Evelyn Nesbit and the "Trial of the Century": Background information when reading A Death of No Importance

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A Death of No Importance

A Mystery

by Mariah Fredericks

A Death of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks X
A Death of No Importance by Mariah Fredericks
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2018, 288 pages
    Mar 2019, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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About this Book

Evelyn Nesbit and the "Trial of the Century"

This article relates to A Death of No Importance

Print Review

Evelyn NesbitFor her novel, A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks borrows heavily from the story of Evelyn Nesbit and the violence that surrounded her life. What exactly happened to Evelyn Nesbit and how did she come to be a part of the "Trial of the Century" as it later came to be known?

Nesbit was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on December 25, 1884, in Tarentum, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. However, her actual year of birth remains unconfirmed; her real year of birth may have been 1886. In later years, Nesbit confirmed that her mother at times added several years to her age in order to circumvent child labor laws. She was raised in extreme poverty after the death of her father. Although her mother and brother tried to make ends meet, it was Evelyn who became the primary breadwinner for the family when she was discovered at age 14 for her extraordinary beauty. She quickly went from an artists' model, to a professional model, gracing the covers of popular magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar and Ladies' Home Journal. Her face was well-known and well-loved, so it didn't take her long to progress to acting in Broadway shows, including the highly popular musicals Floradora and then The Wild Rose.

Sanford WhiteEvelyn's beauty quickly turned into a curse. Two years after she began to work on Broadway, she caught the eye of Stanford White, a classically trained architect, known for his exceptional work and his early rise to fame. By 27 he had co-founded McKim, Mead, and White, the architecture firm responsible for many well-known landmarks including the Washington Square Arch and the Brooklyn Museum. White's own contribution to the New York City skyline included Madison Square Garden, the tallest building in the city to date.

Unfortunately, White's talent and social prowess hid a disturbing appetite for young girls. Once Evelyn caught his eye, he spent a great deal of time and effort securing her family's dependence on him; his money funded both Evelyn and her brother's education and ensured their financial security for a time. Yet Evelyn became victim to his sexual appetite while she was still 14 and was then subject to his jealous control, which included his breaking up of her romances and dictating her social life.

Harry Kendall ThawGiven her visibility and involvement in high society, it was only a matter of time before Evelyn Nesbit met Harry Kendall Thaw, a wealthy scion of Pennsylvania's mine and railroading fortune. Although seemingly an eligible bachelor, there were many rumblings of Thaw's penchant for drugs, violence and assault. Thaw worked hard to woo Evelyn, squiring her and her mother across Europe and eventually getting her alone to propose marriage. At this point, Evelyn confessed her history with White, knowing Thaw's obsession with female purity. This, in essence, sealed all of their fates.

Thaw became obsessed with possessing Evelyn and avenging her. After kidnapping Evelyn to an Austrian castle and devoting weeks to serious sexual and physical assault, Thaw brought her back to the United States, finally winning her hand in marriage, yet never forgetting Stanford White and the role he played in his wife's life.

In 1906, on the night of June 25, Thaw and Evelyn attended a premiere of a new show, Mam'zelle Champagne, playing on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. Here they met Stanford White and finally Thaw's fury came to a head – he shot White three times, squarely in the face.

Evelyn NesbitAlthough arrested initially, Thaw had money and power on his side. His trial, known as the "Trial of the Century" raged on for four months, with many speaking out about his violent behavior with prostitutes, while others, including Evelyn, defended his actions for the right price. After 47 hours of deliberation, Thaw was deemed mentally ill and was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York. But, again, money goes a long way - Thaw was released in 1915 and had a few other brushes with the law, before being committed yet again.

Evelyn also did not escape unscathed. Though she continued to perform in various dance and burlesque shows over the years, she suffered from morphine and alcohol addiction as well as a string of failed romances. Truth is even more scandalous than fiction when it comes to Evelyn Nesbit and her tumultuous entanglements.

Evelyn Nesbit around 1900
Stanford White
Harry Kendall Thaw
Colorized photograph of Evelyn, courtesy of www.express.co.uk

Article by Natalie Vaynberg

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Death of No Importance. It originally ran in April 2018 and has been updated for the March 2019 paperback edition.

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