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CONNECTIONS: Life, love and death in 1906 America

Were we the same country in 1906 or were we as different as chalk and cheese?

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history treat it as escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

110 years ago - 3
A peaceful street in 1906.

How much have we changed in 110 years? What was life like in 1906?

The population of the United States was 85.4 million, 2.5 million of whom lived in Massachusetts. The number of stars on the American flag was 45. Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona were not yet ratified as states in the United States.

The President was Theodore Roosevelt (1901 – 1909). In 1906 he would be the first president to travel outside the U.S. while a sitting president. At 43 he was the youngest president to date and his was a high-energy, optimistic, and progressive presidency.

He shepherded the Antiquities Act through Congress, ultimately preserving and protecting huge swathes of land as national parks.

America 110 years ago
A park in 1906.

He is remembered for sayings like “lead a life of strenuous endeavor” and “believe you can and you are halfway there.”

In 1906 The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was published. It exposed corruption in the Chicago meat-packing business. Before the end of the year, it would drive passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drugs Act.

Typhoid Mary was identified, caught, and incarcerated. By 1915 she would be out and working in a New York City hospital.

In 1906 the first radio broadcast with voice and music was aired in the United States.

In April the San Francisco earthquake killed 3,000 and left 300,000 homeless. Later that year, also in San Francisco, the school board proclaimed Japanese children had to be educated in separate classrooms. It was the first “separate but equal” ruling in the U.S.

Statute atop Madison Square
Madison Square Garden in 1906 with statue “Diana.”

In June Henry Thaw shot and killed Stanford White in the roof restaurant at the Madison Square Garden. In July Grace Brown was murdered on a lake in the Adirondacks. Both became national sensations.

Stanford White of the architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White exerted a strong influence over late 19th- and early 20th century architecture. The firm’s neo-classical style that followed the principles of École des Beaux Arts appealed to the upper echelon. McKim, Mead, and White designed a number of Berkshire cottages including Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Oakswood, Homestead, and the renovation of Yokun in Lenox. The firm was hired to design two major cottages: Shadowbrook in Stockbridge and Barrington House (Searles Castle) in Great Barrington. In both cases tempers flared and the firm was fired, not able to see the projects through to completion.

The firm also exerted influence over American architecture through those it trained. Young Harrie Lindeberg honed his skills as draftsman and architect’s apprentice in the New York offices of McKim, Mead, and White from 1900 – 1906. Lindeberg called Stanford White the best of all American architects because he created “unity and integrity of design.” Lindberg went on to establish his own firm and design major houses including Hillhome in Stockbridge.

Evelyn Nesbit
Evelyn Nesbit.

White was famous in his professional life and infamous in his private life. In addition to being a brilliant architect, White was a dedicated womanizer. He built his own pleasure dome, Madison Square Garden. It was the site of parties that were legend and would even make 21st century folk blush. In his private quarters, he built the velvet swing where young ladies sat naked. His favorite mistress, 14-year-old Evelyn Nesbit, was immortalized as “The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing.” Nesbit was also the model for the statue “Diana” atop the Garden (now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Evelyn married Henry Thaw in 1905 when she was 20 and he was 35. Heir to a substantial coal and railroad fortune, Thaw was also a lifelong sufferer of mental illness. In 1906 Thaw approached White as he dined, shouted, “You ruined my wife,” and shot him three times at almost point-blank range.

During the trial White’s reputation was brutalized. Attorneys and reporters strained their vocabularies to call White every name they could think of: satyr, voluptuary, debaucher. In addition there was Evelyn’s testimony. Though she was physically abused by Thaw and fled to White for protection, nonetheless Evelyn testified White was the abuser and Thaw was the white knight who rescued her. Money bought a lot in 1906 but not an acquittal.

In the first trial, the jury was hung. In the second trial, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was institutionalized but escaped to live free and abuse other young girls. He died in 1947. Evelyn lived until 1967.

Grace Brown.

The life of Grace Brown was far less flamboyant and gilt-edged. She was the daughter of an upstate New York farmer. She went to the city to live with a married sister and work in a skirt factory. There she met the factory owner’s nephew, Chester Gillett. The story of their romance and its tragic end formed the basis for the novel by Theodore Dreiser, “An American Tragedy,” and the movie “A Place in the Sun”.

Gillett was the son of middle-class parents who found religion and gave up everything to travel the country with the Salvation Army. They may have intended to help others but they neglected their son. Gillett bounced around rudderless until he went to his uncle asked to be taken in.

Brown and Gillett met at the factory, formed a relationship and, eventually, Brown realized she was pregnant. Brown wrote many letters to Gillett pleading for him to take responsibility for the pregnancy.

Her final letter, July 5, six days before her death, is haunting. Though it appears she believed they were eloping and would be married, she mentions death:

“I know I shall never see any of them again. And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her. Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

She packed all her belongings and went with Gillett by train to Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. Gillett rowed out onto the lake. When her body was found, Gillett claimed she jumped in the water. No one believed him. He was arrested and convicted; appeals for leniency were denied and he died in the electric chair.

Were we the same country in 1906 or where we as different as chalk and cheese?


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