How A Crazy Celebrity Murder Trial Changed America's Jury System
We've more or less accepted as a fact of modern life the inescapability of the news. Forget social media and 24-hour cable news -- that shit gets sent straight to our notifications now. To truly get away from it, you'd have to unplug your entire house, throw your phone into the woods, and start living like some kind of weird monk. That's why it's customary these days, when it comes to your Casey Anthonys and Derek Chauvins and other high-profile criminal trials, to put jurors up in a Best Western somewhere with all the TVs removed to live out the ordeal in minimally comfortable isolation. You don't want them (or anyone) getting influenced by Nancy Grace.
Obviously, it wasn't always like that. The media was no less bloodthirsty -- if anything, in the anything-goes era of yellow journalism, they were way worse -- but their reach was physically limited. It took a completely bonkers celebrity murder case for the justice system, right on up to the president of the United States, to say "enough is enough" and stow the jury away from the breathless screeching of the press. It was warranted, to say the least -- it was like if Elon Musk shot Johnny Depp over Amber Heard in front of countless witnesses.
It all started with Evelyn Nesbit, who became an It Girl of the art and fashion world by 1901 at the age of 16. As in the grand tradition of beautiful young girls achieving anything, she attracted the eye of several skeezy dudes alongside the artists begging to draw her. One of them was Stanford White, an important figure of New York high society who was half architect and half mustache.
At more than 30 years his junior, Nesbit thought White was gross, but she had an acting career to get off the ground, so he took the time-honored tack of throwing money at her until she loved him. He invested heavily in promoting her plays, paid for her family's accommodations in New York, and basically became her premature sugar daddy. When his efforts weren't paying off fast enough, he allegedly raped her after plying her with champagne and possibly other drugs, after which they had a brief romantic relationship that was apparently as consensual as possible under such circumstances, which isn't very.
Then she met Harry Kendall Thaw after he showed up to 40 performances of a play she was in, which probably should have been a tip-off. Thaw was not a stable dude and may, in fact, have chosen Nesbit as an object of obsession specifically because of her connection to White, with whom he had a mostly one-sided feud based on the belief that White was keeping him out of the really cool parties. He was also an honest-to-God railroad baron with a morphine addiction and a habit of lighting his cigars with $5 bills like some kind of Marxist cartoon. That's 19th-century $5 bills, which is probably like a billion dollars today.
He was also really, really fixated on feminine purity, which is why Nesbit turned down his repeated marriage proposals. During a trip to Europe, where he continued to maritally harass her while she was probably just trying to look at the Mona Lisa and shit, she finally told him about the rape that meant she couldn't be the woman he wanted, and he immediately got over his hangup. Just kidding, he locked her up in a castle and beat her for two weeks. He also wrote in the guestbook at the birthplace of Joan of Arc, "She would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around." The dude was just incapable of enjoying a sightseeing tour.
For some reason, Nesbit finally agreed to marry Thaw in 1905 after he "forgave" her for being raped, and about a year later, they went to see a play at Madison Square Garden's rooftop theater. Tragically, White had the same idea. Thaw apparently saw White in the audience, and, after his vision went all Kill Bill, hesitantly approached White and then super unhesitantly shot him in the head, screaming either "You ruined my life," or "You ruined my wife," according to various witnesses. It was basically the same thing, as far as Thaw was concerned.
To the news media, which had long salivated over the "degeneracy of the so-called higher classes," it was like someone had dropped a basket of kittens into their laps. Finally, they had not only the most damning possible proof of that "degeneracy" but scores of witnesses willing to speak to it. Within hours, they'd descended upon everybody whose cousin's friend's grocer was there and everywhere Stanford White had so much as used the toilet, looking for info. By the next morning, the New York Times had lovingly reported exactly how White's body "tumbled from the chair" and "fell to the floor" in a "great pool of blood" while the audience, first believing the incident to be part of the show, slowly realized the horror of the situation. By the next week, two movies had been made about the incident, one financed by Thaw's own family and another by Thomas Edison, because why not throw him in here?
After Thaw was arrested, which was immediately because he didn't even try to get away with it, and the case began to move along, both sides played the media against each other. They quickly zeroed in on White as the villain of the story because few people wanted to defend him after the whole rape thing came out, and the ones who did insisted he had merely "admired a beautiful woman as he admired every other beautiful thing God has given us." Even in 1906, that kind of thing didn't go over well. Even church leaders were quoted as saying that White basically got what he deserved. Others decried Nesbit as a harlot who "was sold to one man and later sold herself to another" because this was still 1906.
The American public at large, however, quickly became uncomfortable with this level of voyeuristic coverage, with campaigns to cool it reaching all the way to Teddy goddamn Roosevelt. He agreed that the "full disgusting particulars" were unnecessary, to the point of looking into whether he could legally censor such stories. It turned out he couldn't, so the government compromised by sequestering the jury for the first time in American history so Thaw would at least be tried fairly.
The trial was still an amazingly spectacular shitstorm. Reporters packed the courtroom while Nesbit was forced (and probably paid by the Thaw family) to recount her whole ugly history with White, ending with a deadlocked jury and a second trial ordered. The second one saw Thaw being found not guilty by reason of insanity, which he was going for. Still, he was probably less amused with the sentenced to a lifetime of involuntary commitment part.
After seven years, he earned his freedom because words don't really mean anything when you're that rich, but by then, Nesbit had divorced him. She never quite escaped her reputation as a "lethal beauty" and worked odd jobs in the arts and entertainment industry until her death in 1967. Meanwhile, Thaw was arrested almost as soon as he was released for kidnapping and assaulting a teenage boy, sentenced to seven more years of confinement, briefly went into the film industry, and moved to Virginia and then Florida to live out his days as a local weirdo. White remained super dead, and nobody learned anything, except not to let Thomas Edison make movies.
Top Image: The Washington Times/Library Of Congress