Newspapers across the United States called it the “Crime of the Century” (never mind that the 20th century was still only six years young at the time).
On June 24, 1906, when Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw shot prominent New York architect Stanford White in Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theatre, it sparked a media sensation that would grip New York for months to come.
Harry Kendall Thaw certainly didn’t seem like your usual murderer (not on the surface at least). Born in 1871 to one of Pittsburgh’s most prominent families, he was the principal heir to his father’s coal and railroad fortune. That he was openly paranoid and violent from an early age hardly seemed to matter. His family money allowed him to coast through studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard University. He was finally expelled after his arrest for chasing a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts with a shotgun (Thaw insisted it was unloaded). After his expulsion, Harry drifted through high society and experimented extensively with various drugs including cocaine and morphine (he is widely credited with inventing the speedball).
At some point during his stay in New York City, Harry Thaw first met Stanford White. White was one of the prominent architects of his age and had designed some of New York’s most famous buildings (including Madison Square Garden). It was in 1902 that White first met chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbitt. Having come to New York a year earlier to study modeling, Evelyn had made a name for herself by modeling for Charles Dana Gibson and being featured in his masterpiece, The Eternal Question. Capitalizing on her fame as a “Gibson girl”, Evelyn then went on to star on Broadway as a “Floradora girl”. When Stanford White introduced himself to her, he managed to spirit her away to one of the various love nests that he maintained in downtown New York for his romantic conquests. After getting Evelyn drunk, he and Evelyn had sex. While White claimed that the sex was completely consensual, Evelyn would later insist that it had been rape.
Whatever happened between them, White and Nesbitt continued to see each other for years afterward despite her taking on other lovers (including actor John Barrymore). When Harry Thaw first saw Evelyn Nesbitt, White warned her of his violent temper and she stayed clear of him for a time. After Harry impressed her with his wealth and generosity (including visiting her in hospital after she had an appendicitis attack), Evelyn was won over. Since she had not completely broken off her relationship with Stanford White, Harry saw him as a rival and was furious when he learned that White had warned Evelyn about him.
After White backed off, Harry Thaw proposed marriage to Evelyn and insisted that she accept, even after she admitted that she was no longer a virgin thanks to Stanford White. While Thaw was furious at the revelation, he still insisted that Evelyn agree to marry him and even took her to an isolated German castle where he physically abused her with a bullwhip. Evelyn only agreed to marry Harry after his mother convinced her that the marriage would curb her son's "eccentricities". Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbitt were finally married on April 4, 1905 and moved to Pittsburgh where they lived with his mother.
Whatever hopes Evelyn and her mother-in-law had of curbing Harry's violent impulses ended when he and Evelyn visited New York in 1906. On June 24, while they were on their way to the premiere of Mam'zelle Champagne at the outdoor Madison Square Garden Roof Theater, Harry and Evelyn spotted Stanford White at the nearby Cafe Martin and later at the very same premier that they were attending. After taking his wife back to the hotel, Harry disappeared for a time and reappeared wearing a heavy black overcoat. Despite the hot weather, he refused to take off the overcoat and insisted on wearing it at the premiere. After leaving his own seat during the performance, he wandered through the theater and was seen approaching White's table several times. Finally, during the show's finale, Harry whipped out a pistol and fired three shots into White's face screaming, "You've ruined my life!" (other witnesses suggested that he might have said "You've ruined my wife!"). Stanford White was killed instantly although the other theatre patrons, believing that the shooting was part of the show, didn’t react at first.
After the shooting, Harry walked out of the theatre with his gun still out in the open. When Evelyn asked her husband what he had done, he calmly replied that he had probably saved her life. Police quickly caught up to him and he was arrested without incident. On being arraigned at the Jefferson Market Courthouse, he was then transferred to the Manhattan Detention Complex (a.k.a. The Tombs) where he was held for trial.
Mary Thaw spared no expense in defending her son. Spending astronomical sums of money (up to $1,000,000 in 1906 dollars according to some sources), she hired a team of defense attorneys and even staged a play featuring characters named Harold Daw and Stanford Black that twisted the facts of the case to her son's benefit. Most notoriously, she persuaded Evelyn to testify that Stanford White had threatened her and that her husband was simply protecting her. In return, Evelyn would receive a divorce from Harry along with a million-dollar divorce settlement. Evelyn played her part beautifully (she was an actress, after all) and helped secure her husband a hung jury for his first trial in 1907.
Unfortunately for Harry, shooting one of New York's most prominent citizens in front of witnesses ensured enough outrage to force a second trial. On the advice of his attorney, Marvin Littleton, Harry Thaw changed his plea to guilty and testified that he had killed White after experiencing a "brainstorm" (a form of temporary insanity). Evidence was also presented by the defense that there was a history of insanity in Harry's family (which likely didn't please his mother and sister). Harry Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York (now the Fishkill Correctional Facility).
Despite Harry having almost complete freedom while serving his sentence, he was apparently not satisfied with that. On August 17, 1913, with the help of one of the hospital staff, Harry Thaw walked out of the asylum and arranged to be smuggled across the border to Sherbrooke, Quebec. He and his lawyer fought extradition but he was eventually returned to the United States and returned to the hospial. After impressing a jury that he was sane, he was released in 1915.
But this was hardly the last legal scrape for him, mind you. The year after his release, Harry was charged with horsewhipping (and possibly sexually assaulting) a teenage boy named Fred Gump Junior. Harry escaped to Philadelphia where he was found with his throat slashed. Although the suicide attempt failed, he was found insane by the courts again and committed to an asylum for seven years before being released in 1924. His mother quietly settled the case with the Gump family. After his release, Harry later went into film making and founded a movie company in Long Island although he eventually gave it all up and moved to Florida By the time of his death from coronary thromobisis in 1947, Harry Thaw was living quietly at his home in Florida, his long history of violence well behind him.
As for Evelyn Nesbitt, she got her divorce from Harry Thaw in 1916 but never received the promised divorce settlement (Harry later left her $10,000 in his will). While she gave birth to her only child, Russell William Thaw in 1910 and insisted that Harry was the father, he denied it vigorously (the baby was conceived and born while he was still in custody). After her divorce, Evelyn remarried although this second marriage didn't last long either. Despite other relationships (including a rumoured reconciliation with Harry Thaw), she would say shortly before her death in 1967 that Stanford White was the only man she had really loved.
The Stanford White shooting has inspired a lengthy list of fictional and non-fictional books and movies. Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbitt both wrote books about their experiences although the most famous version was likely E.L. Doctorow's book, Ragtime, which was later adapted into a movie and a musical. The Madison Square Gardens building designed by Stanford White was torn down in 1924 and the venue moved to its new location over Penn Station. Although several of Stanford White's other buildings are still standing (including the Washington Square Arch in Washington Square Park picture right), no other physical traces remain of the long-ago murder that shocked New York City.