Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

While having an affair with showgirl Evelyn Nesbit before she had married playboy Harry Kendall Thaw, Stanford White was shot and killed by Thaw. At trial Thaw pleaded temporary insanity and was sent to an institution for the criminally insane. The media followed the scandalous story with an intensity never before seen for a murder trial and depicted Thaw as a hero who had defended his wife by murdering the man accused of raping her.

Summary of Event

On the night of June 25, 1906, one socially prominent but emotionally unstable millionaire playboy, Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered another wealthy bon vivant, architect Stanford White, in New York City. Thaw shot White in the face during the finale of Mam’zelle Champagne, a musical comedy performed on the roof of Madison Square Garden II, a building designed by White. The identity of the murderer was never in question, and the motive, as described by Thaw, was the defense of his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl who had been involved with White before her marriage to Thaw. Thaw’s defense and the subsequent trial in which he pleaded temporary insanity was as riveting to the media as the sensational 1995 trial of football star and actor O. J. Simpson for the murder of his former wife and her friend. [kw]Murders Architect Stanford White, Millionaire Heir (June 25, 1906) [kw]White, Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford (June 25, 1906) White, Stanford Thaw, Harry Kendall Nesbit, Evelyn Marriage;Stanford White[White] White, Stanford Thaw, Harry Kendall Nesbit, Evelyn Marriage;Stanford White[White] [g]United States;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Communications and media;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Drugs;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Law and the courts;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Murder and suicide;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Publishing and journalism;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060] [c]Sex crimes;June 25, 1906: Millionaire Heir Murders Architect Stanford White[00060]

Harry Kendall Thaw.

(Library of Congress)

The events that led to White’s murder began in 1901, when forty-eight-year-old White met Nesbit, a sixteen-year-old showgirl and later artists’ model. The way the murder and trial unfolded was inextricably tied to the moral values of the time. During the early twentieth century, women were expected to remain chaste before and during marriage to devote themselves to home and family. Wealthy men such as Thaw and White, however, lived public lives of ostentatious luxury and, often, scandal. They were free to indulge in vices such as heavy drinking and in criminal activities such as gambling, drug use, domestic abuse, and the seduction or rape of young girls. Society, including the wives of wealthy men, generally tolerated, or at a minimum ignored, these vices.

In 1901, White was one of America’s best-known architects. Born into a wealthy family, he studied architecture both in the United States and Europe, then joined two other architects, Charles McKim and William Mead, to form the New York City firm of McKim, Mead, and White. White gained fame and wealth by designing public buildings, churches, and mansions for rich industrialists from Baltimore to Boston. Although he married and had children, White’s scandalous parties involving Nudity seminude showgirls and free-flowing champagne frequently were reported in the tabloid press. His wife apparently chose to ignore his lust for girls.

Nesbit was born into a middle-class family in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Her father died when Nesbit was eight years old, and soon the family became impoverished. Nesbit was stunningly beautiful. After her father’s death, she supported the family by posing as an artists’ model, first in Pittsburgh then in Philadelphia, and finally, at the age of fifteen, in New York. In New York she posed for artist Charles Gibson and became one of his famous Gibson Girls. She became the sex symbol of her age; her popularity was built on her looks and the attention paid her by the tabloid press. Abandoning modeling, she obtained a role in the popular, sexually suggestive musical review Floradora and was noticed by White. After being introduced, White showered Nesbit with gifts and promoted her career. He eventually took her to the luxurious apartment he maintained for his private use in New York City. (His family’s home was on Long Island.) Nesbit later claimed White drugged and raped Rape;and Stanford White[White] her at that apartment. Nevertheless, Nesbit continued as White’s mistress.

Evelyn Nesbit.

(Library of Congress)

Thaw began sending Nesbit gifts, even though she was still involved with White. Since childhood, Thaw had been prone to violence and had been expelled from several preparatory schools as well as Harvard University. He was a regular user of morphine and cocaine and had the reputation of being sexually violent against women. Thaw and White competed for Nesbit’s favors, but White began to lose interest in her. Thaw then took Nesbit and her mother to Europe and proposed marriage, but Nesbit refused. He later beat and raped her. She married him in 1905, realizing that any wealthy, respectable man would be unlikely to want her as a wife.

Thaw’s murder of White was clearly premeditated. He reportedly harbored a long-standing grudge against White for having been the one to take Nesbit’s virginity. Thaw was armed when he arrived at the theater on June 25 and waited until the final musical number before walking up to White and shooting him in the face. Thaw then calmly left the theater but was immediately arrested.

Thaw later claimed that he shot White to defend his wife’s honor, although Nesbit was not at the theater the night White was shot. Thaw’s mother spent a fortune hiring defense lawyers and spreading the tale in the press of how White had abused Nesbit and how it was her son’s duty to redress the abuse. As a result, Thaw became a media hero for defending his wife’s reputation. Thaw’s mother also offered Nesbit $1 million and a divorce from Thaw if she testified that White had beaten and raped her. Nesbit did testify, as requested by the Thaws, although there remains some doubt about the truth of her testimony. She got the divorce from Thaw in 1915 but never received the promised money.

Thaw had two trials in which he pleaded temporary insanity. The first resulted in a deadlocked jury. The second jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity and he was sent to a mental hospital for the criminally insane. He had virtually no restrictions on his activities and used his wealth to buy himself a comfortable lifestyle. He left the hospital without permission, fled to Canada, was returned to the United States, and was freed in 1924. For much of the rest of his life, he continued to be violent and in trouble with the law. He died in 1947 at the age of seventy-six.

Nesbit’s career declined after her divorce from Thaw. She eventually remarried and then was divorced from actor Jack Clifford. She died in 1967 at the age of eighty-two in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California.

Impact

Thaw’s killing of White affected both the legal system and popular culture. The murder was sensationalised by the tabloid press, which featured stories about White’s debauchery and sexual abuse of young girls. The press then portrayed Thaw, whose drug use and violent behavior were considered morally repugnant, as a hero who had defended his wife by murdering the man who had raped her. Ignored by the media, however, was Thaw’s abuse of Nesbit. Thaw’s second trial marked a rare case—rare at the time—in American legal history in which the plea of temporary insanity had been successfully used as a defense in a murder case. The success of this defense was likely due, in part, to the way Thaw was portrayed as a type of folk hero by the media.

A number of books and films were developed to tell the story of the Nesbit-Thaw-White saga. The best-known films include The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) and the best-known novels include Ragtime Ragtime (Doctorow) (1975) by Doctorow, E. L. E. L. Doctorow. In 2001 the Public Broadcasting Corporation produced a television movie on the White murder, Murder of the Century, as part of its American Experience series, and in January, 2005, White was profiled on the television series Biography. White, Stanford Thaw, Harry Kendall Nesbit, Evelyn Marriage;Stanford White[White]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doctorow, E. L. Ragtime. New York: Random House, 1974. A fictional treatment of the murder of Stanford White set against class differences in the United States during the early twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lessard, Suzannah. The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. New York: Dial Press, 1996. A memoir by White’s great granddaughter, focusing on how his sexual activities and murder affected even his extended family.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, David. Stanford White’s New York. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1999. The story of White’s sensational murder is balanced by an emphasis on his contributions to the architecture of New York.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKenzie, Frederick A., ed. The Trial of Harry Thaw. Holmes Beach, Fla: Gaunt, 2000. A reprint of the three-hundred-page book on the trial first published in London in 1928.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mooney, Michael M. Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age. New York: William R. Morrow, 1976. Exceptionally good for placing the events surrounding White’s murder within the moral climate of the time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherwin, Richard K. When Law Goes Pop: The Vanishing Line Between Law and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. An analysis of the interaction among media, popular culture, and justice using the Thaw trial as an example.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Thaw Murders Stanford White.” The New York Times, June 26, 1906. Contemporary newspaper coverage of the murder.

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