The Crime Of The Century: Evelyn Nesbit And The Dawn Of Celebrity Trials

It was the first great celebrity trial in USA history.

The nation’s most brilliant architect was murdered at a society gathering by the insane multimillionaire son of a huge fortune over the honor of America’s first supermodel.

Even today, this would be a huge news story!

Evelyn Nesbit testified; The Murder Of Stanford White

We live in an era of 24 hour cable channels, innumerable celebrity websites, and entire cable networks devoted to celebrities, crime, murder, and trials. We’ve seen a Heisman award winner (wrongfully) acquitted of murdering his wife, America’s greatest pop star (questionably) acquitted of child molestation, and the USA’s most influential record producer (rightfully) convicted of murdering an actress. Throw into the mix the seemingly endless court appearances of people like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and dozens of reality TV stars, and it can be hard to understand why the murder of Stanford White was the first great crime of the century.

Evelyn Nesbit was the first “supermodel” in American history. She was a teenager of mesmerizing beauty from an impoverished background. Her mother brought her to New York where Evelyn’s beauty and talent made her the model for the “Gibson Girl,” a Broadway  performer, and the most in demand model in America. Her suitors included the publisher of Colliers magazine, Jack Barrymore, and an insane millionaire named Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh.

Don’t remember her name?  Think Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett or Kate Upton to get a sense of her allure and fame.

Stanford White was the most prominent architect of his era. In addition to designing the old Madison Square Garden, he designed building after building noted for their beauty and importance. A few years back, Chelsea Clinton actually got married in a Stanford White designed building. Although White was married, he was a reckless womanizer who fell hard for Evelyn. She was 30 years his junior. He won over her mother with lavish gifts and eventually took Evelyn’s virginity under circumstances that remain controversial.

Harry Thaw, despite his great wealth, had suffered from mental illness all his life. His use of drugs and alcohol only made his mental illness worse. He carried an unrelenting hatred for  Stanford White for reasons both real and imaginary. Winning against Stanford White became all-important to him. With a fanatical single-mindedness, Harry pursued Evelyn Nesbit until she finally relented. He sometimes treated her with great love. Then he subjected Evelyn to brutal beatings and unrelenting psychological abuse in his determination to get revenge against Stanford White. He twisted Evelyn’s words and became convinced that White had drugged and raped the teenage Evelyn.

On a warm night, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh shot and killed Stanford White at a society gathering watching a musical performance.

Evelyn Nesbit and The Murder Of Stanford White

The trials were a national sensation. Newspapers sold out, songs were written, everybody had an opinion. Thaw’s  lawyer cleverly argued that his client was merely defending the honor of his beautiful wife. The prosecutor saw it as a clear-cut case of cold-blooded murder. Eventually a jury declared Thaw  insane and he spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions. Evelyn Nesbit, the Marilyn Monroe of her era, faded from view, increasingly forgotten and  forlorn. Much later, a movie “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing,”

Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbi

Elizabeth McGovern As Evelyn Nesbit

would remind later generations of the fate of the 1st American supermodel.

We live in a celebrity obsessed era. No longer is talent required for fame. The only thing required for celebrity in America today is being on television, or the Internet. Do you remember the names of Jessica Hahn, Rita Jenrette, Donna Rice, Gennifer Flowers, or Paula Jones? They were all sex sirens in the news at one time. They went from being big news to a punchline on the Tonight Show in a matter of weeks. Evelyn Nesbit, in her day, was the most famous model in America. Today she is all but forgotten. I wonder if Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Snooki have ever heard of her.



11 thoughts on “The Crime Of The Century: Evelyn Nesbit And The Dawn Of Celebrity Trials

    • Betsy is the best true crime blogger there is! She was the eyes and ears of the public at both Phil Spector trials. Her website is fantastic!

      Betsy, when I was preparing the blog entry and my speech today, I kept thinking of how incredible it could have been if you had covered it back then – wouldn’t it have been fascinating?

    • Larry: The story of Evelyn Nesbit is fascinating – and certainly cautionary for people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Snooki. Enduring fame involves having a discernible talent. As a true crime story, is one of the most interesting of the 20th century. I certainly hope you can make the rest of the series!

  1. Love your lectures at NSSC!
    Think you turned Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers into
    one person! It was all understandable, however
    they each have a name!
    See you at next lecture!
    Mary Bogart

    • Mary,

      Thank you so much for your kind words about my lectures at NSSC! The crowds have been growing and are tremendously receptive and positive about the programs!

      I appreciate you catching my error. Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers are definitely 2 very different people. My inadvertent error in conflating them can be seen as proving my point about how quickly forgotten such scandal famous figures can be! I corrected the error. Interestingly, given the tremendous response to the presentation about Evelyn Nesbit, and my comments about other scandals, I’ve received several requests to do a presentation on presidential scandals. I’m definitely going to put that one in the hopper.

  2. I had never heard of this fascinating story until I read about it here. I am curious – you mentioned it as the “first” trial of the century. What was the next trial to earn the same amount of media hype? I love your blog and always look forward to your insights!

    • Thank you very much for reading my blog and for your question! While there certainly had been other highly publicized trials in American history before the murder of Stanford White, it was the 1st celebrity trial of its type. The next case to involve a celebrity and such massive publicity was the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh, Junior. Until relatively modern times, those were the only murder cases involving real American celebrities with the exception of the murder of a mobster by the daughter of Lana Turner. The past 2 decades have seen several celebrity murder trials including the murder of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown by O.J. Simpson, the Robert Blake trial, and the murder of Lana Clarkson by Phil Spector. Spector, one of the most influential record producers in history, is the only celebrity convicted of murder, If we only include people who were celebrities for reasons other than criminal activities before the time of the murder.

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