When socialite Harry Thaw murdered architect Stanford White in the rooftop cabaret atop Madison Square Garden early in the summer of 1906, many New Yorkers felt their deepest suspicions were confirmed about the immoral conduct of the very rich.
White's murder was the final act in a long struggle between two fabulously rich, famous and powerful men over Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit, a poor, young and exceptionally beautiful artist's model and showgirl.
The lovely Evelyn Nesbit was only fifteen when she first arrived in New York City. Spectacular photographs of her soon began to appear in newspapers and magazines, and Nesbit became a highly acclaimed model and showgirl. Stanford White was a Renaissance man -- educated and interested in all things beautiful. He was also New York City's most famous man-about-town. He spotted Evelyn at the theater one night and soon after invited her to visit the hideaway he had built high atop Madison Square Garden -- a place filled with Japanese lanterns and a red velvet swing. Stanford White was 30 years older than Evelyn. He was also a family man and Evelyn knew there was little hope for marriage. So when Harry Thaw, the scion of a wealthy Pittsburgh family, relentlessly pursued her, she finally consented to marriage. But Thaw was a drug addict with a reputation for bizarre behavior. He was also obsessively jealous of Stanford White. His fury over White's "violation" of his wife would lead him to shoot the architect at point blank range.
No murder had ever received more press attention. New York's daily papers reinforced what moralists described as an "unhealthy fascination with the degeneracy of the so-called higher classes." To the delight of the reading public, Nesbit's relationship with White would be examined in exquisite detail.
Within weeks, crowds filled Nickelodeon and Vaudeville houses to watch not one but two moving pictures that meticulously re-created the sordid affair -- one financed by the Thaw family fortune, portraying Harry as an innocent, aggrieved husband.
Thaw was an eccentric playboy who once rode a horse up the steps of the Union League Club and lit his cigars with $5 bills. But from the moment he was taken into custody, Thaw insisted he had acted "to avenge the rape of his wife." To many in the city, his behavior seemed quite appropriate. A leading minister said it would be a good thing if there was a little more shooting in cases like this.
Murder of the Century examines the opulent world of wealthy New York just after the turn of the century, conflicts over morality between the rich and middle class and the rise of a tabloid "yellow" press that encouraged and fed the public's hunger for more and more sensational stories.
"It is not merely a murder," William Randolph Hearst's Journal declared at the time. "The flash of that pistol lighted up an abyss of moral turpitude, revealing hidden features of powerful, reckless, openly flaunted wealth."