Tag Archives: Chester Gillette

“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 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

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 oft repeated assertion that Gillette was courting another rich girl (another girl besides Grace Brown) is flat out untrue.

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