Bill Long 9/24/06
A New Word Invented in the First "Trial of the Century"
Like bookends on a long shelf, so two trials in 20th century American history, one in 1907 and one in 1997, were called the "trials of the century." Everyone knows the latter--that of OJ Simpson for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, while almost all knowledge of the former has faded from memory. The other greatest trial of the century was of the wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Thaw for the June 26, 1906 killing of famous architect Stanford White during a chorus-line performance on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden in New York City. Thaw, who lived a checkered life of addiction to cocaine before and after the killing, had married the beautiful and talented "model" Evelyn Nisbet (born in 1884) who had been, for several years, beginning when she was 16 years old, the lover of Stanford White. White, who was 52 at his death in 1906, had a long-term reputation of bedding underage chorus girls, even though he was never prosecuted for that behavior under any criminal law in place at the time.
After the Killing
There was no question in anyone's mind that Henry Thaw had killed Stanford White. Witnesses described how Thaw had approached White's table and shot him three times. Because pranks were a regular part of these types of musical reviews, people weren't sure at first whether White was "faking" his own death. But, of course, he wasn't.
Thaw's mother secured one of the best defense lawyers in America at that time, Delphin Delmas. His strategy was to pursue a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. The first trial of Henry Thaw began early in 1907. Two witnesses put on by the defense were of particular importance: the expert witness (psychologist) Dr. Britton D. Evans and Thaw's wife and former White lover, Evelyn Nesbit. The official term for a psychologist in those days was an "alienist," a word first appearing in English in 1864 to connote "one who treats mental diseases; a mental pathologist." Thus, Dr. Evans was referred to as the alienist at the trial.
Dr. Evans' Testimony
I am relying on Barry Popik's website for the contemporary quotations from newspapers regarding Dr. Evans' testimony. From the Feb. 13, 1907 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, page 1:
"The alienist today was Dr. Britton D. Evans. He was positive in his belief that Thaw did not know what he was doing when he killed Stanford White. He declared it to be his opinion that Thaw was suffering from "a brain storm or an explosive or fulminating condition of mental unsoundness" at the time he shot and killed Stanford White.
Also, from that day's edition of the New York Times, page 3, we have:
"I observed that Harry K. Thaw exhibited a peculiar facial expression, a glaring of the eyes, a restlessness of the eyes, a suspicious viewing of the surroundings and me, watching every movement of me. I observed a nervous agitation and restlessness, such as comes from a severe brain storm, and is common in persons who have recently gone through an explosive or fulminating condition of mental unsoundness. I observed in him a peculiar condition known as logorrhea."
While most of us who know or use the term logorrhea think of it as synonymous with loquacious or prolix, the first appearance of it in English was only from 1902 (five years before the above quoation), and its 1902 usage emphasized its mental health dimension: "Logorrhea refers to the excessive flow of words, a common symptom in cases of mania."
From another newspaper published on February 13, 1907 we have: "In the case of a man suffering from the insanity known as logorrhea the ideas come rapidly tumbling over each other." Sounds like sanity to me....
The next month, the Washington Post spoke of the uniqueness of this new term--brainstorm--as follows:
"It may be that this word occurs somewhere in the literature of insanity, but nobody excepting, possibly, a few professional students of that sort of thing had ever heard of it until Dr. Evans declared upon the witness stand that that was what ailed Harry Thaw on the night when he shot Stanford White. Dr. Evans was not the only cerebral meteorologist to size up the weather of Thaw's mind in this way. He was the pioneer, of course, but a few days later Dr. Charles G. Wagner, another expert witness for the defense, declared that brainstorm was a fine word for just such a case, and he subscribed without reservation to Dr. Evans' application of it. Both the experts explained that brainstorm was a mental fulmination, but for the general public this was an explanation that did not explain. Brainstorm was good enough for them. It got to be a catch word in the court room within a few hours after Dr. Evans first uttered it."
Space doesn't permit a discussion of another term introduced into English at this trial (the phrase dementia Americana, by defense attorney Delmas (see this web site)) or the testimony of Ms. Nesbit, who was promised by Thaw's mother that if she testified in support of Thaw that she would be given a $1,000,000 payment from Thaw. She dutifully so testified but the money was not forthcoming.
For those who are interested, Thaw's first trial ended up in a hung jury, while the second jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. He lived a few years in a mental institution until he was spirited away from it and fled to Canada. He was extradited back to the states in 1915, and soon was declared sane and freed.
Much more could be said about the case (this web site goes through it in considerable detail), but I will conclude with one comment. The word brainstorm emerged in 1907 and had a negative connotation--it denoted mental insanity. The first reference I could find to brainstorm as a positive concept came from 1932 when American Speech defined it as: "a sudden and usually fortunate thought." It is only a short distance from this to something that you are supposed to do at retreats and other "creative" events. How words change...
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long