The Cripple's Curse and the Kings of Pittsburgh

A baseball executive, a sex-crazed playboy, and a wealthy doctor all suffer strange fates courtesy of the "evil eye".

Hotel Henry, Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh

The year was 1905, and fate seemed to be smiling upon three close friends who had all managed to achieve enormous success in the prime of their youth. Harry Clay Pulliam, at the age of thirty-six, was already in his third year as president of the wildly popular National League. It was Pulliam who, in 1899, convinced a young shortstop named Honus Wagner to leave the Louisville Colonels and play in Pittsburgh, where Pulliam served as team president. Pulliam's close friend, a young Pittsburgh doctor named Walter S. Bingaman, was one of the most prominent physicians in the Steel City. Both men were also friends with Harry Kendall Thaw, the raconteuring heir to a multi-million dollar railroad fortune. In the early 20th century, these three inseperable friends were the lords of the Allegheny, the kings of Pittsburgh.

In just a few short years their empires would crumble to dust in a most bizarre fashion, courtesy of a cripple with a knack for witchcraft.

In the summer of 1905, Pulliam, Thaw and Bingaman were standing on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Henry in Pittsburgh engaged in light-hearted conversation, and while history fails to record which one of the men made the joke, it was Bingaman who later recalled that all three men erupted in laughter. At the very same moment in time a crippled beggar was hobbling along Fifth Avenue, when he tripped. He picked himself and heard the sound of laughter, but even though the three rich men hadn't paid any attention to the cripple, he concluded that his stumbling had been the source of their laughter. The cripple cursed at Pulliam, Thaw and Bingaman, casting upon them an evil eye and telling them that they would all come to an awful ruin.
Harry Pulliam ran after the cripple to tell him that they had not been laughing at his fall, but the old beggar refused to accept Pulliam's explanation and apology. When Pulliam returned to his friends, he was visibly shaken. "I don't know what you fellows think of this, but I don't like it," he remarked. "It makes me feel queer; as if something would really happen to us."

Harry Pulliam

Pulliam was so unnerved by the cripple's curse that he even hired a private detective to track him down, intending to make amends for the incident in front of the Hotel Henry. In spite of his uneasy feelings, Pulliam continued to enjoy success as president of the National League, where he also filled the roles of treasurer and secretary. Renowned as one of the finest historians and a leading authority on the game, it was Harry Pulliam who famously quipped "Take nothing for granted in baseball". Yet, every where he went, he kept an eye open for the old man who placed a hex on him.

A few years later, in 1907, while on a business trip to Pittsburgh, Pulliam thought he saw the cripple. Risking his life, he jumped from a moving automobile to reach him, only to discover that it wasn't the same man. Friends began to worry about Harry, telling the young executive that he was overworked and mentally exhausted. They encouraged him to take some time off and get away from the game for a while. Pulliam decided to relinquish his additional positions as secretary and treasurer, and was thinking about resigning as league president.

On Wednesday, August 28, 1909, Pulliam left his office at the St. James Building and returned to his apartment at the New York Athletic Club. After handing the bellboy a handful of letters to mail, he went into his writing room and shot himself through the head. The bullet passed through his right temple, obliterating his right eye and exiting through the left. Still alive and conscious, he reached for the phone to call for help. Dr. Higgins, the club physician, arrived at the scene a few minutes later but the doctor knew it was a lost cause; he died the following day. One of the letters which he had given to the bellboy was his letter of resignation.
Perhaps the reason Pulliam decided to commit suicide was because he wanted to fulfill the cripple's prophecy and bring the curse full circle; for it had already ruined the lives of Thaw and Bingaman.

Harry Kendall Thaw

Harry Kendall Thaw's fall from grace took place on June 25, 1906, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, where he murdered his long-time nemesis, Stanford White.

Long before Pulliam's meteoric rise in the baseball world, Thaw was already a multi-millionaire. Spoiled, narcissistic, and obsessed with sex and drugs, Thaw famously threw a temper tantrum when his father cut his monthly allowance to $2,500-- a sum approximately five times greater than the average American's annual salary. According to rumor, Thaw once spent $50,000 throwing a single party. Also according to rumor, Thaw was into group sex, bondage, cocaine and morphine. He had an insatiable appetite when it came to sex, and loved to inflict pain as well as receive it.  Once, in a London hotel, he lured a bellboy into his room, restrained him naked in the bathtub, and beat him with a riding crop. Thaw's mother paid out five thousand dollars in hush money to keep the incident covered up.

While he was palling around Pittsburgh with Pulliam and Bingaman, Harry Kendall Thaw was still breathing the rarefied air of the upper crust. He was a playboy, and a member of the prestigious Union League Club of New York. He was also a newlywed, having recently married Evelyn Nesbit, the famed chorus girl. Things quickly began to deteriorate after his chance encounter with the mysterious cripple, however.

Evelyn Nesbit

Shortly after the incident in front of the Hotel Henry, Thaw was booted from the Union League Club. Looking to regain his grasp on the top rung of the New York social ladder, he sought membership in all of the city's elite clubhouses: the Metropolitan Club, the Knickerbocker's Club, the Player's Club and the Century Club. Thaw was rejected by all of them.

He blamed this rejection on one of his wife's former lovers, a rival playboy and socialite named Stanford White, who had bedded the Nesbit when she was 14 and he was 47, although Nesbit's family claimed that White sexually assualted her while she was unconscious. Thaw had taken great pride in having "rescued" Evelyn Nesbit from him, and was convinced that White was out to get revenge, as White had been the architect who designed all of the buildings which housed the clubs Thaw wanted to belong to. As time went by, Harry Thaw developed a morbid obsession with his rival, who referred to Thaw in social circles as the "Pennsylvania Pug".

Stanford White

On June 25, 1906, Thaw and his wife attended the premier of Mam'zelle Champagne, a show that was playing on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. When Stanford White appeared and was shown to a table much closer to the stage than Thaw's, Thaw was irate. He was convinced White was trying to one-up him in front of Evelyn Nesbit. During the show's finale, ironically entitled "I Could Love A Million Girls", Thaw produced a pistol and approached Stanford White, shooting him three times nearly at point blank range. White died instantly.

Arrested and denied bail, Thaw was placed in Tombs Prison to await trial. He refused to wear a prisoner's uniform and was permitted to wear his own finely-tailored clothing. Using the influence he still possessed, he ordered a brass bed for his cell, a formal dining table, and was served a daily ration of champagne and wine. He appeared in high spirits, believing himself to be a national hero for slaying Stanford White.

Thaw in jail at Tombs Prison

Thaw's murder trial was notable; it was the first time in American judicial history in which a jury was ordered to be sequestered. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, which shocked Thaw so much that he threw a tantrum. At the second trial he was found insane and was given a life sentence at the Matteawan State Hospital in Fishkill, New York. In 1913, Thaw's mother heled him escape, and Thaw fled to Canada. He was extradited and brought back to New York. In July of 1915, a jury ruled that Thaw was no longer insane and was set free. This caused the New York Sun to write:

"In all this nauseous business, we don't know which makes the gorge rise more, the pervert buying his way out, or the perverted idiots that hail him with huzzas."

The following year, Thaw was charged with kidnapping and sexually assaulting a teenage male from Kansas City. The police tracked him to Philadelphia, where Thaw attempted suicide by slashing his throat. He was committed to the Kirkbride Asylum but was released in 1924. Records indicate that Thaw's mother once again procured his release through bribery. Although Harry Kendall Thaw lived to the age of 76, the remainder of his life was plagued by bad business deals and broken relationships. He was never again taken seriously and, perhaps worst of all, never rejoined high society. For a narcissist like Thaw, that was a fate worse than death.

Of the three men who were subjected to the cripple's curse, Dr. Walter S. Bingaman's fall from grace was the least bizarre, but still bizarre in its own right. Bingaman and Thaw had been close friends since childhood, but while Thaw was throwish lavish drug-fueled orgies, Bingaman was becoming one of the Pittsburgh's leading medical men.

In 1909, Bingaman broke off his courtship to a wealthy New York socialite after he fell in love with Catherine Frank, a "lowly" nurse. Bingaman's family was so insulted that they arranged to have him kidnapped and committed to the Dixmont Insane Asylum. However, Catherine sided with Bingaman's family, claiming that she and Walter barely knew each other and denied any romantic relationship:

"I know Dr. Bingaman as a physician, I handled some cases for him, and when his nerves gave way, I helped attend him, but I have never had any thought of marrying him."

Walter's uncle was the wealthy and powerful Dr. Charles Bingaman, who had helped convince a New York jury of Harry Thaw's insanity. In a strange twist of fate, Walter's father and uncle conspired to have Walter declared insane; on July 22, 1909, Drs. W.F. Edmundson and J.H. McClelland judged Walter insane and thus he was held at Dixmont. Bingaman's life fades into quiet anonymity from that point on.

Thanks to the cripple's curse, three powerful and influential men were brought to ruin, leading two of them to the insane asylum and one to an early grave from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Marlin Bressi is a freelance writer, creator of the Pennsylvania Oddities blog, and author of the book Hairy Men in Caves: True Stories of America's Most Colorful Hermits.