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Harry Kendall THAW





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Jealousy
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: June 25, 1906
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: February 12, 1871
Victim profile: Architect Stanford White
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: New York City, New York, USA
Status: Found not guilty by reason of insanity on February 1, 1908. Incarcerated at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Released 1915. Died on February 22, 1947

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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 1906.

Early Life

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.

Evelyn Nesbit

Early Relationship

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.

Marriage proposal

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 K. Thaw.

Murder of Stanford White


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."

First insanity trial

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.

Second insanity trial

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.

Later life

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 trouble.

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, Pittsburgh.

Popular Culture

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.

Non-fictional accounts

  • The Architect of Desire - Suzannah Lessard

  • Glamorous Sinners - Frederick L. Collins

  • Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age - Michael Mooney

  • The Murder of Stanford White - Gerald Langford

  • 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 - 1934

A fictionalised Thaw also appears in Jed Rubenfeld's 2006 novel The Interpretation Of Murder

  • American Eve - Paula Uruburu - 2008

Fictional accounts

  • The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955 movie)

  • The 1975 historical fiction novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow was adapted into the two below works:

    • 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 Garden.

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 Velvet Swing."

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 Girl."

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 Thaw's mother.

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.



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