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From the Editors: Home and the Depraved

Larry Bean

The accused suffered from "dementia Americana," defense attorney Delphin Delmas contended during his closing arguments. "It is that species of insanity which makes every American believe that his home is sacred…that the honor of his wife is sacred," said Delmas. "It is that species of insanity which makes him believe that whoever invades the sanctity of that home…whoever stains the virtue of that wife has forfeited the protection of human laws." Thus Delmas attempted to convince the Manhattan jury that his client, Harry Kendall Thaw, was, by reason of temporary insanity, not guilty of murdering Stanford White.

Because of the wealth of the defendant, the renown of the victim, and the sexual scandal that served as motive, the press dubbed the proceedings the Trial of the Century—though it was 1907, and the century was still young.

Thaw was heir to a family fortune valued at about $40 million. His victim, White, was one of the country’s most prominent architects, a favorite among members of the Gilded Age’s upper crust. For them, he had designed dozens of residences in Manhattan and Newport, R.I., and along Long Island’s Gold Coast—that era’s ultimate homes.

At the time of his murder, White was at the forefront of a neoclassical movement, designing opulent, ornate homes that contrasted sharply with the works of another leading architect of the era, Frank Lloyd Wright. Clean-line, open-plan designs characterized the Prairie-style houses that Wright was popularizing in Chicago and elsewhere.

In 1911, Wright built a Prairie house in Spring Green, Wis., for himself and his mistress and former client, Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney. Wright named the home Taliesin, after a Welsh poet. Two years earlier, Wright, then 42, had left his wife and their six children, ages 6 through 19, and moved to Europe with Cheney, who had walked out on her husband and two young children. The affair created a scandal that only intensified when the couple returned to America. Indeed, for a time, Wright, whose wife would not grant him a divorce, had difficulty obtaining commissions.

Three years after Cheney and Wright moved into Taliesin, she, her son and daughter, and four of Wright’s employees were murdered at the home, while Wright was working on a project in Chicago. The killer, Julian Carlton, was a disgruntled estate worker. He set fire to the dining room and then waited outside the house, attacking the victims with an ax as they tried to flee. Carlton was quickly apprehended, but not before he had ingested muriatic acid in a suicide attempt. He died in custody seven weeks later from starvation, before he could stand trial and reveal the motive for his attack.

As attorney Delmas’ closing remarks suggest, Thaw’s motive for killing White involved Thaw’s wife. White, who was married, was a voracious womanizer, and his many conquests included Mrs. Harry Thaw, allegedly when she was 16-year-old Florence Evelyn Nesbit, an artist’s model and aspiring actress. When Thaw learned of that initial encounter five years later, he shot White, out of a sense of justice or revenge, or in a jealous rage—because Nesbit actually may have been involved in an on-and-off affair with White. Thaw committed the crime during a theater performance on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, a building White had designed. As one of the characters on stage sang "I could love a million girls," Thaw held a pistol to White’s head and fired three shots in quick succession.

Delmas’ defense strategy was not without precedent. In 1859, attorneys for Manhattan congressman and eventual Civil War hero Dan Sickles became the first to successfully employ the temporary insanity defense. Their client had shot Washington, D.C., district attorney Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fame, after Sickles discovered that Key was having an affair with Mrs. Sickles.

Thaw’s jury failed to reach a verdict, and in the retrial, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity—not the temporary variety. Thaw then spent the next 15 years in and out of asylums and answering to a range of criminal accusations that included horsewhipping a young man nearly to death and, in separate incidents, assaulting a number of showgirls.

Following the Taliesin murders, Wright immediately rebuilt the house and then entered the most prolific period of his career, designing such landmarks as Graycliff in Buffalo, N.Y.; Fallingwater near Pittsburgh; and the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Taliesin burned and was rebuilt again in 1925, the same year that Wright met Olga Hinzenburg, who was 31 years his junior. They married in 1928 and remained together until his death in 1959, at age 92.

Maybe Wright took leave of his senses when he jeopardized his livelihood to be with Cheney, but if he suffered any loss of sanity upon losing her and their home, it must have been only temporary.

Photo by Rod Foster
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