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New York American on June 26th, 1906. // Wikimedia Commons

10 Facts About the Original 'Trial of the Century'

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New York American on June 26th, 1906. // Wikimedia Commons

On the balmy evening of June 25, 1906, during the performance of a musical at Madison Square Garden, railroad heir Harry K. Thaw walked up to the table of architect Stanford White and shot him in the head. This led to what the newspapers dubbed “the Trial of Century.” The 20th century was young, and the media frenzy would arguably be eclipsed by other "trials of the century"—Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, Charles Manson, O.J. Simpson—but it did introduce the public to many of the concepts that would become well-known to tabloid readers and Court TV viewers, including the insanity plea, the media circus, the sequestering of jurors, and the buying of a better judicial outcome by the rich. At the heart of the matter was the era’s concept of a woman’s honor.


The son of Pittsburgh railroad baron William Thaw, Harry K. Thaw was born in 1871. As a child, he was prone to screaming tantrums and outbursts of bodily flailing that exhausted his mother, Mary, and their household staff. Author Michael Macdonald Mooney writes in Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age that a teacher from his boarding school described Thaw as “sullen, unreasonable, and unhappy” and “absolutely unintelligible.” In his mid-teens, he performed a prank at his school, Wooster College, where he paid a burlesque troupe visiting town to wear leggings of the school colors.

Because of his son’s temperament, Thaw’s father decided against a giving his son full control of his inheritance and instead assigned a trust to dole out $2400 a year to him in his will. After William died in 1889, his indulgent mother made sure her son's annual allowance was $80,000.

Thaw briefly enrolled at Harvard, where he hosted all-night poker games and chased a cab driver with a shotgun for allegedly shorting him change. He was expelled for “moral turpitude,” according to Mooney. Soon after, the stone-faced and bug-eyed young man gave up all pretense of work or study and instead traveled the U.S. and Europe, mingling in high society, visiting brothels, getting into skirmishes, and using cocaine. He threw lavish parties, giving away jewelry pieces worth thousands as party favors to attract women. He was also a sadist and abused his partners.


The victim of the crime, Stanford White, was one partner of the New York City architectural firm McKim, Mead & White, which came to prominence designing country and seaside mansions. From there, the company produced several neoclassical landmarks, including the Boston Library, the Washington Square Arch, Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station, the Brooklyn Museum, the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University, and the original Madison Square Garden, where White would be murdered.

The firm’s success allowed White, unmistakable for his tall build and red hair and mustache, to hobnob with the city’s business, artistic, and government elite. By the late 1890s, he “was the city’s leading architect,” according to Mooney, and relished his role as man about town. “He was the leader of its leading artists, promoter of its best institutions, impresario of its most colorful entertainments, founder and organizer of its most colorful clubs, and often architect of them as well,” wrote Mooney. “His immense energies were spent day and night in an attempt to give character to the city’s wealth.”

White kept an elaborately decorated tower residence on West 24th Street, which he stocked with exotic foods and wines and furnished with such novelties as a red velvet swing extending from a ceiling. Though married at 31, he frequently entertained and seduced models and chorus girls there.


Thaw was a frequent visitor to New York City and sought entry into the elite social circles. He felt White blocked his entry due to a perceived faux pas.

After his trial, Thaw authored a memoir entitled The Traitor, its title a reference to White, who is called that word throughout. Thaw recounted what he said was his first encounter with the architect. A mutual acquaintance invited Thaw to a party at White’s 24th Street residence, where Thaw claimed White mistakenly associated his group with a drunk party-goer who declared the food and wine “rotten.” After that, Thaw applied to several New York gentlemen’s clubs and was rejected or soon kicked out for erratic behavior. The Union League Club of New York revoked his membership after he rode a horse up the club’s entranceway to herald his arrival. According to Paula Uruburu in her book American Eve, in Thaw’s mind, every denial, ejection, and snub was due to the hidden influence of the offended White, who was everything Thaw was not but wanted to be: successful, liked, influential.

Then, at one of Thaw’s parties for playboys and showgirls, an actress took his nervousness in her presence as embarrassment to be seen with her. She retaliated by convincing the women to vacate the party for one at White’s. According to Uruburu, “a livid Harry blamed White for yet another public indignity.” The slight and the actress’s exodus made it into the society pages, humiliating Thaw.


Known for the way her long hair draped down her back in a shape like a question mark, Evelyn Nesbit began working as a model in her early teens. First in Philadelphia and then New York City, she spent hundreds of hours in front of illustrators and photographers, while chaperoned by her mother. Her face appeared on an endless array of postcards, magazine covers, fine art pieces, and advertisements. Some have dubbed her the first supermodel.

By age 16, Nesbit had already become bored of this work and started a career as a chorus girl on Broadway. Inevitably, she made the acquaintance of Stanford White.

According to American Eve, after a few lunches, White managed to get her to his West 24th Street residence without her mother’s company. She would later testify that he charmed her with the intricacies of his home (the detail of Nesbit trying the red velvet swing would become infamous in tabloid lore), plied her with champagne, and assaulted her while she was passed out.

Soon after, a mysterious “Mr. Monroe” (sometimes Munroe) began sending gigantic bouquets of flowers to Nesbit at the theater hosting the show The Wild Rose, but they weren’t from White—they were from Harry Thaw, who had attended 40 performances of the show. A mutual friend introduced the two at a restaurant. In her 1914 memoir, Nesbit recalls he tried to compliment her by favorably comparing her to another chorus girl, which put her off. She “had no desire to meet him again,” but Thaw continued to shower her with gifts and money.

According to American Eve, Nesbit refused marriage proposals from Thaw for years as she drifted through romantic relationships, including an on-again-off-again fling with White. In 1903, after undoing surgery for appendicitis (which has long been rumored to have been an illegal abortion), she accepted an invitation from Thaw to tour Europe. Thaw questioned her a few times about her relationship with White, and even signed a visitors book at the birthplace of Joan of Arc with, “She would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around.” After he interrogated Nesbit in a Paris hotel room, she told him about the assault in White's 24th Street home. For the remainder of the trip, Thaw was both physically and emotionally abusive towards Nesbit.

Nesbit and Thaw married soon after and took residence in his family estate in Pittsburgh. The marriage only increased Thaw’s obsession with White. He became convinced that White had hired the Eastman Gang to kill him and began to carry a gun.


In June 1906, the Thaws returned to New York and saw the show Mam'zelle Champagne at Madison Square Garden, which was then an open-air rooftop theater and bar.

The account of the murder in Mooney's Love and Death in the Gilded Age can be summarized like so: Thaw knew that White had a usual table at the venue. During a number titled “I Could Love a Thousand Girls,” he walked up to White, took out a revolver concealed in his overcoat, and shot him three times. White stood and then fell over the table in a pool of blood. The music stopped and silence overtook the room. Then someone laughed, mistaking the act as part of the show (two of the characters in the play had talked about a “burlesque duel” moments before). The stage manager ordered the orchestra and dancers to continue as Thaw stood over his victim. Only when women began fainting did the stage manager announce that “a most serious accident has occurred” and ordered the audience to “quietly” leave. Thaw rode the elevator with others, muttering, “He deserved it. I can prove it.” A police officer waited for him on the ground floor.

In The Traitor, Thaw wrote, “The agony of Evelyn in the years of her girlhood formed the prelude to a long continuous drama of sorrow, the murk and gloom of which was never illuminated by a ray of sunshine until what occurred on the roof of Madison Square Garden and Stanford White fell dead.”


Newspapers had a segment of reporters dismissively called “sob sisters” or “the pity patrol.” These were female journalists whose only career path in a male-dominated field was reporting stories of wronged women for female readers, the more melodramatic the better. The story of the deadly love triangle with an abused starlet at one corner was exactly what they sought. According to American Eve, Hearst and Pulitzer both assigned sob sisters to the story. Papers in Pittsburgh, home of the Thaw family, also ran daily coverage. According to Lloyd Chiasson in his book The Press on Trial, a Western Union office was opened in the courthouse just to help reporters wire dispatches.

Soon, reporters uncovered past exploits of the man they dubbed “Bathtub Harry” for his habit of scalding women (and apparently, once, a bellboy whom the Thaws paid hush money). There was a counter-effort, financed by Mary Thaw, to portray her son as a defender of womanly virtue. Letters to the editor praising Thaw as such started appearing in newspapers. According to The Press on Trial, Mary Thaw even commissioned the writing of a three-character play based on the events (two of the characters were named Harold Daw and Stanford Black), portraying White as a perverted hedonist.


Due to the intense interest in the case, the judge ordered the jury to abstain from all media and interacting with reporters, according to The Press on Trial. It was one of the first instances of jury sequestration in American history.


One week after the murder, Thomas Edison's studio commissioned a film entitled Rooftop Murder to be shown at nickelodeons.


Mary Thaw committed $1 million to her son’s defense. They both feared he’d be locked up indefinitely if he simply pled insanity, and they couldn’t stomach the idea of him being dubbed an incurable madman. So their legal team came up with a peculiar defense: temporary insanity. Learning about White’s assault of the woman who was now his wife stirred a state of insanity in Thaw. Even though he lived with the knowledge for three years beforehand, he was insane when he pulled the trigger but sane both before and after.

They eventually settled on Delphin Delmas of San Francisco (who had never lost a case) as lead attorney. The trial started on January 23, 1907, and Delmas brought in a stream of doctors and psychiatrists to testify to Thaw’s mindset. A reluctant Nesbit, still financially supported by the Thaws, testified about White’s abuse.

In his closing statements, Delmas memorably coined a new phrase, declaring, “if you desire a name for this species of insanity let me suggest it—call it Dementia Americana. That is the species of insanity which makes every American man believe his home to be sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his daughter is sacred; that is the species of insanity which makes him believe the honor of his wife is sacred.” He implied any decent man would become homicidally insane in response to an act like White’s. Prosecutor William Jerome shot back that the murder was “a common, vulgar, everyday, tenderloin homicide.”


In the first trial, the jury was deadlocked, with seven in favor of conviction and five voting to acquit. In the second trial, Thaw’s new attorney, Martin W. Littleton went a new direction, claiming that his client was completely insane. The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity, and the judge confined him to the Matteawan State Hospital “until thence discharged by due course of law.” Expected to be set free, Thaw seethed with anger.

According to American Eve, Thaw was released in 1915, the same year Evelyn Nesbit filed for divorce. Two years later, Thaw kidnapped and assaulted a male 19-year-old acquaintance and was returned to an asylum until 1924. Afterwards, Thaw avoided legal trouble—save a lawsuit from partners in a short-lived film production business for nonpayment—and lived until the age of 76.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.


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