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Le Courant

Automne 2017 | 19

The Harry K. Thaw Affair

The Harry K. Thaw Affair

In 1913, an unusual event took place in Coaticook involving a man accused of murder. Harry Kendall Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh millionaire, escaped from the hospital in which he had been detained and fled to Canada for protection. Some of the local people were supporters of Thaw, others were not, making it quite an emotional issue at the time. What follows is my narrative of the events taking place and a look at how the local people reacted to these events.
The Saga of Harry Kendall Thaw
It is said that Harry K. Thaw was not a choir boy. In fact, many witnesses testified that he was a sadist towards his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, and animals, as well as being a heavy drug user. This is not exactly the image that will be retained by the public.
The beginning of this story started on June 25, 1906 when Mr. Thaw murdered his wife's ex-lover, Stanford White, and this took place in front of several hundred witnesses. Needless to say, the case went in and out of the courts and reputedly cost over a million dollars in legal fees. Thaw was declared innocent of the crime of passion (the equivalent of a criminal non-responsibility verdict).
It must, however, be known that this so-called victory was due to some extraordinary legal wrangling by his lawyers. In fact, a good part of the decision was also due to the efforts of his mother and the family fortune. She spent a great deal of money in a publicity campaign to portray her son in a favorable image. This was not only done through the newspapers but also by way of a film. Thaw was shown to be a defender of women and, as a man who rectified the wrong doings of others. Conversely, the victim, Sandford White was painted up as a low-life with sexually deviant behaviour. The rest is part of the story: Thaw will not go to jail but will be detained at the Matteawan State Hospital in the state of New York.
The following episode some seven years later when Harry Thaw escapes on August 17, 1913. Helped by two accomplices, Thaw travelled by train and car as far as Canada. The accomplices stopped in St. Hermenegilde, Quebec for the night at a hotel owned by Benjamin Cadieux. Cadieux recognized Thaw, and alerts the Coaticook police chief, John Boudreau, the following morning. Beaudreau, meanwhile, had already been alerted by Burleigh Kelsea, deputy sheriff of Coos County, New Hampshire. Kelsea had recognized Thaw on the train and had even spoken to him. The two police officers apprehended Thaw the morning of August 18th, and put him in a cell in the basement of the Coaticook Town Hall for several hours until he could find the services of a lawyer. He chose W.L. Shurtleff of Coaticook to represent him. Then Thaw was transferred to a prison in Sherbrooke.
A short time later, Shurtleff deposed a brief of ''habeas corpus'' after which Thaw was kept and detained for an unknown reason. The procedure dragged on for another three weeks when he was finally granted a hearing on September 3, 1913. As result, Thaw became a free man. However, during the three weeks preceding the judgment, the Canadian Immigration Service seized the case and filed a complaint in violation of immigration laws. In effect, Thaw had allegedly failed to report at a border post when he entered into Canada. He was therefore, arrested on the spot, by the immigration officials and transported to Coaticook and taken up to the immigration officials at the train station. He was held there for seven days. Unable to prove that he was entering by a border post or even as a tourist, Thaw is found guilty of illegially entering Canada. Thaw appealed the decision to the Minister of Immigration but this was rejected on December 10th and he was expelled without delay. He was arrested the same day in Vermont by the American authorities. He went on to spend several more years under lock and key.
Public Reaction
As we were to find out, the efforts by Mr. Thaw's mother preceded his arrival into Canada. As soon as the residents of Coaticook learned that Thaw was in town, several of the curious went to the train staion in hopes of being able to get a glimpse of him. In Sherbrooke, a crowd gathered to welcome him at the station. Several people shouted ''Let him go !'', the people of Sherbrooke were well aware of the Thaw case, like everyone else. The newspapers were particularly sensitive towards Thaw and portray him as a victim of the judicial system, especially the newspaper known as the Progres de l'Est from Sherbrooke.
During his stay in Coaticook, Harry K. Thaw was allowed some small priviledges by the people and the authorities. He was allowed to go outside and get some fresh air. On the 5th of September, it was thought that he was leaving and this rumor spread like wild fire. A short time later, a large crown gathered near the station to watch him leave. ''Cheering ensued when it was learned that the fugitive from Matteawan would spend another 10 days in Coaticook'' as was written up in La Tribune. Afterwards, according to this paper, and whatever would happen, Thaw would look back with pleasant memories of his stay in Coaticook. This little town was flattered to have a celebrated person stay here and flaunted the notoriety to a place to which it was not generally accustomed to be. As well, according to rumor, plans were being formed to dispute the legal stystem should the prosecutor consider taking Thaw back to the United States.
Worse still, according to the Progres de l'Est, a train with people from Coaticook and Sherbrooke would have gone to join the prisoner in Colebrook, New Hampshire during his return home to the U.S. to demonstrate their support for Thaw. It would have been such a crowd of followers that it would have taken at least twenty men to hold the crowd back. The New York Times also reported that the Colebrook police would have taken precautions in response to the rumor that armed woodsmen from Coaticook, etc. were to bring Thaw back to Coaticook. In the end, a crowd did indeed go to Colebrook but it was reported that there was no confrontation and not a shot was fired.
Finally, it can clearly be seen that the money of the Thaw family had done much to put public opinion on their side. It goes without saying that Thaw was guilty of murder and he should have been imprisoned but money and the power of the media were too involved in the case and therefore justice was only partially served.

Le Courant

Le Courant est publié par la Société une fois par année. Membres de la société, historiens professionnels et amateurs partagent avec les lecteurs le fruit de leurs recherches. Les textes sont disponibles en français et en anglais. La publication de cette revue est rendue possible grâce au soutien de commanditaires locaux que nous remercions avec toute notre gratitude.


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