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  • Writer's pictureLoveday Funck

When They Took her Power - the Rise and Tragic Fall of Evelyn Nesbit

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am still tinkering with the idea of sort of short art book with a main character with a storyline similar to that of Olive Thomas and Evelyn Nesbit but with a happier ending.

Unlike Olive Thomas, Evelyn Nesbit did manage to live out a full natural life, but her origin story isn't so very different. Evelyn Nesbit was born possibly around 1884 or 1885, but Evelyn's mother tended to add a few years of age to her daughter's age if it meant that her daughter could work.

Evelyn's father died when she was only 10 leaving the family in a difficult financial situation. Her mother struggled to find work and keep her family together. When Evelyn was 14, she found a stable job at Pittsburgh's Wanamaker department store and shortly thereafter, Evelyn and her younger brother Howard joined her at the department store working 12 hour days.

It wasn't long before Evelyn was noticed by an artist and soon Evelyn was making more money posing as an artist's model than she did at the department store. Soon she moved from the stiff, dull work of posing to working on stage as a chorus girl and later as a frontline performer. Her beauty and her presence were much complimented (with little mention of her acting skills).

She came to the notice of the 45 year old Stanford White, a well known and successful architect who possessed a predilection for grooming and seducing underprivileged young girls like the 15 year old Evelyn. He took Evelyn under his wing and used his wealth and influence to begin his seduction. When she was 16, he invited her over one evening, plied her with champagne and possibly drugged her, taking advantage of her in her unconscious state. Somehow, he shifted this into a six month affair and the two parted on civil terms.

Not long after, the beautiful Evelyn came to the notice of the wealthy, but psychologically unstable Harry Kendall Thaw. Thaw had a history of obsession with Stanford White, believing that White had blocked him from several social circles and Thaw also disapproved of White's sexual interest in young girls. This may have been why Thaw became interested in Evelyn Nesbit as she was known to have been involved with Stanford White.

Evelyn Nesbit ended up marrying Harry Kendall Thaw, despite his faults, Thaw was devout in his pursuit of her and he was also the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune. The marriage was not a happy one, however, as Thaw continued his obsession with Stanford White, culminating in the shooting of Stanford White at short range in a crowded theater in 1906.

The trial ruined Evelyn Nesbit's reputation as she was forced to share every bit of her sexual history with Stanford White and even though she'd been a young girl, the press did not portray her favorably. She came away with the name, the "lethal beauty".

Harry Kendall Thaw was judged mentally incompetent and spent the next nine years in mental institutions, finally walking away a free man in 1915.

She gave birth to her only son, Russell Thaw, in 1910, but Harry Thaw denied the paternity.

Evelyn Nesbit went on to continue performing on stage and in silent movies but never really shook off the scandal of the murder. She married again in 1916 to fellow performer and dancer Jack Clifford but the marriage was not a success. They separated in 1918, finally divorcing in 1933.

She continued performing off and on for many years, but struggled financially for the rest of her life, dying quietly in a rest home in California in 1967 at the age of 82.

Evelyn Nesbit was an incomparable beauty, considered by many to be the world's first super model, breaking away from the Victorian standard of the heavily corseted Gibson Girl. While she was able to trade on her good looks for early financial success and her marriage to Harry Thaw may have seemed like a good choice for a stable future, it ended up souring much of her life.

Perhaps the takeaway here should be that in many ways, it's better now, but in some ways, nothing has changed. Jeff Bezos has shown us that wealthy men can still manipulate and take advantage of young powerless girls. Society still has outdated standards about women and their right to control their own sexuality.

We need to keep struggling and fighting. What happened to Evelyn Nesbit should never have happened, should no longer be happening. We take two steps forward and slide one step back, kicking and screaming all the way.

Your body is your body. You should do with it what you want, when you want to do it and everyone else should keep their judgments to themselves. We don't need to hear it.

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