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Stanford White’s Murder and the “The Trial of the Century”

Architect Stanford White (November 9, 1853 – June 25, 1906) designed many of New York City’s most beautiful Gilded Age buildings, including the Washington Square Arch and Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and NoHo’s Cable Building, as well as other landmarks like the Players Club, the Metropolitan Club, Gould Memorial Library, the Bowery Savings Bank Building, and the original Penn Station.  He was also raised at 118 East 10th Street in the East Village’s ‘Renwick Triangle’ in the St. Mark’s Historic District, so we consider him a bit of a local boy.

But he has one additional, darker connection to the neighborhood.  While White was a highly acclaimed and respected architect and partner in the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, his life, according to The Nation, illustrated “the frittering away of genius,” ending in his murder on June 25, 1906. The trial for his scandalous murder, which would come to be known as “the trial of the century,” took place at the Jefferson Market Courthouse, now the Jefferson Market Library.

New York American on June 26th, 1906

The motive for this murder was an event that took place about five years earlier, when the 47- year old White raped 16-year old actress, Evelyn Nesbit, after plying her with liquor through intermediaries.

Several years later, Nesbit married Harry Kendall Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron and heir to a $40 million fortune. Thaw was mentally unstable and was known for his eccentricity. Even before he met Nesbit, Thaw resented White, who he thought had blocked Thaw’s acceptance in social circles such as membership in the Knickerbocker Club, and for being a womanizer who preyed on young women. Thaw was obsessed with White’s previous relationship with Nesbit and how White took her virginity via the rape. Thaw accused White of ruining Nesbit, and he may have even focused his attention on her because of her previous relationship with White.

Thaw believed White had hired people to kill him and started carrying a gun, although White was likely completely unaware of Thaw’s vendetta against him. White considered Thaw a clown and called him the “Pennsylvania pug”, referring to his baby-faced features.

On the night of June 25th, 1906, Thaw ran into White at dinner at Cafe Martin. The murder was probably unplanned, as White was scheduled to be in Philadelphia on business, and Thaw and Nesbitt were in New York City on their way to a European vacation. Thaw had purchased tickets for a new show, Mam’zelle Champagne, written by Edgar Allan Woolf, premiering on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden (also designed by White) that night.

The Second Madison Square Garden, designed by White in 1890 and the site of his murder in 1906.

Around 11:00 pm, with the show coming to a close, White appeared at the rooftop theater. Thaw approached his table several times. On the final visit, Thaw drew his pistol and fired three shots into Stanford White’s head and back from just a few feet away, killing him instantly. Many in the audience believed the shooting to be part of the show, but the truth quickly because evident as people saw White’s blackened and disfigured remains.

Charged with first-degree murder, Thaw’s prosecution in the “trial of the century” at the Jefferson Market Courthouse was front-page news. Thaw was held without bail but received preferential treatment at the adjacent Jefferson Market prison due to his wealth. He received catering from Delmonico’s, a brass bed instead of a standard-issue prison cot, custom tailored clothes instead of prison clothes, and was provided with a daily ration of champagne and wine. Thaw reportedly heard the heavenly voices of young girls calling to him, which he interpreted as a sign of divine approval and believed that the public would applaud the man who had rid the world of the menace of Stanford White.

Jefferson Market Courthouse and Prison.

The press fed this belief by treating Thaw as a heroic figure who had married Nesbit in spite of her past and a defender of her virtue. Not just Stanford White’s personal attributes were attacked in the press, but his professional achievements as an architect as well. The Evening Standard referred to him as “more of an artist than architect.”  The Nation stated “He adorned many an American mansion with irrelevant plunder.”

Nesbitt testifying in 1907

The trial began on January 23, 1907. The jury was sequestered for the first time in American trial history. The main issue in the case was the question of pre-meditation. The district attorney wanted to avoid trial by declaring Thaw legally insane. Avoiding trial would have both saved time and money, and the unfavorable publicity that was expected to come out during the course of a trial involving the personal lives of society’s upper crust. However, Thaw’s mother sought to protect the family name and her son’s hidden mental illnesses. She hired a team of doctors to determine the murder was a single aberrant act of temporary insanity and not the result of mental illness.

The jury went into deliberation on April 11 and deadlocked. Seven voted guilty, and five not guilty. Thaw was outraged that the trial had not vindicated his actions as a chivalrous man defending innocent womanhood. At the second trial, Thaw pled and was found not guilty, on the ground of insanity at the time of the commission of his act. He was sentenced to involuntary commitment for life in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York.

After a series of events including a prison escape and extradition from Canada, Thaw was released in 1915 after being judged sane. Nesbitt, who divorced Thaw in 1915, lived until 1967.

Thaw published a book in 1926 titled The Traitor and never regretted what he had done, writing: “Under the same circumstances, I’d kill him tomorrow.” Thaw lived until 1947.

Click here to read about Stanford White’s connection to Diane Arbus. Click here to read about McKim Mead and White’s New York Public Library Tompkins Square Branch.

3 responses to “Stanford White’s Murder and the “The Trial of the Century”

  1. I’m seeing the photo of Nesbit on the witness stand for the first time–what a find! Wonderful article, and I’m glad you added the bit about Nesbit’s rape, which I read about for the first time in The Girl on the Velvet Swing by Simon Baetz, the latest Evelyn Nesbit biography which changed my sympathies from White to Nesbit–and Thaw. As much as I love the legacy of his architecture, White cultivated a friendship with Nesbit’s too trusting mother so the young and beautiful Nesbit did whatever White said, accepting an invitation to a dinner party at his home and staying, despite her instincts, when she found herself alone there because ‘the others had not shown up.’ He deserved his fate. Anyone interested in White would find Baetz’s story of Nesbit engrossing; she was a catalyst for important NYC events and there’s a lot more than what I’ve written here.

  2. I was wondering the about Nesbit and Thaw myself and if,and how society in this day and age views them. I feel Thaw’s actions although criminal by all means weren’t the only way to exact justice back then and especially with one as influential as White was.

  3. I read the book, American Eve – Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu several years ago and I couldn’t put it down!

    It was a fascinating story of NY society back in the day.
    Stanford White being a prominent NY architect (and master manipulator) and Harry Thaw an outsider with a lot of money! In the end, both were “wack-a-doodles!
    I suppose in some ways they all were “victims” including Nesbitt’s mother.

    I enjoyed your article and fabulous pictures.

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