The killing of the architect Stanford White, on 25 June 1906, in Madison Square Garden, was without question the paramount scandal of the Gilded Age. The subsequent murder trial, dubbed the “trial of the century,” represented the very first time in the history of American jurisprudence when the temporary insanity plea, also known as the MacNaughton Law, was used as a defense. The killer of Stanford White, Harry Kendall Thaw, was an emotionally unbalanced multi-millionaire, whose father made a fortune working for John D. Rockefeller.
The motive for the killing of Stanford White is as old as the hills, and can be found in the seamy love triangle created by Harry Thaw, Stanford White and Florence Evelyn Nesbit, the lovely showgirl who married Harry Thaw. Nesbit was also a model who had posed for artist Charles Dana Gibson, epitomizing the beauty of the day, the “Gibson Girl.” Thaw was furious that Stanford White had violated his wife before he had met her and the rivalry that grew between the two men turned to an unmitigated rage that erupted in murder.
The married Stanford White was one of the most prominent architects of his day. He was also an unabashed womanizer with a penchant for very young girls. The son of a Shakespearean scholar and essayist, Stanford White was a tall man with red hair and a red moustache. Known for his scandalous and extravagant parties, Stanford White actually raped Evelyn Nesbit in his secret hideaway at Madison Square Garden that was the site of the notorious red velvet swing, which dangled from a gold-leaf ceiling. Stanford White led a double although far from secret life, and his debauchery knew no bounds. He got away with his lecherous and lewd behavior for the simple reason that he could.
Harry Kendall Thaw killed Stanford White in a fit of jealous rage. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity of the crime, which was committed in plain view of hundreds of spectators who had gathered to see a musical production. He would spend the next several years in and out of mental institutions. Years later Thaw wrote a book in which he tried to justify his shooting of Stanford White but even in the eyes of his own family, there was no way he ever could.