Murder Among the Swells

By Ellen T. White
Mary Cummings

“Saving Sin City”
Mary Cummings
Pegasus Books, $27.95

The story of the murder of the architect Stanford White on the rooftop of New York’s old Madison Square Garden has been well and truly told in the more than a century since. And yet the telling continues to fascinate. Famously, E.L. Doctorow spun that history into a fiction, later made into a film, which is where I first encountered it. Like the public at the time of the murder, I craved fresh details, an itch I satisfied by devouring books on White, his murderer, Harry K. Thaw, and Evelyn Nesbit, the teenage showgirl who drove them both. 

Indeed, I thought I knew it all, which is why “Saving Sin City: William Travers Jerome, Stanford White, and the Original Crime of the Century” by Mary Cummings is so much fun.

White’s murder in 1906 was followed by “the trial of the century,” the first to be designated as such and perhaps more deserving of the title than the ones that came later. On the surface, prosecuting the crime would seem to have been an open and shut case. Thaw, heir to a Pittsburgh coal and railroad fortune, not only murdered White in cold blood but did so in front of an entire theater of witnesses. After firing three shots, he raised his smoking pistol overhead for everyone to see and then calmly emptied the remaining chambers over White’s dead body. To the official who seized him, Harry said, “He deserved it. I can prove it. He ruined my wife and then deserted the girl.”

After a mistrial and a repeat, Thaw walked, if not exactly a free man, certainly one who was celebrated for his crime. The trial brought a shocking end to the career of the brilliant and charismatic William Travers Jerome, the district attorney. A man whose name would be new to most, Jerome was a bit player in the history of this crime. Yet Ms. Cummings turns him back into the antihero he was in his day, retelling the dramatic and familiar story against his rise and fall. 

In a prologue, “Saving Sin City” opens on an establishing shot of New York during the Gilded Age: a society ball thrown in 1901 by swell William Whitney at his Fifth Avenue home. The “rather undistinguished residence” had been transformed by tastemaker Stanford White into one of his “most lavish creations . . . a treasure-filled palace fit for a doge” at a cost that amounts to $65 million in modern times. Police kept a watchful eye on the hoards awaiting the arrival of guests, much like the security detail that might presage the arrival of Angelina Jolie today. Before film stars were invented, society figures were the celebrities of the day, living more colorful and decadent lives than any we know.

The fine reporter that she is, Ms. Cummings sets a scene with an economy of words and sly metaphors. “There are gasps as Caroline Astor,” Ms. Cummings reports, “unbent by the weight of her magnificent diamonds, glides toward the entrance like a majestic battleship lit up for the night.” But as the author makes swiftly clear, Whitney’s enormous wealth is ill gotten. In league with New York City’s corrupt Tammany Hall machine, Whitney has amassed his $40 million fortune in part by pillaging the coffers of the Metropolitan Street Railway Company, the city’s transit system. His attitude is let them eat cake. While Whitney lives high, the city’s trolleys and streetcars languish in disrepair. 

“This is a story of a time, not unlike our own today,” writes Ms. Cummings, “when New Yorkers were swept up in a contagious lust for riches . . . unaware or indifferent to the people’s rising resentments.” During the Gilded Age, the rich got richer with impunity. Or, to quote Jerome, “There are no laws to cover 99 out of 100 cases of the crimes committed every day in this era in the name of high finance.” 

Much like the present, the public was torn between its fascination and disgust for the fabulously rich, unsure whether to aspire to or shun the pleasures that wealth buys. But this is a conflict that Jerome never quite seemed to grasp, even though he hailed from a background of privilege himself. That privilege — his family’s ability to pull strings — helped the young lawyer to land his first job with Richard Croker, a Tammany boss. 

As “Boss” Croker’s lowly assistant district attorney, Jerome was “thrust among men charged with prosecuting crimes that were being committed under the protection of Tammany bosses.” Nonetheless, he earned a reputation as a “swashbuckling” crusader against vice, crime, and corrupt politicians. By 1901, he would throw his political lot in with the so-called goo-goos, who pledged to clean up New York, and Jerome was elected district attorney on the Fusion ticket. At 42 years old, Jerome had the world before him. He looked poised for New York governorship, and a likely White House run down the line.

In short cinematic chapters, Ms. Cummings shifts from ballrooms, to louche art studios and restaurants, on to crime scenes, courtrooms, and the sites of the D.A.’s dogged efforts to round up lawbreakers. Not only do those scenes convey a strong sense of this extraordinary bygone era, they also fairly crackle with authenticity. In the description of the D.A.’s raid on the Turf Club, a gambling establishment popular with the city’s swells, you can practically hear the shuffling of cards and tables being stashed, as clientele make a “wild scramble for trapdoors in the roof,” only to find that Jerome’s men have beaten them there. The author seems already to have a film script in mind.

Fueled by his own public image as a white knight, Jerome went to extremes to burnish it. In fact, the district attorney’s office never slept and was prepared to investigate complaints from New Yorkers 24/7, large and small. One citizen found Jerome himself opening the door to the D.A.’s office in the middle of the night and willing to take on the dirty work as well. In public raids, Jerome led the charge, wielding an ax against doors that had been barricaded. For readers “bored by daily dispatches” from war in the distant Philippines and J.P. Morgan’s indecipherable moves, Jerome was a sensation. He was the darling of public and press alike. 

Still, in important case after case, Jerome couldn’t win for losing, in spite of his reputation as a master strategist. To wit, the unscrupulous financier Charlie Morse went free, even though he had fixed unaffordable prices on the market for natural ice, resulting in the deaths of children from spoiled food and milk. Nan Patterson, a chorus girl, slipped through Jerome’s fingers after she shot her married lover in the back — a clear-cut case of murder that the persuasive beauty managed to turn into a suicide ruling. Then there was the case against Colonel Mann, the extortionist publisher of the gossip rag Town Topics, brought up for perjury. Sympathetic to an old war hero, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Out of the city’s Tenderloin, i.e., red light, district, which offered “every form of human depravity,” emerged penniless chorus girls such as Evelyn Nesbit, who hoped to trade on their beauty for a step up on the social ladder. In the age of #MeToo, it’s fascinating to become reacquainted with details of Stanford White’s seduction — more probably rape — of the virginal 16-year-old girl, an act considered shocking even at the time. And yet, in Ms. Cummings’s nuanced psychological rendering, White comes off as the complicated, often lovable man he apparently was. 

“Outside of that one terrible thing,” Nesbit said of White, defamed in the press, he was “a very grand man. He was kind and considerate and exceedingly thoughtful . . . much more thoughtful than most people.” As part of the triumvirate McKim, Mead, and White, he is remembered to this day as the man who rescued New York from its “drab brownstone past.” The scandal only made his imprint indelible.

The details of Jerome’s earlier cases sometimes take supreme concentration, if not a notepad nearby, but “Saving Sin City” never drags. Ms. Cummings weaves the strands of her central tale throughout, successfully creating suspense, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion. So skillfully drawn are the “characters” — down to spot-on physical descriptions, such as of lunatic Harry K. Thaw’s “oyster eyes” — you’ll feel as if you’ve met them before or, at the very least, seen them in repeat performances on the evening news. Star turns by folks such John Barrymore, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Randolph Hearst further enliven the narrative.

What emerges is a portrait of Jerome as a man who is felled not so much by his desire for justice but by his arrogance in assuming he is always right. As is often the way of arrogance, Jerome made enemies where he once easily found friends, and those enemies became eager to see him fall. As the author neatly summarizes, Jerome offended party heads by winning without them, antagonized the newspapers by calling them “carrion seekers,” alienated captains of industry by citing them as “criminally rich” — and by failing to prosecute them, even lost his liberal supporters. 

Like so many who crusade in the name of morality, William Travers Jerome had a secret of his own, unhappily married and living with another woman as he was, but he managed to keep it. Still, at 50, he was washed up politically and lost his next election. While there would be a happy ending for Jerome down the line, that’s an afterthought to this engrossing tale.

In “Saving Sin City,” the story Ms. Cummings tells of unchecked hubris is classically Greek. “He shot across the sky at a psychological moment, hung blazing for a brief period of almost unparalleled adulation,” wrote Arthur Train of his friend Jerome, perhaps intentionally calling to mind Icarus, “and then, unable to fulfill the exaggerated hope his personality and his own declarations aroused, faded from the public firmament.”

Ellen T. White, former managing editor at the New York Public Library, is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” a book about history’s great romantic women. She lives in Springs. 

Mary Cummings is the research center manager at the Southampton Historical Museum. She lives in Southampton.

William Travers Jerome in 1905. Right, a circa 1900 photo of Evelyn Nesbit. Library of Congress