The first ‘Trial of the Century’ Part II in the twisted life of former Lititz student Harry K. Thaw

By on September 11, 2013


CORY VAN BROOKHOVEN Record Express Correspondent

, Staff Writer

This is the second and final part of the twisted life of Harry K. Thaw. The first part appeared in last month’s Lititz Record Express.

Thaw was head over heels for Evelyn Nesbit, and eventually arranged to meet her in person. Introducing himself as “Mr. Munroe,” as not to reveal his true identity due to his prolific lifestyle, he began to shower her with large amounts of cash and gifts. He kept up this charade until he felt the time was right to reveal his true identity. Eventually, Nesbit confessed her meetings to Stanford White (her on-again, off-again romantic partner), who immediately disapproved. After an emergency appendicitis operation, Thaw whisked Nesbit and her mother (as chaperone) away to Europe with a very busy itinerary in store – it was Thaw’s hope to weaken her emotionally. His plan worked, and due to the state she was in, mother and daughter began to argue, which led Thaw and Nesbit to travel to Paris, leaving Nesbit’s mother in England.

While in Paris, Thaw begged Nesbit to be his wife. She refused, however one night, she admitted that Stanford White took her innocence away at the age of sixteen while she was intoxicated and unconscious. She became very upset and hysterical, but Thaw pressed her for additional information on this despicable act, even going as far as telling her that her mother was an unfit parent. While continuing their travels in Europe, Thaw took her to a castle in Austria where he locked her in a room. He became violent, and in a rage, beat her with a whip and sexually assaulted her over a two-week period. It was his firm belief that Stanford White “ruined” her.

In April 1905, after pursuing her hand in marriage for over four years, Nesbit finally agreed to marry him. In her mind, this was her way of not having to worry about money for the rest of her life. After they exchanged nuptials, Thaw insisted that his new bride refer to White only as “the beast” due to the horrible way he had treated her. Thaw became more and more disturbed about what White had done to his new love in a previous relationship, and while on a cruise during their honeymoon, Thaw tied her to a bed and whipped her over and over again until she was covered with welts. He also insisted that she repeat the story of her rape over and over to him, so he could work himself into a psychotic frenzy. Perhaps in some small way, he felt some sort of sick and twisted pleasure from these words?

A year later in June, on the rooftop of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Thaw finally killed White in cold blood. He was charged with first-degree murder, and denied bail. Because of his wealth, his stay in jail at the Manhattan Detention Complex (also known as “The Tombs”), where he wore his own custom-tailored cloths and dined on steak dinners. He remained in a blissful state while awaiting his trial, and was sure that the world would agree that he did the right thing by murdering White.

Almost immediately after the murder, the media began to work themselves up into a frenzy reporting even the smallest bit of news – even if it was only remotely related to the murder. All of America was captivated by this high-profile case, with the story making almost every newspaper in the country. In addition, after only one week, Thomas Edison himself rushed a film entitled “Rooftop Murder” into production to be shown at nickelodeons. So much hype surrounded Thaw’s trial that it was referred to as “The Trial of the Century,” a term that was first coined, it is widely believed, during this trial.

The trial began on January 23rd, 1907. Due to the large amount of publicity, members of the jury were sequestered. It is said that this was the first time in history that this isolation had to take place, just another one of the many historic firsts in this trial.

The jury finally deliberated in April of that same year, and after forty-seven hours, they came back deadlocked. Out of twelve jurors, seven voted guilty, and five voted him not guilty. This infuriated Thaw, who began to cry and flailed around, all the while coming to the realization that not everyone agreed with him that White deserved to be murdered.

Thaw’s second trial opened in January of 1908, where he pleaded temporary insanity. Among the many witnesses that took the stand was none other that Abraham Reinecke Beck, his old schoolmaster from Lititz. In a letter written several years ago, Herbert Beck, (son to Abraham who accompanied his aging father to the trial in New York City) stated that when Beck entered the witness stand, Thaw exclaimed to his lawyer “There’s the only man in the whole damn room who amounts to anything at all!” It seemed that even after years of deep mental illness, Thaw thought of his former teacher as a well-accomplished man. At least one newspaper reported that Beck was one of the most impressive witnesses during this trial, and while testifying, he recalled stories involving Thaw’s insane behavior at his school back in Lititz. He stated that the memory of his actions stayed with him all of these years as he recalled young Harry’s loud outbursts and short temper. Beck also produced a letter from Thaw’s parents who wrote to explain that they too were dumbfounded by their son’s actions. Although he had many years of experience keeping his students on task, Beck stated in the courtroom “I couldn’t help but think him irrational.”

The trial finally came to a conclusion where Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was sentenced to imprisonment for life in New York. Naturally, his wealth made his life a lot easier and more comfortable than his fellow inmates.

The year 1909 saw Thaw’s lawyers unsuccessfully attempt to have Thaw released from jail. In 1913, Thaw walked out of confinement and was driven to Canada. Finally, in 1914, Thaw was extradited back to New York where he had yet another trail in 1915. This time, he was declared not guilty, not insane, and was a free man. Although his wife had long left him for a new life, he had yet another scrape with the law in 1916 where he was accused of kidnapping and sexually assaulting a nineteen-year-old man.

When he was finally captured, it was discovered that he had tried to commit suicide by slashing his throat. He was put on trial yet again where he was declared insane. After being confined to prison for several years, he was eventually released in 1924. A short time later, he purchased a home in the farming community of Frederick County, Virginia. While there, he did his best to blend in with the locals by joining the local fire company, even marching in a few parades in uniform. The year 1926 saw him publish his memoirs entitled “The Traitor,” and by 1944 he had sold his home in Virginia and moved to Florida. Three years later, Harry Kendall Thaw died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

The twisted actions of Harry K. Thaw spawned several books and even several movies, the most famous being the film and musical entitled “Ragtime.”

There are many more facts and incidents surrounding his life, but our story for now must come to a close.

To this day, his demented life and the shocking actions that he undertook are analyzed and discussed. All this from a small troublesome boy that once attended school right here in Lititz.

More THAW, page A15