What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Here’s a brief look at two such cases from the opening of Chapter 4 of Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing.
Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown: Visibility and Sexuality in the City, 1906
On the evening of June 25, 1906, the play Mam’zelle Champagne opened at the Roof Garden Theater atop what was still the new Madison Square Garden. On this particular evening, its architect, Stanford White, sat in the audience enjoying the musical comedy, seemingly unaware of the intense stares of a young man who, unusually for the warm evening, was wearing an overcoat. As the tenor swung into “I Could Love a Million Girls,” the young man left his seat and walked directly in front of White. “You have ruined my life!” the young man shouted, pulling a revolver from his coat and shooting White three times in the head and chest.
White slumped to the floor, already dead and disfigured with powder burns, and the young man walked in a leisurely fashion toward the exit where, stopped by a uniformed fireman, he handed over his gun. The beautiful young woman who had accompanied him to the theater cried out, “Oh, Harry, what have you done? You’re in a terrible fix now.” “It’s all right, dear,” the young man replied calmly. “I have probably saved your life.” He kept moving toward the elevators, later surrendering himself to police at the nearest precinct house and posing with supreme confidence for the waiting crowd of photographers.[i]
The young man was Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire from Pittsburgh, and the beautiful young woman with him was his unhappy wife, Evelyn Nesbit, who even before the murder was as famous in her own sphere as White was in his. Supporting her mother and brother through her work as a child model, Nesbit had moved to New York as a teenager and became a well-known artists’ model widely sought out for her soulful looks and masses of dark hair. Nesbit posed for such noted figures as Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his iconic “Gibson Girl” portrait “The Eternal Question,” and by her late teens, she had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies before marrying millionaire Harry Thaw.
What her testimony at Thaw’s trial revealed was another life lived between the stage and her marriage: her years as White’s teenage protégée and mistress. When she told the story to Thaw before their marriage in 1905, he became obsessed with the idea of innocence destroyed by White’s debauchery and forced her to recite the story repeatedly, brooding about it until he murdered White. On April 11, 1907, Thaw’s first trial ended in a hung jury; the second concluded in February 1908 with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
In a pattern that would become familiar in years to come, Nesbit’s story, first reproduced in the newspapers and later appearing in her two autobiographies, was reenacted by Nesbit herself in a series of a dozen movies beginning with The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case (1907) and The Great Thaw Trial (1907) and concluding with a Hollywood version on which Nesbit served as technical advisor, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).[ii]
The Thaw case vied for attention with a later 1906 trial that dominated the New York press when Chester Gillette declared his innocence in the murder of Grace (Billy) Brown in upstate New York. The Thaw and Gillette trials contained the same irresistible elements, a combination of sex and violence in the unspooling narrative, breathlessly reported, of a young woman ruined by a man of higher social class. Chester Gillette’s victim, Grace Brown, had moved a few years earlier from her family’s small farm in upstate New York to the nearby city of Cortland. She found work in the Gillette Skirt Factory and later began a relationship with the owner’s nephew, Chester Gillette.
When Grace discovered that she was pregnant in the spring of 1906, Chester urged her to return to her family’s farm, promising to rescue her at a later date. By early July, when he had not done so, Grace threatened to return to Cortland and hold him accountable. Chester then took her on a trip to the nearby Adirondack Mountains from which she never returned.
A few years later, Theodore Dreiser used the Gillette case as the basis for An American Tragedy (1925), and it had a second life as media fodder in its two film adaptations, Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), a production that caused both Dreiser and Grace Brown’s family to sue Paramount Pictures; and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters in a contemporary adaptation of the story.
[i] The account of the killing appears in Mosette Glaser Broderick, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, 495; and Paula M. Uruburu, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century.
[ii] Thaw, too, would go on to have Hollywood connections after his release from Mattewan; he sponsored Anita Page, a popular film star of the 1920s, during her first trip to Hollywood.
- Fun fact: Chester Gillette spent many of his formative years in Spokane, Washington, the subject of a future post.
- You can still see the rooming house where Grace Brown lived from the windows of the former Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, New York, where she and Chester worked.
- In addition to Nesbit’s accounts of the White murder, I read the actual Gillette trial transcripts in preparing this and the rest (which is in the book). They used to be online in the New York State archives but aren’t any more.
- The “Mead” of the famous architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White was the brother of Elinor Mead Howells, the wife of W. D. Howells. I’m still looking for Howells’s comments (if any) on the trial because of this connection.
- The “Biography Corner” label is expanding to include little pieces like this in addition to reviews.