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Harry K. Thaw

From Academic Kids

Harry Kendall Thaw (February 12, 1871 - February 22, 1947), son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw.

Violent and paranoid almost since birth (his mother claimed his problems had started in the womb), Harry spent his childhood bouncing from private school to private school in Pittsburgh, never doing well and being described by teachers as an unintelligible boy and a troublemaker. Still, as the son of William Thaw, he was granted admission to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was to read law, though he apparently did little reading. 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 the shotgun had been unloaded.

After his expulsion, Thaw bounced around between Pennsylvania and New York, shooting up with both morphine and cocaine and frequenting broadway 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 appencitis 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 sanatarium in upstate New York, where both White and Thaw visited often, though never at the same time.

White's attentions soon waned, but Thaw remained an ardent admirer of Nesbit's, and after her release from the sanatarium, 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 deferred. 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 deflowered her, not to mention other things, and she claimed that she was unworthy to be Thaw's wife. This enraged Thaw, but did not dissuade his desire for her hand in marriage. He soon packed Mrs. Nesbit off 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 Mamzelle Champagne, a show the Thaws were planning to attend as well. Harry took Evelyn back to their hotel and disappeared, returning just in time to pick Evelyn up 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 hatcheck 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. Then during the finale, "I Could Love A Million Girls," Thaw 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. At the first, the jury was deadlocked: at the second, pleading 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 Evelyn got the divorce, but not the money. Thaw was incarcerated at the Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Matteawan (now Beacon), New York, enjoying nearly complete freedom. In 1913 he walked out of the asylum and was driven over the border to Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was extradited back to the United States, where he had become something of a folk hero. In 1915 another jury found him sane.

He moved back to Pittsburgh and immediately divorced Evelyn. Evelyn had given birth during Thaw's incarceration, and she claimed the child, Russell Thaw, was Harry's. Harry vehemently denied this. Throughout his life he continued to occasionally offer money to Evelyn, but it was never much and she never outlived her reputation as Mrs. Harry K. Thaw.

For his part, Thaw continued to live as he had always lived. The year after his release, he was accused of horsewhipping Fred B Gump, Jr., a teen-aged boy, and was adjudicated insane, and sent to an asylum where he spent seven years, being released in 1924.

That year, he purchased a historic home known as Kenilworth in Clearbrook, a farming community in Frederick County, Virginia. While living at Kenilworth, Thaw ingratiated himself with the locals, joined the Rouss Fire Company, and even marched in a few local parades in his fireman's uniform. He was regarded as an eccentric by the citizens of Clearbrook but does not seem to have run into a great deal of additional legal trouble. In 1944 he sold the Kenilworth home and moved to Florida. Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami in 1947 at the age of 76, leaving $10,000--less than 1% of his fortune--to Evelyn Nesbit in his will.


Books

  • 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

Fictional works based at least in part on the Thaw/White murder

External links

  • "Harry Thaw's trial" (http://www.lostnewyorkcity.com/buildingphotos/thaw.html) Scans of a dinner program with Jurists autographs
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