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Harry Kendall Thaw
On February 22, 1947, notorious playboy and accused murderer Harry Kendall Thaw died in Miami, Florida. Thaw was the son of American coal and railroad baron William Thaw. Plagued by mental illness since childhood, Thaw led a profligate life. Heir to a multi-million dollar fortune, he spent money lavishly to fund his obsessive partying, drug addiction, and the gratification of his sexual appetites.
It is alleged that it was at this point in time that the term “playboy” entered the popular vocabulary coined to describe the lifestyle that Thaw so energetically pursued. The Thaw family wealth allowed them to buy the silence of those individuals who threatened to make public the worst of Thaw’s reckless behavior and licentious transgressions. Throughout his life, however, he had several serious confrontations with the criminal justice system, which resulted in his incarceration in mental institutions. His historical legacy rests on one notorious act. In 1906, on the rooftop theater of the original Madison Square Garden, Thaw murdered renowned architect Stanford White who had been a former lover of Thaw's wife, model/chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, who was immortalized as “The Girl on the Velvet Swing.”
Candid about his dislike of Thaw, Stanford White warned Nesbit to stay away from him. His cautions were generalizations, lacking the sordid specifics that would have alerted Nesbit to Thaw’s all too real, aberrant proclivities. Thaw pursued Nesbit obsessively for nearly four years, continuously pressing her for marriage. Craving financial stability in her life, and in doing so denying Thaw’s tenuous grasp on reality, Nesbit finally consented to become his wife. They were wed on April 4, 1905. The two took up residence in the Thaw family home in Pittsburgh. Envisioning a life of travel and entertaining, Nesbit was rudely awakened to a reality markedly different; a household, ruled over by the sanctimonious propriety of “Mother Thaw.” Thaw himself entered into his mother’s sphere of influence, seemingly without protest, taking on the pose of pious son and husband. It was at this time that Thaw instituted a zealous campaign to expose Stanford White, corresponding with Anthony Comstock, the infamous crusader for moral probity and the expulsion of vice. Because of this activity, Thaw became convinced that he was being stalked by members of the notorious Monk Eastman Gang, hired by White to kill him. Thaw started to carry a gun. It is conjectured that Stanford White himself was unaware of Harry Kendall Thaw’s long-standing vendetta against him.
June 25, 1906 was an inordinately hot day. Thaw and Nesbit were stopping in New York briefly before boarding a luxury liner bound for a European holiday. Thaw had purchased tickets for himself, two of his male friends and his wife for a show that was playing on the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. At 11:00 pm, as the stage show was coming to a close, Stanford White appeared, taking his place at the table that was customarily reserved for him. Thaw had been agitated all evening, and abruptly bounced back and forth from his own table throughout the performance. Spotting White’s arrival, Thaw tentatively approached him several times, each time withdrawing in hesitation. During the show’s finale, Thaw produced a pistol, and standing some two feet from his target, fired three shots at Stanford White killing him instantly. Thaw was charged with first-degree murder and denied bail.
The main issue in the case was the question of pre-meditation. The prosecution preferred not to take the case to trial by having Thaw declared legally insane. This was to serve a two-fold purpose. The approach would save time and money, and of equal if not greater consideration, it would avoid the unfavorable publicity that would no doubt be generated from disclosures made during testimony on the witness stand, revelations that threatened to discredit many of high social standing. Thaw’s first defense attorney, concurred with the prosecutorial position, seeing that an insanity plea was the only way to avoid a death sentence for his client. Thaw then dismissed his attorney who he was convinced wanted to railroad him as a being half-crazy.
Thaw’s mother, however, was adamant that her son not be stigmatized by clinical insanity. She pressed for the defense to follow a compromise strategy; one of temporary insanity. Protecting the Thaw family reputation had become nothing less than a vigilant crusade for Thaw’s mother. She proceeded to hire a team of doctors, at an enormous sum to substantiate that her son’s act of murder constituted a single aberrant act. Possibly concocted by the yellow press in concert with Thaw’s attorneys, the temporary insanity defense, in Thaw’s case, was dramatized as a uniquely American phenomenon. Branded “dementia Americana,” this catch phrase encompassed the male prerogative to revenge any woman whose sacred chastity had been violated. In essence, murder motivated by such a circumstance was the act of a man justifiably unbalanced.
Thaw was tried twice for the murder of Stanford White. Due to the unusual amount of publicity the case had garnered, it was ordered that the jury be sequestered, this was the first time in the history of American jurisprudence that such a restriction was ordered. The trial proceedings began on January 23, 1907, and the jury went into deliberation on April 11. After forty-seven hours, the twelve jurors emerged deadlocked. Thaw was outraged that the trial had not vindicated the murder; that the jurors had not recognized it was the act of one chivalrous man defending innocent womanhood. He went into fits of physical flailing and crying when he considered the very real possibility that he would be labeled a madman and imprisoned in an asylum. The second trial took place from January, 1908 through February 1, 1908. At the second trial Thaw had pleaded temporary insanity. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentenced to incarceration for life at the Matteawan State Hospital.
Nesbit had testified at both trials. It is conjectured the Thaws promised Nesbit a comfortable financial future if she provided testimony at trial favorable to Thaw’s case. It was a conditional agreement; if the outcome proved negative, she would receive nothing. Nesbit was now well aware that any solicitude or kindness shown her by the Thaw enclave was predicated on her pivotal performance on the witness stand. She was to present a pitiful portrait of innocence betrayed by the lascivious Stanford White. Thaw was to be the white knight whose noble, courageous act had avenged his wife’s ruin. Throughout the prolonged court proceedings, Nesbit had received financial support from the Thaws. These payments, made to her through the Thaw attorneys, had been inconsistent and far from generous. After the close of the second trial, the Thaws virtually abandoned Nesbit, cutting off all funds. Nesbit and Thaw were divorced in 1915.
Immediately after his commitment to Matteawan, Thaw marshaled the forces of a legal team charged with the mission of having him declared sane. The legal process was protracted. In 1914, Thaw was able to secure a new trial and was found not guilty on July 16, 1915 and set free. In the coming years, Thaw was jailed and charged with numerous kidnappings, beatings, and sexual assaults. For which he was again found not guilty by reason insanity and hospitalized. By 1924, Thaw was again deemed to be sane and set free. Thaw never regretted what he had done. Twenty years after having taken White's life Thaw said: “Under the same circumstances, I’d kill him tomorrow.” Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami, Florida on February 22, 1947.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: