Heart-Rending Facts About Evelyn Nesbit, The Face Of The Gilded Age

July 3, 2024 | Sarah Ng

Heart-Rending Facts About Evelyn Nesbit, The Face Of The Gilded Age

Evelyn Nesbit, The Face Of The Gilded Age

Evelyn Nesbit’s undeniable beauty enchanted the masses, but for one man, it inspired a chilling, deep-seated obsession. While her famous features made her the darling of the Gilded Age, her dark secrets mirrored the era’s roiling undercurrents. 

Her story is equal parts sensational, explosive, and tragic—but despite all this, her resilience reigns supreme.

Evelyn Nesbit Split

1. She Made The Papers

Evelyn Nesbit, born on Christmas Day 1884, had a face destined for adoration. The local paper reported on her birth with only her looks in mind, writing that "She was the most beautiful baby ever born in the county". Her divine features defined her from the beginning, but it was her father who nurtured her inner dreamer.

evelyn nesbit

2. She Was A Daddy’s Girl

Nesbit was a daddy’s girl, with her father wilfully encouraging little Evelyn's love of music, dance, and fantastical stories. Looking back, he was the only man she could ever depend on. And then something terrible happened. When Nesbit was only 10 years old, her comfortable childhood came to an abrupt and tearful end.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikipedia

3. She Was A Nomad

When Nesbit’s father passed unexpectedly at the age of 40, he left his family in dire straits. They lost everything to his outstanding debts. From then on, the Nesbits struggled to find a home, moving constantly and living off the generosity of friends and family. Barely scraping by, her mother opened a boarding house, before packing it in and moving to Philadelphia.

It was here that Nesbit’s life changed forever.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

4. She Was A Head-Turner

Whilst walking unassumingly down the street, Nesbit caught the eye of an artist. The woman—bowled over by Nesbit’s beauty—asked her to pose for a portrait. From then on, Nesbit's path to fame was assured. She moved to New York and quickly became a high profile model. Her picture-perfect portrait sold anything and everything and she even graced the covers of Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. But her good fortune wouldn't last forever. 

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

5. She Reached For More

Bored by the monotonous duties of modelling, Nesbit turned her eyes to the world of theatre. Her childhood dreams of music and dance saw realization in the energetic lifestyle of an actress. Her first role was that of a "Spanish maiden" in a popular Broadway show. Although she only booked a minor role, she completely enraptured one important audience member—with horrific consequences.

Joan Rivers factsNeedpix

6. She Was His Obsession

Stanford White was the man in the crowd. He was a hot-shot architect who became so consumed by Nesbit’s performance that he returned to see the play over and over again. Some sources said he attended over 40 times. His adoration rapidly devolved into a possessive obsession. One thing was certain—White simply had to have her.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikimedia Commons

7. She Met Him In Secret

Through his friendship with a fellow chorus girl, White arranged a meeting with Nesbit at one of the apartments he kept for a certain unsavory purpose: meeting beautiful women who were not his wife. From the outside, these rendezvous points were unassuming, but the interiors were as glamorous as the owner himself.  However, Nesbit would soon learn, "All that glitters is not gold".

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikimedia Commons

8. She Didn’t Fall For It

When Nesbit stepped into White’s luxurious apartment, she reeled with delight. Unfortunately for White, this admiration didn’t extend beyond the trimmings of his gilded trap. Even a ride on his famous red velvet swing couldn't make Nesbit return White's feelings. In her own words, Nesbit described him as "appalling" and "terribly old". After all, she was only 16 and White was a distant 48.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

9. She Was Almost Perfect

White thought Nesbit was stunning, but one thing kept her from reaching absolute perfection—her teeth. Taking it upon himself to mould her into the ideal woman, he sent her to the dentist to fix them as he saw fit. And when it came to the expenses, well, he covered all the bills. His riches were no small matter, and with a generous pocketbook, Nesbit had a lot to gain and even more to lose…

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikimedia Commons

10. She Loved His Money

White’s obsession with Nesbit effectively turned her into his protégée, his muse, and his property. He paid for everything, moving her and her mother into a fancy apartment and even paying for her brother’s education. White spoiled her with gifts, books, piano lessons, and best of all, an introduction to the man who'd make her a star. Thanks to White, Nesbit became the iconic "Gibson Girl". But all these "favors" had a dark side.

White felt that Nesbit was in his pocket and soon, he'd make her pay up.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Flickr, Infrogmation of New Orleans

11. She Was At His Mercy

Nesbit perceived White as a rich patron and father figure, but White himself had a lurid personal agenda. Winning their trust took time, but eventually his seeming devotion and generous schemes paid off. On one occasion, he persuaded Mrs. Nesbit to visit friends back in Pittsburgh and to trust her daughter to his care, leaving the two of them alone together. This seemingly sound plan turned into a tragic mistake…

Evelyn Nesbit facts Getty Images

12. She Took The Bait

At this time, Nesbit worked the circuit non-stop—she modelled during the day and acted on Broadway in the evenings. In order to isolate her from the constant demands of her career, White invited her to a party at Madison Square Garden. But this wasn’t to be a soirée of mingling celebs and fine hor d’oeuvres. It was a nightmare waiting to happen...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Flickr, Midnight Believer

13. She Was Trapped

When Nesbit arrived at the party, she quickly learned the dark truth. The place was empty, save for White, and the air felt tense. Something nefarious was afoot. He said to her, "Isn’t it too bad all the others have turned us down?" He handed her a glass of champagne...and then another. The party went on with just the two of them, until Nesbit, woozy and plied with drinks, became desperately vulnerable.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Shutterstock

14. She Was A Lamb Led To Slaughter

White led Nesbit up a secret staircase to a room she had never seen before—small but elegant, furnished with antiques and hangings. But behind these hangings, was yet another room. This one—a bedroom with a four-poster canopy bed completely surrounded by mirrors—featured the ceiling twinkling with color-changing lights. Never had anything so shiny been so sinister...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Flickr, puuikibeach

15. She Couldn’t Remember What Happened

The next morning, Nesbit woke to find herself reflected in one of the many mirrors—exposed and lying undressed next to Stanford White. With no memory of the night’s proceedings, she let loose a blood-curdling scream. White’s manipulative scheming found fruition. He had claimed her body for himself. He told her that she belonged to him now.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

16. She Didn’t Say A Word

White assured Nesbit that nothing untoward had happened—that their relations were normal, even common. But most of all, he told her to keep quiet, saying, "A girl must never talk". As a young girl faced with the power of an enigmatic society figure, Nesbit felt utterly betrayed and completely powerless. She would be silent...for now.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikipedia

17. She Was Naive

Nesbit and her family relied on White in so many ways—he had single-handedly lifted them out of poverty while also campaigning for her career. Maybe if he wanted her so badly, he’d leave his wife for her—maybe the happy ending could be hers to keep. But despite the endless attention he threw her way, it was never Stanford White’s intention to make Nesbit his bride…

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

18. She Had A Secret Admirer

Cast in a musical called The Wild Rose, Nesbit captivated her audiences. Perhaps more than any other, she fascinated a strange man who attended almost every performance. His name was Mr. Munroe, and over the span of a year he came to the theatre countless times—all for the sake of Nesbit. He sat in the front row every time and soon, he hatched a dark plan to corner his obsession.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Shutterstock

19. She Didn’t See Him Coming

Just like Stanford White, Munroe became obsessed with Nesbit. Taking a leaf out of White’s book, he had one of Nesbit’s castmates invite her to lunch. But when Nesbit arrived at the table, she was in for a curious introduction—Munroe dropped to his knees, cradled her skirts in his hands, and told her she was the most beautiful girl in New York.

Unfortunately for Munroe, Nesbit was repelled by his extravagant declarations. After that, he became desperate.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

20. She Didn’t Care

Nesbit met Munroe again at a pre-show dinner, where she just so happened to sit right next to him. Of course, the seating arrangement was no coincidence. And soon, she discovered why. Munroe confessed that he wasn't just one of Nesbit's many fans. His real name was Harry Kendall Thaw—a coal and railroad baron with a whopping $40 million fortune.

Most girls would be bowled over by such a wealthy suitor, but not Nesbit. She was already used to rich men fawning all over her, and Thaw was no different...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

21. She Was In Danger

Nesbit had no idea what she was getting into with Thaw. He was peculiar a rogue, hailing from Pittsburgh and desperately wanting to fit in with the New York elite. He was also a bad boy with an apathetic disregard for the massive fortune at his disposal. But perhaps most worrisome of all was his preoccupation with Broadway actresses and their virginity. While he seemed like a typical rich scoundrel from afar, he was also unstable. Nesbit didn’t know it, but Thaw was dangerous...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

22. A Maniac Pursued Her

Behind the scenes, Thaw was a madman. He placed ads in the paper, pretended to be an acting coach, and lured young girls to his home. With this demented trickery, he tormented them for their supposed sins—scalding them, whipping them, and tying them up. In his mind, he was saving them. And it was only his mother’s money that saved him from pressed charges. With Nesbit’s disregard for Thaw, she seemed on track to dodge this hypothetical bullet. And she almost did...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

23. She Only Wanted Him

Thaw was inexhaustible in his pursuit of Nesbit. He sent her two dozen pairs of silk stockings and a Steinway grand piano, but she sent them both back. And when he proposed to her, she declined. Her heart still danced beneath Stanford White’s thumb, and she hoped to keep his affection. But Stanford White, forever a lady’s man, still consorted with other young actresses. Nesbit wasn’t having it, and in a tale as old as time, she set out to make him jealous...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

24. She Made Him Jealous

Nesbit met John Barrymore at a lavish party hosted by White himself. With his youth and wit, he was the perfect man to make White jealous. By 1902, the couple seemed inseparable. Their romance had the desired effect—White became incredibly jealous and vowed to break the new couple up. Along with Nesbit's mother, White concocted a plan to separate the lovers for good...

John Barrymore factsWikimedia Commons

25. They Sent Her Away

White and Nesbit's mother hoped that they could break up Evelyn and her new beau by sending her off to boarding school. However, right before she left, Barrymore endeavored to claim the last word. He proposed to Nesbit in front of both her mother and White. However, Nesbit's response chilled him to the core. She said no and trotted off to boarding school. Clearly, he'd served his purpose in her plan to make White jealous.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

26. She Needed Surgery

While at boarding school, Nesbit faced a severe medical emergency—she needed an appendectomy. Panicked, and unable to contact Stanford White, Nesbit’s mother sought the help of another rich man who maintained a soft spot for her daughter—Harry Thaw. And just like that, this devilish man was back in her life. He sent her one of the best doctor’s money could buy and when she pulled through, he made her an offer too good to refuse...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

27. She Went Abroad

Thaw wanted to take Nesbit and her mother on a sweeping trip through Europe to help her relax. But as soon as the trip began, Nesbit and her mother started arguing over money. Her mother was squandering her daughter’s pay cheques on personal purchases. When the resulting tension became too much to bear, Nesbit’s mother returned to America. Unfortunately, this left Nesbit and Thaw alone together—a recipe for disaster.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

28. She Told Him Her Secret

One night, while visiting Paris, Thaw came to Nesbit and forcefully enquired about her relationship with Stanford White. What had he done to her? Thaw was sure that White was guilty of something terrible. And so, Nesbit told the truth about the secret room of mirrors and the night she didn’t remember—the night White attacked her. Thaw’s reaction to this revelation was extreme.

Maria Montez factsWikimedia Commons

29. He Was Enraged

Upon hearing how White had attacked Nesbit, Thaw immediately dissolved into a fit of tears and hysterics. He was clearly angry and upset about how White had manipulated Nesbit. However, Thaw was also strangely curious about the traumatic night. He wanted every sordid detail, and so, they stayed up all night mulling it over. At first, Thaw's concern moved Nesbit, but later on, it took a dark turn. 

Evelyn Nesbit facts Getty Images

30. Her House Was Haunted

Nesbit and Thaw continued to travel the continent together. But Thaw’s interest and growing obsession with Stanford White didn’t let up—he was always a topic of conversation. When they landed in Germany, their lodging was an eerie Gothic castle. On one fateful night, Thaw ordered the servants away so that he and Nesbit could be alone. And that’s when a real-life nightmare ensued—one that Nesbit never forgot...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Getty Images

31. He Attacked Her

When Nesbit awoke, she saw Thaw standing over her with a whip in hand. Consumed by madness, he attacked her, ripped at her nightgown, and beat her. He told her to atone for her sins and then violated her. The very next day, Thaw pretended as though everything was normal. When she asked to see a medic, he brought her to a professional that overlooked the deep bruises and injuries trailing every inch of her body. She knew she had to get away...

Lola Montez factsShutterstock

32. She Had No One To Turn To

When they arrived back in Paris, Nesbit hit a much-needed stroke of luck. She ran into an old friend of Stanford White’s, who whisked her away from Thaw’s terror and back to New York. But when she got home, she realized that she was more alone than ever—her mother refused to see her, and White was too busy to make time. Despite being a mere 17-year-old, she worried she wasn’t young enough to engage White’s attention.

Peg Entwistle factsPixy

33. He Wouldn't Stop

For the next two years, Thaw did everything in his power to make amends for brutally attacking Nesbit. He sent her letters promising that if she married him, he’d change his ways. He sent her hundreds of flowers as an apology, and when she refused to see him, he sent friends to apologize for him. Undeterred by Nesbit's constant rejection, Thaw persisted for years. And eventually, to Nesbit's eternal woe, he wore her down.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

34. She Gave Up

Worn down by his unequalled devotion, Nesbit finally agreed to marry her own sadistic attacker, Harry Thaw. They tied the knot on April 5th 1905. But as a sign that this was no celebratory affair, the bride wore black. In the early days of her marriage, Nesbit hoped that Thaw had changed. Sadly, she placed her confidence in the wrong man.

Lawyers ridiculous reasonsUnsplash

35. She Was Stuck In The Middle

The faint glimmers of marital bliss faded once it became obvious that Harry Thaw hadn’t changed a bit. He was still as obsessed as ever with Stanford White and his past transgressions. Wildly, this is how Nesbit became embroiled in a feud between her two guilty lovers. Thaw had White followed, and White had Thaw followed. It was a demented rivalry and in the end, it came to a fatal stand-off…

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

36. She Was A Pawn

Nesbit became Thaw’s pawn in his attempt to knock Stanford White from his gilded tower. Thaw wasn't just angry over the way White had harmed Nesbit. He also resented White’s power in New York, especially because the high-class community never accepted Thaw. Taking possession of Nesbit was a power move—she was near and dear to White and he used her to exact revenge…

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

37. She Lost Her Agency

When Thaw found out that Stanford White had paid for Nesbit’s dental work, he decided to undo the improvements made. He sent her back to the dentist to have her teeth ruined—all to spite White. Soon enough, Thaw's control over Nesbit was all-encompassing. He demanded that she keep an eye out for White at all times, and to notify him immediately if she ever saw him—he demanded she call White "The Beast".

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

38. She Had High Hopes

After a year of waiting in vain to travel, Nesbit finally got her wish. Her husband announced a grand trip to Europe, their journey beginning with pit-stop in New York. It sounded resplendent—dinner and a show and then a ship bound for new shores. But the play they had tickets to was Mam’zelle Champagne, and it was playing at none other than Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden… If Nesbit thought this was just a coincidence, she'd soon be proven wrong.

Evelyn Nesbit factsWikipedia

39. She Didn’t Want To See Him

On the night of the play, Nesbit noticed her husband’s odd behaviour—he was drinking profusely and sweating beneath a long, black, overcoat. At curtain call, she was happy to see that White wasn’t in his usual seat. She wanted to avoid him at all costs as her husband was sure to make a scene. But then the elevator doors opened, and her heart instantly sank—Stanford White strode confidently into the theatre—oblivious to Thaw’s insidious plan...

Evelyn Nesbit factsThe Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), Twentieth Century Fox

40. She Watched Him Perish

Distressed at the sight of her old love, Nesbit asked Thaw if they could leave discretely. But when she arrived at the elevator doors, her husband was nowhere in sight. To her horror, she turned to see him walking in the opposite direction—straight toward Stanford White. Drawing a pistol from his coat, Thaw took aim at his nemesis and shot him point blank. Three deadly blasts rang through the theatre. With bullets to the teeth, the eye, and the shoulder, White passed instantly.

Smiling and victorious, Thaw gave up his weapon and said, "I did it because he ruined my wife".

Evelyn Nesbit facts The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), Twentieth Century Fox

41. She Was the Star Witness

Because she was the center of this twisted love triangle, Nesbit became the star witness and the face of the salacious trial that ensued. Her defamatory information on Stanford White was evidence for her husband’s defence—a plea of temporary insanity, or what was called a "brainstorm". Purported as an act of chivalry, his moment of madness serviced his wife’s honor. But in order for this to work, Thaw's team had to make the jury despise Stanford White.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

42. She Had No Choice

Nesbit took to the stand for both of her husband’s trials. During a time when assault—and even intimate relations—were taboo, her testimonial became scandalous fodder for the masses. This destroyed her to the very core, mentally and emotionally. Until then, her attack by Stanford White had remained a dark secret, and now, everything was out in the open. But she had no choice. She completely depended on the Thaw’s fortune to stay afloat.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

43. Her Husband Was Insane

When the second trial commenced, Thaw had no choice but to plead insanity. Too much evidence surrounding his character had surfaced since his last trial, and this defence was the only way for him to escape the electric chair. This time, he was found not guilty, with the judge sentencing him to life at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. But even then, Nesbit couldn’t escape the clutches of her psychotic husband…

Evelyn Nesbit factsGetty Images

44. She Married The Wrong Man

From the confines of the hospital, Thaw had Nesbit followed—her every movement tracked and reported. And then in 1910, Nesbit gave birth to her first child—a son named Russel William Thaw. She claimed to have conceived Russel during a conjugal visit shared with Thaw, but for the rest of his life, he strongly denied paternity.

After everything she sacrificed for him, Nesbit soon learned that marrying into the Thaw family had been a monumental mistake...

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikipedia

45. She Begged For More

Thaw’s mother despised Nesbit. She resented her daughter-in-law for her lowly station and hated that her son chose to marry so far beneath him. Mother Thaw afforded Nesbit no mercy and gave her a pitiful allowance—mere crumbs compared to the riches she once enjoyed. This forced her to crawl to her incarcerated husband and beg for more money just so she could pay her rent. Soon enough, she hit a breaking point.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikimedia Commons

46. She Hatched A Cunning Plan

When Nesbit finally realized that the Thaws would never provide her with a stable living, everything clicked into place. She knew what she had to do. Nesbit scandalized society by beginning to testify against her own husband at his sanity hearings. It was the only way she could get back at Thaw and hopefully, make him angry enough to release her.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Flickr, trialsanderrors

47. She Overshadowed Him

Thankfully, Nesbit's plan worked. Thaw filed for divorce. But even this didn't guarantee her a happy love life. After her divorce in 1915, Nesbit married Jack Clifford. He was a promising dancer and together, they worked on a stage act. But Nesbit’s identity still moldered in the backlash of Thaw’s trial and Clifford had a hard time living in his wife’s infamous shadow.

In the end, he tired of being "Mr. Evelyn Nesbit" and left her in 1918. Alone once again, Nesbit had to find a way to provide for herself.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Wikipedia

48. She Swallowed Disinfectant

In the 1920s, Nesbit became a proprietor of a Manhattan tearoom. Sadly, these turned out to be some of her darkest years. Addiction became her constant companion as she grappled with alcoholism and the temptation of morphine, and after being fired from a dancing gig in 1926, the sadness became too much to bear—she took a swig of disinfectant and tried to end it all.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Picryl

49. She Claimed Her Independence

Luckily, Nesbit pulled through her attempt, going on to perform on the burlesque stage through the 1930s. Then, when WWII began, she found her stride. She moved away from New York and its many ghosts, setting up shop in Los Angeles, California. She was an artist now—a sculptor—and she flourished as an instructor at the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Getty Images

50. She Came Full Circle

In the 1950s her story came full circle—she became a consultant on the production of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing which detailed the most sensational chapters of her life, especially Stanford White’s murder. Today, Nesbit’s face is instantly recognizable, and while most aren’t aware of her scandalous history, it is a face difficult to forget.

Evelyn Nesbit facts Getty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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