Tag Archives: Chester Gillette

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 a few 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 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.

 

 

— 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.

new post – “looking for work”

 

 

To fellow Dreiserians

Please see my post

“looking for work”

looking for work

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

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

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