Category Archives: Gillette case

James E. Barcus, “More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

 

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Language Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

James E. Barcus, ‘More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette-Clyde Griffiths Family’ – English Laguage Notes, Sept 2000

 

 

Posted here (PDF document and Word document transcription, above) is the following article:

 

“More Light on Dreiser’s Chester Gillette/Clyde Griffiths Family”

by James E. Barcus

English Language Notes, 38:1 (2000): 68-73

 

 

Chester Gillette was the prototype of Clyde Griffiths, the main character in Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020

the first newspaper accounts of the Gillette murder case

 

 

 

‘Gillette Says the Boat Upset’ – Syrcause Herald 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Mystery in Girl’s Death’ – NY Times 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Girl Murder Victim’ – Washington Post 7-14-1906

 

 

‘Gillette Accused of Miss Brown’s Murder’ – NY Times 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Lake Murder Arrest’ – NY Tribune 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Gillette a Prisoner’ – Washington Post 7-15-1906

 

 

 

‘Accused of Killing Girl’ – Chicago Tribune 7-15-1906

 

 

‘Flaws in Gillette’s Story’ – NY Times 7-16-1906

 

 

‘Lured to Her Death’ – Washington Post 7-16-1906

 

 

‘Accused of Murder of Grace Brown’ – Hartford Courant 7-16-1906

 

 

 

‘Is It a Murder’ (Gillete’s arrest) – Malone (NY) Farmer – 7-18-1906

 

Grace Brown murdered (gives DOB) – (Lowville) Journal & Republican 7-19-1906

 

 

‘Sister Sobs with Gillette’ – Washington Post 7-27-1906

 

 

Followers of this site may be interested in reading some of the earliest accounts of the Gillette murder case that were published in newspapers in July 1906. The case provided the factual underpinning for Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy.
The newspaper accounts — posted here (above) as downloadable PDF files — are as follows:

 
GILLETTE SAYS THE BOAT UPSET
Syracuse Herald
July 14, 1906

 

 

MYSTERY IN GIRL’S DEATH.
New York Times
July 14, 1906

 

 

GIRL MURDER VICTIM
Washington Post.
July 14, 1906

 
GILLETTE ACCUSED OF MISS BROWN’S MURDER
New York Times
July 15, 1906

 

 

LAKE MURDER ARREST
New York Tribune
July 15, 1906

 
GILLETTE A PRISONER
Washington Post.
July 15, 1906

 
ACCUSED OF KILLING GIRL
Chicago Tribune
July 15, 1906

 

 

FLAWS IN GILLETTE’S STORY.
New York Times.
July 16, 1906
LURED TO HER DEATH
Washington Post
July 16, 1906

 

 

ACCUSED OF THE MURDER OF GRACE BROWN
Hartford Courant
July 16, 1906

 

 

IS IT A MURDER?
Malone (NY) Farmer
July 18, 1906
TRAGEDY AT BIG MOOSE
Journal and Republican (Lowville, NY)
July 19, 1906
SISTER SOBS WITH GILLETTE
Washington Post.
July 27, 1906

 

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020

Ruth Reynolds, “Justice and the Two American Tragedies”

 

 

 

 

first page 7-7-1935

 

 

 

firt page 9-18-1966

 

 

Ruth Reynolds, ‘Justice and the Two American Tragedies’ – Daily News (NY) 7-7-1935

 

 

Ruth Reynolds, ‘Echo of An American Tragedy’ – Daily News (NY) 9-18-1966

 

 

 

Posted here (downloadable Word documents above) is a groundbreaking article on the Gillette case:

 

Justice and the Two American Tragedies

Attempt to Forget Life Task of Many Who Were Involved

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, July 7, 1935

pp. 42-47

And also a follow up article by the same author:

Echo of ‘An American Tragedy’

by Ruth Reynolds

Daily News (New York)

Sunday, September 18, 1966

pp. 134-135

 

 

The first article, which appeared in the New York Daily News Sunday magazine in 1935, has never been reprinted and is, for all practical purposes, unavailable. I found a copy on microfilm in the New York Public Library, and transcribed the entire article. It is a very well written and researched account of the Gillette case. There are some minor inaccuracies, but the article contains information available nowhere else. This is particularly true of Chester Gillette’s family and what became of them. Reynolds interviewed surviving family members for the story.
Ruth Reynolds (1904-1971 was a staff writer for the New York Daily News. She won acclaim for her series of “justice” stories on noted criminal cases.

 

 

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Ms. Reynolds’s 1935 article also covered the Robert Edward murder case, which Dreiser covered. On the Edwards case, see:

 

Theodore Dreiser, “I Find the Real American Tragedy.” Mystery Magazine 11 (April-May 1935): 22-24, 83-86. Reprinted: Resources for American Literary Study 2 (Spring 1972): 40-55.

 

Salzman, Jack. Introduction to “‘I Find the Real American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser.” Resources for American Literature Study 2 (Spring 1972): 3-4.

 

Famous novel might have inspired local murder

by William C. Kashatus

The Citizens’ Voice

Wilkes-Barre (PA)

August 2, 2009

pg. C1

https://www.citizensvoice.com/arts-living/famous-novel-might-have-inspired-local-murder-1.155509

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 2020

getting it all (mostly) wrong

 

 

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

InsideHook

February 25, 2020

Behind the True Crime Story That Inspired “A Place in the Sun”

 

 

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

People v. Gillette: How an Obscure Execution in the Finger Lakes Inspired Generations of Storytellers

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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

   February 2020

 

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette (photo)

 

 

 

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette - Altanta Const 7-21-1935 pg 6

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette – The Atlanta Constitution, Sunday Magazine, April 21, 1935, pg. 6

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   September 2019

“Gillette sees his parents”

 

‘Gillette Sees His Parents’ – NY Times 3-1-1908

 

 

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”

 

‘Gillette Faces Jury’ (father testifies) – Wash Post 11-20-1906

 

 

“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

   September 2017

“The Ballad of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette”

 

 

'The Ballad of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette'.jpg

 

 

Chester Gillette’s uncle

 

 

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:

Josiah Rice

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

     July 2016

 

 

 

Josiah Rice death cert.jpg

 

 

did Sondra visit Clyde on death row?

 

 

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

     June 2016

 

 

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[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)

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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.