100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

Insane Murderer Tries To Prove Sanity – Again

In June 1906 famed architect Stanford White was watching a performance at the rooftop cabaret at Madison Square Gardens when Harry Thaw, millionaire heir, shot and killed him because he thought White was having an affair with his wife, chorus girl and artist’s model Evelyn Nesbit Thaw. Thaw had a sordid reputation as a playboy, spendthrift and reckless profligate. He was expelled from Harvard for a violent incident with a shotgun. White had designed the Battle Monument at West Point and Madison Square Gardens. The murder and the following courtroom trials were a worldwide sensation.

Stanford White

Thaw’s trial began in 1907. With an unlimited amount of money at his disposal, he had 7 lawyers who argued that “he struck for purity of the wives and homes of America” and had had a “brainstorm” a new phrase that was picked up and used widely. The defense of a temporary insanity, “dementia Americana,” was challenged by the prosecution and a court-appointed board ruled Thaw fit to stand trial. The trail ended with a hung jury. A second trial commenced in 1908 and Thaw’s defense presented a formal plea of insanity with his mother taking the stand to testify to his paranoia. Thaw was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and sent to a state mental hospital.

Harry Thaw during his murder trail – 1907

Now that Thaw had been tried, he had only to prove that he was competent and once again sane and would be eligible for release. With his family fortune and a battery of lawyers he set to work. In May 1908 he applied for a writ of habeus corpus to have the court prove he was still insane. Testimony was given by his wife and others of his threats and mental instability. The application for habeus corpus was denied. In June 1908 he asked for trial to determine his sanity – this was denied. In January 1909 he appealed the court refusal – the appeal was denied. In August 1909 he carried his appeal to the New York Supreme Court which upheld the lower court’s denial. In December 1909 he brought the case to the US Supreme Court – they upheld the denial. In April 1912 Thaw made another attempt for habeus corpus and a hearing took place in New York.

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw ready to testify in court

On June 26, 1912 alienists, a term for psychoanalyst, testified at Thaw’s habeus corpus hearing as to his mental stability. Those paid for by the Thaw defense team claim Thaw is now sane but the state maintains Thaw is still insane. If Thaw can prove he is sane he could be released.

Harry Thaw – 1912


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