Jerry Summers: Tennessee’s Links To The 1st “Trial Of The Century”

Saturday, January 18, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Many so-called “Trials of the Century” have been selected by the news media. 

The first use of the term arose in two sensational murder cases in New York City in 1907-1908 involving a defendant, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who fired three bullets into the face and brain of renowned New York City architect Stanford White, in a love triangle shooting. 

Ironically the alleged victim in the shooting, Stanford White, had designed the plans for the auditorium at the First Presbyterian Church in Chattanooga at 554 McCallie Ave. in the Classical Revival architectural style.  White had drafted the plans similar to a church in New York City prior to his death in 1906 and the building was completed in 1910. 

At the center of the conflict was Thaw’s beautiful wife who had previously been Stanford White’s companion and lover, Evelyn Nesbit. 

Evelyn Nesbit was a 16-year-old beauty who became a famous pinup model and chorus girl in a Broadway play.
 White had become infatuated with the charms of Evelyn and pursued her constantly with gifts and attention.  At the same time she was gaining attention from Harry Thaw in the attempts of both men to seduce the youthful Venus. 

White eventually seduced Evelyn in a champagne-laden encounter where there was the usual debate over whether the seduction was rape or consensual sex.  Nevertheless, Harry Thaw married Nesbit and developed an obsession and paranoia hate for White. 

On June 25, 1906, before over 1,000 diners on the rooftop of the original Madison Square Garden restaurant and night club, Thaw shot and killed White. 

What followed was a saga that included all of the elements that filled the tabloids of the day: sex, money, liquor, a beautiful woman, two jealous lovers and violence. 

In the first trial Thaw was represented by a famous California lawyer, Delphin Delmas, who claimed he had never lost a case and was known as the “Napoleon of the Western Bar” because of his short stature and legal ability. 

In the first case in the annals of the American system the jury was “sequestered” (kept together for the length of the trial at a hotel when not in court). 

A nationwide frenzy of publicity surrounded the trial as the defense attempted to show that Thaw was “temporarily insane" at the time he shot White because of the numerous acts of misconduct committed against Evelyn prior to her marriage and the alleged rape of her by White.  This public interest led to legal proceedings being called “the trial of the century” by news media for the first time. 

Thaw had a prior history of mental instability and had been committed to several institutions for treatment. He also had a reputation of excessive drinking, drug addiction and lavish spending to satisfy his sexual appetites.

His mother had exclaimed that “the family would spend their entire $40 million fortune to save her son.” 

After a lengthy trial of 79 days, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict as to Thaw’s guilt or innocence and a mistrial was declared, which greatly infuriated the demented Thaw.

The second trial began with Thaw now being represented by a native of Kingston, Tennessee, Martin W. Littleton. 

Littleton was born on January 12, 1872, in Roane County as one of 19 children.  As a young boy he observed cases at the local courthouse and trials the motivated him to become a lawyer.
The family later moved to Texas and he eventually became an outstanding attorney in New York City with considerable fame as a criminal defense lawyer. 

The lawyers in the first trial had unsuccessfully relied on the claim of self-defense under the theory of “Dementia Americana” which basically meant that the defendant could be acquitted on the ground of "temporary insanity” if he acted in defense of the sanctity of his home or the purity of his wife. 

Littleton’s defense in the second trial of insanity was not heavily opposed by the prosecution and Thaw was acquitted on that ground and sent to the “Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Matteawan, New York, where he was institutionalized until 1915.  He later spent most of his life in and out of various insane asylums and court proceedings centering around his many bizarre acts, wild parties, or in law suits by women who claimed Thaw had whipped or beaten them for sexual pleasure. 
Evelyn Nesbit lived to the age of 76 and died on February 27, 1947, after being divorced by Thaw in 1915 and being cut off from any financial support by Harry’s mother following the second trial. 

In 1955 a movie entitled “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” starring Joan Collins dwelt on the theme of Stanford White having such a device in his home that was used to seduce Nesbit. 

When Harry Thaw died at the age of 76 in Florida he left Nesbit $10,000 in his estate. 

What became known as the first “Trial of the Century” involving a rural East Tennessee attorney Martin Littleton has largely been overlooked by the legal literature. 

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Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com


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