This brief post concerns the following recent posts on the web:
Behind the True Crime Story That Inspired “A Place in the Sun”; Over a century before the true-crime boom, People v. Gillette attracted the nation’s attention
By Tobias Carroll
February 25, 2020
People v. Gillette: How an Obscure Execution in the Finger Lakes Inspired Generations of Storytellers; The Long Cultural Afterlife of a Horrifying Crime
By S.L. McInnis
via Grand Central Publishing
February 24, 2020
It is frankly annoying to see constant misstatements of fact about — or wrong inferences being made from — the Gillette case, which provided the factual basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. The case has been recounted and examined thoroughly in Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited. A few errors and missed facts about the case have been discovered and corrected by Brandon himself over the years; and on this blog, as well as elsewhere.
Confusion seems to arise from true crime enthusiasts and movie buffs, as well as readers of the novel, having conflated facts derived from An American Tragedy and the 1951 film A Place in the Sun.
Tobias Carroll states:
[T]he defendant, Chester Gillette … was put on trial for the murder of a co-worker with whom he’d been having an affair. After he began another affair with a woman of higher social standing, Gillette got some news: his co-worker was pregnant. Gillette got nervous, and he and his co-worker took a fateful trip by boat from which only Gillette returned. He was found guilty and executed, but [S. L.] McInnis notes that evidence that surfaced decades later supports Gillette’s innocence.
S.L. McInnis states:
Chester Gillette, a poor relation … got a job at his wealthy uncle’s shirt factory in Cortland, New York in 1905. He was only twenty-two at the time and on his way up in the world, a handsome young man in pursuit of the American Dream.
Gillette met another young employee at the factory, a pretty brunette named Grace Brown. …. Gillette and Brown began a sexual affair and by the spring of 1906, she was pregnant with his child.
Meanwhile, Gillette, who was a local playboy, had started hobnobbing with the upper classes in town and had apparently become involved with someone more appealing: a wealthy young socialite who would become known as “Miss X.” When Brown told Gillette she was pregnant, and begged him to make her an honest woman, he allegedly began plotting her murder. …
Throughout the trial, [Gillette] maintained his innocence, explaining that his statement changed because he was terrified of being blamed for Brown’s death after her body was found. There was no hard evidence against Gillette at all, in fact. Everything was circumstantial.
Years after the verdict, another witness came forward saying he observed a search volunteer poking Brown’s corpse with a stick. It was enough to inflict the wounds Gillette had been accused of. According to Professor Susan N. Herman of Brooklyn Law School, who’s written extensively about the case, even the District Attorney at the time said if the evidence had been presented in court, Gillette would’ve been acquitted.
Was an innocent young man put to death simply because he appeared guilty? Is merely “wishing” someone dead a crime? If that’s the case, even if we hate to admit it, wouldn’t we all be guilty of that at some point in our lives?
Could we actually go through with murdering another human being to get what we want in life? Probably not, although none of us know what we’re truly capable of until put to the test. Did Gillette? Most retellings of the story let us decide what to believe. And that mystery–did he or didn’t he?–lets us hope for his innocence, and perhaps root for him just a little bit.
Ironically, Gillette confessed to the crime while he was on death row. But that fact isn’t included in either the book or the film. Even at the time, officials didn’t take Gillette seriously because he’d “found religion” and his state of mind was in question.
What endures about People v. Gillette is a relatable suspect, that evocative love triangle – and a murder with no hard evidence.
What’s wrong with these assertions? Just about everything.
Dreiser was seemingly true to the “spirit” of Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths’s motivation for murdering Grace Brown/Roberta Alden. After becoming involved with Grace Brown, Gillette became popular with the girls in the town of Cortland, New York, where the Gillette Skirt Company was located. It was not a ‘shirt” factory, as McInnis states.
Perhaps Gillette felt he had better marriage prospects. Grace Brown was undoubtedly viewed as an encumbrance by him. It was rumored that Gillette had courted Harriet Benedict (the “Miss X” of Dreiser’s novel; there was no mention of a “Miss X” at the trial or by the press at the time), an attractive girl from one of the “best’ families in town, but there is no factual basis for this whatsoever. Miss Benedict herself denied it.
The search volunteer said by McInnis to have poked Grace Brown’s corpse (he never did any such thing) with “a stick” (a pike pole) was Roy Higby, who was a thirteen-year-old boy at the time when a steamer was sent out to search for Grace Brown’s body in Big Moose Lake. Years later, he recounted details of the search in an article published in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Higby does state that a pike pole was used to pull Grace Brown’s body out of the lake. Higby wrote (Adirondack Daily Enterprise, March 28 [29?], 1958): “I can remember exactly my first sight of the body. Her forehead was badly cut from the hairline of her left forehead across the right eyebrow and looked as though it had been struck by a fairly sharp-or medium blunt instrument, heavily enough to lay the scalp wide open.”
And a Mrs. Marjory Carey testified at the trial to hearing a “piercing cry” on the lake at the approximate time of Grace Brown’s death.
Gillette did not confess to the crime “while he was on death row.” He was said to have made an admission of guilt just prior to his execution, but no one knows for sure.
The bottom line is that Chester Gillette was guilty of premeditated murder. One does not need legal expertise to see that. His actions leading up Grace Brown’s drowning and immediately afterward, his statements when arrested, etc. all show this conclusively.
— posted by Roger W. Smith