Thursday, February 27, 2014
(In reverse chronological order: The Elwell Engima, which doesn't really count, Lovers' Lane, The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, The Terrible Axe-Man of New Orleans, Famous Players, The Lindbergh Child, The Saga of the Bloody Benders, and The Case of Madeleine Smith. There were seven books before that, but they pre-dated this blog.)
The most recent book in the current series, "A Treasury of XXth Century Murder," arrived in December as Madison Square Tragedy. It tells the story of the murder of famous turn-of-the-century architect Stanford White and his murder by the not-mentally-stable Harry K. Thaw, scion of a rich Pittsburgh family. And at the center of it is Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl, dancer and model who was White's mistress and then Thaw's wife -- though her first sexual encounter with each of them was rape, and I suspect many or most of the subsequent couplings would count as rape in our era, as well. (Thaw in particular had a nasty sadistic streak.)
Nesbit was the femme fatale of the case, of course: according to the lawyers at Thaw's trial and all of the newspapers, she scandalously led both men on -- mostly by being pretty and young and too trusting for her own good, but that's the kind of era 1906 was. All this happened in public: it was an open secret that White was a "noted seducer" -- i.e., that he drugged and raped dozens or hundreds of young women over decades, and got away with it because he was rich and powerful and connected and a man, when they were none of those things. Thaw, once he fixated on Nesbit -- he was more monomaniacal than White, who was attracted to feminine youth and beauty in every form possible -- increased his hatred for White and his "seductions," and that mania led, inexorably, to first taking Nesbit (to Europe and then more carnally, with brutal force), marrying her, and then shooting White in the face when they happened to meet one day in New York.
Thaw was also rich and powerful and connected and male, and so his first trial ended in a hung jury and the second sent him to a plush asylum once he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. And he didn't stay there very long, either. He didn't stay married to Nesbit all that long, either.
Madison Square Tragedy tells this story, focusing on the three principals and devoting most of its length to their relationships and then Thaw's trial: Thaw and Nesbit's subsequent fifty-plus years of life are covered in a few pages at the end. Geary, as always, tells the story through facts and details and his precise line, with as little emotion or editorializing as he can. But I have to admit that I find the real tragedy to be what happened to Nesbit, and I believe Geary meant the title that way.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index