Decades before O.J. Simpson was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, there was another court case labeled “the trial of the century”. The case was known as the Thaw-White Murder, and it involved everything that makes crimes compelling to the general public – a celebrity, salacious sex and jealousy.
The celebrity at the centre of the Thaw-White Murder was actress and model Evelyn Nesbit.
Nesbit began her career in 1899 when she became a model for an artist. Her father had died in the mid-1890s leaving her, her mother and her brother penniless and homeless. Unable to find a job as a seamstress, Nesbit’s mother relied on Evelyn to provide for the family.
She came to New York City the following year and she soon became a chorus girl.
At 16, Nesbit gained the attention of married, 52-year-old architect Stanford White. He became obsessed with Nesbit and supported the girl and her family. To satisfy his obsession, White suggested that Mrs. Nesbit visit relatives out of town. While she was away, White had sex with Evelyn. Two stories have been told as to how it occurred. The first says he got her drunk and seduced her. The second says he raped her. Either way, they remained lovers for months.
White’s lavish, multi-floor apartment contained a red velvet swing suspended from the ceiling by ropes that looked like vines. White pushed Nesbit repeatedly on this swing during one of her first visits to his home. She swung on the swing numerous other times throughout the course of their affair, sometimes naked.
After her relationship with White ended, Nesbit had a relationship with actor John Barrymore.
In 1905, after two years of rejected proposals, Nesbit married millionaire Harry Thaw. She may have believed Thaw was her only opportunity for a respectable marriage. Thaw, however, was anything but respectable. He was a sadist that enjoyed torturing women, and he was possibly a drug addict. In 1903, not long after learning about Nesbit’s affair with White, Thaw whipped and raped her.
Thaw became obsessed with White. He was filled with jealousy and rage at the man he believed ruined Nesbit.
On June 25, 1906, Thaw shot White at a rooftop theatre at Madison Square Garden, a building White designed. He fired three shots at close range, two hitting White in the head.
The Trial of the Century
The court case began in January 1907.
The trail of the century was actually two trials, the first ending in a hung jury. During the second trial, in 1908, Thaw was found insane and sentenced to an asylum for the criminally insane. He was released from the mental institution in 1915.
Two years after his release, Thaw was again in an asylum, this time for whipping a teenage boy.
In the press, Thaw was a sympathetic character, viewed as protecting the innocence of women. White, meanwhile, was a member of a sex club and had seduced many young women. Nesbit was painted as a wronged woman.
Nesbit would go on to become a silent-screen actress, eventually remarrying and becoming a mother.
In 1955, Joan Collins played Nesbit in the film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. A fictional version of Nesbit appears in the novel/film/musical Ragtime.
Updated: 22 October 2020