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Two powerful American millionaires collided over this American beauty, and she outlasted them both.
Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 4, The Thread explores the controversial criminal defense that ties together some of the most notorious crimes in history: not guilty by reason of insanity. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.
Evelyn Nesbit was America’s first pinup model. The first true “it” girl of the photographic age, the copper-haired teenager took the country by storm at the beginning of the 20th century. Nesbit had a distinctive beauty that set her apart from the other models of her day. Soon her large haunting eyes, her Mona Lisa half-smile and her enchanting, angelic face were everywhere, from magazines like Vanity Fair to toothpaste advertisements.
By the age of 16, she had become an American sweetheart — one columnist even dubbed her the “modern Helen,” as in the face that launched a thousand ships. But Nesbit was about to become even more famous. And, like Helen of Troy, Nesbit’s beauty would prove lethal and put her at the center of a murderous love triangle that transfixed the nation. That murder and the resulting trial are the subject of episode four of Season 4 of The Thread. In this latest season of OZY’s hit history podcast, we examine how some of history’s most notorious criminal defendants are linked by a common thread: the insanity defense.
Evelyn’s mysterious and alluring face was everywhere.
Evelyn Nesbit grew up to experience both the highs and the lows of life in the Gilded Age, a time when economic growth was fueling massive fortunes and also rampant poverty and inequality. Raised in Pennsylvania, Nesbit was just 11 when her father died, leaving her, her mother and her younger brother in dire financial straits. Hoping for a better life, Nesbit’s mother moved the family to New York in 1900, and Evelyn began modeling at age 14 to help bring in money.
Fashion photography was just taking off, and photographs were beginning to replace illustrations in print advertisements. It wasn’t long before Evelyn’s mysterious and alluring face was everywhere. Her likeness appeared in everything from ads for sewing machines, face creams, chocolates and soap to cigarette cards, beer trays and countless magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Ladies’ Home Journal. Nesbit posed dressed as a geisha, goddess and nymph, and for famous artwork such as Innocence, by sculptor George Grey Barnard. “Everybody said — and now it’s funny when you say it — she had a face to die for,” says Paula Uruburu, author of a biography of Nesbit, American Eve, “which was, of course, what was going to happen.”
The murder inspired by Nesbit began when a 47-year-old New York big shot named Stanford White took a fancy to the 16-year-old while she was performing in a successful Broadway musical. White was no ordinary admirer or gentleman suitor. He was New York’s most famous living architect, one responsible for landmarks like the Washington Square Arch and Madison Square Garden, which he also owned. A notorious womanizer, White had the means to pursue the much younger objects of his affection with persistence and immunity. As Nesbit herself would put it later, White was a “benevolent vampire” who “found girls easy prey.”
White began an elaborate seduction of the beautiful teenager, inviting her to lavish lunches and dinner parties. He became her patron, her protector, her mentor … and her lover. One evening, White had Nesbit over for dinner and offered her a glass of champagne in a room filled with mirrors and with a four-poster canopied bed. The champagne was bitter, as Nesbit later recounted, and “when I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off me.” The impact of White’s sexual assault, however, did not end that evening, nor with the end of his relationship with Nesbit months later.
When Nesbit’s husband, Harry Thaw, a wealthy, and unstable, industrialist from Pittsburgh, later learned what White had done, he grew obsessed with the architect. Thaw, or “Mad Harry” as he was sometimes known, had a long history of violent behavior — he had once chased a man down the street with a shotgun because he believed he had been cheated out of 10 cents in change. And, in 1906, when he and Nesbit attended a performance at the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden, Thaw did something about his anger, pulling a gun on White in the middle of the performance and shooting him three times.
The resulting murder trial became a national spectacle, and at its center was Evelyn Nesbit, giving the performance of her life on the witness stand in an attempt to save her husband from the electric chair (she later said that Thaw became “America’s pet murderer”). Nesbit’s testimony about White’s seduction and assault helped win public sympathy for Thaw, but it was ultimately a novel application of the insanity defense — for a crime committed as the result of a temporary “brainstorm” — that saved Thaw’s skin.
Thaw spent years in an asylum, and he and Nesbit eventually divorced. America’s sweetheart never regained the same spotlight. She worked as a silent movie actress, a dancer and a vaudeville performer and wrote her memoirs, but succumbed to alcoholism and drug addiction. Her story has been told in two films, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955) and Ragtime (1981). “I rocked civilization,” Nesbit recounted shortly before her death at age 82.