new extremes, successfully arguing that Thaw
suffered from "dementia Americana," a condition supposedly unique to
American men that caused Thaw to develop an uncontrollable desire to
kill White after he learned of White's previous affair with Nesbit.
Harry Thaw was born in 1872 into a family of wealthy
Pennsylvania industrialists. His father made a fortune estimated at $40 million
in the Pittsburgh coke business and had also invested heavily in the
Pennsylvania Railroad. Thaw's mother spoiled him as a youth and indulged him
throughout his life—with tragic consequences.
As a young man, Thaw went to Harvard University for his
higher education, but he was expelled because he spent all of his time playing
poker. Over his father's objections, Thaw's mother provided him with a
substantial allowance and paid off massive gambling debts that Thaw incurred
after moving to New York City. Thaw also had a taste for pleasures more decadent
than gambling, such as frequent visits to a whorehouse. Although Thaw had
several incidents with the police, his mother and his family's money always
secured his release.
Evelyn Nesbit Comes To New York
Evelyn Nesbit's background was much more modest than Thaw's
but became equally as sordid sexually. Nesbit's parents in Pittsburgh were poor
and could never provide for their daughter's education. Nesbit was beautiful,
however, and from an early age she also showed some skill as a singer and dancer.
Nesbit's family came to rely on the money she earned as a model and in the
theater. Within a short time, Nesbit's career soared and she became a "Floradora
girl," joining a prestigious all-girl chorus.
During a performance of the Floradora chorus, Nesbit
attracted the attention of architect Stanford White. White had made a fortune
designing the homes of New York's society set and had designed several famous
buildings, including Madison Square Garden. White kept a private suite of rooms
for himself in the Garden's tower. The apartment was decorated with oriental
furnishings, and featured a red velvet swing hung from the ceiling. White's
wealth enabled him to bring young showgirls to his apartment and have them use
the swing while he looked underneath their long dresses. Showered with gifts and
presents, Evelyn Nesbit soon became White's mistress, and their affair lasted
for three years. As Nesbit later testified at trial, White's behavior was not
limited to voyeurism; he ultimately got Nesbit intoxicated and raped her when
she passed out.
Nesbit left White early in 1905 for Harry Thaw, who like
White had seen Nesbit on stage and for some time had been pursuing her at every
opportunity. Whether out of love or a desire for another wealthy benefactor,
Nesbit married Thaw April 4, 1905. Thaw took Nesbit to Europe for their
honeymoon and reportedly began to whip and beat her. Thaw became obsessed with
Nesbit's previous relationship with White and forced her to repeat intimate
details of their affair. Thaw's obsession became a conviction that he had to
avenge Nesbit's disgrace and rid the world of a human monster.
On June 25, 1906, Thaw acted on his obsessions. At Madison
Square Garden, where the Thaws were attending the public performance of a new
musical, Thaw spotted White. With no thought in his mind but murder, Thaw
charged up to White's table and pulled out a pistol; he shot White several times
while hundreds of people at the musical watched in horror. Thaw made no attempt
to resist arrest, and he was promptly seized by policemen who rushed to the
Thaw Is Tried For Murder
Upon learning of his arrest, Thaw's mother rushed to his
defense. Publicly declaring that she would spend the family's $40-million
fortune to set Thaw free, she paid to have her son represented by one of the
most formidable lawyers of the age, Delphin Delmas. Delmas, an attorney short in
stature but tall in reputation before the California courts, was known as the "Napoleon
of the Western bar." Delmas brought four other attorneys with him to assist in
Thaw's defense when the trial opened January 23, 1907: John B. Gleason, Clifford
Hartridge, Hugh McPike, and George Peabody. Gleason would speak occasionally
during the trial, but Delmas conducted the bulk of Thaw's defense.
The prosecutor was William Travers Jerome, New York's
district attorney, who had once served as a judge and reportedly had ambitions
to become governor one day. Jerome knew that the Thaw trial would be closely
followed by the press and the public, for as the New York Times reported,
"the Thaw trial is being reported to the ends of the civilized globe" due to:
The eminence of the victim, the wealth of the prisoner, the
dramatic circumstance of the crime, and the light it sheds not only on
Broadway life, but on the doings of the fast set in every capital.…
Thaw and his mother not only wanted to save Thaw from the
electric chair, which was the penalty for murder, but prevent him from spending
the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Therefore, from the beginning of the
trial, Delmas conducted the defense with the aim of proving that Thaw was and
always had been sane except for that evening of June 25, 1906, when he
temporarily went insane and shot White. Delmas exploited Nesbit's beauty to
appeal to the jury's emotions. He called Evelyn Nesbit to the stand, and asked
her to describe the events of the night on which White raped her:
Mr. White asked me to come to see the back room and he went
through some curtains, and the back room was a bedroom, and I sat down at the
table, a tiny little table. There was a bottle of champagne, a small bottle
and one glass. Mr. White picked up the bottle and poured the glass full of
champagne.… Then he came to me and told me to finish my champagne, which I did,
and I don't know whether it was a minute after or two minutes after, but a
pounding began in my ears, then the whole room seemed to go around. Everything
got very flat.… Then, I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off of me, and I
was in bed. I sat up in the bed, and started to scream.
Prosecutor Jerome, who had produced a score of eyewitnesses
testifying that Thaw shot White at point-blank range, watched in frustration
while Delmas, in effect, put White's treatment of Nesbit on trial. Delmas then
introduced the defense's argument of temporary insanity by asking Nesbit about
Thaw's reaction upon learning of the rape incident. Delmas and Nesbit both
carefully avoided the subject of Thaw's penchant for sadistic sex:
He would get up and walk up and down the room a minute and
then come and sit down and say, "Oh, God! Oh, God!" and bite his nails like
that and keep sobbing.
Nesbit's acting experience complemented Delmas' legal ability:
the jury was masterfully presented with the picture of a young, pretty and
innocent girl relating the story of her outrage to her husband, who then flies
into a murderous fury. In his closing argument, Delmas hammered the argument
home to the jury:
And if Thaw is insane, it is with a species of insanity
known from the Canadian border to the Gulf. If you expert gentlemen ask me to
give it a name, I suggest that you label it Dementia Americana. It is that
species of insanity that inspires of every American to believe his home is
sacred. It is that species of insanity that persuades an American that whoever
violates the sanctity of his home or the purity of his wife or daughter has
forfeited the protection of the laws of this state or any other state.
Judge James Fitzgerald reminded the jury that they could only
find Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity if Thaw could not understand at the
time of the murder that his actions were wrong. Jerome urged the jury to resist
Delmas' appeal to their emotions:
Will you acquit a cold-blooded, deliberate, cowardly
murderer because his lying wife has a pretty girl's face?
On April 12, 1907, the jury reported to Judge Fitzgerald that
it could not reach a verdict and was deadlocked: seven jurors finding Thaw
guilty of first degree murder, five jurors finding Thaw not guilty by reason of
insanity. Judge Fitzgerald adjourned the court, pending a retrial of Thaw.
Thaw is Tried Again and Found Insane
Thaw's second trial began January 6, 1908. Although Jerome
was still the prosecutor, Thaw had a new team of defense lawyers: Martin W.
Littleton, Daniel O'Reilly, and Russell Peabody. Further, Judge Victor J.
Dowling had replaced Judge Fitzgerald. Essentially the same witnesses, including
Nesbit, testified as in the first trial. Neither Jerome nor the defense, however,
fought as hard as they did in the first trial over the issue of temporary
insanity. Perhaps both sides had decided that they would be content with a
verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, which would put Thaw in a mental
institution but prevent his execution. Accordingly, this time the jury on
February 1, 1908, after a trial of less than four weeks, found Thaw not guilty
by reason of insanity.
After the jury's verdict, Judge Dowling sent Thaw to the
Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Matteawan, New York. Thaw's trials had taken
the insanity defense to a murder charge to new heights, particularly with Delmas'
"dementia Americana" argument in the first trial. This defense stratagem had
first been used successfully to acquit Congressman Daniel Sickles of the murder
of his wife's lover back in 1859. Further, the sensationalism surrounding Nesbit
and her testimony eventually led to the famous movie, "The Girl in the Red
Thaw divorced Nesbit in 1915, and spent the rest of his life
in and out of insane asylums and the courts. He escaped from Matteawan and fled
to Canada, but he was soon extradited by Canadian authorities back to New York.
Briefly freed from the asylums by the battery of lawyers still retained by his
mother, Thaw was arrested in 1917 for kidnapping and whipping 19-year-old
Frederick Gump nearly to death. Mother Thaw arranged for her son to be sent to a
Pennsylvania insane asylum, where he stayed until 1924. After 1924, Thaw was
periodically in the news in connection with various wild parties or lawsuits by
showgirls alleging that Thaw had beaten and whipped them. Thaw died February 22,
1947, at the age of 76, having lived until his last days off his inheritance
from his mother.
—Stephen G. Christianson
Evelyn Nesbit : Gibson Girl story
By Charles Dana Gibson
Florence Evelyn Nesbit was born December 25, 1884 in Tarentum,
Pennsylvania, her family was left destitute when her father, a lawyer named
Winfield Scott Nesbit, died in 1893 leaving substantial debts. For years Evelyn,
her mother, and younger brother lived in near-poverty, but by the time she
reached adolescence her beauty came to the attention of several local artists,
including John Storm, and she was able to find employment as an artists' model.
In 1901, when Evelyn was sixteen (and by now the sole support
of her family), she and her mother moved to New York City where she posed for
painter Frederick Church and photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer. Charles Dana Gibson
reportedly used Evelyn as the inspiration for his illustrations of the "Gibson
As a Florodora chorus girl on Broadway, Nesbit caught the eye
of acclaimed architect -- and notorious womanizer -- Stanford White, then 47 to
her 16. The fact that he was married, and made a hobby "befriending" teenage
girls, was overlooked by Evelyn's mother, who encouraged White's patronage. In
his lavish tower apartment at Madison Square Garden (which he designed), he had
installed numerous strategically placed mirrors, as well as a soon-to-be
infamous red velvet swing from which he derived sexual pleasure by watching
countless young women -- including Evelyn -- cavort. (Evelyn would later be
sensationalized in the 1955 movie "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing".)
As White moved on to other, young women, Evelyn was courted
by the young John Barrymore. She turned down his marriage proposal, however, due
to her continued emotional involvement with White.
Stanford White and John Barrymore were subsequently
supplanted in Evelyn's life by Harry Kendall Thaw (1871-1947) of Pittsburgh, the
son of a coal and railroad baron. Thaw was extremely possessive of Nesbit (he
reportedly carried a pistol), and obsessive about the details of her
relationship with White (whom he referred to as "The Beast.") Evelyn finally
accepted one of Thaw's repeated marriage proposals and they were wed on April 4,
1905, when Nesbit was twenty.
On June 25, 1906 Evelyn and Harry saw White at the restaurant
Cafè Martin and ran into him again later that night in the audience of the
Madison Square Garden's roof theatre at a performance of Mamzelle Champagne.
During the song, "I Could Love A Million Girls", Thaw fired three shots at close
range into White's face, killing him instantly and reportedly exclaiming, "You
will never see that woman again!"
Following the death of Stanford White, there were two murder
trials. At the first, the jury was deadlocked; at the second, (in which Evelyn
testified on his behalf) Thaw pled temporary insanity. Thaw's mother (usually
referred to as "Mother Thaw") promised Evelyn that if she would testify that
Stanford White had raped her and that Harry had only tried to avenge her honor,
she would receive a quiet divorce and a one million dollar divorce settlement.
Evelyn got the divorce -- but not the money, and was cut off financially by
When Evelyn took the witness stand, she was sketched by
artist C, Allan Gilbert and when the drawing ran in the New York Evening World,
thousands of copies of her costume began appearing on young ladies in town.
Thaw was incarcerated at the Matteawan State Hospital for the
Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York, but enjoyed almost total freedom. In
1913, he strolled out of the asylum and was driven over the Canadian border into
Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was extradited back to the U.S. but in 1915 was released
from custody after being judged sane.
In the years following the second trial, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw's
career as a vaudeville performer, silent film actress and cafe manager was only
modestly successful, her life marred by suicide attempts. In 1916 she married
her dancing partner, Jack Clifford (1880-1956, born Virgil James Montani). He
left her in 1918, and she divorced him in 1933.
In 1926, (several months after she attempted suicide after
losing her job as a dancer at the Moulin Rouge Café in Chicago), Nesbit gave an
interview to the New York Times, stating that she and Harry K. Thaw were
reconciled, but nothing came of the renewed relationship.
She lived quietly for several years in Northfield, New Jersey.