Moral Issues: More on the Insanity Defense
Posted on Saturday, February 18, 2006 @ 00:00:00 EST
Topic: Modern Moral Issues
Modern Moral IssuesThe topic of demon possession and the insanity defense is of wide interest to many of us. Doug writes:

" This subject has always interested me. I watch court TV a lot of times when they get into unsolved murders and forensic medicine. I think there are times in all of our lives where we look back and ask ourselves "What was I thinking," or "Who was that person," or "I must have been out of my mind," because we may have said or done something that was so out of our character. I listen to people like John Hinkley and Andrea Yates, and wonder what posesses a person to lose it to that extreme.

"In reading this BLOG, the word choice comes to mind. What about the story of the young high school student that was an honor student, good kid, active in his church, with no problems for years. Then all of a sudden his rage shows through in a love triangle, and he guns down his best friend. That to me was a conscious choice, but based on what mindset? The interesting part of this for me is you have people like this: One extremely loses it just one time, and then another is like Charles Manson. In my opinion I think these people who say they are temporarily insane are posessed, and I wonder why the church through the years has not emphasized the demonic spirits as well as the good. Growing up I remember learning more about the Gospel of Christ--which of course is important--but not hearing as much about spiritual warfare and the realization of demons in our lives."

Big problem, Doug. I'm going to let Sam comment on that and later on, maybe next week, I'll add my two or three more cents. Here's Sam.

Al, I'm surprised that the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law didn't mention the famous Thaw-White murder in its discussion of the insanity defense. It touched on two of your recent discussions--insanity and supernatural possession.

On June 25, 1906, Harry Thaw, 34, a multimillionaire, murdered Stanford White, 52, the famous New York architect, in the dinner theater on the roof of Madison Square Garden, which White had designed. It probably was the first murder to be designated as the “Crime of the Century” in the 20th century.


The reason for the murder was Thaw’s jealousy of White, former lover of Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Evelyn came to New York in December 1900 and because of her beauty became an instant sensation as a model and actress. She was 15 at the time. After seeing her perform in a musical, White became benefactor of Evelyn (and of her mother and brother too), providing her with an allowance, an apartment, and gifts. He sent the mother to visit friends and relatives in Pittsburgh, then either drugged and raped Evelyn, 16, or got her drunk and seduced her, according to which of the later stories you prefer. She remained White’s mistress for nearly a year. White was a spectacular ladies-man and kept several mistresses in love nests around the city. One of those apartments reportedly had a room with a red velvet swing in which Evelyn and other young girls would sit while White pushed them and looked up their billowing skirts.

Evelyn subsequently met Thaw, whose wild behavior caused his father to limit his allowance to just $2,000/year. His doting mother slipped an extra $80,000, but Thaw constantly complained of not having enough money to support his lifestyle. Because of his wild-eyed stare, he was suspected by some to be a cocaine addict. He was a sadist who maintained an apartment in a plush New York brothel where he’d lure young girls with offers to help get them in Broadway shows. Once in his apartment, he would rape and beat them with whips.

Nesbit resisted Thaw's proposals for nearly 2 years but finally gave in to his relentless pursuit and married him in April 1905. Before the wedding, however, she confessed to Thaw her relationship with White.

On the fateful night in 1906, Thaw and Evelyn, accompanied by two friends, attended the opening of the play "Mam’zelle Champagne," at the dining theater at Madison Square Gardens. Just as the play began, they saw Stanford White ushered to a table in the near the footlights. The Thaws and their party decided to leave early. But as they stepped out in the hallway, they could see White framed in the doorway at the end of the hall. Thaw walked down the aisle and stopped next to White. He calmly pulled a pistol from his coat and fired three shots at White. Two bullets hit White in the brain, killing him instantly. Thaw then removed the remaining bullets from the revolver and held it up by the barrel to show he was not going to shoot at anyone else as he walked out to his wife and friends waiting at the elevator.

He was immediately arrested, charged with murder, and jailed in the Toombs. While awaiting trial, his meals were catered from Delmonico’s, whiskey was smuggled into his cell, and he was allowed to continue playing the stock market.

Thaw’s first trial in 1907 ended with a hung jury, and he was tried again in 1908. Thaw’s defense was that form of insanity had made him want to kill White, an urge to kill that occurred because Thaw was possessed by spirits of the dead. That claim was supported by Dr. Carl Wickland, a medical doctor and member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Wickland’s wife was a professed medium and a proponent of spiritualism. She claimed that 3 weeks after Thaw’s arrest a spirit voice came through her during a séance and confessed it had forced Thaw to kill White! She said that was verified by Thaw’s deceased father, who told her through a séance that he now realized his strange son had been possessed by dead spirits all of his life.

If that were not enough, Thaw’s family financed a movie that portrayed him as a defender of American womanhood, while defense attorneys and newspapers hammered away at the number of girls White had probably seduced in his lifetime.

During the trial, someone originated the word “brainstorm” to describe Thaw’s state of mind at the time of the killing. White, the once respectable victim, became a laughingstock over his coy invitation to young women to "Come up and see my etchings." Despite testimony about her posing “on a bearskin rug,” Evelyn came to court looking demure and innocent in sailor blouses and Buster Brown collars.

The second jury returned a verdict of "not guilty, on the grounds of insanity at the time of the commission of the act."

Thaw was imprisoned for life at the New York State Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He escaped in 1913 but was captured in Canada and returned. In 1915 a New York court pronounced him sane. Thaw was released and went on a spending spree trying to burn through his inheritance. He was arrested again in 1916 for horsewhipping a teenager and was kept under tight security at a mental hospital until 1922. He then continued his interrupted career of high living until his death in 1947.

The Thaw-White murder case was depicted the 1955 film, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” in E. L. Doctorow's novel, “Ragtime” in the 1970s, and in the 1980s film version of the novel.



This article comes from Alvin H. Franzmeier