Evelyn Nesbit’s Broken Wings

This is Part III of Evelyn Nesbit’s story. (Read Part I and Part II.)

Evelyn Nesbit married Harry Kendall Thaw at age 20, 18 months after she accused him of beating and raping her, while holding her prisoner for weeks in an Austrian castle.

At 17, Evelyn underwent an emergency operation for appendicitis. That was the official story, though it was rumored then and now that she had an abortion. While she was recovering, Harry Thaw convinced Mrs. Nesbit that her daughter’s return to health could be accelerated by a trip abroad. Chaperoned by herself, of course.

Whether Evelyn wanted to go to Europe is not clear. But in May 1903, the trio embarked for London aboard the S.S. New York. After a few weeks, they moved on to Paris. Within a short time, Harry escorted the Nesbits to Boulogne, but he returned to London. Then he came back and took Evelyn and her mother back to Paris, and then back to London.

Paris, 1903
Paris, 1903

Evelyn was frail, and the hectic pace did not give her an opportunity to recover. Mrs. Nesbit was tired and exasperated. Mother and daughter quarreled in London, and Evelyn boldly returned to Paris alone with Harry. The division between them was deep. Mrs. Nesbit sent an urgent request across the Atlantic, requesting the funds to come home. The response from Stanford White was swift, and Mrs. Nesbit set sail for New York less than a week later. She soon remarried, and did not see Evelyn again for many years.

Evelyn Nesbit
Evelyn Nesbit in 1902

Now posing as Mr. and Mrs. Dellis, Harry and Evelyn stayed for a while in Paris. It was there that a fateful conversation occurred. Harry Thaw again asked Evelyn to marry him. She declined, but this time she felt she owed him an explanation and told Harry she was not “pure”. Thaw questioned Evelyn in painful detail, insisting she repeat what happened with Stanford White again and again. He raged against White, against Mrs. Nesbit, against Evelyn. He cried and tore at his hair. Then he demanded they continue their trip.

Evelyn later explained what followed:

“After traveling for about five or six weeks, the said Thaw rented a castle in the Austrian Tyrol known as the Schloss Katzenstein, which is situated about half way up a very isolated mountain… 

Schloss Katzenstein
Schloss Katzenstein

I saw a butler, a cook, and a maid. They were the only servants there. We occupied one entire end of the castle… The first night we reached the Schloss Katzenstein I was very tired and went to bed right after dinner. In the morning I was awakened by Mr. Thaw…

“He said he wished to tell me something and asked me to step into my bedroom. I entered the bedroom, when Thaw without any provocation grasped me by the throat.

“I saw by his face that he was in a dreadfully excited condition. His eyes were glaring and his hands grasped a raw-hide whip. He seized hold of me, placed his fingers in my mouth and tried to choke me. He then without the slightest provocation inflicted on me several severe blows with the rawhide whip, so severely that my skin was cut and bruised.

“I begged him to desist, but he refused. I shouted and I cried. He stopped then for a minute to rest, and then renewed his attack on me, beating me with the rawhide whip.

“I screamed for help, but no one heard me… Thaw renewed his brutal attacks until I was unable to move. The following morning the said Thaw administered another castigation similar to the day before. He took the rawhide whip and belabored me unmercifully…

“He left me in a frightful condition. My fingers were numb, and it was nearly three weeks before I sufficiently recovered to get out of my bed and walk.

Evelyn later described finding a syringe while she was packing to leave the castle. When she asked Harry about it, he told her he had been ill and had to use cocaine. Yet she left with him. It was no surprise that Harry attacked her again in Switzerland.

Shortly afterwards, Evelyn sailed back to New York City, and took up residence at the Savoy Hotel. She bumped into Stanford White not long after and after a little cajoling, told him what had occurred in Europe with Harry. Considering how thoroughly these men controlled Evelyn, the tragedy that was soon to come was all but inevitable.

A drawing of Evelyn Nesbit as a Gibson Girl in 1905

White did not like being an object of Harry Thaw’s attention, and felt some preemptive measures were necessary. After informing Evelyn that Thaw was addicted to morphine, White persuaded her that she needed a legal defense. The architect retained attorney Abraham Hummel, and Evelyn gave him all the letters Thaw had written since her return to New York, signed an affidavit that detailed Harry’s brutal attacks in Europe, and made a list of jewelry that had allegedly been stolen from her. The real motive behind White’s solicitousness was featured prominently in Evelyn’s affidavit:

“I have been repeatedly told by the said Thaw that he is very inimical to a married man whom he said he wanted me to injure and that Thaw would get him into the penitentiary; that the said Thaw had begged me time and time again to swear to written documents which he had prepared, involving this married man and charging him with drugging me when I was 15 years of age. This was not so; and I so told him.

“But because I refused to sign these papers said Thaw not alone threatened me with bodily injury, but inflicted on me the great bodily injury I have herein described.

Harry wasn’t long in following Evelyn back to New York. He resumed his persistent courtship, emphasizing he had forgiven her for allowing herself to be defiled by White. From this point, it becomes increasingly frustrating to trace Evelyn’s actions. She let Harry thoroughly assume control over her life, to the point of agreeing to have the dental work Stanford White had paid for removed, to be immediately replaced with new dental work, paid for by Harry Thaw.

At this juncture, it’s barely surprising that Evelyn accepted Harry’s marriage proposal. The reasons why she chose such a self-destructive past are lost in history, and the best guess anyone has is that she was fearful that Thaw would deliberately ruin her reputation, rendering her unemployable. Evelyn had been destitute and was unwilling to return to a life of hardship. In marrying Thaw, she eliminated the risk of exposure while securing financial independence.

Whatever the reason, Evelyn Nesbit married Harry Kendall Thaw on 4 April 1905.

A photograph with Evelyn's married name inscribed

Evelyn’s dreams of glamour and wealth were immediately curtailed. Harry insisted on choosing her wedding day attire; he selected a black dress for his bride. Evelyn carried on placidly, but there must have been inner turmoil. As you will see, her appearance began to change dramatically around the time she married Thaw.

The young couple moved to Pittsburgh to take up residence with his dominating mother. “Mama Thaw”, as she insisted on being called, disapproved of her famous daughter-in-law and insisted that Evelyn stop modeling and acting immediately. Harry agreed and announced the decision to Evelyn.

Harry Mrs. Thaw
Harry and his mother, Mrs. Thaw

After a miserable few months in Pittsburgh, Harry decided he and Evelyn should visit Europe again. Harry arranged for the couple to set sail from New York, but first they would spend a little time in New York, and take in a musical at Madison Square Gardens. It was there the fates of Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Thaw, and Stanford White would finally collide.

Go to Part IV.


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