Evelyn Nesbit, the Benevolent Vampire, and the Crime of the Century

She was one of the most iconic faces of the early 1900s but her life was anything but ideal...
She was one of the most iconic faces of the early 1900s but her life was anything but ideal…
She was only sixteen, only sixteen, when he deceived her so. She was too young to fall in love, and when he, Stanford White, famed Gilded Age architect drugged and raped Evelyn Nesbit, he was old enough to be her grandfather.

The designer of the original Madison Square Garden and the Washington Memorial Arch in Greenwich Village, Stanford White was at the peak of his creativity in the early 20th century. He was, prior to her marriage in 1905, involved with the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, America’s first supermodel and modern celebrity. She was the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty becoming the model for the famed Gibson Girl. Evelyn became one of the most in-demand artists’ models of that time, posing for the top artists of the day including James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick S. Church, and Rudolf Eickmeyer, Jr.

When she was introduced to the 47-year-old Stanford White in 1901, Evelyn was a Floradora girl on Broadway. She was “Kittens” to White, “Evie” to John Barrymore and finally, “Boofuls” to her mad as a hatter husband Harry Thaw. As Paula Uruburu notes in her biography of Evelyn, American Eve, (2008) such was Evelyn’s beauty and popularity that she was selling everything from Fairy Soap to fur coats, Oleo margarine to sewing machines, toothpaste to subscriptions to Woman’s Home Companion. Her likeness appeared on tobacco cards, playing cards, pocket mirrors, and beer trays.

White had a loft apartment above, of all places, FAO Schwarz on 24th street. In her memoir Prodigal Days, Nesbit remembers her introduction to White at the apartment as he poured her a glass of champagne and led her upstairs to a studio with a red velvet swing hanging from the ceiling. She had come to trust him, saying, in her autobiography of that fateful night that she felt an overwhelming “sense of security and well being.” It was in that very apartment that White gave Nesbit drugged champagne and raped her. She was led to a room in which the walls and ceiling were covered with mirrors and the floor with imitation glass. After drugging and raping her, Evelyn remembers White saying to her “Don’t cry, Kittens. Please don’t cry. It’s all over. Now you belong to me,” adding “Don’t talk, Evelyn” about this to anyone. Evelyn would come to realize that White had dominated her by “his kindness and by his authority.” She came to call him the “benevolent vampire.”

Henry Thaw during his trial for the murder of Stanford White.
Henry Thaw during his trial for the murder of Stanford White.
Evelyn became White’s mistress until she married millionaire Henry Kendall Thaw who had pursued her relentlessly. But Evelyn was not safe with Thaw. He was a sadistic madman, and on their wedding night he beat her with a riding crop and raped her. Evelyn had gone from one hell to another, but there was more to come. She was also at the center of the crime of the century. In 1906, Henry Kendall Thaw’s drug addiction and mental illness led to his false belief that Stanford White was still involved with his Evelyn. On June 25, 1906, Thaw found White at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theatre. There, he shot three bullets into White, killing him. The resulting court case was among the most sensational murder trials in the annals of American court cases. Many miniature red velvet swings were sold. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

Thaw was eventually freed from his asylum, but Evelyn never caught a break. Thaw refused to acknowledge their son and Evelyn Nesbit, the most beautiful girl in the world, died in penury.


Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.

Read all posts by Susan Amper for Criminal Element.

Comments

  1. Deborah Lacy

    Susan – What a tragic, but interesting story. And one I had never heard before. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. s.amper

    Deborah,

    You’re welcome.

    It’s a great, great story. And would make a terrific movie. (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing with Joan Collins cannot be said to count).

  3. Deborah/TheBookishDame

    I’ve always been intrigued by the Gibson Girls, and didn’t know the story behind Evelyn. What a fantastic one it is. I would love to read a book about it with all the details. Amazing how famous beauties rarely live lives of simplicity and true love.

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