Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stanford White Murder

The Trial of the Century

Even though the twentieth century had only begun, newspapers dubbed Henry K. Thaws murder trial The Trial of the Century. Muckrakers dug up all sorts of stories about Whites lascivious behavior with young women. Competing papers found young girls that insisted White was a perfect gentleman. The famous moralist Anthony Comstock firmly sided with Thaw, saying that America would be better off with more men like Thaw. President Roosevelt followed the case carefully.

In one shocking twist, Evelyns own mother now Mrs. Charles Holman, announced her intention to clear Whites good name. She released a statement deriding Thaw and praising White to the heavens. She claimed Evelyn was head-strong, self-willed and beautiful and that led to all her trouble. Mother Thaw dispatched a lawyer to see the Holmans, and quite suddenly Evelyns mother was too sick to testify for the prosecution.

Meanwhile, the press relentlessly swarmed around Evelyn. She told them she was confident her husband would be vindicated. She rarely left her hotel except for her daily visits to her husbands jail cell. Privately, Mother Thaw had agreed to pay her daughter-in-law a million dollars to stand by her son and (rumor had it) divorce him quietly when the trouble was finished.

Thaw was kept in the legendary New York jail, known as The Tombs. Although denied bail, he bribed himself into relative comfort. He had his meals delivered from Delmonicos and surrounded himself with comforts like linens, pillows and Tiffany lamps. He chatted amicably with the guards and smoked cigars with them.

Harry's sister, Countess of Yarmouth (left) and Mother Thaw at the trial.
Harry's sister, Countess of Yarmouth
(left) and Mother Thaw at the trial.
Six months after the murder, Thaws trial began. Mother Thaw hired a number of fine and expensive attorneys for her son. The nationally known criminal defense attorney Mr. Delphin Delmas led the team. His strategy was clear from the start. Thaw pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

The District Attorney, Mr. William Travers Jerome, saw it as a clear case of premeditated murder.

He called Whites nineteen-year-old son as his first witness. Lawrence Grant White had dined with his father the night of the murder before meeting some friends at a different theatre. At midnight, the police knocked on his townhouse door and informed him his father was dead. The young man rode to the family Long Island Estate to tell his mother. At the trial, Lawrence testified that his father had been in excellent spirits that night.

More witnesses followed. Walter Paxton, The Madison Square Garden engineer, testified to the conversation Thaw had with Evelyn at the elevators. The doctor who treated White at the scene identified Thaw as the killer.

Then, the prosecution rested, and the defense began their long-winded case. First, a parade of doctors and friends testified to Thaws irrational behavior. More witnesses dragged the victims reputation through the mud. All of this was a warm-up to the star attraction: the testimony of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.

She had attended the trial each day, dressed in the conservative style favored by the Thaw family. At her side was May Mackenzie, a close theater friend whose flamboyant dress contrasted with Evelyns and irritated the defense. Miss Mackenzies presence reminded the jury of the disreputable circles in which the younger Mrs. Thaw moved. Evelyn, who obeyed Mother Thaw and her lawyers on every other point, insisted she could not cope without the presence of her friend.

Evelyn on the stand.
Evelyn on the stand.
Finally, Delmas called Evelyn to the stand. The circus atmosphere reached its peak during the days she testified. A huge crowd gathered outside the courtroom, and newspapermen clamored to record every detail of the days events. Many noted that in her conservative clothing, Evelyn did not look a day over sixteen.

Delmas questioned Evelyn gently about her relationship with White. She told of his initial kindness and how White had gained the trust of her mother. She described in detail her lunchtime visits and romps on the velvet swing.

Then, Evelyn spoke of her ruin. She told the courtroom about the drugged champagne and yellow kimono. She described her tears and screams in the same vivid detail that shed employed in the Paris hotel room with Thaw. The courtroom hushed in shame, and even some jurors displayed visible outrage.

Delmas cleverly emphasized that Thaw had heard the same story, in the same awful detail. Evelyn told of her husbands tears and sobs when she had related her tale. Yet, despite the ruin, Thaw loved her enough to marry her.

Thaws face displayed anguish and love throughout the testimony as if he was reliving the pain all over again. Cynics whispered that Thaw had learned some tricks of the trade from his actress wife.

After a brief interval, the prosecution cross-examined Evelyn. Jerome did his best to bring to light Evelyns unsavory past. His questions implied that Evelyn knew well what the married Whites intentions were. He called into question whether the champagne had been drugged at all. She appeared nervous and scandalized by his inquires.

Did you love Stanford White? he asked.

No, Evelyn replied.

You hated him.

Yes.

He pressed her harder. Why, then, did Evelyn continue to meet White? Evelyn tearfully claimed to have resisted his caresses, but she and her family depended on his support. In addition, White had forcefully insisted on seeing her. Jerome brought up the deposition Evelyn had made against Thaw, but Evelyn claimed shed made the deposition under duress.

Jeromes attempt to portray Evelyn as a promiscuous liar backfired. Public sympathy remained with the young woman who pleaded for her husband.

The jury, however, returned without a verdict. Five jurors insisted Thaw was not guilty by reason of insanity. Seven believed him guilty of first-degree murder.

Nine months later, a second jury found Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge directed that he be incarcerated at an asylum in Matteawan. Thaw rode to the asylum on a private train car, packed with friends. They enjoyed whiskey, champagne and a fine meal, and crowds cheered Thaws arrival. Evelyn did not join him for the journey.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to win release or a transfer to a private facility, Thaw escaped from Matteawan to Canada. An outraged Jerome saw to it that Thaw was returned to the states and jailed. Alas, Jeromes pursuit was little more than a gesture. Thaw had reached folk hero status, and the courts eventually found him sane and set him free.

Many agreed with Jerome that his release was a gross miscarriage of justice. In strict legal terms, he was guilty. Thaw was aware of what he was doing and that it was illegal and wrong. However, there is also little doubt he suffered from severe mental illness his entire life. Had Thaw been born a century later, he likely would have benefited from medicine and psychiatric care that would have controlled his rages. At the very least, the murder would have been prevented.

 

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