The girl on the velvet swing : sex, murder, and madness at the dawn of the twentieth century

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz examines the murder of New York’s premier architect of the Gilded Age, Stanford White by Harry Kendall Thaw. Baatz, an Associate Professor of History at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, examines the events surrounding the murder with a legal historian’s eye, paying particular attention to the trial and its aftermath. Baatz provides a fascinating and provocative analysis of an event that has been largely purged from popular consciousness.

Today, the name Evelyn Nesbit has been largely forgotten by the public, but over a century ago she was at the center of the nation’s attention. At the turn of the 20th century, Nesbit’s face was everywhere: calendars, magazines, newspapers, artwork and even tourist souvenirs; she was immortalized as the embodiment of Charles Dana Gibson’s ‘Gibson Girl," and effectively stood as America’s very first supermodel. In 1900, Nesbit’s beauty had commanded the attention of photographers, artists, theatrical producers, and notably, New York’s most famous architect, Stanford White.

Stanford White was the architect of the original Madison Square Garden building and was regularly commissioned by New York’s Gilded Age aristocracy to design their dream homes. White’s professional credentials were irreprochable and his status within New York society was assured, but he also had a dark side. White was a hedonist and an ephebophile, with a fondness for teenage girls. When they were introduced, White was 47 years old and Evelyn Nesbit was only 16 years old. Nesbit would eventually recount that Stanford White invited her to dine with him alone at his apartment one evening, then proceeded to drug and sexually assault her. She kept this revelation a secret for a number of years until she was romantically pursued by Harry Kendall Thaw, an heir to a railroad and coal fortune. Nesbit confessed the assault for the first time to Thaw while the pair were touring Europe.

Thaw was known to be irreverent, eccentric and unpredictable, yet despite Nesbit’s reservations, she married him in April 1905. Thaw’s growing obsession with White to exact revenge for his wife’s lost honor came to a head on June 25, 1906 when Thaw confronted White during a theatrical performance at Madison Square Garden. Thaw shot and killed White in full view of New York’s theater-going elite. The New York Press would designate the ensuing murder trial and the unfolding drama behind it as “the trial of the century."

Nesbit typically has been a focal point in books, but much of it seems to focus on her as a caricature rather than an actual person: the beautiful, tragic victim in a twisted and sordid tale. Baatz acknowledges her reality as a young girl placed in the position of designated breadwinner for her family. Nesbit was performing on stage and modeling at an age when most of her peers were probably in school. Social expectations placed on young women at the time, and inexperience, allowed Evelyn to remain incredibly naive as she was thrust into some of New York’s most lecherous and nefarious circles. Her mother, Florence, was her only guardian but was frequently absent or sidelined from her daughter’s life, and rarely questioned the generosity of men who chose to fund the family’s expenses, and that included Stanford White. When Florence became aware that Stanford White had assaulted her daughter, she refused to believe it. She felt White’s motives could have been only altruistic, and shockingly, she cooperated with the prosecution to help undermine Nesbit’s credibility on the witness stand.

Despite being the titular 'girl,' Nesbit’s story takes a backseat to her husband in the latter half of the book. Thaw’s trial and what happened to him are quite astonishing: not one, but two criminal trials; questions regarding his sanity; a D.A. who actively placed a known perjurer on the stand in an attempt to discredit Thaw; an elaborate escape from a mental institution; an international manhunt; revelations about his sadomasochistic interests; his wealthy family’s attempt to purchase Thaw’s freedom while systematically trying to destroy the credibility of the Matteawan state hospital; legal considerations regarding both state-to-state and international extradition; and some incredibly complex legal conundrums. It is clear that Baatz is in his element when looking at the legal ramifications of the case, making the second half of the book both fascinating and thought-provoking. Baatz also raises questions about the veracity of certain aspects of the narrative that have gone unchallenged for decades. Moreover, he shows that, while the White-Thaw-Nesbit affair was certainly the same sensational tale portrayed in the press, it also was one that managed to raise some genuine questions about the law that are quite astonishing when considered today.