Trigger warning: sexual violence
Spoiler warning: These are actual events, so I will discuss details.
In the early 1900s, Evelyn Nesbit was raped by architect Stanford White, who was then supporting her family. Several years later, after Nesbit married a young rich man named Harry Thaw, Thaw murdered White in retribution. The trial that followed was a national sensation. This book is the account of the events leading up to the murder and trial, and the fallout afterwards, including all the contradictory evidence brought forward from multiple sources over many years.
There is a lot of contradictory evidence. Both White and Thaw were accused of sexual and physical violence toward young girls, accusations coupled with varying claims of sadism, drug use, and blackmail. Nesbit changed her stance and testimony about both White and Thaw several times. The book’s afterword said that the truth was never fully uncovered and it’s difficult to tell what the actual story was in places. After listening through the whole audiobook and then reading some additional materials, my conclusions are these:
Thaw was obviously a very nasty man. Whether or not one believes the stories of him threatening his wife after his trials, or that his lawyers tricked Nesbit into lying on the stand, or that he had a right to kill White for his wife’s honor, these two facts stand out. First, he murdered someone in public, possibly taking the law into his own hands, and possibly using Nesbit’s rape as an excuse to get rid of someone who had made his life difficult. Second, long after this particular affair was over and Thaw was eventually a free man again, he attacked and whipped a young man in the same manner he’d been accused of doing to young girls before the trial.
White was also obviously a very nasty man. He was a known serial “seducer” of young girls. It doesn’t matter whether or not he drugged Nesbit and raped her while she was unconscious (one claim she made) or he “seduced” her into losing her virginity (another claim she made). Either way, a man in his late 40s “seducing” a girl of 16 (or younger) is rape. Flat out.
As for Evelyn Nesbit, I hardly know what to think of her, except to feel sorry for her. She was manipulated by the men in her life, and then torn apart by the press for being beautiful and making her way in life via photography and stage acts. People have cast her as a seductress that manipulated those around her, but I’m sorry, she’s was frickin’ 16 years old! Maybe even younger, since there’s some evidence her mother lied about her age and that she was actually 14. I think that, as usual, the woman got blamed when it was the two men who had harmed and used her. It’s hard to know what to think of her only because the records that still exist all show the media’s skewing of her true self to sell a story.
The book was well-written and a good, balanced account – from what I can tell – of the events. I struggled a bit with the parts that don’t add up, and appreciated the afterword where Baatz addresses this. The prose was engaging, and I was interested in reading more about the events when the book was over. Moreover, the audio performance by Christine Lakin was very good and helped to keep me engaged.