An American Tragedy Inspired by An American Murder

Grace Mae Brown’s 1906 murder was memorialized in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which provided the basis for the 1951 film A Place in the Sun Grace_brown_photostarring Elizabeth Taylor.  Two non-fiction works were penned about Brown’s murder  Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906 by Joseph Brownell and Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon. Her killer, Chester Gillette, was the nephew of the man who owned the factory where Brown worked. He was also her boyfriend, and the father of her unborn child, though he wasn’t planning on staying in either of those roles any longer than necessary. Brown, of course, had no idea of his sinister plans.

Grace Brown
Brown lived during the late Victorian Era, her life extending from 1886 – 1906.  Brown was a skirt factory worker and the daughter of a farmer. She had the nickname of Billy because she loved the song Won’t You Come Here Billy Bailey.  In 1904, she moved to nearby Cortland to live with a married sister, and went to work at the Gillette Skirt Company. In two years, she would meet the man of her dreams and have her life cut short in a brutal murder that shocked the nation for years to come.

Brown was considered to be a respectable, innocent person. However some stated that Brown had gone to Cortland with the idea of finding a suitable husband and that after she met Gillette she vowed to get him “one way or another.” So it is not beyond possibility that she viewed her pregnancy as a way to trap Chester into marrying her, but certainly no one at the time came right out and said that. And it was by no means a reason to kill the woman.

Chester Gillette
The thing most people find so startling about Gillette was that he came from an extremely religious family. He was born in the Montana wilderness in 1883 and moved to Spokane, Washington as a child with his father, grandfather and uncles. The family owned a hotel, a restaurant and a carting company. Gillette’s parents gave up all their worldly goods when they joined the Salvation Army and the family traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest setting up missions. In a fitting irony, Gillette went with his mother to prisons to speak with convicted murderers.

From an early age, Gillette resisted this life and was sent off to boarding schools. He become a printer’s apprentice in San Francisco, but never broke contact with the family, eventually joining them at their mission in Hilo, Hawaii in the early years of the century. The man who arrived in Cortland in 1905, therefore, had a very strange background. He had come from a rich family, then became poor in the Salvation Army. He had a strange concept of right and wrong and seemed to think that anything was okay as long as he did not get caught. He was very connected to his strong mother and less so to his sickly father. In spite of his religious upbringing, Gillette seemed devoid of a conscience.

Gillette and Brown
After Brown began working in the skirt factory, she and Gillette met, and Gillette became somewhat smitten with Brown. Somewhat, They only dated a few times but eventually the two began a romantic relationship. However, they did most of their courting in secret. By and by, they become lovers which, considering the rigid moral standards of the Victorian Age, was remarkably courageous of Brown. However Gillette was very persuasive and convinced her that if she loved him and wished their relationship to move forward, she would give him sex, which she did.

In the spring of 1906, Brown realized she was pregnant. Frightened, she returned to her parents in South Otselic. Brown wrote to Gillette several times after she returned to her family, pleading with him to do the right thing and marry her. Poor Brown lived with the shameful angst of a single, unwed mother during a time when strict morality was the order of the day. Young, unwed mothers were often sent away to have their children and were forced to give them up for adoption. Others weren’t permitted to return home for shaming the family name. In one letter Brown even threatened suicide if he didn’t marry her. In response, Gillette promised to make an honest woman of Brown and he asked her hand in marriage before her parents discovered the pregnancy. Naturally, Brown accepted.

Chester1In her final letter, written July 5, Brown mentioned her impending Adirondack trip with Gillette, and she said farewell to her childhood home of South Otselic, wishing she could confess her pregnancy to her mother. Her comments were a creepy foreshadowing of her fate: “I know I shall never see any of them again. And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

Lonely and uncertain, Brown packed her entire wardrobe for the trip. When Gillette arrived to pick her up she was surprised to discover he had packed just a small suitcase. Little did Brown know Gillette planned to bring her to a home for unwed mothers and not to a secluded wedding chapel. Gillette met Brown 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 stayed at the Alta Cliff Cottages. On the morning of July 11, Gillette and Brown took the train back south and got off at Big Moose Lake, where they rented a boat together and spent the entire afternoon out on the water. Brown left her trunk in the train station and her hat in the hotel, but Gillette took everything he had with him in the boat.

RacketSometime around 6 p.m. Grace ended up at the bottom of the lake. She told Gillette in one of her letters that she could not swim. Gillette, 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’s argument was that Brown committed suicide by jumping out of the boat. He stated that she simply “jumped out of the boat.” The prosecution argued that Gillette killed her first by knocking her unconscious with a racket he brought on the boat with him, then by throwing Brown overboard to drown.

Forensic medicine was still in its infancy in 1906, but there is no doubt that a professional autopsy would have answered questions about the case. Unfortunately the autopsy was botched. Isaac Coffin, the inexperienced Herkimer County coroner, released Brown’s body to the undertakers before an autopsy was conducted. By the time the autopsy was conducted the body had already been embalmed, destroying all the evidence. While District Attorney George Ward attempted to use the autopsy results to show that Brown had been struck a fatal blow, the doctors admitted on cross-examination that she could have drowned and that the blow they found on her head could have been made when the body was recovered from the lake. It was determined that Brown was indeed pregnant with a 4 month old fetus, possibly a girl.

The Arrest
Brown%20FarmIt was plausible that Gillette could have gone on the lam and never been caught, however his  motives were often difficult to understand. It appeared Gillette thought no one would tie him to Brown’s death and that the police would be looking for “Carl Grahm of Albany,” the name he used in the register of the Glenmore Hotel just before Brown went on her last boat trip. However, he made a number of mistakes along the way.

When District Attorney George Ward called Cortland to inquire about Grace Brown, he asked about Carl Grahm, the last alias Gillette used. While he was told there was no one there by that name, he was also told that Brown’s boyfriend had the same initials and that he had gone on vacation in the Adirondacks.  When Ward was on his way up to Big Moose Lake, he was met in Remsen by a railroad clerk, who had read the name Gillette in the newspaper and found a package of laundry addressed for Gillette at Old Forge. When Ward got to Old Forge he found a message from Gillette asking that his laundry be sent to the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, where he was staying. Ward had an easy trail to follow. Gillette was surprised when Ward found him and he was arrested.

Gillette Defense
an-american-tragedyBesides, Noah H. Gillette, Gillette’s uncle and the owner of the factory in which he and Brown worked, Gillette had an even richer relative: Lucien C. Warner, the millionaire owner of the Warner Brothers Corset Co. Warner was married to Gillette’s grandmother’s sister. None of them came to Gillette’s assistance. They didn’t provide him with a high-priced lawyer to argue his case. Neither of them explained why they abandoned Gillette however the public believed Gillette’s relatives abandoned him because they were convinced of his guilt. This helped to sway the jury’s decision further against the defendant.

Gillette’s Women
The idea that Gillette killed Brown so he would be free to marry another woman was an invention of the press. Gillette had many girlfriends in Cortland, as was made clear at the trial. One of them, Harriet Benedict, was singled out by the press because of a number of circumstances. She had been out with Gillette at Little York Lake, a resort north of Cortland, a week before the murder. When Gillette was arrested, photos of her and photos of Gillette taken by her were in his camera. This led to all of the speculation. As was made clear at the trial, however, the two were no more than casual acquaintances. She did not visit Gillette in his cell, nor did she send him any letters. That made no difference. Due to the negative publicity, the damage to her reputation was already done.

Journal2The newspapers made up the idea that Gillette had killed “Miss Poor” so he could marry “Miss Rich,” the lawyer’s daughter from Cortland. Benedict testified briefly at the trial. The idea that Benedict was the “other woman” in the Gillette case hounded her for the rest of her life. Eventually she escaped public scrutiny when she married Gillette’s lawyer Levi Chase.

The Trial
Prosecutor George Ward was a candidate for county judge at the time. All the publicity about the case caused the public to see him as a champion of justice. Many of the facts about the case were leaked to the press for this reason. He also told friends and reporters that he was deeply moved by reading Grace Brown’s letters. However Ward did an excellent job of gathering the circumstantial evidence that convicted Chester Gillette. His work was cited in law books for many years after the case was completed.

One of the oddities about the murder was Gillette’ motive for killing his girlfriend and unborn child. 3b290cd7e8eb3eb547f4ebe428788d40Perhaps he feared his uncle would fire him when he discovered Gillette had gotten a single lady pregnant, and his chances of becoming promoted and earning an affluent salary would come to an end. Perhaps he simply didn’t love Brown and didn’t want to be a married man. We’ll never know for certain why Gillette threw his pregnant girlfriend overboard then  went on about his business as though nothing untoward had happened.

Ultimately the jury found Chester Gillette guilty of the murder of Grace Mae Brown, a decision I believe was entirely correct. Gillette’s insistence that Brown simply jumped out of the boat to a watery grave made no sense. He was with her and he told the court he’d promised to marry her so her alleged suicide was totally irrational. On March 30, 1908, two years after Brown’s murder, Gillette was put to death in the electric chair. A fitting end for a strange, conscienceless killer.




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