The tumultuous relationships of early-1900s supermodel Evelyn Nesbit proved to be deadly when her husband murdered her former lover in what was called the “crime of the century.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans could hardly go anywhere without seeing the face of Evelyn Nesbit. The beautiful young model’s likeness appeared on magazine covers, works of art, and advertisements for toothpaste. And in 1907, she became the star of the “trial of the century” after her husband murdered one of her former lovers.
The trial captivated Americans across the country and revealed the dark underbelly of Nesbit’s seemingly glamorous life. Her story was not one of champagne and parties — but sexual assault, manipulation, and violence.
This is how Evelyn Nesbit became one of the most famous woman in America, and what happened to her after her illustrious star began to dim.
Evelyn Nesbit’s Rise To Fame
Born on December 25, 1884 in Pennsylvania, Florence Evelyn Nesbit found fame at a young age. After the death of her father left her family destitute, Nesbit was able to make money as an artist’s model starting around the age of 14.
“The work was fairly light,” Nesbit wrote in her memoirs, per PBS. “The poses were not particularly difficult. In the main they wanted me for my head. I never posed for the figure in the sense that I had posed for the nude. Sometimes I would be painted as a little Eastern girl in a costume of a Turkish woman, all vivid coloring, with ropes and bangles of jade about my neck and arms.”
In 1900, Nesbit moved to New York City to pursue modeling further. She was a smash hit, and her likeness proved so popular that she appeared in works of art, as one of the original “Gibson” girls, on the cover of magazines like Vanity Fair, and in advertisements for everything from tobacco to face creams.
Before long, Nesbit was able to convert her celebrity into an acting career. She appeared in the chorus line for the Broadway play Florodora, and soon snatched up a speaking role in the play The Wild Rose.
As an in-demand model and actress, Evelyn Nesbit was able to comfortably support herself, her mother, and her younger brother. But she soon learned that the glitter and glamor of fame had a dark side.
Evelyn Nesbit Meets Stanford White
While acting in Florodora, Evelyn Nesbit met Stanford White, a prominent architect whose many famous projects included the second Madison Square Garden, the Tiffany and Company building, and the Washington Square Arch.
At first, the 47-year-old White acted as a fatherly figure and benefactor to the 16-year-old model. He showered Nesbit with money, gifts, and even an apartment. Nesbit found him “clever,” “kindly,” and “safe.”
“He exercised an almost fatherly supervision over what I ate, and was particularly solicitous as to what I drank,” Nesbit later recalled. “Everybody had spoken so well of him, and he was undoubtedly a genius in his art.”
But White’s interest in Nesbit wasn’t as innocent as it seemed.
As PBS writes, White convinced Nesbit’s mother to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, then pounced on the teenage model in her mother’s absence. He invited Nesbit to a “party” at his apartment where she was the only guest, and plied her with champagne until she passed out.
“He gave me champagne, which was bitter and funny-tasting, and I didn’t care for it much,” Nesbit later recalled. “When I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off me.”
For a year afterward, the teenage Nesbit became the married White’s mistress. When she was 17, their relationship ended and Nesbit enrolled in school in New Jersey. But then another older man focused his attention on Evelyn Nesbit — with cataclysmic results.
Nesbit’s Marriage To Harry Thaw
Evelyn Nesbit was pursued by many men, but one, the wealthy railroad heir Harry Kendall Thaw, was determined to make her his bride. After wooing her with gifts that ranged from flowers to a piano, Thaw charmed Nesbit by paying for her and her mother to go with him in Europe after she’d had an appendectomy.
There, Thaw proposed to Nesbit multiple times, apparently undeterred each time she turned him down. Finally, Nesbit decided to tell him the truth about what had happened between her and White.
“He was as dogged and as persistent as ever,” she wrote in her memoirs. “There was no fending him off with excuses, with reasons or with explanation as to why marriage was not desirable. I knew in an instant that now he must know the truth, must take his answer for good or evil.”
Thaw, who hated White, was outraged. But it didn’t impact his desire to marry Nesbit. Unfortunately for her, Thaw wasn’t the kind and generous man that he seemed. Even before their wedding, he started beating her.
“His eyes were glaring and his hands grasped a raw-hide whip,” Evelyn Nesbit later testified about one of Thaw’s beatings in Europe. “He seized hold of me, placed his fingers in my mouth and tried to choke me. He then without the slightest provocation inflicted on me several severe blows with the rawhide whip, so severely that my skin was cut and bruised.”
Indeed, the New York Post writes that Thaw had a reputation back in New York for beating sex workers with a whip, and that he regularly indulged in heroin and cocaine. Yet Nesbit and Thaw’s wedding went forward in 1905.
Their marriage, however, would soon lead to murder.
The Murder Of Stanford White And The ‘Trial Of The Century’
After marrying Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Thaw’s obsession with Stanford White only intensified. According to Vice, he’d wake her up in the middle of the night and demand that she recount once again what had happened between them. Suspicious and near mad with jealousy, Thaw also enlisted detectives to follow White’s every move.
“This man Thaw is crazy — he imagines that I have done him some wrong,” White told a friend. “Thaw is… insanely jealous of his wife. He doubtless imagines that I am meeting her, and before God I am not. My friendship for the girl was taken from a purely fatherly interest.”
On June 25, 1906, Thaw’s fixation on White came to a head. He, White, and Nesbit all found themselves attending a performance of Mam’Zelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden, which White had designed. But as Nesbit and Thaw got up to leave, Thaw suddenly circled back. Nesbit turned around, and saw her husband raise his arm. And then —
“There was a loud report! A second! A third!” Nesbit later wrote in her memoirs. “Whatever had happened, had happened in the twinkling of an eye — before anyone had a chance to think, to act… A macabre sight, brief yet unforgettable, met my gaze. Stanford White slumped slowly in his chair, sagged, and slid grotesquely to the floor!”
Thaw shot White three times. The first shot hit the architect in the shoulder, the second under his left eye, and the third went through his mouth. White died instantly, and Thaw was arrested.
During the subsequent “trial of the century,” Evelyn Nesbit became the star witness. She shared lurid details of her relationships with both White and Thaw — to such an extent that a church group tried to censor reporting of the trial — and stood by her husband. Nesbit wasn’t the only one. Most of America saw Thaw as a hero defending his wife’s honor.
Though Thaw’s first trial in 1907 ended with a hung jury, his second trial in 1908 found him insane and decreed that he be committed to an asylum. He spent the rest of his life in and out of asylums — including an escape attempt — but was indefinitely committed to an insane asylum in 1916.
In 1915, he and Nesbit divorced. So what happened to Evelyn Nesbit, whose beauty had led to fame, riches, and murder?
Evelyn Nesbit’s Life Out Of The Spotlight
Following the “trial of the century,” Evelyn Nesbit wrote two memoirs, The Story of My Life (1914), and Prodigal Days (1934). She significantly amended some details from her testimony, insisting in the second of her memoirs that White’s sexual assault never happened and that she’d fallen asleep.
This has led to speculation that Nesbit may have been pressured by Thaw’s lawyers and his mother to provide justification for White’s murder. Either way, Nesbit was just 16 years old when her relationship with White began.
She remained famous after the infamous trial, first as a performer in vaudeville acts and then as a silent film star. Nesbit’s drug addiction, however, ended her acting career, and she tried to take her own life in 1926.
In the end, Nesbit left New York and started over in California, where she lived a quiet existence teaching ceramics and helping her son, Russell, raise his children until her death in 1967 at the age of 82.
Looking back at her life, Nesbit seemed to find value in her family over everything else — the fame and glory, the money, and the men.
“Having successfully raised Russell,” she wrote in her 1934 memoir Prodigal Days, “I no longer feel that I have lived in vain.”
After reading about Evelyn Nesbit, discover the sensual world of the Ziegfield Follies. Or, see another side of 19th and 20th century New York through this stunning collection of photos from inside the city’s tenements.