It was just a typical July night in 2005 when I first learned of one of the most famous murder cases in New York State history.
I was on break from my overnight job at Wal-Mart in Herkimer, New York when I stumbled upon a newspaper article from one of my area’s local newspapers, the Herkimer Telegram. On the front page of that particular paper was a photo of a small group standing in front of the old Herkimer County Courthouse and two of them were actors dressed in Victorian-era costumes. The headline above the photo announced the 100th anniversary commemoration of the murder of Grace Brown at the hands of her one-time lover Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake on a hot summer day in 1906. That infamous act inspired the classic Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy, the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, and a Metropolitan Opera production that debuted later that year.
And for me, what started out as one newspaper article eventually turned into over two years of research (for a book that never materialized); active participation in the commemoration events; a blog site (which is the only surviving blog from when I started blogging in 2006); and even meeting descendants of participants in the case both online as well as off.
Since the case is still researched and talked about all over the world, there really isn’t a need to recap the story but I will anyway.
Chester, the son of Salvation Army missionaries spent most of his childhood traveling around the western part of the country at a time when the West was still for the most part untamed. Due to his family’s religious activities, Chester frequently moved around a lot and among some of the places he traveled to included Spokane, Washington, San Francisco, California and Hawaii. Unfortunately his family’s religious ethics frequently put him at odds with the rest of the family and ultimately thanks to the assistance of an influential uncle, Chester was able to go to Oberlin Academy to help establish himself in a new career.
His first year turned out to be a success but by the following year he lost his focus and dropped out due to poor grades because he was more interested in “having as good a time as possible” (his motto in life.) Between 1903 and 1905 he had a variety of odd jobs most notably as a railroad brakeman. That was until another successful uncle who owned a successful skirt factory business in Cortland, New York invited Chester to go and work for him.
Chester arrived in Cortland in April 1905 and went to work in his uncle’s factory. Despite the fact that he was the nephew of the factory owner, Chester was shown no favoritism as he was hired to work in the stockroom for ten dollars a week. However outside the factory, he quickly became popular among the people of Cortland because of his athletic ability and he was a really good storyteller where he found that his past made for excellent conversation with some of the upper middle-class girls he became acquainted with.
Right about the time he was getting settled into his new life, Chester became involved with Grace Brown, the daughter of a farmer in a rural town called South Otselic, about thirty miles away. She arrived in Cortland a year earlier to care for her older sister’s son and was hired at the factory as an inspector several months before Chester arrived. He called on her outside of work despite being told by his uncle not to fraternize with his fellow co-workers outside the factory. So they had to keep their relationship a secret. He rarely (if ever) took her out in public and their dates (if you can call it that) were more or less relegated to the parlor of her boarding house.
Grace knew Chester had been seen in public with other women from the more prominent families in town but she was somewhat tolerant of this and holding on to the firm belief that he was only having fun with them while saving his real love for her (or so she thought.)
Everything soon changed when Grace found out she was pregnant in the spring of 1906. And given the fact that she was not married, that was a major no-no in those days. There was clearly no question as to who the father was. However that “father” was unwilling to take responsibility for his actions because he didn’t want to give up on his good times. Finally, Grace agreed to give up her job and her boarding house in Cortland and returned to her family’s farm while waiting for Chester to get his affairs in order so he can arrive with a solution.
For three weeks, the suspense rose. Grace wrote a series of letters to him urging him to do the right thing. However, Chester continued to stall and go about his business as though nothing was wrong. She was sick as a result of being pregnant and also sick from the stress of her burden. Her family noticed her ill demeanor but didn’t really think anything of it. After all, it was normal for a girl her age in those days to behave in a melodramatic way. Finally she called him at the factory threatening to return to Cortland and expose him. Fearing scandal that could tarnish his uncle’s family name, Chester finally agreed to meet her.
On July 9, 1906, they embarked on their journey to the Adirondacks from the town of DeRuyter and after spending two nights in Utica and Tupper Lake under assumed names as a married couple from New York City, they arrived at Big Moose Lake. There Chester decided to drop the “married couple” act and signed the ledger using Grace’s real name and listed her hometown as South Otselic while using the assumed name of Carl Grahm of Albany. Then they rented a rowboat for the day and they rowed around the southern shore of the lake, stopping for a picnic at some point. Other people out on the lake and in camps along the shoreline saw them rowing around. They stood out because people who saw them found it odd that there was a suitcase with a tennis racket strapped to the side of the boat. They also noticed that Grace was not happy.
What happened around 6 p.m. that afternoon may never be known but what we do know is that Grace ended up at the bottom of the lake with her head nearly split open; the rowboat overturned and adrift with Grace’s black cape draped over the bow and a straw hat floating nearby and Chester Gillette long gone.
What happened was that when the boat overturned Chester went into the water and managed to swim to shore. Grace on the other hand could not swim and Chester knew that, primarily because she said so in one of her letters to him. Later, many took this as a sign that Chester took that fact into account while planning murder.
After getting out of the water, Chester retrieved his suitcase that he left on shore and hit the road that led to Eagle Bay. While en route he stopped and hid the tennis racket under a log on the side of the road. By nightfall he managed to find his way to the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet which was right on Fourth Lake. There he signed the hotel ledger under his real name and location and proceeded to live the life of a typical Adirondack tourist which included a mountain climbing trip up Black Bear Mountain and meeting up with two society girls he was frequently seen with in Cortland.
Unbeknownst to him, word of Grace’s death found its way to Herkimer where the district attorney George W. Ward began to suspect foul play and while en route to the crime scene he met a man from Cortland who worked in the factory with both Chester and Grace. The man was on his way to the Adirondacks in response to a request Chester made about sending money up to Eagle Bay, despite the fact that by then he was on Fourth Lake.
Ward finally caught up to Chester at the Arrowhead on Saturday morning, July 14 and arrested him for Grace’s murder. While being interrogated, Chester told different stories about what happened, including the fact that he denied knowing the victim; that it was an accident; that she was suicidal because of her condition and so on. After being arraigned, Chester was taken to the 1834 Herkimer County Jail to be held for trial.
Chester’s trial was held in the old Herkimer County Courthouse in Herkimer on November 12, 1906 and lasted about three weeks. It promised to be the trial of the century and the crowds as well as the press that converged on the small town were not disappointed. Hundreds of witnesses testified, telling the story of Chester and Grace’s relationship as well as their activities in the days leading to her death. However, the real attraction came when Ward read Grace’s letters to Chester (obtained without a search warrant) in open court and it caused an emotional sensation that left everyone, save for Chester himself, in tears.
Herkimer was clearly not ready for the type of media circus that they hosted another sensational trial as well as execution some twenty years earlier: The trial of Roxalana Druse who was found guilty of murdering her abusive husband. Reporters from New York City were in Herkimer covering the trial, many of them were from the Hearst chain or the “yellow journalism” papers that dominated the media in that day and age. The city reporters tended to fabricate stories to sell papers and their time in Herkimer was no exception. At one point, they even dressed up in old clothes and pretended to be a lynch mob who wanted to gain access to the jail and hang Chester.
The letters were not the only thing that attracted people to the trial. There were also reports of a love triangle and the media singled out one particular woman to be the “other woman”: Harriet Benedict, the daughter of a prominent Cortland attorney. Harriet went on the stand and testified that Chester was merely a friend and their only date was an outing on a local lake on the Fourth of July, the week before Grace’s death. Harriet would never be allowed to forget her role in the Gillette case.
Chester himself also testified as the first witness for the defense. He told the court that Grace was depressed and after he suggested returning to her parents’ farm to confess all, she became frightened and jumped into the lake. Not many people believed him, especially after Ward’s ruthless cross-examination of him. When the trial was given to the jury, they convicted him of first-degree murder within five hours. In those days, if a criminal was convicted of first-degree murder it meant an automatic death sentence.
On December 12, two days after receiving his death sentence, Chester was transferred to Auburn Prison. On the train, he was able to mingle with a traveling burlesque troupe who ironically were also headed for Auburn for a show. Enjoying the limelight for perhaps the last time, he signed autographs for the performers. After all, it wasn’t every day that people got to take a train ride with a convicted murderer, let alone one on his way to the electric chair.
During the fifteen months he spent on Death Row, Chester’s attorneys filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals which was later denied and Chester’s parents attempted to appeal to the governor for executive clemency and get the sentence reduced to life in prison. They presented new evidence that included a claim that Grace suffered from epilepsy. The governor declined to intervene after a phone call from the warden of Auburn Prison reassured him that Chester had confessed.
And so with all hope of appeals and reprieves exhausted, Chester was executed in the early morning hours of March 30, 1908. He was only twenty-four years old. However his story did not end in the death chamber of Auburn Prison.
With the publication of An American Tragedy in 1925, the true story of the case became confused with what Dreiser wrote (he included Grace’s letters nearly word-for-word as well as the trial transcript and the city papers that were mainly fabricated anyway) and it remained that way until Craig Brandon published his book Murder in the Adirondacks in 1986. Since then, new theories have emerged about the case such as the theory that Chester and Grace were actually looking for an orphanage for Grace to stay in until her baby was born so that she could give it up and return to her regular life as though nothing had happened. Another theory that has surfaced was that her death was a result of a suicide pact she had with Chester that went wrong. And I am sure that there will be more that will emerge as time goes on.
As far as my experiences go during the Centennial commemoration in 2006, I attended nearly all the events except for a few, namely a bus trip to the premiere of the American Tragedy opera at the Metropolitan Opera house and probably the most important event of the commemoration: Grace’s memorial at Big Moose Lake on the anniversary of the murder because I could not get out of work that day.
From the events I did attend though, I was an usher for the Herkimer performances of the trial reenactment that was performed by the Ilion Little Theater Club, including a performance that was held in the same courtroom where the real trial took place. I also went on a bus trip sponsored by the Herkimer County Historical Society to the sites that related to the case in Cortland and South Otselic, including the factory building in Cortland which has been an appliance store for years, Grace’s home in South Otselic as well as her gravesite.
And here’s where I have a little story to tell. Everyone knows the stories about the possibility of the existence of Grace’s ghost, right? Well as far as ghost stories go, I personally have not had many encounters with ghosts despite the fact that I would like to see one.
Over the years, many people claimed to have seen Grace’s ghost on Big Moose Lake which was featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteriesin 1996. Some claim that she was sighted in South Otselic as well as some claims that she was sighted in Herkimer, most notably in the 1834 Jail near Chester’s cell. How is that possible? Grace never saw Herkimer while she was alive. The answer to this would be something that I have learned about ghosts and that is if there is a place or event that has anything to do with them, then there is a good chance that their presence would be felt. For all we know, Grace’s ghost could have even witnessed Chester’s trial. Something to think about.
I did not encounter Grace’s ghost when I went up to Big Moose Lake in August 2007 but the closest I came to seeing or feeling Grace’s presence was when I went to her farm in South Otselic during the bus trip the year before. As I was walking past an apple tree on the property, I suddenly got this feeling that she was there. At that point, I remembered a photo I saw in Murder in the Adirondacks of Grace standing in front of an apple tree. To this day, I still cannot explain it.
I was also present when the historical marker was placed in front of the 1834 Jail that housed Chester. And it was also at that point where it was revealed that the great-granddaughter of Chester’s sister kept and preserved a diary that Chester wrote in during his last six months in Auburn awaiting execution. The diary showcased his transformation from a shallow self-absorbed boy into a mature thoughtful Christian man. The final entry was written about a few minutes before he was led to the chair. The diary was donated to Hamilton College where a majority of the artifacts from the Gillette case are stored including Grace’s letters and sure enough I was there for the donation ceremony. The diary has since been published in book form and is available at the Herkimer County Historical Society or online at sites like Amazon.com.
In conclusion, we may never know for sure what happened at Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906 but interest in the case continues to this day. The Herkimer County Historical Society gets requests every year for information on the case, therefore reinforcing its status as “the murder that will never die. And for better or worse, I am proud to have taken part in this little piece of Central New York history.