Tag Archives: Grace Brown

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



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.



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


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.



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




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

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

“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

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:

Syracuse Herald
July 14, 1906



New York Times
July 14, 1906



Washington Post.
July 14, 1906

New York Times
July 15, 1906



New York Tribune
July 15, 1906

Washington Post.
July 15, 1906

Chicago Tribune
July 15, 1906



New York Times.
July 16, 1906
Washington Post
July 16, 1906



Hartford Courant
July 16, 1906



Malone (NY) Farmer
July 18, 1906
Journal and Republican (Lowville, NY)
July 19, 1906
Washington Post.
July 27, 1906




— posted by Roger W. Smith

   June 2020

Ruth Reynolds, “Justice and the Two American Tragedies”


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.



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



— 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


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



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.



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.



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