January Thaw

During my prosecutorial career, jury selection always included an explanation that the State need not prove motive. It was enough, I told the potential jurors, for me to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had done the things we had accused. We were not bound to show why he or she had acted that way.

Once I had finished explaining this staple of the law, however, I spent the rest of the trial trying to show why the defendant had committed the crime.

The reason, of course, was narrative. Everyone wants to understand why a crime occurred and a storyline helped to give context. Provide a compelling version that resonates with the jury and they will fill in any evidentiary gaps which may arise.

Defense attorneys also understand that the side with the best story usually wins. Over the years, the battle for narrative supremacy has waged in trials across this country. My courthouse in Tarrant County has seen its share. Years ago, Racehorse Haynes brought bags and boxes of sexual devices into court to prove a Battered Spousal Defense in a murder trial about which court house veterans still talk. A decade later, lawyers presented the Urban Survival Syndrome to justify a shooting death. They argued that the pressures and violence common to the inner city created a post-traumatic stress disorder equivalent to soldiers in wartime. In that case, the defense proved unsuccessful. The gritty details of life on the streets, however, made an attempt at context.

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Syndromes have a long history. In January 1907, the trial of Harry Thaw featured one of the prominent early claims. Thaw, heir to a coal and railroad fortune, had a history of mental instability, drug abuse and obsessive behaviors. He had married Evelyn Nesbit in 1905 after pursuing her for nearly four years. Nesbit, an actress, chorus girl and acclaimed artist’s model, had previously been involved with Stanford White, New York’s most prominent architect. White’s building designs included Madison Square Garden. (His edition has subsequently been torn down.) Both men had histories of sexual voracity.  White’s granddaughter, Suzannah Lessard, wrote in a biography of White that he was “all over the place sexually–he was out of control.” White’s hideaway apartment furnishings included a red velvet swing and a mirror paneled room. During their time together, White sexually assaulted the young Nesbit. She remained with him, however, the man she called her “benevolent vampire.”

While White’s sexual proclivities were known, Thaw, his mother and their lawyers kept his behaviors shielded. The men’s lives fatally intersected on June 25th, 1906. After dinner, Thaw and Nesbit attended a new musical, Mamzelle Champagne, then playing at the open-air theater atop Madison Square Garden.

As the show neared its conclusion, White took his customary table at the building he had designed. During the chorus’ final number, “I Could Love A Million Girls”, Thaw drew a pistol, strode to the table and fired three shots into Stanford White, killing him instantly.  Thaw then stood over the table, displaying the gun and shouted, “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him.”

The prosecution had a roof top full of theater goers who had seen the shooting and heard the admissions.

Thaw’s mother pledged that she would spend the family’s 40-million-dollar fortune to free her son and hired Delphin Delmas among others to represent him. She and her son feared that he would live out his life in an asylum if he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Both also abhorred the social stigma of Thaw being dubbed a homicidal madman.  Delmas, one of the foremost lawyers of the era, instead argued a temporary impairment. Delmas offered testimony on White’s violation of Nesbit and argued that if he client was insane,

“call it Dementia Americana. That is the species of insanity which makes every American man believe his home to be sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his daughter is sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his wife is sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe that whosoever invades his home, that whosoever stains the virtue of this threshold, has violated the highest of human laws and must appeal to the mercy of God, if mercy there be for  him anywhere in the universe.”

The jury deadlocked on the issue of guilt.

(At the subsequent trial, Thaw’s team pursued the insanity defense. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Released in 1915, he was later recommitted to mental hospitals after committing additional violence.)

Socially prominent parties, lurid facts and novel defenses fed the intense media coverage of the case. It became one of the first trial stories where often-marginalized female reporters played a prominent role. Stories of wronged woman were their bailiwick.velvetswing

Years later, Joan Collins starred as Evelyn Nesbit in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. E. L. Doctorow wove the characters into his novel, Ragtime, ranked among the best novels of the 20th Century.

The Library of Congress’s Newspaper Reading Room labeled the case the first “trial of the century.” I’ve dubbed it my trial of the month for January.

Mark Thielman

6 thoughts on “January Thaw

  1. I remember the movie, old as it is! Very interesting discussion, thank you. Having recently served on a jury, I appreciate theme of “the best narrative wins” in a trial. Just a request– can each of you add a by-line to your posts so we have a clue who the writer is? Inquiring minds want to know, and it makes it easier to find your books! –kate, writing as c. t. collier

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  2. Great post, Mark. I know our justice system is the best in the world, but it still irks me that our prosecutors must come up with a great story to convince a jury of a defendant’s guilt. And if the defense either shoots a hole in the story or comes up with a better one, a criminal walks. I conferred with many prosecutors who had picked up one of my murder cases and was preparing it for trial. They always wanted the “why.” A plausible explanation for why a man would take a human life in such a despicable manner. Something so it would all make sense to a jury. But sadly, there is often no rational explanation for what is essentially an irrational act.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian. A standard part of my talk to the family of a victim was to explain that courts are very good and answering the “how” questions but terrible at the “why” questions. Testifying defendants could rarely answer the “why” question. Still, we pose it. Because we love stories.

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    1. Thanks, Ben. We read and write because we love the stories. I have been fascinated during my brief time on this journey with you guys to discover how many trials, big and small, have wormed their way into popular fiction.

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