New York City is not the murder capital of the nation or the world, an honor that other municipalities here and abroad can contend for; currently its homicide rate is in fact declining and has reached a 45-year low. But given its large population and abundance of newspapers, it has witnessed and recorded a fair number of murders over the years, famous and well reported in their time, if often forgotten today. This post will recount two of them, starting with a spectacular one involving many witnesses and therefore recorded in detail, unlike so many murders that occur clandestinely, obliging us to only conjecture about what happened. So let’s go back to the early 1900s and the Gilded Age, when crusty old J.P. Morgan ruled financially, the scandal-hungry tabloid press was rampant, and Teddy Roosevelt, who had reaped glory by charging up San Juan Hill, was president.
Stanford White, 1906
On the evening of June 25, 1906, a fashionable audience was assembled on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, a vast Beaux-Arts structure with a soaring minaret-like tower at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, for the premiere of the frothy musical comedy Mamzelle Champagne. At 10:55 p.m., while the performance was nearing its conclusion, a burly redheaded gentleman of fifty with an abundant red mustache entered alone and sat at the table customarily reserved for him, five rows from the stage. Resting his chin in his right hand, he seemed lost in thought, perhaps eyeing the young female performers onstage, as was his custom, since he was a practiced connoisseur of teen-age girls.
|Stanford White. The cleanshaven look|
was coming in with the new century,
but the older set remained hirsute.
The redheaded gentleman was none other than Stanford White, the most renowned architect in the nation, whose firm had designed the very structure he was then in, as well as countless others, including the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square and the Washington Square Arch, located in that square at the foot of Fifth Avenue. Unknown to his wife and family, his separate apartment on 24th Street, supposedly a place where he could work uninterrupted, provided a sumptuous setting for his numerous teen-age conquests, including one room with a red-velvet swing suspended from the ceiling with ivy-twined ropes, where his young mistresses often disported. White’s presence at the rooftop garden theater resulted from a last-minute decision when he postponed a planned trip to Philadelphia because his nineteen-year-old son had arrived unexpectedly in the city for a visit; they had dined together, and White had come on to the Garden alone.
Some ten minutes after White’s arrival a handsome younger man left his own table, walked about nervously while muttering to himself, then approached White’s table. As a performer onstage began the song “I Could Love a Million Girls,” the younger man took out a revolver from beneath his coat and fired three shots at point-blank range into White, one bullet hitting his left eye and killing him, while the other two grazed his shoulder. White’s lifeless body fell to the floor, and the table overturned with a clatter.
A stunned silence gripped performers and audience alike. Spectators thought at first that this was part of the performance or another of the party tricks common in fashionable circles at the time. But then, grasping what had happened, people screamed, leaped to their feet, and began a panicky flight toward the exits. At the theater manager’s insistence, the orchestra made a feeble attempt to go on playing, but the performers were frozen in horror and the panic continued. Someone put a tablecloth over the body and, when blood soaked through it, added a second one as well.
|Harry Thaw. Baby-faced?|
Yes, just a bit.
The murderer had left holding his weapon aloft to indicate that he was done shooting. When he reached the elevators, a bystander took the revolver away from him, and a policeman arrested him. “That man ruined my wife,” said the murderer. Just before the policeman took his prisoner down in an elevator, a woman rushed up and embraced him; witnesses said they believed it was the murderer’s wife. The policeman then escorted the man out of the building on the way to a police station in the Tenderloin; the man did not resist, seemed dazed. Garden employees recognized him as Harry Thaw, a Pittsburgh millionaire and man about town whose wife was Evelyn Nesbit, a beauty with a bit of a past.
The story that came out in Thaw’s subsequent trial for murder has different versions, depending on who told it and why. It is clear that Evelyn Nesbit came to Stanford White’s attention when, at age sixteen and already a successful model, she performed in the musical Floradora, an import from London that had opened on Broadway in 1900 and proved an astonishing success. Prominent in the show was a luscious sextet of young women, dubbed the Floradora girls, who attracted scores of admirers; all of the original six, it is said, ended up marrying millionaires.
|The luscious sextet. With male escorts, but who noticed them?|
The eyes are the scouts of the heart. It was as a Floradora girl with long, dark hair that hauntingly beautiful young Evelyn caught the eye of Stanford White, who impressed her with his wealth and winning ways. (Does “hauntingly beautiful” sound overdone? Just look at the photos of her at that time.) According to one version told by her, he drugged her with champagne and deflowered her, following which she professed to hate him. But in another version she described herself, a young innocent from Pittsburgh, as dazzled by his attentions and a somewhat willing victim. In any event, she became his mistress for a while, swinging on the red velvet swing, until, as she matured, he lost interest in her and moved on to other conquests, though not without maintaining a rather fatherly interest in her and on occasion providing her with funds.
|Evelyn at sweet sixteen. If this one |
doesn't grab you...
|... how about this one? Beauty that men would |
die for, and at least one did.
But Evelyn had another admirer, Harry Thaw, a mentally unstable playboy (the word first appeared about now, possibly in reference to him) who also plied her with gifts and attention, slowly overcoming her resistance with his declared ardor and repeated proposals of marriage, which she finally accepted. Even before they married, he had pressed her repeatedly for details of her relationship with White, exhibiting a jealousy that amounted to an obsession.
White was aware of Thaw, though perhaps not of Thaw’s mounting hatred of his wife’s onetime seducer. For the New York upper crust the term “Pittsburgh millionaire” suggested nouveau riche, unmannerly, brash, and this was certainly White’s opinion of Thaw, whom he dismissed as a clown, calling the baby-faced younger man the “Pennsylvania pug.” For his part Thaw hated White and blamed him for his exclusion from the city’s elite men’s clubs and other perceived slights, but envied White’s social position and freewheeling life style. All of which led up to the events of June 25, 1906.
|Harry Thaw in the Tombs, dining on food catered|
The news of the murder was blazoned in the press, and especially in the sensationalist tabloids of the day, who branded White a “sybarite of debauchery” and worse, while friends of his defended him and praised his accomplishments as an architect. Meanwhile, lodged in the Tombs pending what promised to be “the trial of the century,” Thaw wore his usual custom-tailored clothes, dined on meals catered by Delmonico’s, and enjoyed a daily ration of wine and champagne. He expected the jury to see him as a chivalrous man defending innocent womanhood against a villainous predator.
The prosecution tried Thaw in 1907 for premeditated murder, and Thaw’s lawyers mounted a defense of temporary insanity; the result was a hung jury. His second trial in 1908 found him not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced him to incarceration for life in a state hospital for the criminally insane. There he lived comfortably, but when a legal attempt to free him failed, he escaped to Canada in 1913, only to be brought back to the U.S. But he then obtained a new trial in which the jury found him not guilty and no longer insane and therefore set him free. In later years he wrote a memoir defending his murder of White. After further misadventures he died in 1947 at the age of 76, leaving Evelyn Nesbit a bequest of ten thousand dollars out of an estate valued at over one million.
|Evelyn with her son, 1913.|
Harry Thaw, irrational, wrath-prone, and a user of cocaine and morphine, was hardly the ideal husband, and Evelyn Nesbit wanted to divorce him. Subsidized by Thaw’s family, she agreed to testify on his behalf as a loyal wife and did so, reinforcing the defense’s portrayal of White as a sexual predator. In 1910 she gave birth to a son whom she claimed was Thaw’s, conceived during a conjugal visit to Thaw in the state prison, but all his life he vigorously denied paternity. She divorced Thaw in 1915.
For ears afterward Evelyn Nesbit was plagued by her reputation as “the lethal beauty.” In 1916 she married an actor, but his wife’s notoriety caused him to leave her, and she finally divorced him in 1933. She seems to have run a speakeasy in Manhattan during the 1920s, and struggled with alcoholism and morphine addiction well into the 1930s. She in turn published not one but two memoirs, and later taught ceramics and sculpture in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. She died in a nursing home in California in 1967 at age 82.
As a grade-school history buff in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, from an early age I was well aware of two famous murders in distant New York City: Stanford White and Jim Fisk. Fisk’s death and its aftermath I have recounted in post #69, “Jim Fisk, part 5: Such a Good Boy,” so it requires no repetition here. As for White’s, I recall the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, telling Evelyn Nesbit’s story, but had no idea that she was still alive at the time. Indeed, she was hired by the studio as an adviser, though her advice seems not to have been taken since, in true Hollywood fashion, the film’s version of her story is highly fictionalized.
Now, in researching this post online, I came across a 1954 interview with her in her small Los Angeles studio, where she was teaching sculpture and ceramics. An accompanying photo showed her, tools in hand, beside an unfinished piece of sculpture: a woman of 69 in slacks with looks appropriate for her age but, inevitably, lacking the haunting beauty responsible for her earlier adventures and misadventures. Her younger students were totally unaware of her past, but their grandmothers, she said, sometimes chatted with her about it. Ah, once again the wonders of the Internet! There she was, years later, a modest teacher in distant Los Angeles. That this woman who years before, through no fault of her own, caused a famous murder should still be alive, however modestly, seemed inappropriate.
This is the same feeling I experienced on learning that Josie Mansfield, Jim Fisk’s inamorata and the cause of his murder in 1872, died in Boston forty years later, in 1912. I almost want to shout at these aged survivors, “How dare you live on so many years after the peak experience of your life? What meaning can all those surplus later years have, overshadowed as they must be by the turbulent events of your youth? Don’t you know when to bow out?”
But that’s not how these things work; like it or not, there are usually survivors, shorn of beauty, drama, and glamour. History, alas, is messy and leaves lots of loose ends dangling.
The story of Stanford White’s murder, and the murderer and the woman involved, have taken up so much space that there is room for only one more homicide, if homicide it was. So now let’s go back even further to 1841, when the eminently forgettable John Tyler was president, and the city was still recovering from the Panic of 1837, but importing tea and cutlery and textiles and fancy lace, and exporting grain and cotton. And smoking. Just the men, of course, not the ladies – perish the thought! (You’ve come a long way, baby.) And not cigarettes (those spindly things had yet to appear) – but big, fat, thick cigars. And the men – some of them, at least, since others knew better – chewed. Yes, in spite of Mrs. Trollope’s diatribes (see post #24). Which is why the pothouses of the day (known later as saloons) had sawdust on the floor. Enough said.
Mary Rogers, 1841
She was known as the Beautiful Cigar Girl, the young woman working at John Anderson’s tobacco shop at 319 Broadway. Her unusual good looks drew multitudes of males to the shop, some of whom lingered to exchange teasing glances with her, and one to feel such inspiration as to write a poem, later published in the New York Herald, extolling her heavenlike smile and starlike eyes. Among the customers were such literary figures of the day as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and the poet Fitz-Greene Halleck. No wonder Anderson paid her well; his business was thriving.
On the afternoon of Sunday, July 25, 1841, Mary, then twenty-one, told her fiancé, Daniel Payne, that she would be visiting relatives. She lived at her mother’s boardinghouse on Nassau Street, and when a severe thunderstorm developed and Mary didn’t return, the mother assumed that she was staying over with relatives. But Mary did not return the following Monday; she had disappeared.
The news shocked the city, and it was shocked even more when, three days later, her body was found floating in the Hudson near Hoboken. The coroner found finger marks on her throat, suggesting strangulation. Now the press sensationalized the case even more, proposing suspects – Payne among them – and speculating as to what had happened. The street gangs of the day were also accused, as well as the abortionist Madame Restell, who might have dumped her body in the river after a fatal abortion. Then, weeks later, some articles of women’s clothing, including a handkerchief with the initials “M.R.,” were found near where the body had been discovered. Frederica Loss, who ran a nearby tavern, recalled seeing a young woman there with a man on July 25; they dined in the tavern and left. Later that evening she heard a scream outside.
Daniel Payne had an alibi proving his innocence, but was suspected nonetheless. He began drinking heavily and claimed to have seen Mary’s ghost. On October 7, 1841, he took a ferry to Hoboken, drank heavily at Mrs. Loss’s tavern, then went outside and drank a fatal dose of laudanum. Dying on the spot where Mary may have died, he left a note: “To the World – here I am on the very spot. May God forgive me for my misspent life.” Some took this as an admission of guilt, but most believed that despair at her death had led him to suicide.
In November 1842 Frederica Loss, shot accidentally by her son, made a deathbed statement that Mary had come to her tavern on the fatal night with a doctor who performed an abortion. Mary, she said, had died of complications, and Mrs. Loss’s son had dumped her body in the river. This contradicted the coroner’s report of marks of strangulation, and his assertion that she had been a person of chastity, but the story was widely accepted. The police evinced skepticism, however, and no arrest was ever made.
Some sources assert that the newspapers, soon preoccupied with other crimes, lost interest in the Mary Rogers mystery, but this is not altogether the case. In the November 8, 1845, issue of the fledgling National Police Gazette, a sensationalist publication whose coverage of crime and scandal soon brought it a large circulation nationwide, an anonymous letter to the editors suggested that Mary Rogers had indeed died a victim of abortion, and decried the three abortionists then known to be practicing in New York City, among them Madame Restell. (For Restell, see post #32.) And when a mob, worked up by a street agitator, marched on Madame Restell’s residence at 148 Greenwich Street on February 23, 1846, among their shouts was the cry, “Who murdered Mary Rogers?” Only a police presence kept them from storming the house.
In addition, the story of the Beautiful Cigar Girl had been enshrined in literature, for in 1842 Edgar Allen Poe published “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” based closely on the Mary Rogers story but set in Paris, a city he had never visited. In Poe’s story the body is found in the Seine, and C. Auguste Dupin, a forerunner of Sherlock Holmes, unravels the mystery of the young woman’s death by studying accounts of her story in the press. Dupin’s conclusion, reached by careful logical analysis: Marie was murdered by a naval officer with whom she had arranged a secret rendezvous; following this fatal lovers’ quarrel the guilt-ridden murderer dumped her body in the river and disappeared. Frederica Loss’s deathbed statement regarding a botched abortion does not appear in Poe’s account. That account leaves something to be desired. One critic has called it “an able if tedious exercise in reasoning.” Yes, lacking the blood and sinews of vividly described characters, it might strike many readers as tedious.
At the end of his story Poe insists that his fictional solution of Marie Rogêt’s murder was not meant to solve the problem of Mary Rogers’s death. That death, whether resulting from strangulation or abortion, remains one of New York City’s most noteworthy unsolved mysteries. In the annals of the city’s homicides, there are too many such mysteries, and no literary sequel to preserve them in our memory.
For auld lang syne: Many of us sing it on New Year’s Eve, as midnight approaches – often loudly and boozily – but few of us know what it means. It’s a Scottish-dialect poem by Robert Burns set to music, and the repeated phrase “for auld lang syne” can be rendered as “for days long gone” or something similar; substitute this and it will all make sense. The song is a reaffirmation of a friendship of long standing. There are many verses, but few of us can manage more than the first, followed by the chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
It must be known internationally, for when I sang it to myself ineptly – as only I can do – on New Year’s Eve, our Haitian home care aide surprised Bob and me by announcing that he knew the song and could sing it in either French or Creole.
Here now is an e-mail I received on New Year’s Day from a friend who once served in the State Department:
Happy New Year
It is strange the things you remember as time goes by.
Thinking about the 88 New Year’s Eves that I remember, one in particular returns to me year after year. It was the late Fifties and I was living in Antwerp. I was duty officer and so confined to quarters next to the telephone with the radio for company. I sat in the silence in front of a log fire in my living room, And then, at the stroke of midnight came a wonderful sound. All the many, many ships in Europe’s largest port began to sound their steam whistles. And then on the BBC, a deep -voiced Scot., with his lovely accent, quoted the last verse of Robbie Burns’ poem “For A’That”; it was a warm emotional and lovely moment. And I pass the lines of the poem on to you with my fervent hope that Burns’ wish will be granted.
“Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a”that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’;
Shall bear the gree, an’a’that.
For a’that, an’a’that,
Its coming yet for a’that
That Man to Man, the world
Shall brothers be for a’that.”
And I, Cliff Browder, summoning all the Scots' blood in me, wish the same to everyone.
Coming soon: Andy Warhol: Genius or Fraud? And after that: Four Forgotten New York Murders.
© 2014 Clifford Browder