Tag Archives: Chester Gillette

Grace Brown’s and Roberta Alden’s letters

 

letters of Grace Brown and Roberta Alden

 

Please see downloadable Word file posted above.

Roberta Alden and Clyde Griffiths were the two main characters in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.

An American Tragedy was based on an actual case: the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2022

 

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Note: I transcribed Grace Brown’s letters from court records. They were presented as exhibits at the trial of Chester Gillette.

I would appreciate being informed of any errors I may have made in transcribing the letters.

review of Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906 and Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited

 

review of Brownell and Wawrzaszek, ‘Adirondack Tragedy’ – New York History

 

Posted here (PDF above) is an excellent review of two books on the Gillette murder case:

Adirondack Tragedy; The Gillette Murder Case of 1906, by Joseph W. Brownell and Patricia A. Wawrzaszek

Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon

reviewed by Katherine E. Compagni

New York History, vol. 68, No. 1 (January 1987), pp. 117-122

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

Weaving Legal Web in Grace Brown Mystery.

 

WEAVING LEGAL WEB IN GRACE BROWN MYSTERY.

Summer Visitors to the Adirondacks Subpoenaed as Witnesses May Be Detained to Testify.

GILLETTE NOT FRIGHTENED; HAS A HEARTY APPETITE.

Coroner’s Investigation Next Wednesday–Prosecution Claims Strong Case.

The World (New York)

Sunday, July 22, 1906

Pg. 1W

 

(Special to the World.)

Utica, N. Y, July 21. — The fate of Chester E. Gillette, of Cortland, now in the Herkimer jail suspected of murdering Grace Brown, of South Otselic, depends very largely on the outcome of an inquest over the death of the girl to be conducted in Herkimer next Wednesday by Coroner Coffin, of Ilion. This inquest will be conducted in the Court-House, which is directly across the street from the jail in which Gillette is confined.

Coroner Coffin, District-Attorney Ward, the Sherriff and several deputies have put in a busy week following up clues and securing bits of evidence which they say makes their case against Gillette strong.

Summer Visitors Detained.

Coroner Coffin has summoned about thirty whiteness to the inquest. They will include several persons who were sojourning in the Adirondacks at the time, and who have been unable to return to their homes as they planned to on account of the subpoenas that were promptly served on them in the Gillette case. There is a notable feature about the witnesses in this case. They are all wiling to testify.

Most of the witnesses called are either resorters or hotel people from the vicinity of Big Moose. Some of them were miles away when Gillette and the Brown girl started on their row the day of the girl’s death, but in some way they have become in possession of knowledge which the prosecutors believe valuable to their case.

Saw the Young Girl Grieving.

A young man who saw the pair on a north-bound train the day before the alleged murder will tell the Coroner how happy the young woman appeared to be, and by way of proving that something happened in the succeeding twenty-four hours to drive the girl to tears numerous persons who saw the couple at Big Moose will describe the indifferent attitude of the young man and the worried appearance of Miss Brown at the Glenmore Hotel just before they started out on the lake.

A woman employed in the hotel kitchen will testify that the girl rushed to her in the kitchen in the afternoon, just before she started rowing with Gillette, and threw her arms around the woman’s neck, weeping bitterly and trying to unburden herself of her secret. Gillette put in an appearance at that moment, and Miss Brown made an effort at regaining her composure. What it was that the Brown girl wanted to say no one knows, for she didn’t come back to the hotel room again until she was brought in dead after being found in the lake on the succeeding day.

He Appeared Nervous.

Miss Gladys Westcott, of Truxton, and Miss Josephine Patrick, of Cortland, who met Gillette at Inlet after his twelve-mile tramp through the woods, will tell the nervous actions of the young man and what he said to them. Depositions of these young women were taken the other day by the District-Attorney.

It is not likely that all of the evidence gained by the authorities in their week of investigation will be divulged at the inquest. They say they have enough facts to present to the Coroner to warrant a decision that Grace Brown was murdered by Gillette, and still have several strong points left untouched for presentation at his trial.

Although Gillette has been in jail since a week ago to-night, it was not until to-day that he received any message whatever from friend or relative. This morning he received a telegram from “Bert,” presumably Bert Gross,* saying that a representative of his uncle in Cortland will call to-morrow morning. It is said that Gross and Gillette worked together in the Gillette factory at Cortland, and were associated as Sunday-school teachers and in social circles.

District-Attorney Ward stated to-day that some day next week he will ask Gov. Higgins to call a special term of court for the trial of Gillette. It is probable that Judge Devendorf will be assigned to the case.

Gillette’s Big Appetite.

Gillette, whose early collapse was looked for at the time of his arrest, has proved to be the calmest man in the jail. He eats all that is set before him and has not since the very first day allowed a plate to leave his cell until he has cleaned it off completely. His appetite became a matter of comment and Gillette was laughed at by the other prisoners, but he is not fazed a bit by their gibing. Last night he capped the climax by announcing that he was being starved to death and demanded more liberal rations. The jail authorities say they have housed some husky prisoners in their experience, but they never came across an appetite to compare with Gillette’s.

Shephard Hart, of Oswego, has announced his intention of putting in a claim for the $250 reward offered by District-Attorney Ward for Gillette’s capture. Mr. Ward arrested the man himself, and at once speculation became rife as to whether he could claim the money he had offered in the name of the county. Now comes the claim from Hart that Gillette’s capture was due to a clue discovered by him.

He and a friend named Harold Parker, from Goshen, were the two who came across Gillette in the woods and from whom Gillette inquired the way to Eagle Bay.

As a matter of fact, it was the information volunteered by these young men that led the Big Moose folks to abandon their search for the second body in the lake after that of Grace Brown had been discovered. Until Hart and Parker reported that they saw a man in the forests carrying a suite case no hint of murder had been thought of in connection with the overturned boat.

It was supposed to be a double drowning.

*Albert (Bert) Gross, a foreman at the Gillette Skirt Company and a friend of Gillette’s.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  March 2022

Gillette Shows Signs of Collapse.

 

GILLETTE SHOWS SIGNS OF COLLAPSE.

But He Still Insists that Grace Brown Was Drowned by the Boat Capsizing.

The World (New York)

Monday, July 16, 1906

pg. 2

 

(Special to The World.)

Utica, N. Y., July 15 — Pacing to and fro between a cell door and the little barred window, or sitting on his cot with his hands to his head, Chester E. Gillette, of Cortland, charged with murdering Miss Grace Brown, of South Otselic, shows signs of approaching collapse.

District-Attorney Ward spent several hours with Gillette to-day endeavoring to wring from him an admission of guilt, but the accused young man persisted in his original story that he nearly lost his own life at the same time.

At the request of the young man’s relatives, former Senator A. M. Mills visited Gillette in the Herkimer jail and advised him to say absolutely nothing about the case. Gillette at once ceased to receive callers and announced that he had no statement to make.

Since Gillette was brought to the Herkimer jail yesterday he has had little if any sleep and has eaten nothing.

Unless Gillette confesses the evidence will be entirely circumstantial, but the District-Attorney says he is sure of his case. A new clue is the discovery of a small lock of woman’s hair on the oarlock of the boat.

Gillette has the appearance of a degenerate. His brow is low, his eyes deep set and his complexion sallow. His friends in Cortland, however, say he would be the last man in the world to commit such a crime.

Gillette’s story of being on a vacation and wanting to make Miss Brown happy by taking her with him is not taken seriously by District-Attorney Ward. “How much of a vacation do you think two could have in the Adirondacks on $15?” he asked Gillette. Fifteen dollars was all that Gillette took with him from Cortland. He tried to dodge the question, but said finally that he did not know.

The girl had undoubtedly begged Gillette to marry and he at times consented. The authorities say that he promised her he would marry her if she would accompany him to the woods.

“Billie” Brown, as Grace was called by her acquaintances, was buried to-day in a little ceremony at South Otselic, where she was born and where she lived until leaving for Cortland a year ago. When the casket was carried from the house the hands of the clock pointed to the same hour they did a week ago to-day when the girl, full of life and apparently happy, left the house ostensibly to go back to her work at Cortland; in reality she had arranged to meet Gillette at De Ruyter and go with him to the Adirondacks.

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

  March 2022

 

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Addendum:

In July 1906, as a participant in a conference organized by Jeff Steele of Herkimer Community College, I visited the jail and saw Gillette’s cell. In the group was Professor Renate von Bardeleben, a distinguished Dreiser scholar. We both agreed that it was terribly depressing.

the Gillette trial, November 19, 1906

 

It was a memorable day, beginning with testimony by Frank Brown, Grace Brown’s father and including testimony by Ada (Brown) Hawley (Grace Brown’s sister), Carrie Wheeler (Grace Brown’s landlady), Noah H. Gillette (Chester Gillette’s uncle, the owner of the skirt factory), and Harold R. Gillette (Noah’s son, Chester’s cousin); from factory employees; and from Albert B. Raymond, who, a few weeks before Grace Brown was drowned by Gillette, had rented a boat to Chester Gillette at an outing by Gillette and Grace Brown near Cortland (where the skirt factory was located) and noticed after they returned that Grace was in tears.

Washington Post, November 20, 1906

‘Gillette Faces Jury’ (father testifies; Harriet Benedict mentioned) – Washington Post 11-20-1906

 

Adirondack News, November (20?), 1906

1 ‘Probing Girl’s death (Harriet Benedict mentioned) – Adirondack News, November 1906

3 ‘Probing Girl’s death (Harriet Benedict mentioned) – Adirondack News, November 1906 (2)

 

trial transcript

Gillette trial testimony 11-19-1906

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

  November 2021

re Chester Gillette’s parents – Watertown (NY) Herald 4-26-1907

 

‘Chester Gillette’s Parents’ – Watertown (NY) Herald 4-26-1907 (2)

 

The name of Gillette’s father, here misspelled, was Frank Gillette.

Note the following:

Denver directory, 1907
Gillette, E J Mrs, dressmkr, rms 1747 Wellington
Gillette, Frank S., rms 1408 Delaware

Denver directory, 1908
Gillette, E J Mrs, dressmkr, rms 311 16th
Gillette, Frank S., engineer, rms 1416 Delaware

Frank S. was Chester’s father.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2021

what was Gillette’s motive?

 

I have been studying the trial transcript of the Gillette-Brown murder case.

What about the “other woman” (Sondra Finchley in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy)?

We know that there was no such romance in actuality. But what was Gillette’s motive?

I have pointed out that Harriet Benedict, rumored to be the other woman in the actual case, with brief reports to that effect in newspapers, was not only not engaged to Gillette; she did not have a romance with him.

But Gillette and Miss Benedict (later Mrs Levi Chase) were acquainted, and witnesses in the trial transcript reported occasionally seeing them in public together.

What do I think Gillette’s motive was? It is significant that while many employees at the skirt factory in upstate Cortland, NY where Gillette and Grace Brown worked saw them flirting and talking more than usual during work hours, it was commented upon that no one ever saw them out together in public. Gillette would visit Grace in the evening at her landlady’s house.

Gillette was the poor nephew, from humble beginnings, of factory owner Noah H. Gillette, his uncle. His cousin, Harold R. Gillette, was a supervisor at the factory. (Just as in the novel, the cousin seemed to have had little personal contact with Gillette.) I think Gillette did not want his romance with Grace Brown to become known because it would ruin his chances for professional advancement and his reputation — including, perhaps, his chances of marrying a rich girl. He seemed ashamed of the relationship.

He seems to have thought that he could do away with Grace “quietly” and escape detection. Then he could have returned to the factory from his “vacation” and resume his normal life. He was definitely interested in girls and in becoming a regular, accepted member of the Cortland social set.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  November 2021

“Gillette’s Family Sings at His Grave” (The Norwich Sun)

 

GILLETTE’S FAMILY SINGS AT HIS GRAVE

Burial At Soule Cemetery Two Miles From Auburn.

PATHETIC PRIVATE CEREMONY.

Chester’s Favorite Hymns Were Sung by His Mourning Family—Mrs. Gillette Unable to Travel West With Other Members of Family.

The Norwich (NY) Sun

Wednesday, April 1, 1908

 

Auburn, April 1.—The remains of Chester Gillette now rest in a grave in a distant corner of Soule cemetery, two miles from the city between Auburn and Syracuse. The burial service took place Tuesday afternoon at 2 o’clock. The officiating clergyman was the Rev. Henry MacIlravy, and he was assisted by Mr. [Frank] Hartman, also of Little Falls.

Announcement was made Tuesday morning by the family that they had decided to have the services here and also the burial. Monday they said that they did not know where the body would be buried but this morning they gave out that the services such as they are permitted by the laws of the state, would be held at 2 o’clock Tuesday afternoon and they were.

Every precaution was taken to keep the matter of the funeral from becoming public until the services were over Since the electrocution the body has rested in the Tallman morgue. Tuesday afternoon, shortly before 2 o’clock a hearse left the morgue with the body in it. The family went by car to the cemetery and were met there by the Rev. Henry MacIlravy of Little Falls and his friend, Mr. Hartman. There the burial service was performed and the body interred.

The singing was done by the family and consisted of three hymns that had been favorites of Chester and that had been sung by the family both at home and in the dark cell in the condemned row of the prison. These were “Abide With Me,” “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” and “Until he Comes.” The last selection was a secular song, “A Little Boy Called Taps.” It had always been a favorite with the mother and Gillette wanted it too, among the hymns.

Gillette had also marked the passages he wanted read from the Bible and the clergyman recited the words solemnly. As his voice died away Mrs. Gillette dropped on her knees and prayed again for the salvation of her dead boy’s soul and even the grave diggers wiped their eyes as they listened.

Those who gathered about the inexpensive coffin in which the body rests were the Gillettes, father and mother and their son and daughter, Paul and Lucille, Miss Bernice Ferrin,* the clergyman, Rev. Henry MacIlravy, his assistant, Frank Hartman, and the two grave diggers. The cemetery authorities kept all others from the spot. There was a nipping March wind and the mourners shivered as the mother knelt beside the grave and prayed.

“Can’t he lie toward the west?” asked Lucille as the mother finished.

“The sun will rise on his grave,” replied Mrs. Gillette, and the little party turned away from the grave.

The relatives took a last look at the body just before the trolley car bore them to the cemetery. The mother was the first the enter the morgue—alone.

“Oh, my poor boy,” she wept. “I can touch your face now. They wouldn’t even let me kiss you goodbye.”

“Don’t go in,” she urged the others later. “It doesn’t look like Chester at all. He hasn’t his old smile. Don’t go in.”

Later, however, she regained her composure and the father and Lucille entered and smoothed the dead boy’s hair as they took their last look at his face.”

Mrs. Gillette was so much overcome by the funeral that she cannot leave with the rest of the family for Zion City, Ill. today, but will join them later.

 

*Bernice Ferrin has sometimes been referred to — probably inaccurately — as Chester Gillette’s girlfriend.  He had become acquainted with her in Zion City, Illinois, where Chester and his family were part of the Dowieite (named after the sect’s founder, John Alexander Dowie) religious community. She was living in Auburn, NY (where Gillette was executed) at the time, and described as  a “friend of the family,” was given permission to visit Gillette in prison.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2021

“The Tragedy of the North Woods”

 

Eleanor Waterbury Franz, ‘The Tragedy of the North Woods’

 

“In my opinion, it is in the interpretation of the case that Dreiser goes furthest afield. His feeling of fate and the social conflict upon which he dwells obscure the right and wrong of the case.” — Eleanor Waterbury Franz

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF file above) is

The Tragedy of the North Woods

By Eleanor Waterbury Franz

New York Folklore Quarterly 4.1 (Spring 1948), pp. 85-97

 

posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

more misconceptions about “An American Tragedy” and the true story

 

re: Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

Oswego County Today

September 20, 2020

Sandra Scott Travels: “An American Tragedy”

There are several inaccuracies in this piece.

Scott states that An American Tragedy, “along with books like ‘Grapes of Wrath’,  is seen as the beginning of the modern American literature.” This statement seems problematic. Could not ‘modern American literature” be said to have begun with Huckleberry Finn? Or to have been already begun around the time that Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie and Stephen Crane works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

Scott states that An American Tragedy “shows the extent someone will go to realize the American Dream ignoring any sense of morality.” This is succinctly and well put.

In discussing the factual underpinnings of An American Tragedy — i.e., the Gillette murder case — Scott makes a serious, common error:

Chester Gillette was born into a successful family but his father, after a religious conversion, renounced his wealth [italics added] and became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. Gillette, however, still hankered for the good life and when his uncle offered him a job at his factory in Cortland he accepted. He had the opportunity to work hard and advanced. Knowing that he should not consort with the help, Gillette ignored the advice and began seeing Grace Brown, a hard working girl from a farm family. They usually met at her place and not in public. Meanwhile, Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family. [italics added] Grace Brown became pregnant and wanted to get married but that would have interfered in Gillette’s hope for marrying someone from the upper class.

The notion that Chester Gillette was dating a local girl (Harriet Benedict, not named by Scott) is a common misconception. It has been thoroughly disproved and you would think someone writing an article about An American Tragedy and the Gillette case would know this (or, at least, bother to check). There are numerous publications about the actual case, and Craig Brandon has written a book which provides the definitive account.

The notion that there was “another woman” whom Gillette was involved with and that such a relationship gave him a motive for murdering Grace Brown is not only suggested by the character Sondra Finchley in An American Tragedy — which is FICTION, don’t forget — it was also rumored that this was the case at the time of Chester Gillette’s arrest and trial in 1906.

Perhaps Dreiser himself, who used the New York World as his source for the Gillette case, was influenced by such accounts. Early on, in July 1906, at the time of the murder of Grace Brown and Gillette’s arrest, the World published a story suggesting that Gillette may have been engaged to another girl. The girl was Harriet Benedict, a member of the of the “best’ families in town. Miss Benedict, who testified at Gillette’s trial, said that she knew Gillette and had been on a social outing in which Gillette was a member of the party, but she stated, unequivocally, that there had never been any romantic relationship, much less an engagement. Scott’s assertion that “Gillette moved up the social rung and began dating the daughter of a prominent family,” presumably establishing a motive for his murdering Grace Brown, is flat out wrong.

Moreover, Scott states that Chester Gillette’s father, Frank Gillette, upon experiencing a religious conversion, renounced his wealth. This is also pure fantasy. Frank Gillette was not born into a wealthy family (quite the opposite) and he never became rich. Chester Gillette grew up poor. Chester did have a rich uncle, Noah H. Gillette, owner of the skirt factory where Chester was employed.

 

— Roger W, Smith

   September 2020

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Addendum:

While I am at it, I would like to point out that many misconceptions about both An American Tragedy and the Gillette case itself have come from the film A Place in the Sun and comments by film critics. There was an earlier film based on the novel: An American Tragedy (1931), directed by Josef von Sternberg.

The 1931 film has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. Host Ben Mankiewicz stated that Chester Gillette’s mother sued Paramount, the film company. It was Grace Brown’s mother, Minerva Brown, who sued, not Chester Gillette’s mother.

I emailed Mankiewicz about this and got no response.