— posted by Roger W. Smith
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here (above) as a downloadable PDF file is a New York Times article about a visit Chester Gillette’s parents made to the prison in Auburn, NY where he would be executed a month later. Gillette had just lost an appeal of his conviction.
“Gillette sees his parents,” New York Times, March 1, 1908
“Gillette Faces Jury,” The Washington Post, November 20, 1906
This article was very well reported and written. It conveys what the public must have thought of the Gillette case at the opening of the trial and the attitudes and emotions of those affected, from Grace Brown’s father to Chester Gillette himself.
— Roger W. Smith
Craig Brandon is the author of Murder in the Adirondacks, the definitive book about the Chester Gillette murder case. This case, which resulted in Gillette’s execution in Auburn State Prison in New York in 1908, provided the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.
Chester Ellsworth Gillette (1883-1908) was arrested on July 14, 1906 at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, New York, an Adirondack outpost, for the murder of Grace Mae Brown (1886-1906).
Brandon gives lectures about the case, about which he is recognized as the foremost authority. In one such lecture, I recall that Brandon spoke of an uncle from Chicago who, learning of Gillette’s arrest from the newspapers, tried to contact either his nephew or the authorities. (I can’t recall which was the case.) Brandon expressed befuddlement over this and implied that the so called uncle was not in fact Chester Gillette’s uncle.
There indeed was such an uncle and his name was Josiah Rice. He was an uncle of Chester Gillette on Chester’s mother’s side.
Attached (see below) is the death certificate of one Josiah Rice. The details are as follows:
residence: 5400 N. Ashland Avenue, Chicago
died in Edgewater Hospital [Chicago] on April 8, 1939
widower; husband of Matilda Rice
his date of birth: February 5, 1855
his age: 84 years 1 month 23 days
his place of birth: Oxford, Massachusetts
father’s name: Leonard Rice (born Oxford, Massachusetts)
mother’s maiden name: Matilda Coyne (born Rock Island, Illinois)
Now, some facts about Chester Gillette’s mother:
Her maiden name was Louisa Maria Rice;
She was born in Millbury, Worcester County, Massachusetts on May 12, 1859;
Her parents were Leonard Rice and Dulcena (or Dulcimer) S. (Gale) Rice;
Leonard Rice and Dulcena Gale were married in Millbury on April 25, 1855.
So, it is apparent that Josiah Rice was the son of Leonard Rice by a first wife of Leonard — namely, Matilda (Coyne) Rice — and it would seem to be a certainty that Matilda died giving birth to Josiah.
Therefore, it is conclusive that Chester Gillette’s mother, Louisa (Rice) Gillette was the half-sister of Josiah Rice of Chicago. So, it would be quite natural and proper for Josiah Rice to call himself Chester Gillette’s uncle and to inquire after Chester upon learning of his arrest from newspapers.
— Roger W. Smith
On page 335 of Craig Brandon’s Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited (Fully Revised and Expanded Edition, 2016) — considered to be the definitive book about the “American Tragedy” murder case — Brandon states:
In the novel [Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy], Sondra is with Clyde when he is arrested, and she comes to visit him when he is in prison, something that is very unlikely to have happened in real life.
Actually, this is not the case with respect to the novel. Brandon is conflating the novel with the 1951 movie version, A Place in the Sun. It is questionable whether he has actually read An American Tragedy.
In Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Clyde Griffiths receives a letter from Sondra Finchley when he is on death row (Book Three, Chapter XXXII; see below). The letter is typewritten with no signature.
Sondra does not visit Clyde in prison at any point in the novel.
Clyde is despondent after receiving the letter because of its terseness, formality, and impersonal character.
The overrated film A Place in the Sun has been the source of much confusion in this regard. In the film, which takes shameless liberties with Dreiser’s novel, Angela Vickers (Sondra Finchley), played by Elizabeth Taylor, visits George Eastman (Clyde Griffiths), played by Montgomery Clift, on death row.
The film ends with Angela visiting George in prison, saying that she will always love him, and with him slowly marching towards his execution.
This is – to put it kindly – ridiculous. It undercuts and violates the plot of the novel and premises about the central characters upon which it was based.
— Roger W. Smith
[T]he film is a travesty of Dreiser’s novel. … An example of the compromise involved—typical in Hollywood films, which is why so few can be taken seriously as social comment—occurs in the final scene when George [the Clyde Griffiths character] is in jail awaiting execution. Sondra visits George in his cell and expresses her love for him. The book makes it explicitly clear that once her lover was in trouble and had become a social undesirable, this rich girl wanted nothing more to do with him. The scene in the film is the antithesis of realism.
— Charles Higham on A Place in the Sun, in The Art of the American Film 1900-1971 (1973)
Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy, Book Three, Chapter XXXII:
But the days going by until finally one day six weeks after–and when because of his silence in regard to himself, the Rev. Duncan was beginning to despair of ever affecting him in any way toward his proper contrition and salvation–a letter or note from Sondra. It came through the warden’s office and by the hand of the Rev. Preston Guilford, the Protestant chaplain of the prison, but was not signed. It was, however, on good paper, and because the rule of the prison so requiring had been opened and read. Nevertheless, on account of the nature of the contents which seemed to both the warden and the Rev. Guilford to be more charitable and punitive than otherwise, and because plainly, if not verifiably, it was from that Miss X of repute or notoriety in connection with his trial, it was decided, after due deliberation, that Clyde should be permitted to read it–even that it was best that he should. Perhaps it would prove of value as a lesson. The way of the transgressor. And so it was handed to him at the close of a late fall day–after a long and dreary summer had passed (soon a year since he had entered here). And he taking it. And although it was typewritten with no date nor place on the envelope, which was postmarked New York–yet sensing somehow that it might be from her. And growing decidedly nervous–so much so that his hand trembled slightly. And then reading–over and over and over–during many days thereafter: “Clyde ? This is so that you will not think that some one once dear to you has utterly forgotten you. She has suffered much, too. And though she can never understand how you could have done as you did, still, even now, although she is never to see you again, she is not without sorrow and sympathy and wishes you freedom and happiness.”
But no signature–no trace of her own handwriting. She was afraid to sign her name and she was too remote from him in her mood now to let him know where she was. New York! But it might have been sent there from anywhere to mail. And she would not let him know–would never let him know–even though he died here later, as well he might. His last hope–the last trace of his dream vanished. Forever! It was at that moment, as when night at last falls upon the faintest remaining gleam of dusk in the west. A dim, weakening tinge of pink–and then the dark.
He seated himself on his cot. The wretched stripes of his uniform and his gray felt shoes took his eye. A felon. These stripes. These shoes.
Chester Gillette (1883-1908) was the prototype of the character Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.
Grace Brown (1886-1906), Chester Gillette’s murder victim, was the prototype for the character Roberta Alden in the novel.
The murder occurred on July 11, 1906 on Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County in the Adirondack region of Upstate New York.
The trial of Chester Gillette took place in Herkimer, NY from November 12, 1906 through December 4, 1906.
Gillette was convicted of first degree murder and was executed at Auburn (NY) State Prison on March 31, 1908
Photographs from the trial were rare.
Posted here (below) are illustrations (mostly sketches done by courtroom artists) from newspaper accounts of the trial.
Dreiser followed the events of the trial very closely – almost exactly – in An American Tragedy.
— Roger W. Smith