Author of "Murder in the Adirondacks" the best-selling account of the Chester Gillette - Grace Brown
murder case of 1906, which will be republished in an expanded version with 150 photos in 2015.
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No one will ever be able to answer this question for certain. In a case where there were no witnesses and only circumstantial evidence was available there is no way to say for sure. However, there is overwhelming evidence that Chester did it. Prosecutors look for three things: motive, means and opportunity. Chester had all of those. He also used a false name to cover his tracks. He told a number of false stories after he was arrested. With all the evidence we have available it seems difficult to come up with a scenario in which Chester was not somehow responsible for Grace’s death.
Once again, there is no clear evidence about this. At his trial, the district attorney said Chester hit her over the head with a tennis racket and then threw her out of the boat. This seems pretty far-fetched and unnecessary when you recall that Grace weighed less than 100 pounds. He could just have easily hit her with one of the oars or even just upset the boat and let her drown. There have been many theories advanced over the years, many of them to fit with Chester’s mother’s statement after his execution that he did not strike her. Perhaps he psychologically abused her to the point that she jumped into the lake. But it is unlikely we will ever know the answer to this question.
Forensic medicine was still in its infancy in 1906, but there is no doubt that a professional autopsy would have helped answer some of the questions about the case. Unfortunately the autopsy was botched. Isaac Coffin, the inexperienced Herkimer County coroner, released Grace’s body to the undertakers before an autopsy was conducted. By the time the autopsy was conducted the body had already been embalmed, destroying all the evidence. While District Attorney George Ward attempted to use the autopsy results to show that Grace had been struck a fatal blow, the doctors admitted on cross-examination that she could have drowned and that the blow they found on her head could have been made when the body was recovered from the lake.
By the standards of 1906, yes. By the standards of our own time, no. Courts in 1906 were much less concerned with the rights of the accused than they were with punishing criminals. George Ward, the district attorney, brought evidence into the case that would have been thrown out today because of the way it was obtained. Grace’s letters to Chester, for example, one of the centerpieces of Ward’s case, were taken from his room in Cortland without a search warrant. The hotel register pages bearing Chester’s false names were torn out of the books without permission. Ward also prejudiced the jury by bringing in a bottle containing the fetus from the autopsy, despite defense objections that this was unnecessary because Chester admitted he was the father. Any one of these things would have led an appeals court in our day to throw the case out. In 1906, however, the appeals court noted the violations but felt they did not outweigh the facts that showed Chester was guilty to killing Grace.
After Chester was arrested, everyone, including Chester himself, assumed that his rich relatives would hire the best lawyers in the country to defend him. It is known, for example, that Levi Chase, a prominent Cortland attorney, visited him in his cell in Herkimer shortly after his arrest and told Chester to stop talking so much. After that there was a long period when he had no counsel. Eventually Chester told Judge Irving Devendorf that he was indigent and could not afford to hire his own attorney. The judge appointed Albert Mills, a former state senator, and Charles D. Thomas to defend Chester. They did a competent job, but they were many weeks behind the district attorney by the time they took the case. The trail was cold by the time they were involved and were no match for George Ward. They were, however, experienced and competent and did an excellent job of poking holes in Ward’s case.
Besides, Noah H. Gillette, Chester’s uncle and the owner of the factory in which Chester and Grace worked, Chester had an even richer relative: Lucien C. Warner, the millionaire owner of the Warner Brothers Corset Co. Warner was married to Chester’s grandmother’s sister. Neither of them explained why they abandoned Chester. They had helped him get into Oberlin Academy a few years before. It seems likely that Noah Gillette was responsible for sending Levi Chase to Herkimer to visit Chester. Then he backed out of the case. Warner never got involved at all. I can think of only two explanations for this. First of all, as the publicity about the case began to mount, they must have feared having their names too closely associated with Chester’s. Secondly, and, I think, more importantly, they must have thought he was guilty. This latter assumption did much to convince the public of Chester’s guilt. If his own relatives did not think it was worth while to defend him, they felt, he must have been guilty.
Much of this goes back to the way the case was originally reported. This was the era of "yellow journalism" when many big city reporters were more interested in a good story than getting the facts straight. They were under a lot of pressure to come up with headlines to justify their time in Herkimer. So they made up stories. All kinds of stories about lynch mobs, suicide attempts, secret confessions, nocturnal visits to Chester’s cell by various women, etc. Nearly all of this was nonsense, as the newspapers around Herkimer pointed out and as the trial transcript shows. However, some of the misinformation has endured, such as the report that court adjourned to the Mohawk River so Chester could take take the boat out and show his version of how it happened. Since Theodore Dreiser used the New York City newspaper accounts rather than the trial transcript, many of these errors found their way into An American Tragedy. Dreiser also added a number of his own inventions to the story. Some of Dreiser’s changes, such as the idea that Chester and Grace worked in a collar factory rather than a skirt factory, have found their way into subsequent accounts of the case.
No. The idea that Chester killed Grace so he would be free to marry another woman was an invention of the press that Dreiser picked up and used as a plot line in his novel. Gillette had many girlfriends in Cortland, as was made clear at the trial. One of them, Harriet Benedict, was singled out by the press because of a number of circumstances. She had been out with Chester at Little York Lake, a resort north of Cortland, just a week before the murder. When Chester was arrested, photos of her and photos of Chester taken by her were in his camera. This led to all of the speculation. As was made clear at the trial, however, the two were no more than casual acquaintances. She did not visit Chester in his cell, nor did she send him any letters.
The newspapers made up the idea that Chester had killed "Miss Poor" so he could marry "Miss Rich," the lawyer’s daughter from Cortland. Dreiser developed this into a full-fledged romance and motive for the murder. Dreiser has the attorneys working out a deal to keep her out of the trial and refer to her only as "Miss X." In reality, Harriet Benedict did testify briefly at the trial.
The idea that Harriet Benedict was the "other woman" in the Gillette case hounded her for the rest of her life. She married Levi Chase, the lawyer who tried to help Chester, and their son, Levi Chase Jr., was a World War II ace in North Africa. The airport in Cortland is named after him.
Where do you draw the line between doing your job and being obsessive? Certainly Ward spent a great deal of time in the summer of 1906 tracking down every line of evidence in the case. He ended up with over 100 witnesses and over 100 pieces of physical evidence and traveled widely throughout Upstate New York.
It is also true that he was a candidate for county judge at the time. Certainly, all the publicity about the case was helping the public see him as a champion of justice. Many of the facts about the case were leaked to the press for this reason. He also told friends and reporters that he was deeply moved by reading Grace Brown’s letters.
But there is no indication that Ward crossed the line into obsession. He did an excellent job of collecting evidence and presenting it to the jury. In fact, many years later his case was still being studied in law schools to show how circumstantial evidence can be made into a compelling case.
The idea that Ward had a "psychic sex scar," as Dreiser put it, seems entirely the invention of the novelist.
Right up until the day before his execution, Chester maintained that Grace had committed suicide. What happened the night before his execution is unclear. Gov. Charles E. Hughes called Auburn Prison that night to talk about the case. In his memoirs he says that the case was weighing heavily upon him. He was told on the phone by the Rev. Henry McIlravy, Chester’s spiritual adviser, that Chester had confessed. Chester’s mother also said the day after the execution that she was now convinced that her son had killed Grace. However, in the last statement given out and signed by Chester after his execution, there is no admission of guilt. Neither Chester’s mother nor Rev, McIlravy ever clarified what had been said that night. It remains a mystery. What seems most likely is that Chester made some kind of general admission of responsibility but never gave any details.
In Soule Cemetery in Auburn, just a few miles from the prison. However the exact location cannot be determined for certain. The official registry card says only "unmarked grave" and the location identified by people who attended the trial is not clear. Most people maintain that his grave is under the road in the upper part of the cemetery.
This is a bit out of my league, but I can report on what has been said. There have been persistent reports of ghost sightings in Cortland, Herkimer and Big Moose Lake. The most recent sightings of ghosts at Big Moose Lake led to the "Grace’s Ghost" segment of the television program Unsolved Mysteries. The two women who saw the ghost outside the Covewood Lodge were the only people I have ever spoken with who actually claim to have seen a ghost. I have never seen one and cannot verify the existence of any ghosts.
There is something about this case that tends to make people obsess about it. In the 25 years I have been involved with it, I have met many people who seem compelled to know every detail of every incident. In fact, I think I was one of them for the five years I was writing Murder in the Adirondacks. Part of it, I am sure, is the lingering doubt about whether Chester actually did it. There are many unanswered questions about what happened on July 11, 1906 at Big Moose Lake. There are also Grace Brown’s love letters, which seem to some people like a voice from beyond the grave, telling details of how she felt, but leaving out key details of what her plans were. The fact that there are so many versions of the story (novels, movies, TV shows) also contribute to this. People feel compelled to find out the real story. I know I did.
Chester’s motives are often difficult to understand, but apparently he thought no one would tie him to Grace’s death and that the police would be looking for "Carl Grahm of Albany," the name he used in the register of the Glenmore Hotel just before Grace went on her last boat trip. He seemed surprised when Ward arrested him just three days later. Several coincidences led to that quick arrest. See the next question.
Chester was careful to use a false name during the three days he traveled with Grace from DeRuyter to Utica and to the Adirondacks. He always used an alias that was consistent with the initials on his suitcase: C.E.G. However, he made a number of mistakes along the way.
When Ward called Cortland to inquire about Grace Brown, he also asked about Carl Grahm, the last alias Chester used. While he was told there was no one there by that name, he was also told that Grace’s boyfriend had the same initials and that Chester had gone on vacation in the Adirondacks.
Then, when Ward was on his way up to Big Moose Lake, he was met in Remsen by a railroad clerk, who had read the name Gillette in the newspaper and had found a package of laundry addressed for Chester at Old Forge. Chester had left some of his laundry in Utica and asked that it be forwarded to Old Forge. When Ward got to Old Forge he found a message from Chester asking that his laundry be sent to the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, where he was staying. Ward had an easy trail to follow.
The thing most people find so startling about him was that he came from an extremely religious family. He was born in the Montana wilderness in 1883 and moved to Spokane, Washington as a child with his father, grandfather and uncles. The family eventually owned a hotel, a restaurant and a carting company. Chester’s parents gave up all their worldly goods when the joined the Salvation Army. The family traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest setting up missions. At one point Chester went with his mother to prisons to speak with convicted murderers.
From an early age, Chester resisted this life and was sent off to boarding schools and become a printer’s apprentice in San Francisco, but never broke contact with the family, eventually joining them at their mission in Hilo, Hawaii in the early years of the century.
Two of his rich relatives, N.H. Gillette and Lucien C. Warner tried to help him escape the Salvation Army life by sending him to Oberlin Academy in Ohio from 1901 to1903. Chester did well at first and was captain of the basketball team, but he flunked out in his junior year and went on to work as a railroad brakemen.
The man who arrived in Cortland in 1905, therefore, had a very strange background. He had come from a rich family, then became poor in the Salvation Army, he went to a fancy prep school and then worked at a lowly profession. He had a strange concept of right and wrong and seemed to think that anything was okay as long as he did not get caught. He was very connected to his strong mother and less so to his sickly father. There is little evidence that he showed any remorse for Grace even at the trial.
At the trial she was painted as an innocent farm girl who had been manipulated and betrayed by the worldly Chester Gillette. There is certainly a lot of truth in that, but it may not be the entire picture. After Chester’s mother visited Cortland after the trial, she was convinced that Grace was not entirely the innocent person people thought she was. She never elaborated on this, but others said much later that Grace had gone to Cortland with the idea of finding a suitable husband and that she had vowed to get Chester "one way or another." So it is not beyond possibility that she viewed her pregnancy as a way to trap Chester into marrying her, but certainly no one at the time came right out and said that. Speaking ill of the dead was not acceptable in those days.
There is no denying she was intelligent, creative, witty and fun-loving, as her letters show, and not without a Victorian flair for the dramatic. How serious was she when she threatened to kill herself? It’s impossible to tell.
The so-called "love letters" that were exchanged by Chester and Grace in 1905 and 1906 were used at the trial by both the prosecution and the defense. Most of them were written by Grace during the time she was home in South Otselic, when she was pregnant and waiting for Chester to come and take her on their trip together. Chester’s letters back were short and less dramatic.
Ward found Chester’s letters to Grace in her trunk. He found most of Grace’s letters to Chester in his room in Cortland. However, the last and most famous letter, was not found until many weeks later when Chester’s landlady was tidying up the room. It was hidden in Chester’s collar box.
Ward read the letters in such a dramatic way during the trial that reporters claimed that every eye in the room was wet and they did much to paint exactly the picture of her that he wanted: the pleading pregnant girlfriend who wants to get married. However, the letters never mention pregnancy or even marriage. They do mention suicide and were used by the defense to back up Chester’s story that she committed suicide.
As a means of reconstructing the relationship, the letters are
quite frustrating. They seem inconsistent and it could be that there
were more letters
that never got entered into the record. Ward’s own numbering system
to imply that there are letters that are missing.
At the time of the Gillette trial, Dreiser was a magazine editor in New York Citry and could not have missed reading about it in the newspapers. Years later he collected newspaper articles about a particular kind of murder case that involved a "Miss Rich" and a "Miss Poor" and an American everymam who felt he had to do away with Miss Poor so he could marry Miss Rich. Dreiser actually began the novel using other cases. That explains why so little of Book One, other than the missionary background of the family, actually comes from the Gillette case. Around 1921, however, he decided that the Chester Gillette story fit the form better. Or course there was no "Miss Rich" in the Gillette story, or, more acturately, there were a number of Miss Riches. The newspapers has singled out Harriet Benedict as the "other woman" in the story and made up stories about her sneaking into Gillette's cell and pining away outside. None of that was true and it's unclear if Dreiser, who used mainly newspaper accounts as his souces, knew that it was not true.
20. How many
months pregnant was Grace when she died?
To me this is one of the most puzzling questions in the entire story. Nothing really seems to make sense here. Chester testified that he left Cortland with the intention of marrying Grace, but that he had second throughts and could not go through with it. We know that on their last night together in Cortland, June 16, 1906, he made some kind of promise to her. He claimed it was not a marriage promise. The only evidence we have from Grace is what she said in her letters, which never mention the word "marriage." Instead she insists over and over that Chester be brave, do his duty and take her away. Then she makes all kinds of seemingly contradictory statements. She talks about giving up her entire summer for example and coming back dead. At some points she sounds as if she is going away permanently. In other places it sounds like a temporary absence. When she left she took a large trunk full of clothes while Chester brought only a suitcase. That seems to indicate that they had different expectations about how long the trip would last.
My own theory is that Chester intended to place Grace in a home for unwed mothers, either in an orphanage or a less formal setting, until her baby was born. Then she could put it up for adoption and come back to her former life with most of her reputation intact. If this thory is true, it would explain why Grace was going away for a long time while Chester was not. It would explain why Grace was giving up her summer, as she stated in her letters.
If this thoery is true, what went wrong? Chester may have had names and addresses of such homes in Utica and Saranac Lake. That would explain the direction of their trip. But what if his information was incorrect? What if he did not have enough money to pay for her stay? And if this was his intention, why didn't he say so at the trial?
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