Simon Baatz Looks into the World of Crime during America’s Gilded Age | John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Simon Baatz Looks into the World of Crime during America’s Gilded Age

Simon Baatz Looks into the World of Crime during America’s Gilded Age

Simon Baatz Looks into the World of Crime during America’s Gilded Age

Students fascinated by infamous crimes are likely to enjoy Simon Baatz’s history classes. Baatz has been a professor at John Jay since 2006, where he teaches U.S. history from 1865 to the present, as well as crime and punishment in America. He’s the author of several bestselling books on true crime cases, and this year, he published The Girl on the Velvet Swing (Little, Brown Co.), an engrossing account of the life of Evelyn Nesbit, whose tragic story sheds light on the legal, political, and cultural landscape of early 20th century New York.

In 1906, the young Evelyn Nesbit found herself entangled in the criminal justice system after her husband, Harry Thaw, murdered one of the most powerful men in New York, the renowned architect Stanford White. Nesbit’s testimony, in which she claimed that White had raped her as a teenager several years before Thaw fatally shot him, helped make the murder one of the most sensationalized crime cases at the turn of the century. 

Evelyn Nesbit

For years, the murder was written about in major newspapers in New York and around the country, as one shocking development followed the next. But despite the abundance of documentation, Baatz knew that telling the story would require meticulous research. Most of the information he needed would be found on rolls of microfilm that contained scaled-down reproductions of the news articles that covered the years before and after the murder and its subsequent series of trials.

“It was the golden age of American newspapers from 1890 to 1929,” Baatz explains, “and there were at least 14 newspapers just in New York that were competing for readership, many of which have now gone out of business.” For years, Baatz sifted through endless pages from those and other publications in order to piece together an unbelievably detailed portrait of Nesbit’s life—one that even included quotations from private conversations. “People might think, how on earth did you know such and such was said,” says Baatz. “But it’s there printed in the newspapers.”

The case of Stanford White’s murder illuminates the way in which the criminal justice system operates in conjunction with a number of political and social institutions, and is influenced not only by cultural norms, but also by power and wealth. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Nesbit’s testimony, which led to her simultaneous stardom and disrepute, might serve as an illustrative example of the challenges faced by women who make allegations of sexual assault against influential men. 

Evelyn Nesbit

In February, Baatz was invited to speak at the University of Oxford and Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV on the ubiquity of sexual deviance and rape in New York during the Gilded Age. Despite his profound knowledge of the subject, Baatz says that his role as a historian is to omit his own analysis and present information as objectively as possible. “The truth is a question mark,” he says. “Who am I to say what really happened, or to tell you what to believe? I want people to make up their own minds.”