Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (A Treasury of XXth Century Murder)
Although Stanford White was murdered by a jealous husband over a hundred years ago (in 1906), the case Rick Geary portrays in his newest Treasury of XXth Century Murder, Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White, feels very modern.
Rick Geary’s art is amazing in setting the stage in a booming New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, a growing metropolis struggling with conflicts among new money, established society, changing urban life, recent technologies, and burgeoning celebrity. The electric lights of the “Great White Way”, marking the Broadway theater district, background this story of a notorious showgirl, her crazy husband, and a well-known roué and man-about-town with a taste for young women. Geary’s straightforward portraits of moments in the city and the relationships ground the salacious situation, particularly when he shows the architecture of the era.
Unlike many of his other volumes, this case is not unsolved. In fact, the murder happened in plain view of a theater audience. Which leads to the question of what the real tragedy was:
* Evelyn Nesbit exploited the only asset she had, her beauty, to become a model for paintings and photographs, eventually going on the stage as a way to escape her fatherless family’s poverty. How much did she know about what men wanted from her? How much did her mother encourage her career or alternately, try to protect her?
* The well-known architect Stanford White raped (or in the language of the age, “ruined”) the innocent young woman he was aiding monetarily by getting her so drunk she passed out and then “violating” her. He also paid for her brother’s schooling and the family’s apartment. Was that why she kept seeing him after the rape? Is her story even the truth, given the pressure a woman was under to demonstrate and protect her innocence?
* White loved showgirls and maintained both a party apartment and a private studio for assignations. He was estimated to have had over 300 encounters in spite of his marriage and society standing, and he frequently discarded partners for younger models. A love for women was expected of such a social lion, and his unfaithfulness considered a man’s right, regardless of the effect his actions had on the girls involved.
* Harry K. Thaw had a history of abusing (whipping) those who could be bought off or otherwise silenced while claiming to protect female virtue. His money allowed him to do anything, even beat a murder rap. Why, when Nesbit said she saw his “madness” from the beginning, would she choose to travel with him to Europe and eventually marry him, particularly after he raped and beat her?
* Although Thaw shot White point-blank in the face in public, his actions were considered justified by many based on the “unwritten law” that a man can kill to protect his wife’s virtue (even retroactively, apparently). He served fewer than 10 years in a cushy insane asylum, and his later years demonstrated he never changed. Did White’s fate suit his crimes? Should Thaw have been stopped sooner?
* Nesbit wound up exploiting her shocking history on stage and in books because she didn’t seem to have any other way to make an income. Her testimony on her husband’s behalf is similarly rumored to have been bought, including her insistence that her continuing sexual relationship with White was always unwilling. Geary calls her “the first supermodel”, and her tragedy demonstrates how little future young, beautiful women have once they’ve aged.
Madison Square Tragedy is vicariously entertaining, from the perspective of a century later, but the motivations of those involved and the interplay of sex and scandal could have been reported in a tabloid last month. It’s a thought-provoking, wonderfully delineated read. (The publisher provided a review copy.)