The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing Comes to Fort Smith

By Ben Boulden

On Jan. 27, 1914, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw appeared for one night at the New Theatre.

Nesbit was that time period's equal in celebrity to O.J. Simpson or Heidi Fleiss. She was the center of a murderous love triangle involving her husband, Harry Thaw, and Stanford White, one of America's most acclaimed architects. Thaw was heir to a $40 million fortune. Nesbit was the showgirl who married him. White was the philanderer who seduced her.

Born in 1884, Nesbit married Thaw when she was 19. Prior to her marriage, she had been associated with White. While involved with White, she was invited to one of the architects many places of assignation in New York City. There, she was asked to pose naked in a red velvet swing. Thaw was insanely jealous and wrung that story of her over the first three years of their marriage as well as a worse one that White had raped her, or at the very least taken advantage of her. When the young couple attended a musical farce at Madison Square Garden on the night of June 25, 1906, they saw White was there as well. During one production number, Thaw got up, walked to get closer to White then fired three shots at him, two of which struck him in the brain.

Thaw did have a genuine reputation for weird and abusive behavior. That combined with the family's resources enabled his legal team to successfully argue that he was insane. The trial was one of the most publicized and sensational in 20th century America. The jury found him "not guilty, on the ground of his insanity at the time of the commission of the act." Committed to an insane asylum, he escaped once to Canada but was captured and returned. Thaw was pronounced sane by a New York court in 1915 and released, after which he promptly divorced Nesbit. His ex-wife already had returned to a life on the stage as a vaudevillian. This is what brought her to Fort Smith.

Interesting, two criminal incidents were associated with her one appearance here. J.H. Watson traveled from his home in Ozark to Fort Smith to see her. According to him, he was not only arrested twice but robbed of $20. Watson was first taken into custody for creating a disturbance in the theater and drinking liquor while in his seat. So he could see the rest of the show, the officers agreed to accept a $10 from his friends and Watson was given permission to return to the theatre. About midnight, officers received a call of a holdup on Ninth Street and upon arriving at the scene discovered Watson was the alleged victim. He was taken into custody again.

At around the same time as these events, a revivalist, Van Deusen of Prairie Grove, was investigated by the police after he tried to pass himself off as Harry Thaw. He claimed that he was waiting in town for his wife and was supposed to join her on the stage at the New. Witnesses said Deusen also had worn a badge and tried to convince people he was a police detective as well. When brought into local court, the judge told him to return home and quit leading a double life. While leaving, Deusen was heard to say that if the report of his escapade and arrest got out that he would not get a chance to preach any more. The judge shot back that he should not even try until he was more worthy.

Sources: Nash, Jay Robert, Bloodletters and Badmen, A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present. New York: M. Evans and Company Inc., 1995; "Twice Arrested; Held Up; Robbed and then Fined," Fort Smith Times Record, Jan. 28, 1914, p. 8; "Evangelist, Who Posed as Harry Thaw, Arrested; Had Booze and Bible in a Grip," Fort Smith Times Record, Jan. 30, 1914, p.5.

Note: The Thaw-White murder and scandal was dramatized in the 1955 movie "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" and in the 1981 film "Ragtime." Joan Collins played Nesbit in the former and Elizabeth McGovern in the latter.