Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

The (First) Crime of the Century
December 22, 2011 12:01 PM   Subscribe

June 25th 1906, was the opening night of the musical revue Mamzelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden. In attendance were Stanford White, renowned architect (Washington Square Arch, Judson Memorial Church, Madison Square Garden itself), and Harry Kendall Thaw, eccentric coal and railroad scion. During the performance of the song I Could Love a Million Girls, Thaw "left his seat near the stage, passed between a number of tables, and, in full view of the players and of scores of persons, shot White through the head." (pdf) Standing over White’s body, Thaw said “You’ll never go out with that woman again.”

Five years earlier, White (47, married), had been introduced to 16-year-old chorus girl and model Evelyn Nesbit. White took Nesbit to his apartment, which contained a red velvet swing (NSFW) "so that Nesbit and other young women in varying degrees of undress could entertain him." On a subsequent visit to the apartment, they drank champagne, and "White allegedly had sex with her after she had passed out from the alcohol."

That same year, Nesbit was also being courted by 19-year-old John Barrymore. Nesbit’s mother did not believe him wealthy enough to marry her daughter. Barrymore proposed marriage; Nesbit declined.

In 1903, Nesbit and Thaw met. He also proposed marriage. She confessed that she had lost her virginity to White. Enraged, Thaw began to carry a pistol.

Thaw’s first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. During the second trial,
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.
Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to an asylum, escaped to Canada in 1913, was extradited back to the US, and eventually freed in 1915. Nesbit attempted suicide (pdf) several times and became a sculpting teacher. The whole affair was dramatized by E.L. Doctorow in his novel Ragtime, which was adapted as a film and a musical. Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925, replaced by the New York Life Building. Mamzelle Champagne closed after 60 performances. It has never been remounted.
posted by davidjmcgee (14 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

The original "Trial of the Century"
posted by Renoroc at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

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.

OK, but the condition which lead to this "temporary insanity" was a permanent need to control and own his woman. Dude couldn't deal with the fact that she had a life before him and that's not just a temporary thing. Nor is it a mental illness.

Nice, interesting post davidjmegee. Thanks.

Oh and BTW Ragtime is a tremendous novel.
posted by three blind mice at 12:15 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cocaine is a hellofa drug.
posted by wuwei at 12:16 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

The whole affair was dramatized by E.L. Doctorow in his novel Ragtime, which was adapted as a film and a musical.

It is, indeed, but let me point out for anyone who is reading this who has not yet read Ragtime that the Evelyn Nesbit story is just one among several woven into a brilliant and beautiful narrative about America at the turn of the twentieth century.
posted by tzikeh at 12:19 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Highly recommended on the subject is Architect of Desire, written by White's great-granddaughter, Suzannah Lessard.

She writes of White's legacy of creation and destruction as passed down through the family, and how that legacy resurfaced at various times in each succeeding generation. It's an odd mix of memoir and history, but a fascinating, well-written one. She has a marvellous gift for a sense of place, and for capturing it in a phrase.

Even as a simple resource for the event of the murder itself, it's well worthwhile.
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:29 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925

I was extremely confused by this until I looked it up. Apparently there have been four Madison Square Gardens, including the one that exists today.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:39 PM on December 22, 2011

The fact that there's not a band or even an album, especially released in the last 10 years or so, named Dementia Americana means I don't understand the world as well as I thought I did.

The pdf article from the NY Times is so awesome and would be worthy of a post all on its own. First off, the sentence ending the first paragraph "He [White] it was who put Miss Nesbitt, now Mrs. Shaw, on the stage." Maybe it's because I read The Age of Innocence somewhat recently but this detail being added so early in the story seems like it was a euphemism for what everybody would know this was about.

And the line "Then came the realization on the part of the audience that the farce had closed with a tragedy." which would be awesome enough but then there's the added detail that the manager was all "Bring on the chorus." After someone had been shot in the head up front.

Just fantastic!
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:49 PM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Still an amazing story. Hard to say who is the real villain of the piece, Thaw or White. Thanks for the information about what happened later to the stunning Ms. Nesbit -- I had not known.
posted by bearwife at 12:52 PM on December 22, 2011

Still an amazing story. Hard to say who is the real villain of the piece, Thaw or White. Thanks for the information about what happened later to the stunning Ms. Nesbit -- I had not known.

Normally, I'd hazard a guess that it's the drug addict who invented the "speedball" and shot someone in the head, but the other guy was "allegedly" a date rapist? Tough call!

Great FPP, btw. Very interesting. I'd never heard of this case. I do like that we have TRIALS OF THE CENTURY so often.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:08 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

L.M. Montgomery saw an uncaptioned picture of Evelyn Nesbit and modeled her physical description of Anne after it.
posted by brujita at 1:38 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've never seen The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing , but I'm pretty sure that casting Farley Granger in the role of (unstable, drug addict, sadist) Shaw is probably a genius move.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:48 PM on December 22, 2011

What on earth is a 'Floradora chlorine' (from the movie poster)?
posted by unliteral at 5:52 PM on December 22, 2011

Never mind, I see now that it's Floraodora chorine.
posted by unliteral at 5:57 PM on December 22, 2011

This story also gave rise to the quip, upon seeing some uniquely awful building, that "Harry K Thaw shot the wrong architect." (I think due to Wilson Mizner, another fascinating fellow, but I have heard it attributed to others too).
posted by ubiquity at 6:35 PM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older A decade on, the Coen brothers' woefully underrate...  |  With the recent news that unem... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments