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The Chester Gillette - Grace Brown murder case of 1906 was front-page news during the arrest, trial and execution of Gillette. It is still studied today as a model case of using "circumstantial" evidence. It was also the topic of several Adirondack folk songs and ghost stories. The primary reason it is still of interest, however, is that Theodore Dreiser used the case as the basis of his most famous novel, An American Tragedy (1925). It was also the basis of Tobias Picker's 2005 opera of the same title.
Chester Gillette and Grace Brown worked together in 1905 at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York owned by Chester's uncle.
Chester was born in Montana and traveled around the Pacific Northwest with his parents, who were captains in the Salvation Army. He attended Oberlin Academy prep school and later worked as a railroad brakeman before coming to Cortland. There he met Grace Brown, a farmer's daughter from South Otselic in Chenango County, New York, who had originally come to Cortland to baby-sit for her sister's child.
They dated occasionally but most of their relationship was conducted in secret. In the spring of 1906 Grace found herself pregnant with Gillette's child and she went home to her parents after Gillette promised to take her away on the trip to the Adirondacks. While she apparently assumed this was to be a wedding trip, it is unknown whether Gillette actually promised to marry her.
After a number of letters begging him to fulfill his promise, Gillette met Grace in DeRuyter, New York on July 9, 1906 and they began a trip together. They spent the first night in Utica and then took the train to Tupper Lake, where they spent their second night together. On the morning of July 11 they took the train back towards Utica and stopped at Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County. They rented a boat together and spent the entire afternoon out on the water. Grace left her trunk in the train station and her hat in the hotel, but Chester took everything he had with him out onto the boat.
Sometime around 6 p.m. Grace ended up in the bottom of the lake, She had told Gillette in one of her letters that she could not swim. Chester, taking his suitcase, camera and tripod, ran off into the woods and found a trail to the south. Later that night he arrived at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet and stayed there until his arrest three days later.
Gillette is sentenced to die
During his trial in November and December 1906, Gillette said Grace had jumped into the lake and committed suicide because of her plight. The district attorney said Chester hit Grace over the head with the tennis racket that had been attached to his suitcase. The jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. He was executed on March 30, 1908.
The case has lived on in fiction and legend.
The Many Versions of the Story:
Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon, North Country Books, 1986, updated 2006.
Grace Brown's Love Letters, Citizen Publishing Co. 1906.
History of the Gillette Murder Trial and Grace Brown's Love Letters
by Granville S. Ingraham, Charles E. Garlock publishers 1907.
Adirondack Tragedy by Joseph Brownell, Heart of the Lakes, 1986.
Death was the Bridegroom by Charles Samuels, Fawcett, 1955.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, 1925
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (young adult) 2003.
"An American Tragedy" by Patrick Kearney, 1927.
"An American Tragedy: The Trial of Clyde Griffiths" by Erwin Piscator, 1936.
"Chester and Grace" by Glenn Allen Smith, 1991, performed in Cortland and Ilion N.Y.
"People vs. Gillette" trial re-enactment by Jack Sherman, 2006.
"My Dear Chester" dramtic reading of the letters by Jack Sherman, 2006.
"An American Tragedy," Paramount Pictures, 1931.
"A Place in the Sun," Paramount Pictures, 1951.
"Murder at Big Moose?" 1988, WCNY Syracuse, for PBS.
"Grace's Ghost," episode of Unsolved Mysteries, 1996."Crimes in Time," the History Channel, 1997.
"The Ballad of Big Moose Lake" folk song, circa 1910.
"Entreating" by Maude E. Gould of Ilion, N.Y. 1907.
"Grace Brown" by Gene Clayton and Spare Parts. Bluegrass song. 2006
"An American Tragedy" music by Tobias Picker, libretto by Gene Scheer
premiered at the Metropolitan Opera, December 2, 2005
Thanks to Bob Hankey of the Big Moose Inn for suggestions to this page.
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Last updated June 2006