The Cottager: Obsession turns to murder in the Gilded Age
Harry K. Thaw waited patiently for the milk to be delivered on the morning of Aug. 17, 1913.
A bell sounded, signaling the arrival of the milk cart. As the gate opened to allow the cart passage onto the property, Thaw was waiting, squeezing between the gate and the milk cart as it passed by.
Thaw broke into a sprint as he made his way to a black six-cylinder Packard touring car that was waiting for him. The car sped off, racing for the Connecticut border.
Thaw had escaped from Matteawan State Hospital, an asylum for the criminally insane in Fishkill, N.Y.
Thaw was no ordinary prisoner. He was from a prominent wealthy family in Pittsburgh, Penn. In short, he was a millionaire.
And he was also a murderer. Seven years earlier, on June 25, 1906, Thaw had murdered famed architect Stanford White, of McKim, Mead and White, during a performance of "Mamzelle Champagne" at Madison Square Garden. He had been tried twice for the murder. The first trial ended in a hung jury. The second found him not guilty by reason of insanity.
A short while after Thaw's escape, police were hunting him down. His destination was without doubt Canada, but the authorities disagreed on how he would get there. Some thought he would travel north by car; others thought he would leave Connecticut by boat. The escape by boat was the heavily favored theory, as an article in the New York Times stated, "He would find good roads by way of Great Barrington and Pittsfield, Mass., but he would also find them well policed. Because of the heavy automobile traffic, especially on Sunday, in the Berkshires, a sharp watch is kept for speeders, and the most certain way for him to get into trouble would be to pass through there at great speed."
But Thaw would pass through the Berkshires, where the name of Stanford White was associated with several Gilded Age homes and buildings, including Searles Castle in Great Barrington, Naumkeag, the Stockbridge railroad station and the Stockbridge Casino, now the Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Stage, in Stockbridge. In fact, the fugitive millionaire dined in Lenox before proceeding on to New Hampshire and then Canada.
Thaw's family, thought to have orchestrated the escape, was sure he would not be extradited, but Canada wanted no part of the man. His doctors and lawyers arrived, prepared to challenge the country's immigration law.
"In the middle of the night, four police officers and an immigration inspector broke into his hotel room, force him to get dressed and drag him into an awaiting car. They drive to to border and literally threw him back into the U.S.," said Simon Baatz, author of "The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century," during a recent Tea and Talk at Ventfort Hall Mansion and Gilded Age Museum.
The story of Thaw and White begins with one of the first "It Girls," Evelyn Nesbit.
Nesbit, one of the original "Gibson Girls," was a popular model among artists and photographers. Her face was on the covers of the top magazines. She was supporting her mother and brother, when she landed the role of a chorus girl in the hit musical "Florodora." In 1901, at the age of 16, she met White, 47. He soon became a patron of the Nesbit family.
While her mother was away, Evelyn, under the suggestion of White was photographed in a kimono by the photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. The next night, Evelyn went to White's apartment after performing in "Florodora," for a dinner party. She was the only guest and by the end of the evening, Evelyn would pass out. She would awake naked and aware that she had lost her virginity.
The friendship between White and Nesbit would continue for another year. When other men were smitten with her, White would intervene. One suitor, Harry Thaw, would prompt White to pay to send Evelyn to a finishing school in New Jersey.
It seemed her budding relationship with Thaw was cut short, Evelyn in New Jersey and Thaw headed to Europe. But Evelyn would have an acute attack of appendicitis, forcing her to leave school. During her hospital stay, Thaw, back from Europe would dote on her.
Evelyn would later travel to Europe with Thaw, where he would purpose and she would refuse, telling him that she had been raped by White and was unworthy. White learning of Evelyn's new relationship would warn her of Thaw's sordid deeds — it was rumored he lured young actresses to an apartment, where he would beat them with whips.
Despite his warnings, Evelyn would marry Thaw in 1905. Her marriage was ill-matched, as Thaw's mother disapproved of her new daughter-in-law. She abhorred the thought her daughter-in-law had been an actress and was more distressed when the 1901 photos of Evelyn began appearing in advertisements and calendars.
Meanwhile, her husband's obsession with White was growing day-by-day. He hired private investigators to follow White.
Then, on June 25, 1906, Thaw, along with Evelyn and a friend, dined in New York City, before heading to the rooftop of Madison Square Garden for a show. They were seated at a table, where Thaw spent a few moments before getting up to talk to an acquaintance. White entered at 10:55 p.m. Thaw made his way to White's table, pulled out a gun and fired three shots. White slumped over and Thaw raised his gun in the air to indicate he was done. He turned himself into the first police officer who arrived.
"Then he added the man had ruined his life — or wife — I couldn't distinctly make it out," the officer told the New York Times.
Evelyn and Thaw would divorce in 1915. Thaw was arrested in 1917 for the kidnapping and whipping of a young man. He was declared insane and heavily guarded during his stay in the asylum. He would eventually be released.
White, a celebrated architect, went to his grave an accused rapist. His reputation would suffer even further during Thaw's two trials.
But did the rape even happen? Nesbit recanted the rape in her autobiography. Then what was Thaw's motive?
"Thaw believed White kept him from becoming a member of the right social clubs in New York," Baatz said. "Thaw wasn't a member of the New York social scene. He was an outsider. But, White was a member of every club he applied to. He was obsessed with Stanford White."
The Cottager is an award-winning column that runs biweekly in Berkshires Week and the Shires of Vermont. Reach Jennifer Huberdeau at firstname.lastname@example.org
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