The publication of “The Girl on the Velvet Swing” comes at a time when sexual harassment is being taken seriously and punished in a way never seen before. Everyday women are speaking out, telling the world that they suffered abuse from a sexual predator, typically an influential man who used his celebrity and his power to grope, and even to rape.
Now, for the first time, comes an authoritative account of the brutal rape of Evelyn Nesbit by the famed architect Stanford White, a partner of the firm McKim, Mead & White. Stanford White’s attack of Evelyn Nesbit should have been called rape — and the penalty for rape in 1901 was severe, more severe than in 2017, a prison sentence of 20 years under brutal conditions in the state penitentiary with no possibility of parole. Public opinion in 1906 (after the murder of White) overwhelmingly condemned White as a pedophile and rapist. But over the years, to burnish White’s reputation as an architect, the rape was whitewashed as a “seduction.”
New York Times bestselling author Simon Baatz’s “The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century” is a fascinating true-crime story, a thrilling account based on exhaustive research in the newspapers of the day. In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit, 16, an artist’s model and aspiring actress, dined alone with Stanford White, 47, at White’s Manhattan townhouse. That evening, they drank champagne and Evelyn lost consciousness. She awoke naked in bed with White lying next to her surrounded by tell-tale spots of blood on the bed sheets.
Four years later, Evelyn married Harry Thaw, playboy millionaire. One evening, at a performance of the musical comedy “Mamzelle Champagne,” Thaw shot and killed White before hundreds of theatre-goers. White’s death occurred in Madison Square Garden, the Renaissance Revival landmark that White had designed in 1890. The trial of Harry Thaw and its aftermath mesmerized the nation. Americans overwhelmingly supported Thaw — he had avenged his wife’s honor; what else mattered? But then-District Attorney Travers Jerome, ferocious, brilliant, and unflappable, was determined to send Thaw to the electric chair.
Nesbit’s scandalous testimony, that White had drugged and raped her, caused a sensation. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to prevent distribution of her verbatim account by the newspapers and Thaw’s appeal eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The murder of Stanford White cast a long shadow: Thaw twice attempted suicide and Nesbit battled a cocaine addiction during her acting career in Hollywood in the 1920s.
This riveting story — the first scandal of the century — broke Victorian taboos, heralded a new understanding of sex and sexuality and ushered in the modern era. “The Girl on the Velvet Swing” is true crime at its most epic, illuminating and enthralling.
Simon Baatz is an award-winning historian. He has graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Imperial College London, and he currently teaches United States History and American Legal History at John Jay College, City University of New York. Baatz has lived in Brooklyn since 2009.