Saving Sin City

William Travers Jerome, Stanford White, and the original crime of the century

An operatic story of jealousy, obsession, vast fortunes, and moral crusaders set against the glittering backdrop of Gilded Age New York City.

About the Book

In 1906, in the Roof Garden theater of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Harry K. Thaw, the unbalanced heir to a Pittsburgh fortune, murdered the celebrated architect Stanford White before scores of horrified witnesses. No murder in American history had ever attracted more attention. The yellow press, specialists in salacious copy, jumped on a story that had everything- a crazed millionaire killer, a celebrity victim, a chorus-line beauty, underworld enablers, and Tenderloin vice. In William Travers Jerome, it also had a swashbuckling DA, an impassioned hero of the masses who was determined to restore justice to a corrupt, money-crazed, unjust society. Having first dismissed the murder as just another jealousy killing, Jerome soon recognized that the sordid love triangle linking the murderer, his victim and the beautiful showgirl Evelyn Nesbit made this no ordinary crime and he vowed to prove in the courtroom that no man, no matter how rich, could avoid justice. Politically ambitious and nearly as famous as White at the time, Jerome faced huge obstacles in his pursuit of justice in a city with too much respect for money and not enough for the law- a city crawling with colorful crooks, corrupt politicians, and licentious grandees. In alternating chapters, “Saving Sin City” follows Jerome in his crusade against lawlessness, and White, the idolized taste maker and man-about-town, in his campaign to free the city not just from its drab brownstone vistas but from Old Guard social and sexual puritanism, a mission that leads him to commit the egregious act that inflames his murderer. When Jerome enters the courtroom as the prosecutor of White’s killer, their stories converge in a sensational trial that is reported all over the world.


Excerpt from Saving Sin City

Arrived at the foot of Cortlandt Street, Jerome searches the crowded chaos of the waterfront for the men assigned to wait for him there. Frigid weather has left huge chunks of floating ice to compete with the tumultuous waterborne traffic of tugboats, sloops, railroad ferries and steamers pushing their way to the piers. Today is warmer, with a slight drizzle and the gulls are adding their shrieks to the cacophony of the bustling harbor, where rumbling vans and carts are the bass notes unlderlying a dissonant chorus of longshoremen’s shouts, bellowing foghorns and piercing basts from the tugs and ferries.

He finds the eight men and they head to their destination in two carriages. Meanwhile, Jerome’s ally, District Attorney Eugene Philbin, after first stopping at the Dey Street corner to make sure the carriages are not far behind, enters the Church Street Police Station, throws his ID card on the desk and orders a platoon of policemen at once. The men in blue, swiftly assembled, are moving en masse toward 20 Dey Street where the two carriages pull up at the saloon and the raiding party enters.

“Gentlemen what will you have?” the barkeeper asks.

“I think we’ll have that door first,” replies Jerome.

Ignoring the barkeeper’s protests, Jerome and his men rush for a door behind the bar and are climbing a stairway just as the platoon led by Captain Westervelt arrives, filling the street and the room with policemen and sowing panic. 

Confronted by a closed door at the top of the stairs, Jerome shouts, “Open in the name of the law!”

There is a storm of protest from the men on the other side, along with threats of reprisals from powerful political connections. Scurrying sounds are followed by stillness. Then the door flies open revealing an empty room another stairway and another door at the top. Rushing to reach the door, the raiding party hears a loud slam and sounds of heavy locks sliding into place.

“Get a sledgehammer,” someone shouts, and after a half dozen good blows, the door opens in time for the men to witness a wild scramble for trap doors in the roof. But there is no escape. Sergeants Clark and McCafferty have scaled the building and are waiting for them.

When the men realize they are trapped and the commotion dies down, Jerome takes a tour of the rooms. In a lounge, he is surprised to find eight members of the police force in mufti who stoutly maintain they are working “under cover.” They have been placed there for the past 35 days, they inform him, to collect evidence of gambling–of which they have found not a trace. 

The hundred or so gamblers rounded up in another room are also in for a surprise. Justice Jerome, whose personal participation in a gambling raid is unprecedented for a magistrate, is about to defy convention even more radically. Declaring the room a courtroom and himself a presiding judge, he takes a position behind a poker table while each of the men is served a blank subpoena stating, “In the name of the people of the State of New York – to John Doe, the name John Doe being fictitious, but the person served herewith, whose name is unknown, is the party intended…” 


About the Author

Mary Cummings is a writer, historian, and an award-winning journalist whose work has been recognized by the New York Press Association. She was a regular contributor to the New York Times for ten years, writing feature stories for its Long Island coverage. She has also written for TimeOut New York, Newsday, Columbia Today and numerous other publications. She was the arts editor and principal feature writer at The Southampton Press for seven years and has written three books on local history: “Southampton,” “Hurricane, 1938,” and “One Hundred Years of Healing,” a study of the role of Southampton Hospital in the social history of the Hamptons. In recent years, she has been a staff member at the Southampton History Museum, managing its Research Center and using her free time to indulge her fascination with Gilded Age New York, gathering the material and writing the story that became “Saving Sin City.” Raised in Southampton, New York, she is a graduate of Smith College and holds a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University. She lived in France for two years, and after her marriage, she and her husband lived in several American cities, as well as in Ethiopia, before returning to the States to raise their two sons. She currently lives in Southampton. 

Upcoming Events

Friday, May 25

Book talk at Canio’s Books, Main Street, Sag Harbor.

Wednesday, July 11 (Noon)

Book talk at Rogers Memorial Library, Southampton.

Thursday, August 30

Presentation and book-signing at the Southampton History Museum as part of the museum’s Gilded Age summer lecture series.


New York Times Bookshelf: Sam Roberts on Saving Sin City

There’s Plenty to Read About the ‘Trial of the Century’     By Sam Roberts August 23, 2018 The epigraph of Mary Cummings’s book about the trial of the century — the early 20th, at least — pretty much sets the tone for the tawdry, misogynistic and, even in the…

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“Deliciously Dishy” review by All Things Jill-Elizabeth

Book Review: Saving Sin City by Mary Cummings July 2nd, 2018 by Jill-Elizabeth I LOVE non-fiction that reads like fiction. Let’s be honest, truth often IS stranger than anything an author could come up with, largely because authors realize that there’s a limit to what people will believe. Unfortunately for life,…

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Scenes from a Raceland Book Party – Saving Sin City

If you missed the occasion, it was a splendid affair at Raceland, the home of Laura & Ron Race, to celebrate the release of Saving Sin City. Boxes of books were sold, bilinis were consumed at a copious clip, and the gardens were enjoyed by all. If you haven’t yet…

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What People Are Saying

“District Attorney William Travers Jerome’s name rang out like a death knell to a criminal element that had previously acted with impunity in turn-of-the-century New York. Jerome wasn’t intimidated by the enormous sway that Tammany Hall held over the city or the exalted social standing of the targets of his investigations. His most infamous case, however, was the cold-blooded murder of the renowned architect and dedicated hedonist, Stanford White, by the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. An atmospheric and exciting recreation of an era that pulsed with the kind of tacky, vulgar glamour that seems uniquely American.”

Alden Graves, Northshire Bookstore
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