The Girl on the Velvet Swing

Reviewed by Emily Brooks

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century  by Simon Baatz Mulholland Books, 2018 400 pages

The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
by Simon Baatz
Mulholland Books, 2018
400 pages

In The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, Simon Baatz explores the dramatic and violent relationship between three infamous figures in late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York City. The story of Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry Thaw, a beautiful young performer, a famous middle-aged architect, and a notorious scion of a wealthy family, respectively, captivated their contemporaries and continues to appeal to historians more than a century later.

For those unfamiliar with the details: Nesbit was romantically linked to both men before wedding Thaw in 1905. In 1906, while attending a musical at Madison Square Garden, which White had designed, Thaw shot the architect three times, killing him. Thaw explained his actions by arguing that White had “ruined” Nesbit. Over the course of Thaw’s subsequent trials, incarceration, and escape, the details of Nesbit’s relationships with White and Thaw, both of which likely included sexual assault, became publicly documented. The case dominated the popular press and intrigued readers across America and Canada. Historians have explored the episode in relation to legal and cultural trends in the histories of both the United States and New York City.[1]

The Girl on the Velvet Swing is an engaging and fast-paced presentation of this story that will prove compelling to popular and academic audiences interested in New York City history or histories of the gilded age. Despite these strengths, Baatz’s analysis is weakened by a problematic interpretation of Nesbit’s narrative of her own assault, included in the book’s afterword, which may unsettle readers.

Baatz adds to existing scholarship on the scandal by focusing his narrative on Nesbit. He follows her family’s fall from economic stability with the death of her father in 1893 and their move from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and eventually to New York City. After their arrival, Evelyn meets Stanford White, one of Gotham’s most well-known architects and a serial predator who used Broadway as his hunting ground. The story that unfolds is riveting and moves from Broadway, to the secret penthouse at the top of Madison Square Garden, to the Tombs, to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Evelyn recedes a bit from the center of the narrative, understandably, during Thaw’s incarceration and subsequent escape. Some of the most surprising moments include a plot by Harry Thaw’s wealthy family to pay a Brooklyn resident and recent immigrant to set a fire in Park Slope, confess to arson, and get sent to Matteawan in the service of collecting intelligence on the institution’s administrator, who had refused to release their son. Later, Thaw escapes to Canada, igniting a debate about Canada’s immigration and deportation policies. It is not difficult to see why the story, which is paramount in Baatz’s treatment, captivated Americans and Canadians at the time, or why scholars have continued to turn to it.

Academic readers may wish that Baatz had slowed down or departed briefly from his narrative to analyze a number of themes that recur throughout his tale. For example, the struggles of Evelyn and her mother to navigate life in New York City reveal much about women’s experiences of and vulnerabilities in city life in this historical moment. Evelyn Nesbit’s mother, Florence, like many women of her social class and period, was wholly reliant on her husband’s income. Following his death, she engaged in strategies common among women seeking to support themselves, including taking in lodgers, sewing, and laundry, before finding a job as a saleswoman at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. Baatz’s attention to Florence’s employment struggles is significant. It helps readers understand why she permitted her daughter to pose for photographers and eventually to perform on stage, both of which were considered risqué for middle-class women at the time. Though Baatz argues Florence was reluctant to expose her daughter in this way, Florence faced circumscribed economic opportunities and her choice within them is understandable. Even for a relatively privileged woman like Mrs. Nesbit, poverty was just one male breadwinner’s death away. In Florence’s choice to support her daughter’s acting career and in Evelyn’s experiences with White and Thaw, readers are alerted to women’s vulnerability in the city that was home to the most powerful economic elite in the world.[2] The challenges faced by Florence and Evelyn, who were less vulnerable than their African American, immigrant, or more impoverished peers, provide a lens into the ways that the economic landscape of New York City exposed women to sexual exploitation and required them to rely on their relationships with sometimes violent men for survival.

A second theme that appears but is underexplored is the disjuncture between popular opinion and the law. Following the murder, Thaw receives “sackfuls of mail” praising his attack on White. Opinion polls reveal that the majority of New Yorkers support him and predict that he will be acquitted at trial. When Shaw later escapes to Canada following his commitment to Mattaewan in his second trial, he finds more support. Baatz notes that “crowds of sightseers” gather to cheer Shaw on outside of the courthouse in Sherbrooke, Canada and states that “no one was more popular than Harry Thaw.”[3] This support may seem surprising to readers, particularly since Thaw was no working-class hero taking aim at a symbol of elite power. In the context of eighteenth and nineteenth century political life, however, public sympathy for Thaw’s violence is understandable. Joanne Freeman has explicated the role that dueling played as a legitimate political weapon through the early nineteenth century. She notes that “dueling rule books” were imported from Britain into America “well into the nineteenth century.”[4] Eric Monkkonen has argued that in the mid-nineteenth century murder was not an unusual part of city politics.[5] The public reaction to White’s murder suggests that Americans and Canadians may have continued to view Thaw’s attack within this framework of violence, honor, and masculinity. What is interesting is that the law did not quite coincide with these public perceptions.

Baatz clearly intends to treat Nesbit’s experiences sympathetically and seriously. He aptly recovers the economic precarity of her family and Stanford White’s economic and professional power in theatrical and architectural circles in New York City. Nesbit’s time as a 17-year-old posing for sexually provocative pictures under White and Rudolf Eickemeyer’s direction is treated carefully by Baatz. He notes critically that these photographs have been used to reinforce the “impression that Evelyn’s supposed promiscuity somehow contributed to the drama that played out between White and Harry Thaw.”[6]

Despite this consideration, readers may be disturbed, as this reader was, by Baatz’s characterization of Nesbit’s description of her rape. Baatz argues in an afterword that, although Nesbit stated in court that White had raped her, she describes the evening “very differently” in her 1934 autobiography, Prodigal Days. Baatz then provides his interpretation of the way Nesbit recounts the evening in Prodigal Days, which is the sole source cited for this discussion. According to Baatz, Nesbit describes the sexual activity in question as “almost benign, not so much a rape as a sexual initiation.” Baatz also finds that in Nesbit’s written account White “behaved almost like a gentleman.”[7] This reviewer takes extreme issue with this characterization of Nesbit’s language, which I will now quote from at length. In Prodigal Days, Nesbit states of this particular evening that “because of the unusual quantity of wine I had had, I lost all self-control. I grew dizzy…and ‘passed out’.” Upon waking Nesbit writes that she

found myself in bed, naked except for an abbreviated pink undergarment. Stanford lay beside me. Catching a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror I think I let out one suppressed scream. I know I started to cry. I was utterly confused, still a bit dizzy and terribly embarrassed and afraid. Stanford put on a robe and gave me the yellow kimono that was lying on the back of a chair. ‘Don’t cry, Kittens.’ He said tenderly. Kittens was his pet name for me. ‘Don’t. Please don’t. It’s all over. Now you belong to me.’

Nesbit notes, “I entered that room a virgin, but I did not come out one. The evidence was there, and before we left the place, Stanford removed the sheet which, even to a sex-ignorant girl like me, told a tale.”[8]

Analyzing sexual assault and intimate partner violence can be challenging, particularly when it comes to questions of agency. Recent works of popular culture including Jennifer Fox’s 2018 film, The Tale, and the 2019 documentary Surviving R Kelly both take up these themes in a thoughtful and compelling manner. For historians, particularly those seeking details about a specific incident rather than larger societal trends, these challenges are compounded by the difficulty of accessing sources that accurately portray a historical actor’s intimate life, as Baatz notes. In this challenging context, historians are best served by starting from the language and narratives that survivors construct themselves, when such language exists. Nesbit clearly articulates her recollection of being unconscious while White had sex with her and her distress upon realizing what had occurred. Her use of the word “evidence” also suggests that she felt a crime had been committed. Baatz’s formulation of this description is deeply misleading and undermines what is otherwise a well-written description of an infamous scandal that captivated New Yorkers and the wider country in the early twentieth century.

Emily Brooks is an editor at Gotham and PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Notes

[1] On censorship, see Amy Werbel, Lust on Trial: Censorship and the Rise of American Obscenity in the Age of Anthony Comstock (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 261-64. For a discussion of Nesbit in the context of popular culture and scandal in late nineteenth and early twentieth century New York City, see M.H. Dunlop, Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century New York (New York: William Morrow, 2000), 156-59. For an interpretation with more attention to the legal issues at play, see Mary Cummings, Saving Sin City: William Travers Jerome, Stanford White, and the Original Crime of the Century (NYC: Pegasus Books, 2018).

[2] Sven Beckert, The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850-1896 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 3.

[3] Baatz, Girl in the Velvet Swing, 278-79.

[4] Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), xvi.

[5] Eric Monkkonen, Murder in New York City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 73.

[6] Baatz, Girl in the Velvet Swing, 346.

[7] Ibid., 349.
[8] Evelyn Nesbit, Prodigal Days (New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1934), 41.