Florence Evelyn Nesbit was a petite girl, with thin hips and a small frame. She was a bit androgynous, with a boyishness about her that photographers found irresistible. Her lush brown hair draped over her shoulders in some photographs, or was piled upon her head in the more adult style in others. When she started modelling as a young teen in the late 1890s, her popularity quickly mounted. She posed for paintings, for classic photographs, for stained glass windows, for magazine ads. Her likeness was placed on postcards and hanged in museums. Evelyn enjoyed the attention, and what teenage girl wouldn’t. She was carving a life for herself away from her controlling mother and sickly brother even while supporting them financially; her father was dead. Soon her work took her to New York, where she could model and pose, sing and dance. She was absolutely lovely.
When millionaire architect Stanford White, who had built famous parts of New York City, took notice, Evelyn was flattered. She was only 15 and he in his 40s. He was portly, with a thick moustache, and married, but he paid special attention to just her, spending months flattering her, entertaining her, and taking her to private dinners, where he would smile and coo at her across the table. He bought her gifts, gave her mother and brother money, and pushed Evelyn on a red velvet swing he kept in a room of his private quarters. He even had Evelyn’s teeth fixed at the dentist, taking away her only flaw in his eyes. And so Evelyn thought little of it the night he drugged her champagne and she woke up naked in his bed, her virginity stolen. He explained that no one could know, that her reputation would be ruined if she spoke a word and that no one would ever want her again, so she mustn’t even tell her mother. Evelyn was 16. Evelyn was far from his only victim.
But Stanny wasn’t the only millionaire to take notice. Harry Thaw had a sizable monthly income of $8000, drawn from his family’s railroad and coal fortunes, so vast that he didn’t need to work. Harry’s mother kept the family history of insanity quiet from the public, and she overlooked Harry’s habit of luring young women and young men up to his room, where he would force them to get naked, beat them with a riding crop, and sexually assault them. If the victims complained, Harry and his mother could just pay them off to keep them quiet.
Thaw courted Evelyn from afar for several weeks, sending her notes and gifts before introducing himself. Also much older, he worked to convince her that she should be with him, and began sending money to her family so he could Evelyn alone more often. With her mother’s permission, Thaw took Evelyn for weeks to Europe, and he proposed to her multiple times before she finally told him of the loss of her virtue to Stanford White, a man Thaw hated beyond measure. After weeks of violently and obsessively questioning Evelyn about every aspect of the events with White, he finally locked her in a room in a Bavarian castle and beat and raped her over the next few weeks. Evelyn was 17. Thaw would later marry her, after he had her followed, trained her how to act, and made her aware of his consistent demands and the consequences if she did not meet them. He then required her to get her dental work undone.
In 1906, at Madison Square Garden, Stanford White sat watching a play among a crowd of hundreds, including Evelyn and Harry. As the performers sang the song, “I Could Love a Million Girls”, Harry Thaw walked forward in his tuxedo, drew a gun, and shot White three times, killing him instantly for “ruining” his wife. Thaw was put on trial for murder a few times over the next few years and, declaring temporary insanity, was placed into a mental institution. Despite violent episodes and an escape requiring recapture, he was set free just a few years later, but was soon re-confined after committing more rapes and assaults.
Evelyn herself struggled the rest of her life with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, and suicide attempts. She had multiple careers, including, most famously, a touring show where she sang and danced about her husband killing her lover. She lived into her 80s after becoming a grandmother.
The Nesbit-Thaw-White story dominated the newspaper and gossip circuits for years, and reporters called it “The Crime of the Century.” Who could resist a story about a super-model and two millionaires, with all of the sordid details of murder and sex and rape and violence thrown in? The public couldn’t get enough.
Although this story is well over 100 years old, it is easy to recognize the parallels of money, privilege, abuse, rape culture, misogyny, corrupt justice, exploitation of women and their bodies, internalized homophobia, insanity, and media sensationalism that are alive and well today. Reading this history, in conjunction with the results of the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, has left me feeling how far we have come as a society at all. Many who abuse and exploit women use the same tactics of grooming, isolation, persistence, excuse-making, blaming, violence, shaming, and threats to get away with their crimes, and the media seems to only pick up on the stories about the millionaires.
America just elected a man who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times, and who has paid off people to drop lawsuits (and yes, I’m aware, Bill Clinton did the same thing). A man who has been heard on a public recording to brag about being rich and able to do what he wants with women, who excuses his actions and words as “locker room talk”, and who regularly rates women on their appearance. A man who buys women gifts hoping to lead them to the bedroom. A man who has publicly bragged about entering the locker rooms of teenage girls and seeing them change. A man who has cheated on his spouses.
I know a great number of people who are in shock right now. Among them are women who have been assaulted, groped, groomed, coerced, silenced, pressured, and abused, who now feel that their government is loudly saying that what has happened to them doesn’t matter and hasn’t mattered. Men have been using these tactics for far too long, and far too many have ended up hurt.