TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Donald Paine on Aug 13, 2008

Journal Issue Date: Aug 2008

Journal Name: August 2008 - Vol. 44, No. 8

While reading a new book about the Evelyn Nesbit/Stanford White/Harry Thaw love triangle (American Eve, by Paula Uruburu), I realized that I had erred in my March 1999 column on "The Red Velvet Swing Murder." I wrote that there was only one trial of Harry Thaw for shooting Stanford White. The truth is that Thaw was tried twice. Not much has been written about the retrial, so I decided to compose these paragraphs.

Florence Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas Day 1884 at Tarentum, Pa., near Pittsburgh. In 1900 she moved to New York City with her mother. Evelyn became a photographer's model and chorus girl. Soon she was spied by Stanford White, a renowned architect and notorious womanizer.

White had a three-story apartment behind a toy shop on West 24th Street. There he ravished Evelyn in August 1901; she was only 16 years old, he almost 50. He swung her in the red velvet swing, drugged her with champagne, and violated her when she passed out. Many consensual sex sessions followed.

Later Harry Kendall Thaw, a rich scion from Pittsburgh transplanted to New York, courted Evelyn. They toured Europe. In Paris she confessed her sexual past with White, which she thought made her unfit for marriage. But marry she did, at age 20, on April 5, 1905. Husband Harry seethed with hatred for the architect.

Among White's designs was Madison Square Garden, the tallest structure in the city. On the evening of Monday, June 25, 1906, a large crowd was enjoying entertainment on the rooftop of the Garden. It was the opening night for a new musical, "Mamzelle Champagne." Around 11 p.m. three revolver shots rang out. At a distance of less than two feet Harry Shaw shot Stanford White in the brain, in the nose, and in the right shoulder. The killer was immediately arrested and confined in the Tombs.

The first trial lasted for almost three months, ending with a hung jury on April 12, 1907. The panel was split seven for conviction of first degree murder versus five for acquittal.

The second trial began on Monday, Jan. 6, 1908. Presiding was Justice Victor J. Dowling, prosecuting was William Travers Jerome, and defending was Martin W. Littleton.

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was again a defense witness. This time she omitted some of the seamy details of her earlier testimony, such as "blotches of blood on the sheets." But she added a new disclosure: Harry had attempted suicide with laudanum (morphine prepared from opium) after her confession. Prosecutor Jerome: "Did you tell this before?" Evelyn: "No, I did not. Mr. Delmas (defense counsel in the first trial) said it would make Harry out to be too crazy."

The retrial jury decided that Harry was indeed crazy. The New York Times reported that the following verdict was returned at 12:40 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1, 1908: "We the jury find the defendant not guilty of the charge in the indictment on the ground that he was insane at the time of the act."

Harry Thaw was taken by rail to the state hospital for the insane at Matteawan near Fishkill, northeast of West Point. On Aug. 17, 1913, he escaped to Canada. Returned to the United States, he was declared sane in 1915 and freed. But he was later reconfined in an asylum at Philadelphia for horsewhipping Fred Gump, a teenager. Thaw died in Miami in 1947.

Whatever happened to Evelyn? She gave birth to son Russell, supposedly conceived during a conjugal visit to Matteawan. Harry denied paternity. Following a divorce, Evelyn briefly married her dance partner Virgil Montani (aka Jack Clifford) in 1916. Again single, she moved to California to be with her son and his family.

Evelyn died in a convalescent home at Santa Monica in 1967. She was 82 years old.

Don Paine DONALD F. PAINE is a past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and is of counsel to the Knoxville firm of Paine, Tarwater, Bickers, and Tillman LLP. He lectures for the Tennessee Law Institute, BAR/BRI Bar Review, Tennessee Judicial Conference, and UT College of Law. He is reporter to the Supreme Court Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure