The latest in artist Rick Geary’s ongoing series of recreations of infamous crimes of the 19th and 20th centuries, Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (NBM) looks at a turn of the century slaying in cosmopolitan New York City. Famed architect and proud reprobate Stanford White, responsible for such Big Apple artifacts as the original Madison Square Garden, was the victim: shot by a disturbed young lad of privilege named Harry K. Thaw. In the center of it all was a showgirl named Evelyn Nesbit, famous for appearing onstage on a swing and presumably sailing leggy self over the heads of a rapturous male audience.
The architect’s murder, done in the middle of a theatre packed with New Yorkers, was pretty straightforward — Thaw simply walking up to White and shooting him full on in the face — though the fate of White’s well-heeled killer proved more problematic. Evelyn Nesbit had been in a relationship with the married White as a teenager, a relationship overseen by the old roué with a paternalistically controlling hand. When the unstable Thaw ultimately met and married Evelyn, she fed him the details of her affair with White, which drove him into a jealous frenzy. Thaw’s subsequent trial and the attendant publicity made much of White’s philandering lifestyle and of the disreputable nature of the showgirl’s world.
Geary’s tale is a ripe one, and his evocation of an era where Victorian mores clashed with more modern ideas is wittily crafted. All three players in this tale are shown for all their flaws, though if any one comes across the biggest victim it’s Evelyn: seduced (and perhaps drugged) by White as a teenager, raped and whipped by Thaw (as he all the while condemned her for her “sinful” nature), she comes across as the casualty in two couplings built on socially sanctioned domestic violence. Nesbit, who had been a model for Charles Dana Gibson, became a social pariah while her eventually divorced husband went in and out of asylums, amassing a lifetime of assault charges. In 1955, she served as the technical advisor to a movie based on the murder (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing), having endured a lifetime of periodic substance binges and ended out her days as a sculptor and ceramic artist.
As is par for this series, Geary’s black-and-white art relishes period detail as it maintains a largely detached view on the people involved. Even the volatile Thaw is treated with restraint, though there are a few panels where we see him at his most frenzied. As in other volumes in this magnificent graphic series, Geary’s interest is as much in the reactions to the horrendous crimes depicted as in the criminal acts themselves. In so doing, he tells us much about the Good Olde Days that it’d be best not to forget.
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