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10 Facts About the Original 'Trial of the Century'

In 1907, Harry Thaw went on trial for murdering Stanford White. Thaw was the paranoid heir to a Pittsburgh railroad fortune, and White was a renowned architect and playboy in New York. Both were obsessed with model Evelyn Nesbit, who was much younger than either man and was the model for the “Gibson Girl” look. White deflowered Nesbit in a date rape when she was a young teen; Thaw married her after stalking her at her workplace and years of abuse. In 1906, Thaw shot White in front of a crowd during a performance at Madison Square Garden. The ensuing trial, involving three celebrities, was a media sensation.  

Newspapers had a segment of reporters dismissively called “sob sisters” or “the pity patrol.” These were female journalists whose only career path in a male-dominated field was reporting stories of wronged women for female readers, the more melodramatic the better. The story of the deadly love triangle with an abused starlet at one corner was exactly what they sought. According to American Eve, Hearst and Pulitzer both assigned sob sisters to the story. Papers in Pittsburgh, home of the Thaw family, also ran daily coverage. According to Lloyd Chiasson in his book The Press on Trial, a Western Union office was opened in the courthouse just to help reporters wire dispatches.

Soon, reporters uncovered past exploits of the man they dubbed “Bathtub Harry” for his habit of scalding women (and apparently, once, a bellboy whom the Thaws paid hush money). There was a counter-effort, financed by Mary Thaw, to portray her son as a defender of womanly virtue. Letters to the editor praising Thaw as such started appearing in newspapers. According to The Press on Trial, Mary Thaw even commissioned the writing of a three-character play based on the events (two of the characters were named Harold Daw and Stanford Black), portraying White as a perverted hedonist.

It was the first time the term “Trial of the Century” was used. Read about the trial, the characters involved, and the precedents the legal proceedings set at mental_floss.


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