Harry K. Thaw

Harry Kendall Thaw (February 12, 1871 – February 22, 1947) was the son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. Heir to a multimillion-dollar mine and railroad fortune, Thaw had a history of severe mental instability and led a profligate life. His historical legacy rests on one notorious act: on June 25, 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Thaw murdered renowned architect Stanford White, who had sexually assaulted Thaw's wife, model/chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit.

 

Plagued by mental illness since childhood, Thaw spent money lavishly to fund his obsessive partying, his drug addiction, and the gratification of his sexual appetites.  The Thaw family wealth allowed them to buy the silence of those individuals who threatened to make public the worst of Thaw’s reckless behavior and licentious transgressions. Throughout his life, however, he had several serious confrontations with the criminal justice system, which resulted in his incarceration in mental institutions.

 

Thaw shot and killed Stanford White as a result of his jealousy over the relationship between his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, and White. After one hung jury, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Years later, White's son Lawrence Grant White would write, "On the night of June 25th, 1906, while attending a performance at Madison Square Garden, Stanford White was shot from behind by a crazed profligate whose great wealth was used to besmirch his victim's memory during the series of notorious trials that ensued."

Thaw had been in the audience of The Wild Rose, a show in which Evelyn Nesbit, a popular artist's model and chorus girl, was a featured player. The smitten Thaw attended some forty performances for the better part of a year. Through an intermediary, he ultimately arranged a meeting with Nesbit, introducing himself as "Mr. Munroe." Thaw maintained this subterfuge, with the help of confederates, while showering her with gifts and money before he felt the time was right to reveal his true identity. The day came when he confronted Nesbit and announced with self-important brio, "I am not Munroe...I am Henry Kendall Thaw, of Pittsburgh!"

 

Candid about his dislike of Thaw, Stanford White warned Nesbit to stay away from him. His cautions were generalizations, lacking the sordid specifics that would have alerted Nesbit to Thaw’s all too real, aberrant proclivities. A bout of presumed appendicitis put Nesbit in the hospital and provided Thaw with an opportunity to insert himself emphatically into her life. Thaw 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, Nesbit was moved to a sanatorium in upstate New York, where both White and Thaw visited often, though never at the same time.

Thaw had pursued Nesbit obsessively for nearly four years, continuously pressing her for marriage. Craving financial stability in her life, and in doing so denying Thaw’s tenuous grasp on reality, Nesbit finally consented to become Thaw’s wife. They were wed on April 4, 1905. Thaw himself chose the wedding dress. Eschewing the traditional white gown, he dressed her in a black traveling suit decorated with brown trim.

 

The two took up residence in the Thaw family home, Lyndhurst, in Pittsburgh. In later years Nesbit took measure of life in the Thaw household. The Thaws were anything but intellectuals. Their value system was shallow and self-serving, "the plane of materialism which finds joy in the little things that do not matter—the appearance of ...[things]."

 

Envisioning a life of travel and entertaining, Nesbit was rudely awakened to a reality markedly different; a household ruled over by the sanctimonious propriety of "Mother Thaw". Thaw himself entered into his mother’s sphere of influence, seemingly without protest, taking on the pose of pious son and husband. It was at this time that Thaw instituted a zealous campaign to expose Stanford White, corresponding with the reformer Anthony Comstock, the infamous crusader for moral probity and the expulsion of vice. Because of this activity, Thaw became convinced that he was being stalked by members of the notorious Monk Eastman Gang, hired by White to kill him. Thaw started to carry a gun. Nesbit later corroborated his mind-set: "[Thaw] imagined his life was in danger because of the work he was doing in connection with the vigilance societies and the exposures he had made to those societies of the happenings in White’s flat."

It is conjectured that Stanford White himself was unaware of Harry Kendall Thaw’s long-standing vendetta against him. White considered Thaw a poseur of little consequence, categorized him as a clown—and most tellingly, called him the "Pennsylvania pug"—a reference to Thaw’s baby-faced features.

 

June 25, 1906 was an inordinately hot day. Thaw and Nesbit were stopping in New York briefly before boarding a luxury liner bound for a European holiday.  Thaw had purchased tickets for himself, two of his male friends and his wife for a new show, Mam'zelle Champagne, playing on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. In spite of the suffocating heat, which did not abate as night fell, Thaw inappropriately wore a long black overcoat over his tuxedo, which he refused to take off throughout the entire evening.

 

At 11:00pm, as the stage show was coming to a close, Stanford White appeared, taking his place at the table that was customarily reserved for him.  Thaw had been agitated all evening, and abruptly bounced back and forth from his own table throughout the performance. Spotting White’s arrival, Thaw tentatively approached him several times, each time withdrawing in hesitation. During the finale, "I Could Love A Million Girls", Thaw produced a pistol, and standing some two feet from his target, fired three shots at Stanford White, killing him instantly. Part of White’s blood-covered face was torn away and the rest of his features were unrecognizable, blackened by gunpowder.  Thaw remained standing over White’s fallen body, displaying the gun aloft in the air, resoundingly proclaiming, according to witness reports, "I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then abandoned her!"

 

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, still brandishing the gun high above his head, walked through the crowd and met Evelyn at the elevator. When she asked what he had done, Thaw purportedly replied, "It's all right, I probably saved your life."