Chester sentenced to die in the electric chair

Grace Brown

Chester Gillette

Chester testifies at his trial in Herkimer NY

The Jury

July 11, 1906, Big Moose Lake

The Chester Gillette - Grace Brown murder case of 1906 was front-page news during the arrest, trial and execution of Gillette. It is still studied today as a model case for using "circumstantial" evidence.  It was also the topic of several Adirondack folk songs and ghost stories. The primary reason it is still of interest, however, is that Theodore Dreiser used the case as the basis of his most famous novel, An American Tragedy (1925). It was also the inspiration for the 1951 film "A Place in the Sun" with Mongomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and for Tobias Picker's 2005 opera "An American Tragedy."

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown worked together beginning in 1905 at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York owned by Chester's uncle.

Chester was born in Montana and traveled around the Pacific Northwest with his parents, who were captains in the Salvation Army. He attended prep schools in Washington State and Oberlin, Ohio and later worked as a railroad brakeman before coming to Cortland. There he met Grace Brown, a farmer's daughter from South Otselic in Chenango County, New York, who had originally come to Cortland to babysit for her sister's child.

They dated occasionally but most of their relationship was conducted in secret. In the spring of 1906 Grace found herself pregnant with Gillette's child and she went home to her parents' farm after Gillette promised to take her away on the trip to the Adirondacks. While she assumed this was to be a wedding trip, it is unknown whether Gillette actually promised to marry her.

After a number of letters begging him to fulfill his promise, Gillette met Grace in DeRuyter, New York on July 9, 1906 and they began a trip together. They spent the first night in Utica and then took the train to Tupper Lake, where they stayed at the Alta Cliff Cottages. On the morning of July 11, Chester and Grace took the train back south and got off at Big Moose Lake, where they rented a boat together and spent the entire afternoon out on the water. Grace left her trunk in the train station and her hat in the hotel, but Chester took everything he had with him in the boat.

Sometime around 6 p.m. Grace ended up at the bottom of the lake. She had told Gillette in one of her letters that she could not swim. Chester, taking his suitcase, camera and tripod, ran off into the woods and found a trail to the south. Later that night he arrived at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet and stayed there until his arrest three days later.

During his trial in November and December 1906, Gillette said Grace had jumped into the lake and committed suicide because of her plight. The district attorney said Chester hit Grace over the head with the tennis racket that had been attached to his suitcase. The jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. He was executed on March 30, 1908.

The case has lived on in fiction and legend.