Documentary Re-creation

The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy
R: unknown. D: Evelyn Nesbit. P: Siegmund Lubin. USA 1907
Print: Museum of Modern Art, New York

“The first documentary re-creation, Siegmund Lubin‘s The Unwritten Law (1907) (…), dramatized the true-life murder – on June 25, 1906 – of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself in the one reel film). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation, and the basis for Richard Fleischer‘s biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow‘s musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]”

“Still well known today, the ‘tragedy’ was a front-page news item for many months. On 25 June 1906, millionaire Harry K. Thaw shot and killed famed architect Stanford White at the Madison Square Roof Garden. Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbitt, had been White’s mistress prior to (and perhaps even after) her marriage. Thaw went on trial for murder and was ultimately judged insane. The trial, however, was still under way when Lubin’s film appeared, taking a pro-Thaw position with the argument that the killing was condoned by ‘unwritten law’. To make its point, the film shows Evelyn’s visit to White’s ‘room with the velvet swing’, his drugging of her wine, and her rape/seduction. The film’s integration of sex and violence, its revelation of decadence and corruption among the rich, fascinated many and scandalized others. It was banned in Houston, Texas, and many other locales, but in others it was the biggest hit of the year.”
Charles Musser: The Emergence of Cinema. Vol. 1.: The American Screen to 1907. Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1994, p. 479

The Unwritten Law is a prime example of the kind of film that drew the attention of progressive and establishment forces to the new cheap amusement sites where working class people, immigrants, women, and children gathered to socialize. The disapproving spectator did not need to attend the show to know about its sensational nature: outside, advertising posters made it clear. It was the real-life events related and exaggerated in the daily press that provided the excitement. The press continued to give coverage while the trial went on, and while Thaw’s mother fought to obtain his release. Later on, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw and her son would have brief screen careers on the basis of her notoriety. The film itself, barred in some cities (in Chicago, it was banned by the police), continued to play in places where censorship was not strong, even though its film style quickly became old-fashioned. Its notoriety kept it in demand. Its fame remained alive through the many efforts to suppress it.”
Ellen Bowser: 1907 – Movies and the Expansion of the Audience. In: American Cinema 1890 – 1909. Themes and Variations. Ed. by André Gaudreault. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London 2009, p. 188