Saturday, 15 February 2014

Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White Review (Rick Geary)

On the night of June 25, 1906, during a theatrical performance atop Madison Square Garden, New York City, Harry Kendall Thaw, the millionaire son of a family whose fortune was made from mines and railroads, shot the prominent architect Stanford White three times with a pistol at point blank range, killing him instantly. The murder took place in a crowded room with dozens of witnesses and Thaw never denied the murder, claiming he would do it again in a heartbeat – and yet he walked away a free man. But why did Thaw kill White and how was such a miscarriage of justice allowed? 

A new Rick Geary book on famous crimes is always welcomed as they’re so damn good and The Murder of Stanford White is no different. Geary takes a forgotten murder from the early twentieth century and unravels it’s many nuances for a whole new audience to gasp at. 

The book is a sordid tale of upper class debauchery for all parties involved. Stanford White, a 47 year old wealthy architect who designed many of New York’s most famous buildings like Madison Square Garden, had numerous affairs with young ladies from the theatre, entertaining them in his own private accommodation far from his house where his wife and kids lived. One of them was the up and coming starlet, Evelyn Nesbit, a 16 year old whom he courted and eventually brought back to his private rooms, giving her her first taste of champagne. After her second glass, she doesn’t remember anything until waking up in bed next to him, naked! 

She never sees White again and moves away from New York City but another wealthy admirer of hers, the Pittsburgh millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, stalks her relentlessly until she agrees to marry him. Thaw was a deeply disturbing and disturbed man. An heir to the Thaw fortune, he had a monthly allowance of $80k (this is a large amount still today – imagine what it would’ve meant 100 years ago!), and a profligate lifestyle that allowed to do whatever he wanted. Madness ran in the Thaw family and Harry was one of the craziest. He would lure women into his rooms and savagely beat them with whips or strip them naked in baths and pour boiling water on them. He was also addicted to morphine and cocaine, injecting both regularly. 

So when Thaw found out about his wife’s rape by White, he went into a blind rage, nurturing his hatred of the celebrated architect over a long time until he discovered where White would be on the fateful night of June 25. As Thaw’s party was leaving an evening theatre performance in Madison Square Garden, Thaw turned back, went straight up to White and shot him twice in the face and once in the shoulder – White’s corpse was unrecognisable afterwards. 

There were numerous trials afterwards but Thaw’s family money kept him out of jail, putting him into mental asylums for brief periods before he would escape and use his family’s influence to keep the powers that be at arm’s reach. Thaw was never incarcerated and lived a long life in which he continued to appear in the headlines for many years afterwards, beating young boys with whips until they were near-dead, but getting away with it each time. 

This Murder of Stanford White is a fascinating read, highlighting the lives of three interesting individuals and a remarkable crime that challenges the readers’ moral compass – how do you feel about an older man taking advantage of young girls and then getting shot in the face? On the one hand you might think he got what he deserved but when a private citizen takes justice into their own hands, shouldn’t they be held accountable too? 

The book especially draws attention to the corruption of the American legal system that favours the wealthy to an inordinate degree, making them more or less untouchable for their crimes (unless they kill one another!), and the debauched lives the super-rich lead as a result. Rick Geary has produced another fine book in his murder series that fans of true crime comics will love.

Treasury of XXth Century Murder, A: Madison Square Tragedy : The Murder of Stanford White

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