Shelved Dolls: Evelyn Nesbit – The Victorian Courtney Stodden?

Evelyn Nesbit, who came to be so closely associated with New York society, was actually born in a tiny cottage in Pennsylvnia, which was valued around $2,000. I know it’s impossible to convert money to different time periods, but even at the time, this wasn’t much. Her family was poor is what I’m getting at, here. Her father rendered them nearly insolvent, but it helped that, from a very early age, Evelyn was super charismatic. In 1907, when the trial was running, The Valley Daily News (of Pennsylvania) recalled a church concert she sang at, stating:

The occasion was a memorial service which was held in the Methodist Episcopal church, of which her father and mother were members. The service was held in honor of the members, who had died during the year. The church was beautifully decorated for the occasion, an immense bank of evergreens completely covering the pulpit. In the midsts of the solemn hush of the service came the sweet voice of a child singing. It was little Florence Evelyn hidden behind the evergreens and in a voice which will never be forgotten and which could be distictly heard over the large auditorium, came the words, “We Are Going Down the Valley One by One.” Before the song was half finished nearly the entire audience was moved to tears. Softly, sweetly, but still distinctly, came the words of the song. It was a splendid triumph for a little child, and the memory of it still lingers in the hearts of the people here and to those who remember it so well, it helps them in the midsts of her present troubles to sympathize with and pity her.

The present troubles they’re referring to was the fact that her husband had just shot her former lover. But it’s cool because she sang once, in a church, as a child. Don’t let anyone tell you that Victorian Newspapers didn’t know how to traffic-bait.

When her father died when Evelyn was 11, and her mother tried to run a boarding house to support the family. However, she was too timid to collect rent, and turned the task over to Evelyn. Evelyn later recalled “Mamma was always worried about the rent…it was too hard a thing for her to actually ask for every week, and it never went smoothly.” So, at the age of 11, Evelyn was essentially in charge of running a boarding house, which, dude, when I was 11, all I did was play Crash Bandicoot.

The boarding house was not a success.

But Evelyn was soon to become her family’s breadwinner.

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    • Lana Kane

      Excellent post. A great read. Evelyns story is quite remarkable and stuff like this happened at that time…..but Courtney?? Wow. Her mom is an epic failure and Courtney is not really beautiful as a person inside or out….plus its not Victorian America. It’s 2012 where women CAN become doctors and lawyers!

    • Starofthemag

      “But how, exactly, did the work for Evelyn herself?”

      Great writing but you missed this at the bottom of page 1.
      It should read “…did that work for…”

      This message is brought to you in part by Efforts in Homework Avoidance, which is also the title of everything in my life today.

      • Jennifer Wright

        Thank you, team. If I had 40 Million dollars, I would hire a damn copyeditor.

    • Ashley Cardiff


    • Larissa

      I LOVE this series. If you made it into a book, i’d buy it for damn sure. Just sayin!

      • Amy


    • Nikki

      WOW! Awesome post! I’m not sure how this may relate to Courtney’s future, hopefully a better one than poor Evelyn’s. Only time will tell…

    • Ewa

      Great read, and – let me repeat – a very interesting series.

    • Alison

      I want more Shelved Dolls! The women you chose and the stories you tell are just so fascinating. Quit doing everything else and just write about interesting/tragic women from days gone by…I’ll be thrilled.

    • Marissa

      Wow. She kinda looks like Margaret Schroeder from Boardwalk Empire.

    • Alle C

      I LOVE THIS STORY SO MUCH, and this is such a fantastic article. Well done! Mustaches off to you!

    • Ellen W.

      I didn’t know about the chorus girls!! I mean, I knew Thaw was odd and not that nice but I had NO IDEA about how horrible he was.

      Team Evelyn indeed.

    • Anna

      Great post, but I wish the whole Courtney Stodden thing was left out. I mean that’s ridiculous. Courtney Stodden isn’t one of the “great beauties” out there . Comparing the two is just irritating.

    • Chelsea

      That is one beautiful woman!!! I need to see that movie about her life, especially since they involved her in the production.

      OH and that small cabin would be a bit over $46,000 today. Still not a lot of money in terms of a home for a family.

    • Cheryl (carol, cristal) Tunt

      This was a great article and an excellent read. I really just wanted to know more and more. On a psychological level, it was fascinating to read about this poor girl obviously suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and PTSD (after the rape and again after the beatings) and that she overcome all of this in the end… I want to see more interesting, historical articles like this!

    • Kj

      “A disguised Napoleon revealing himself to a near-sighted veteran on Elba could not have made the revelation with greater aplomb.”

      Is this meant to be the turn of the century version of an alliterative tweet? I knew they had higher standards then, but …seriously

    • andrea

      holy cow these staples ads are irritating.

    • xoxoxoBruce

      The newspaper you show says he was shot in the back, not in the face. But good story all in all. Kudos.

      • Jennifer Wright

        That’s actually quite interesting – many of the newspapers reported the story inaccurately because they were, understandably rushing to turn it in before their competition. I think that headline might be a symptom of that. Most of the biographies (listed at the end) agree that Stanford was shot in the face, though the complete NY Times report from the period says that he was shot in the temple ( which seems closer to face than “back of head” but I suppose it’s fair to say simple that he was certainly shot in the head.

    • michael curtis

      “She’s often regarded as something of the Courtney Stodden of the Victorian age…”

      WTF?? Since when?

    • Liana

      Great read Jennifer! Did she have any children and did she find any more love after all this?

    • andyarnette

      Evelyn said she was about 8 when her father died.
      I had to look-up Courtney Stodden to see who she was. In no way could anyone make that comparison. Evelyn never even wore lipstick, except on stage? She new nothing of sex, never posed without her mother and never did anything to compromise her image…she had no desire to ever marry but was bullied into it. Oh and she was asleep in the famous ‘Butterfly photo’ so hardly posing?