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SNAPSHOT: Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, and #MeToo

Even though it happened more than a century ago, the murder of superstar architect Stanford White remains one of the most notorious celebrity murder scandals of all time. Millionaire Harry Thaw shot and killed White in 1906 after Thaw’s young wife, Evelyn Nesbit, confided that White had raped her years earlier.

 John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Simon Baatz, the author of a book revisiting the murder, says the case involved a rape just like the assaults uncovered in the #MeToo movement. “There is an exact parallel that is almost uncanny,” says Baatz. His book, The Girl on the Velvet Swinghas just come out in paperback.

Photograph shows Evelyn Nesbit in Stanford White's Japanese kimono posed sleeping on a polar bear rug at Campbell Art Studio in New York City
Evelyn Nesbit in Stanford White’s Japanese kimono, posed at Campbell Art Studio in NYC. Courtesy of Library of Congress

“Stanford White drugged and raped a 16-year-old girl, luring her to his apartment on the pretext that he was having a party at his apartment. The situation is exactly the same as the details that were described during the trial of Bill Cosby and resemble so many others that have been revealed in the last two years.”

Baatz says his book sets the record straight on White’s behavior, in contrast to previous accounts that “blamed Evelyn Nesbit for the rape” in an effort to “rehabilitate” White’s reputation. Previous authors “characterized the rape as a ‘seduction,’ something that implies a degree of consent on the part of Evelyn Nesbit.”

Baatz, who specializes in legal history, was also fascinated by the case’s legal twists and turns, along with the “ingenuity and resourcefulness” of lawyers on both sides. Until now, “no one had told the whole story including the aftermath of the rape: the two trials of Harry Thaw, his escape from (an insane) asylum and his attempts to get his freedom.” The trial transcripts have disappeared, so Baatz’s book is also the first to draw on detailed accounts from eight newspapers.

The Girl on the Velvet Swing was mentioned in a recent New York Times article about a mural of Nesbit on a Manhattan building.