On June 25, 1906, New York City power couple Harry Thaw, a millionaire and heir to a mine and railroad fortune, and Evelyn Nesbit, a chorus girl in the musical Florodora, were at Madison Square Garden for opening night of the musical Mamzelle Champagne.
Also in attendance was celebrity Stanford White, the venue’s architect, and former acquaintance of Nesbit. He also allegedly raped Nesbit several years prior.
After Nesbit confided her secret shame to her husband, Thaw developed a thirst for revenge. Later that night, his rage came to a head when he shot and killed White in front of hundreds of other theatergoers.
The book, The Girl on the Velvet Swing by Simon Baatz, details the murder and subsequent “trial of the century” that followed. Below is an excerpt, reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company, of the murder that shocked the world.
Every producer of a musical hoped to repeat the success that Florodora had experienced a few years before. Harry Pincus, the producer of Mamzelle Champagne, had employed the same ingredients — catchy tunes, beautiful girls, dramatic scenes — but the magic that had worked so well for Florodora was missing from Mamzelle Champagne. The audience was already slightly restless, fretful that the play seemed so unexpectedly dreary. Harry Thaw quickly became impatient, irritated that he had brought his friends to see such a dull play. He found it impossible to sit still and he excused himself, whispering a few words to his companions before making his way to the south side of the roof, adjacent to Twenty-sixth Street.
An acquaintance, J. Clinch Smith, was sitting alone by the balustrade, and Thaw, seeing an empty chair, sat down next to his friend. Smith had studied law at Columbia University, but his inheritance allowed him to live as a man of leisure, sailing his yacht on Long Island Sound and riding his thoroughbreds on his country estate.
“How do you like the play?” Thaw began.
It was terribly slow, Smith replied; it surprised him that the theater had chosen Mamzelle Champagne to open its summer season.
Thaw nodded his agreement, saying only that it might be a success nevertheless; it was always difficult to predict the fate of a musical revue…
He glanced out across the theater, scanning the audience, and he noticed Evelyn trying to catch his eye, beckoning him to return to his seat.
“Excuse me,” he said, turning to Smith, “I am going down this way.”
Clinch Smith watched as Thaw made his way across the roof, walking along the side aisle and then threading a path through the maze of small tables. Evelyn Nesbit whispered some words to her husband, motioning to the empty seat by her side, and Harry Thaw sat down to watch the remainder of the play.
But Evelyn Nesbit also was impatient that Mamzelle Champagne was so dreary. She could not bear to sit still, to remain any longer in the theater. The play had not yet ended, but they started to leave, Evelyn and Thomas McCaleb in front, Harry Thaw and Truxtun Beale following.
Evelyn glanced behind her as they approached the elevator, looking to say some words to her husband, but he had disappeared. What had happened to Harry? How could he suddenly vanish? She looked around the roof, searching for him, thinking that perhaps he had returned to his seat to retrieve something. Where was he?
She was surprised to see, in the distance, directly in front of the stage, Stanford White sitting to one side, close to the balustrade, watching the play. He slouched in his seat, his right arm by his side, his left arm on the back of a neighboring chair. Suddenly she saw Harry, standing at the front of the theater, his right arm extended forward, his gun pointed directly at White.
At that moment Stanford White also noticed Thaw standing before him. White stiffened in his chair and started to rise to his feet; but it was too late. The first bullet entered White’s shoulder, tearing at his flesh and splintering the bone. White slumped backward, sending his wineglass crashing to the floor, and a second bullet hit him in the face, directly beneath his left eye. Thaw fired again and the third bullet hit White in the mouth, smashing his front teeth.
Stanford White died instantly, his body falling to the ground face forward, a thin rivulet of blood trickling outward from his head and spreading slowly across the floor. Harry
Thaw stood motionless, staring impassively at his victim, his gun still in his hand.
Two of the actors on the stage had engaged in a duel only moments before, and nearby spectators, those seated close to the stage, believed that the shooting of Stanford White was part of the play. But [the show’s stage manager] Lionel Lawrence, watching from the wings, had witnessed the murder and already realized that it might precipitate a general panic among the audience. The chorus girls onstage had seen the shooting also, and they stopped singing, their voices trailing away in their bewilderment.
“Sing, girls, sing!” Lawrence called to the chorus girls, “for God’s sake, sing! Don’t stop!”
The orchestra had stopped playing, the musicians still staring at the spot where White’s body lay motionless, the entire ensemble paralyzed by confusion and fear. “Keep the music going!” Lawrence cried, urging the orchestra to continue, hoping to reassure the audience and prevent a panic.
Harry Thaw, seemingly oblivious to the commotion, raised his right arm above his head, holding the gun by the barrel as if to indicate to the audience that he intended no further harm.
He now started to walk slowly down the center aisle, toward the rear of the theater, and as he advanced, the spectators started to rise to their feet, craning their necks to get a better view and to discover the cause of the disturbance.
Lionel Lawrence stepped from the wings, striding to the front of the stage, holding his arms in front of him with a gesture meant to reassure the audience that there was no cause for alarm. “A most unfortunate accident has happened!” Lawrence called out from the stage. “The management regrets to ask that the audience leave at once, in an orderly manner. There is no danger— only an accident that will prevent a continuance of the performance.”
Paul Brudi, the duty fireman, was the first person to reach Thaw, approaching him from behind and taking the gun, a blue-steel .22-caliber pistol, from his hand. Warner Paxton, a member of the audience, also came up behind Thaw, and both men, Brudi on the left, Paxton on the right, held Thaw, escorting him slowly down the center aisle toward the elevator at the rear of the theater.
There was no resistance, no attempt to escape on the part of Thaw. He had willingly given up his gun, and as he walked with his captors toward the exit, he started to speak, telling them why he had shot Stanford White.
“I did it,” Thaw explained, turning to address Brudi, “because he ruined my wife.”
Excerpted from the book THE GIRL ON THE VELVET SWING by Simon Baatz. Copyright © 2018 by Simon Baatz. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.