The Murder of Stanford White -- Supernatural Influences or Insanity?

In 1906, the murder of renowned architect Stanford White would be called the "crime of the century". While many other spectacular murders would follow in the annals of Twentieth Century, few would boast participants as famous, or events as strange, as those in the case of Harry K. Thaw.

Harry Thaw was the son of an ambitious Pittsburgh family and heir to a vast fortune that had been earned by cornering the coke market, a product necessary to make steel. The Thaw family connections and wealth had managed to allow the family into the upper crust of New York society. Though well-educated, Harry Thaw was also considered to be rather odd, even by his own family. His school escapades and wild behavior caused his father to limit his allowance to just $2,000 per year. His doting mother supplemented this income with an additional $80,000 and yet Thaw bemoaned the poor state of his finances. He didn’t believe that this could possibly support his standard of living and way of life.

Harry K. Thaw

(Far Right) The  beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, the woman who would be Thaw's downfall.


One of Thaw’s greatest expenses was the apartment that he maintained at a high-priced New York brothel. Here, he would entice young girls with offers of helping them to star in plays and in Broadway shows. Once he had them in his clutches, as the house madam Susan Merrill later testified, he would rape the girls and often beat them badly for his own sexual pleasure. "I could hear the screams coming from his apartment," Merrill later said, "and once I could stand it no longer. I rushed into his rooms. He had tied the girl to the bed, naked, and was whipping her. She was covered with welts."

Despite Thaw’s peculiarities, it is unlikely that he would have come to public attention if her had not become involved with a young woman named Evelyn Nesbit. She had come to New York at the age of 16 and when Thaw met her, she was becoming known as an actress and a model.

Evelyn became a member of the chorus of the hit show "Floradora" and posed for a Charles Dana Gibson drawing called "The Eternal Question". She was described by some as the "loveliest looking girl who ever breathed". Writer Irvin S. Cobb described her in print as having "the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half-dollars, and a mouth made of rumpled rose petals". She looked innocent but her gentle beauty hid a more sultry side. Soon after arriving in New York, she had become the mistress of millionaire architect Stanford White.

The red-haired, hulking White was considered the most distinguished architect of his day. He had designed more than fifty of New York’s most admired buildings, including the Madison Square Gardens and the Washington Square Arch. He was also a spectacular ladies-man, who kept several different mistresses at once, secreted in a number of love nests throughout the city. In one of them, a heavily curtained pleasure palace on the West Side, he was alleged to keep a red velvet swing hanging from the ceiling. In this swing, he would place his young women, dressed like little girls, and would wildly push them back and forth. It was said that he would peer lasciviously up their billowing skirts in prelude to more adult passions.

In one of his apartments, White kept Evelyn Nesbit, who he had despoiled upon her arrival in New York. He had fallen madly in love with her at first sight and gave her large amounts of money, expensive clothing and jewelry. Evelyn remained with White until she was 19 and at that point she left him and became involved with Harry Thaw.

Stanford White

At the age of 34, Harry Thaw was slowly going insane. For the next three years, Thaw persecuted Evelyn about her former relationship with White. He forced her to never use White’s name and only allowed her to refer to him as "the Beast" or "the Bastard". Once, while crossing the ocean on a vacation to Europe, Thaw tied Evelyn (who had amazingly just become his wife) to a bed in their stateroom. He beat her with a belt for hours and made her confess every sexual act in which she had engaged with Stanford White. To stop the whipping, she later confessed that she made things up just to appease her brutal husband.

After they were married, Thaw continued to harass Evelyn about her relationship with the architect. She told her husband that White had made her empty promises of marriage to get her into his apartment and once there had stripped her and raped her, after making her pose naked on the red velvet swing. Later on, during Thaw’s murder trial, she testified that on another occasion White had invited her and a girlfriend to the apartment one evening. Here, they took turns being pushed on the swing and engaging in other activities with the unusual architect. Evelyn’s tales only incensed Thaw even further and he vowed revenge. He would sometimes carry a revolver around the house and would mumble to himself about keeping other young girls from sharing Evelyn’s fate.

Thaw’s revenge came on the night of June 25, 1906. He and Evelyn, accompanied by two friends, attended the opening of a play called "Mam’zelle Champagne" at the dining theater on the roof of Madison Square Gardens. The theater was a frequent gathering place for New York society and the illuminati were all in attendance. For the occasion, Evelyn donned a daring white satin gown and looked spectacular under the stage lights. Soon after taking their seats, she and Thaw noticed Stanford White being ushered to a table in the privileged section near the footlights.

The play turned out to be a dull one and in time, the Thaw’s rose to leave. As Harry stepped out into the aisle, he looked down the length of it and saw White framed dramatically at the end. While the girls in the chorus sang a production number, Thaw walked down the aisle and stopped next to White, who pretended not to see him. He then calmly reached into his coat, withdrew a revolver and fired three shots at White. The architect took two of those bullets in the brain and he died immediately. His heavy frame crashed forward on the table and then rolled over onto the floor. Thaw then changed his grip on the pistol, holding it by the muzzle so that it was plain that he didn’t intend to shoot anyone else. He was arrested and taken to Center Street Station. Thaw was soon charged with murder and placed in the Tombs to await trial.

While he was in jail, Thaw had all of his meals catered from Delmonico’s, one of New York’s finest restaurants. He also had whiskey smuggled to him and was allowed to continue playing the stock market, meeting with his broker in jail at all hours of the day and night.

After he was arraigned for murder, Thaw’s mother publicly declared that she would spend her entire fortune to keep Harry out of the electric chair. She hired the famous trial lawyer Delphin Delmas from California to defend her son. He would be opposed by the equally famous district attorney, William Travers Jerome, who upon hearing that the Thaw fortune was at stake for Harry’s defense said "with all of his millions, Thaw is a fiend! No matter how rich a man is, he cannot get away with murder!"

While the case certainly seemed open and shut, the trial would last for more than seven months. From the start, Thaw’s attorney would claim his client to be innocent and that a form of insanity had made him want to kill White. And while Thaw may have been insane, he would state that his urge to kill had come from a mysterious force outside of his body. Namely, that he was possessed by the spirits of the dead!

The claim was supported by a doctor of medicine and a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Dr. Carl Wickland. The Chicago doctor’s wife was a proponent of Spiritualism and a professed medium. Three weeks after Thaw’s arrest, Mrs. Wickland insisted that a spirit voice came through her during a séance and confessed that it had forced Thaw to kill Stanford White! The spirit told the group gathered in the séance room that "I killed Stanford White. He deserved death. He had trifled too long with our daughters".

According to Mrs. Wickland, the ghost identified himself as a man named Johnson. He had been from a lower social scale when he was among the living and denounced the wealthy, saying that the rich womanizers like Stanford White had no right to live, "stealing our children from us and putting fine clothes on them."

In addition to Johnson’s angry spirit, another entity also came through during the séance. He identified himself as Harry Thaw’s deceased father. He defended his son and claimed that the young man had been sensitive to spirit influence throughout his life. The spirit added that he never understood Harry’s actions when he was alive but in death, realized that his son’s depraved activities were the result of having "been a tool in the hands of earthbound spirits, evil spirits that ordered death."  The ghost went on to add explicitly that Harry Thaw was "obsessed by revengeful spirits when he killed Stanford White."

It was certainly a novel defense and one that played well with the jury. Delphin Delmas and the other lawyers representing Thaw used it to muddy the waters while they assassinated the character of Stanford White. It only served to help the case that prosecuting attorney William Travers Jerome was curiously inept during this peak moment in his career. He lost his temper several times in court while Delmas stayed calm and clever. He brought Evelyn to court looking very demure and innocent in sailor blouses and Buster Brown collars. A crowd of over ten thousand milled around outside, hanging on news that filtered from the building. Inside of the courtroom, spectators soaked up the seamy details of Evelyn’s seduction and her descriptions of sex with Stanford White.

When Evelyn took the witness stand, she was sketched by artist C, Allan Gilbert and when the drawing ran in the New York Evening World, thousands of copies of her costume began appearing on young ladies in town.

The jury listening to the evidence came to the conclusion that something had temporarily taken over control of Harry Thaw at the time of the murder. They returned a verdict of "not guilty, on the grounds of insanity at the time of the commission of the act". Thaw had been saved from the electric chair, but he certainly wasn’t free. He was imprisoned for life at the New York State Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Mattewan, New York. He spent years as a prisoner here while his mother spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to get him declared sane. In 1913, Thaw escaped from the asylum but was captured in Canada and returned.

Meanwhile, Evelyn went on to become a vaudeville attraction. Her beauty was wasted away before cheap audiences, but not before she became pregnant with a son that she stubbornly insisted was Harry Thaw’s. When reporters pointed out that Thaw had been inside of a mental institution for the past seven years, Evelyn swore that Harry had bribed a guard at the hospital and she had been allowed to spend the night with him. The baby, for which she filed for huge support payments for, was a result of that one evening.

In 1915, a New York court pronounced Thaw sane. Shortly after his release, he publicly denounced Evelyn and denied that he had anything to do with fathering her child. Soon after, he divorced her and went on an outrageous spending spree, hoping to burn through whatever inheritance he could.  Unfortunately for Thaw, he was jailed again in 1916. He was arrested for horsewhipping a teenager named Frederick Gump and while Thaw tried to buy off the boy’s family with over a half million dollars, he was still sent back to the mental hospital. He was kept there under tight security until his release in 1922.

After that, Thaw continued his interrupted career of high living until his death in 1947. He traveled the world, sporting attractive young girls on his arms and billed himself to reporters as a theatrical and movie producer. Needless to say, Thaw never moved in entertainment circles and most laughed off his pretensions to a vivid imagination.

Or perhaps it was something else? On certain occasions, Thaw’s playful gaze would become a wild stare and his mouth would open to emit strange words that seemed to pass incoherently from his lips. Insanity... or influences from beyond this world?

Return to Dead Men Do Tell Tales

© Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.