The Strange Life of Harry Thaw

“Ah, gentlemen, if you desire a name for this species of insanity let me suggest it—call it Dementia Americana. That is the species of insanity which makes every American man believe his home to be sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his daughter is sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his wife is sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe that whosoever invades his home, that whosoever stains the virtue of this threshold, has violated the highest of human laws and must appeal to the mercy of God, if mercy there be for him anywhere in the universe.”

-Defense Attorney, Delphin M. Delmas, 1907.

Harry Thaw in police custody

Thaw was born on February 12, 1871 to Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw.

Violent and paranoid from a very young age (his mother claimed his problems had started in the womb), he spent his childhood bouncing from private school to private school in Pittsburgh, never doing well and described by teachers as unintelligent and a troublemaker. Still, as the son of William Thaw, he was granted admission to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was to study law, though he apparently did little studying. After a few years he used his name and social status to transfer to Harvard University.

Thaw later bragged that he had studied poker at Harvard. He also went on long drinking binges, attended cockfights, and spent much of his time romancing young women. He was expelled after being picked up for chasing a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun, though he claimed it was unloaded.

Thaw has been credited with the invention of the speedball, an injected combination of morphine and/or heroin along with cocaine sometime between 1896 and 1906.  He was also reported by newspapers at the time of his trial to have once consumed an entire bottle of laudanum in a single sitting and carry a special silver case full of syringes and other parts of a large “outfit” of injecting equipment.

After his expulsion from Harvard, Thaw bounced around between Pennsylvania and New York, injecting himself with both morphine and cocaine and frequentingBroadway shows, which he described as “studying.” In fact, Thaw made a habit of studying chorus girls, and this hobby first brought him into contact with noted architect Stanford White. White, who had a similar hobby, had made some disparaging remarks about Thaw to a group of chorus girls Thaw was engaged in wooing, and Thaw blamed their subsequent snub on White’s influence. White soon became a focus of Thaw’s disjointed rage, and so when Thaw learned that White had begun paying special attention to Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl from the show Florodora, Thaw arranged to meet her at a party.

White warned Nesbit of Thaw, and Nesbit for a while avoided him. But a bout of presumed appendicitis put Nesbit in the hospital and provided Thaw with an opening. Harry came in bearing gifts and praise, managing to impress both Nesbit’s mother and the headmistress at the boarding school she attended. Later, under Stanford White’s orders, she was moved to a sanatorium in upstate New York, where both White and Thaw visited often, though never at the same time.

White’s attention soon waned, but Thaw remained an ardent admirer of Nesbit, and after her release from the sanatorium, Thaw invited her and her mother to visit Paris with him. In Europe, Thaw spent vast sums of money on Evelyn and her mother, and eventually proposed marriage to Evelyn, who demurred. Thaw, however, was not to be swayed, and for several weeks continued to press Evelyn for her hand.

Finally, under duress, Evelyn admitted to Thaw that Stanford White had indeed taken her virginity, and she claimed that she was unworthy to be Thaw’s wife. This enraged Thaw, but did not dissuade him from wanting Evelyn’s hand in marriage. He soon packed Mrs. Nesbit back to New York and took Evelyn to an isolated German castle, where he forced himself on Evelyn and beat her repeatedly with a dog whip. Perhaps out of fear, Evelyn nonetheless stayed with Thaw, eventually convincing him to let her return to New York.

Thaw remained enraptured with Evelyn, and over the course of several years he managed to wear her down. Then his mother arrived at Evelyn’s doorstep and announced that she wished for Evelyn to marry her son. Settling down, she said, would help curb Harry’s “eccentricities.” Evelyn at last gave in and returned to Pittsburgh to live with Harry and Mother Thaw. Harry’s obsession with her seemed to wane as soon as the two were married, and Harry sometimes disappeared to Europe or elsewhere for days at a time.

In the spring of 1906, Harry and Evelyn decided to travel to Europe and New York. On June 25, while in New York, Evelyn and Harry saw Stanford White while dining at the Cafe Martin. After learning that White was to attend the premiere of Mam’zelle Champagne, a show the Thaws were also planning to attend, Harry took Evelyn back to their hotel and disappeared, returning just in time to pick up Evelyn and head to the show – curiously dressed in a black overcoat, though it was a hot evening. At the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden, the hat check girl repeatedly tried to relieve Harry of his heavy coat, but he refused. He wandered through the crowd during the show, approaching White’s table several times, only to back away on each occasion. During the finale, “I Could Love A Million Girls”, Thaw produced a pistol and fired three shots at close range into Stanford White’s face, killing him.

The crowd initially suspected the shooting might be part of the show, as elaborate practical jokes were popular in high society at the time. Soon, however, it became apparent that Stanford White was dead. Thaw, holding the gun aloft, walked through the crowd and met Evelyn at the elevator. When she asked what he’d done, Thaw said that he had “probably saved your life.”

There were two trials, the first lasting from January–April 1907 and the second in January 1908.[3] At the first, the jury was deadlocked: at the second, where he pled insanity, Evelyn testified. Thaw’s mother told Evelyn that if she would testify that Stanford White abused her and that Harry only tried to protect her, she’d receive a divorce from Harry Thaw and one million dollars in compensation. She did just that, and performed in court wonderfully: he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Evelyn got the divorce, but not the money. Thaw testified that he had had a “brainstorm”, meaning a moment of temporary insanity.[4] Thaw was incarcerated at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York, enjoying nearly complete freedom. In 1913 he walked out of the asylum and was driven over the border to Sherbrooke, Quebec. His lawyer, William Lewis Shurtleff, fought extradition back to the United States, but he was deported and arrested in the United States.  In 1915, a jury judged him sane, and he was released.

Article Credit:  Wikipedia

Further Reading:

  • The Architect of Desire – Suzannah Lessard
  • Glamorous Sinners – Frederick L. Collins
  • Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age – Michael Mooney
  • The Murder of Stanford White – Gerald Langford
  • The Traitor – Harry K. Thaw
  • The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing – Charles Samuels – 1953
  • The Story of my Life – Evelyn Nesbit Thaw – 1914
  • Prodigal Days – Evelyn Nesbit Thaw – 1934
  • American Eve – Paula Uruburu – 2008