Saturday, April 02, 2011


Evelyn Nesbit
 Forty years ago I lived in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, an old river town on the Allegheny River about forty miles north of Pittsburgh. On Water Street facing the river, stood a gracious old home, built by one of the town’s founding families. A daughter of the family married a wealthy Pittsburgh industrialist. Her son, Harry Thaw, married the beautiful, though scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. Evelyn was a chorus girl and sought-after artist’s model whose image became the Gibson Girl of the 1890s. She became involved in an affair with the prominent architect, Stanford White. In 1906, Harry Thaw, in a passionate fit of jealously, murdered Stanford White.

The murder trial which followed was billed the “trial of the century.” In fact, there were two trials. The first ended with a hung jury. The second acquitted Harry Thaw for reasons of insanity. “Mother” Thaw worked tirelessly to insure that her son never went to jail. Old Kittanning residents loved to point out her family home and repeat the sordid and scandalous details. The affair was taken up by Hollywood in the mid-1950s as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,”

Triangles and jealousies. Rivalries for affections. Challenges and violence. It is all so very human. For hundreds of years, theologians have been constructing the uniqueness of human beings in creation - the sublime heights and the abysmal depths. One can hear them through the centuries clucking with shock at the moment’s current jealousy-induced murder. We are unique, but fallen and depraved, a tragic mark of our humanity. One senses, though, that the theologians love to watch in shocked horror, along with all the rest of us.

But if the theologians want to find something unique about the human animal, they will need to find something other than a girl in a red velvet swing and two raging males.

Boat-tailed Grackles

I am writing on a sunny Monday morning. Outside I hear the blackbirds singing. The red-wings and the grackles are tuning up. Soon they will establish their turf. They will attract a harem and aggressively chase off any rivals trying to intrude. It will be great fun to watch.

A month ago, I was in Florida wetlands. The blackbirds in the marshes and ponds were beyond the tuning up stage. The Boat-tailed Grackles, in particular, were singing and displaying. Two, or three, or four males would perch in a bare snag and flare their long tails, spread and flutter their wings, and boast their grackle-ness with “jeeb, jeeb, jeeb.” Sometimes showing off was not enough. A threat was needed. So one male would threaten another by posturing with his bill pointed strait up.

For all of the displaying and posturing that goes on among the grackles, both the males and females are promiscuous. They mate whenever there is time (a few seconds) and with whomever is available. The assignations are lightning quick which allows for frequent and successful cheating on their presumed mate. Nevertheless, every male tries to obtain some exclusivity and some mating advantage. When the hormones kick in and the breeding season is underway, relations become very intense. Emotions not only run high; sometimes they reach a breaking point.

Boat-tailed Grackle clash

At Wakodahatchee Wetlands I watched the tension among the Boat-tailed Grackles reach the breaking point. In shallow water between small hillocks, two males locked beaks and fought. They fought vigorously, violently, and unrelentingly. One on top, and then the other. Had the tension between two males become too much and reached a breaking point? Had one thrown a verbal slur that set the other off? Had both vied for the same female, with fisticuffs as the final arbiter? Whatever it was, neither backed off and no quarter was given.

A third male watches the rivals fight

Like a barroom or street brawl, curious onlookers gathered. On the tiny hillock to the left, a third male grackle watched the fight. On a hillock to the right, a fourth male watched. Another male came to a shrub, displayed briefly, then apparently thought better. A female came to another bush and watched intently, then flew.

The fight between the grackles continued, and one was gaining the advantage of the other. The loser was trying to get away, but was being forced underwater. He thrashed up and struggled to get free. He moved to the hillock, but he had lost all advantage. He tried to put a small tree between himself and his assailant. Instead he became trapped among the trunks. The fight was not ending with the victory of one and the defeat of the other. The victor was intent on complete victory. Now on top of his victim, he violently drilled his long, pointed peak into the other bird.

Most of this final violence was hidden behind a tree trunk. The silent watchers on the nearby boardwalk could only see the up and down movements from the pounding of the victor, and the twitching of the long tail feathers from the victim, twitching which became slower and slower, and then ceased.

Common Moorhens curious about the outcome

While this was going on, the grackle spectators had moved to higher branches, but still followed events. No one dared intervene. Bystanders sought a good viewing vantage. Several Common Moorhens swam close. With obvious curiosity they strained their necks as they watched the fight. One climbed on the roots of the tree and peered through the trunks to see what was happening. Rubbing-necking was common. A Mottled Duck approached, as did a pair of Blue-winged Teals.

Murder. It may have started with tension between rivals that reached a breaking point, but it ended in murder. Murder with an audience clucking nearby - not unlike those long-time Kittanning residents who clucked at the Thaw-Nesbit-White triangle and murder a hundred years ago and still enjoyed telling the story with delightful shock seventy years later.

But I shouldn’t pick on the folks in Kittanning who told me about their connection to a high profile scandal and murder. When the crisis news network is not following the latest war with its mega-murdering, they will crowd the courtroom trial for the latest triangular murder.

I witnessed murder in a Florida swamp. Careful observers have witnessed murder among many species. The excessive degrees of murder and the efficiency of the murder practiced by my species has been proscribed by divine commandment. But we ignore that commandment as assuredly as the grackle ignored his clucking audience.

Evelyn Nesbit, Standford White, Harry Thaw
Some of the human audience in that Florida swamp were upset at what they saw. They like their nature sanitized, with no ugliest, just cuteness. Maybe they also recoiled at the thought that we, too, are nature. We have not risen all that far.

Evelyn Nesbit was not modestly clothed when Stanford White pushed her in the red velvet swing. Harry Thaw took exception. Like the Boat-tailed Grackle, he was enraged.  Both situations ended in murder.


eileeninmd said...

Interesting post, Chris! I enjoyed the read and the photos.

Dave said...

What a great post Chris! You were in the right place at the right time.

FAB said...

More of this goes on in the avian world than we ever get to witness. Excellent post Chris.

BTW I hope to catch up on your recent post in the coming days.

Jen Sanford said...

Wow this is truly fascinating stuff! Amazing stories and photos. Thank you for sharing these!!

Folkways Note Book said...

Interesting. I witnessed some chicks being hammered to death by a bird other than the parents a few years ago. Very sad and thought it was an exception as nature was "so good." Guess we are all alike -- those that are of nature. Thanks -- barbara


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