It sounds like a modern day Lifetime movie: two talented, popular and wealthy men both fall in love with the same beautiful but somewhat tarnished girl. One had a long history of mental illness, the other was considered an architectural genius. The inevitable showdown, complete with a very public murder, took place in one of the most fashionable restaurants in the world.
Although it sounds like a movie or soap opera, it was an all too true story that culminated with the 1907 "trial of the century", when railroad tycoon Harry Thaw, the husband of famous model Evelyn Nesbit, was prosecuted for killing renowned architect Stanford White, his wife's former lover. Some say that it was such a shocking event that it actually helped speed the end of the Gilded Age.
In the late 19th century, Cornelius "The Commodore" Vanderbilt sold his stake in Madison Square Garden to J.P. Morgan, who subsequently hired Stanford White to construct a new arena in its place. At the time he was commissioned to draw up plans for the new Garden, White was a partner with McKim, Mead & White, a firm that had designed some of New York's most beautiful mansions, including the Fifth Avenue homes of the Vanderbilts and the Astors.
However, in addition to designing the Garden and other similar spaces, he also designed a secret hideaway in his own home where an aspiring young dancer, 16 year old Evelyn Nesbit, would entertain him during sexually inappropriate meetings. This and other dalliances would later lead to one of the most notorious events in the Garden's history. On a warm evening in late June 1906, millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who had by this time married Nesbit, approached White while he watched the show Mam'zelle Champagne in the roof garden theater on top of Madison Square Garden. Pulling out a pistol, he shot White three times in the head at point blank range. At first, those in the theater thought it was a prank, but when the smoke cleared and White's wound became visible, they knew they had just witnessed something horrific.
From the beginning, the crime had everything, including lurid sex, a shocking murder, and an insanity plea, and as a result, both Thaw and White were put on trial in the papers and the court. White's son would later complain, "On the night of June 25th, 1906, while attending a performance at Madison Square Garden, Stanford White was shot from behind [by] a crazed profligate whose great wealth was used to besmirch his victim's memory during the series of notorious trials that ensued." Eventually, Thaw was declared innocent by reason of insanity and sentenced to time in a mental hospital, and in the meantime, White's reputation was thoroughly disgraced, leading Collier's Richard Harding Davis to counter, "Since his death White has been described as a satyr. To answer this by saying that he was a great architect is not to answer at all...what is more important is that he was a most kindhearted, most considerate, gentle and manly man, who could no more have done the things attributed to him than he could have roasted a baby on a spit. Big in mind and in body, he was incapable of little meanness. He admired a beautiful woman as he admired every other beautiful thing God has given us; and his delight over one was as keen, as boyish, as grateful over any others."
Despite the murder of White and one of the 20th century's first cases to be billed as the "Trial of the Century", the new Madison Square Garden continued to play host to just about every kind of event, and even today Madison Square Garden remains known as "The World's Most Famous Arena". The Trial of the Century: Evelyn Nesbit and the Murder of Stanford White chronicles the infamous crime and the notorious trial that followed.
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