Evelyn Nesbit and the First Trial of the Century

Updated on March 19, 2019
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Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about a variety of historical subjects including unusual events and people.

Evelyn Nesbit
Evelyn Nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit

Evelyn Nesbit (December 25, 1884 or 1885 – January 17, 1967) was a beautiful and tragic actress of the silent film era. She began her career in show business as a chorus girl and artist's model, posing semi-nude even while still a teenager in order to earn money for her mother and the rest of her siblings, who had been left destitute when her father died. Her mother acted as her stage manager and chaperone, but was rather incompetent in both roles.

Drawing of a Gibson Girl by Charles Gibson, based on an idealized portrayal of Evelyn Nesbit
Drawing of a Gibson Girl by Charles Gibson, based on an idealized portrayal of Evelyn Nesbit

The Gibson Girl

Nesbit posed for a number of well known artists, including Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the inspiration for his drawings of "The Gibson Girl," his idealized representation of female beauty. During the late 19th and early 20th century, Gibson Girls appeared in magazines and in product advertising, representing the idealized female form of the time. Gibson acknowledged that Evelyn Nesbit was one of his primary inspirations.

Stanford White, the Man Who Wold be Evelyn's Downfall
Stanford White, the Man Who Wold be Evelyn's Downfall

Stanford White

Her fame as an artist's model brought Nesbit more opportunities and she began acting on stage. There she caught the attention of New York socialite, millionaire and womanizer, Stanford White. He was a grown man in his forties and she was 15. White ingratiated himself with Evelyn's mother and convinced her to allow Evelyn to accompany her to New York with him under the guise of a paternal friendship.

As Evelyn would later tell it, Stanford White plied her with alcohol while in his rooms, and she passed out and he sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious. She claimed that she had lost her virginity to him while passed out, and this fact would have tragic consequences for her and for many others several years later.

At the time, however, Evelyn kept quiet about the incident and in fact entered into a consensual sexual relationship with Stanford which lasted many years, into her young adulthood. She eventually broke off her relationship with Stanford when she learned that he was continuing his womanizing ways and seeing other actresses, even though she herself was seeing other men at the same time.

Harry Kendall Thaw, Evelyn's First Husband
Harry Kendall Thaw, Evelyn's First Husband

Harry Kendall Thaw

Evelyn went on to act in many movies of the silent film era and became even more famous for her beauty. Her face adorned many product advertisements and she was a big box office star.

She had long term relationships with many men, including the actor and well known lady's man, John Barrymore. Eventually she began dating Harry Kendall Thaw, the rich heir to a coal mining fortune. Thaw was mentally unstable, completely under the thumb of his mother, and extremely religious. He did not believe in premarital sex and expected his future wife to be a virgin.

As their relationship deepened, Thaw proposed to Evelyn but also asked Evelyn if she was a virgin; she had to admit that she was not. Thaw demanded to know details. Knowing that Thaw might reject her, Evelyn told him what had happened years before with Stanford White. She claimed that she had been raped while passed out. Thaw was angry and disgusted at what White had done, but accepted her explanation that she was a victim. We will never know if Evelyn lied in order to appease Thaw or if that is what really happened; however even if she was not unconscious, she had been still a minor at the time, so White was not in any way innocent.

Evelyn Nesbit as a Young Woman
Evelyn Nesbit as a Young Woman

A Dangerous Obsession

Eventually Thaw and Evelyn married. At first, things seemed to go well. But soon there was trouble in the marriage. Thaw was completely dominated by his mother, who lived up to the stereotype of the meddling, obnoxious mother in law. He also began showing signs of mental instability, obsessing about Stanford White and what he had done to Evelyn years before.

The wealthy Thaw embarked on a campaign to expose Thaw and his moral depravity. He wrote letters, spoke out in public and railed against him. For his part, Stanford White ignored the man, calling him a clown and a "Pennsylvania pug.”

Over time, Thaw became increasingly paranoid and became convinced that Stanford White wanted to kill him, despite the fact there was no evidence of this. Thaw began carrying a hand gun, and even though he claimed to be afraid of Stanford White, it was Thaw who started stalking the other man.

Newspaper Headlines of the Murder
Newspaper Headlines of the Murder

The Murder

One day on June 25, 1906, Thaw arranged to attend the same Broadway show as Stanford. Ironically, given Stanford's reputation as a womanizer, the finale song was "I Could Love a Million Girls." As the chorus sang, Thaw approached Stanford and shot him three times in the head at close range. Thaw then brandished the gun in the air and declared "I did it because he ruined my wife!"

At first the crowd was not sure what had happened, thinking that this was perhaps part of the show, some sort of surprise ending. Then the horror of what had happened became clear. Stanford was dead; parts of his skull and face had been blown away.

Evelyn Nesbit Being Cross Examined During the Trial. From a Contemporary Newspaper Illustration
Evelyn Nesbit Being Cross Examined During the Trial. From a Contemporary Newspaper Illustration

The Trial of the Century

Stanford was put on trial for murder. His mother organized the best possible defense that money could buy. She hired the best lawyers and recruited a team of prominent psychiatrists to say that her son had been temporarily insane. The trial went on for weeks and cost Thaw's mother millions.

There was intense interest in the trial from the start because of the prominent social status of the people involved and Evelyn's role in the matter. Droves of reporters descended on the court house and reported every detail. The newspapers of the day, termed this the Trial of the Century, a title which the O.J. Simpson trial would usurp just before the end of the century.

Evelyn testified on behalf of her husband, claiming that Stanford White had raped her and portraying him as an evil manipulator. She made a sympathetic figure, trying to explain why her husband had done what he did. We will never know if she was lying. In fact, her performance in the witness box, may have been her finest acting role. It has been claimed that Thaw's mother made a deal with Evelyn, agreeing to pay her varying amounts of money for her favorable testimony, with a large bonus if her son was acquitted.

The public interest was excited by the fact that Evelyn was forced to recount every detail of her night with Stanford White and her subsequent sexual relationship with him. The newspapers provided non-stop coverage of her testimony. Religious groups protested, arguing that these stories, which they termed pornographic, should be censored. As a result of the publicity, the jury was ordered to be sequestered so they would not be influenced by the media; it was the first time in American legal history that this had happened, so the first Trial of the Century set a precedent.

Thaw Leaving the Court House A Free Man After the First Hung Jury
Thaw Leaving the Court House A Free Man After the First Hung Jury

The Verdict

There were in fact two "Trials of the Century" involving Thaw and the murder of Stanford White. In the first trial, the jury deadlocked. He was tried again and found not guilty by reason of insanity at his second trial.

Thaw was committed to an insane asylum but because of his wealth he was able to buy privileges that the other inmates did not enjoy, including spacious private accommodations, good food, and conjugal visits. While her husband was incarcerated, Evelyn became pregnant with her only son, whom she claimed to have conceived by him during a conjugal visit. However Thaw denied paternity and they later divorced.

Seven years after his trial, Thaw was declared sane and released.

Promotional Material for One of Evelyn Nesbit's Later Films. Her Acting Career Was Not Successful After the Scandal
Promotional Material for One of Evelyn Nesbit's Later Films. Her Acting Career Was Not Successful After the Scandal

The Aftermath

Despite being married to a millionaire, Evelyn received no settlement in the divorce and had to try to earn a living by returning to show business. She acted in some movies but never regained her success, as she was forever tainted by the scandal and no press coverage of her would fail to mention her role in the murder of Stanford White.

She married again, this time to a fellow actor and dancer, but the marriage ended quickly as her second husband chafed under the publicity. She turned to alcohol and made at least one suicide attempt.

Her first husband, now declared sane, continued his obsession and had her followed by private detectives for decades after they had divorced. When they reported to him that she was hospitalized from a suicide attempt, he went to her, and there was talk of a reconciliation, but nothing came of it. He did however start paying her the measly sum of $10 a day as an allowance.

When he died in 1947, Thaw left her $10,000 in his will, despite his vast fortune. Evelyn continued to act sporadically, and died poor and largely forgotten in 1967, at the age of 82.

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