Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl in the musical “Florodora,” dined alone with the architect Stanford White in his townhouse on 24th Street in New York in 1901. Nesbit was just sixteen years old and had recently moved to the city. White was forty-seven and a principal in the prominent architectural firm McKim, Mead & White.
As a foremost architect of his day, he had a measure of celebrity, and the responsibility for designing countless landmark buildings in Manhattan. That evening, after drinking champagne, Stanford White raped her Evelyn Nesbit.
Like many victims of rape, she told no one until several years later, when she confided in Harry Thaw, the millionaire playboy who would later become her husband. Thaw, seeking revenge, shot and killed White in 1906 before hundreds of theatergoers during a performance in Madison Square Garden, a building that White had designed.
The trial gripped the nation. Most Americans agreed with Thaw that he had been justified in killing White, but the district attorney sought to send him to the electric chair. Evelyn Nesbit’s testimony was so explicit and shocking that Theodore Roosevelt called on the newspapers not to print it verbatim.
The murder of White cast a long shadow: Harry Thaw later attempted suicide, and Evelyn Nesbit struggled for many years to escape addiction.
Simon Baatz’s book The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Little, Brown & Co., 2018) is a comprehensive account of White’s murder. The book tells of the complicated legal maneuvers that enabled Thaw to escape a death sentence and to eventually return to a life of wealth and leisure.
Simon Baatz is a professor of history at John Jay College, City University of New York, where he teaches American legal history. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a PhD in American history. His previous book, For the Thrill of It, an account of the Leopold-Loeb case, was a finalist for the Edgar Allen Poe Award.
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