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The Murder of the Century

 

One of Herkimer County's most famous murders took place on July 11, 1906. Grace Brown, a farm girl from South Otselic, was found dead at the bottom of Big Moose Lake, and her companion, Chester Gillette, was nowhere to be found. He was arrested days later at a nearby hotel and was arrested for her murder.

Residents of Herkimer County learned much about Gillette and his victim Grace Brown during the ensuing months. They read the love letters the couple had exchanged. They read and heard about the intimate details of their lives together and their final trip to the Adirondacks. And they heard two stories about what happened on July 11, 1906.

Gillette told varying stories about what had happened to Grace Brown. At first he said he had not been with her at all. Later he said there had been an accident. Finally, at his trial, he said Grace committed suicide by jumping out of the boat. He tried to rescue her, he said, but he couldn't reach her. Then, out of cowardice and fear, he ran away rather than report the incident.

But George W. Ward, the district attorney of Herkimer County, told a different version. He told the jury at the trial that Gillette was a snake and a cad who had lived a double life. Grace Brown was only one of his many girlfirends in Cortland, N.Y., where they both worked in a skirt factory. Twice a week or so, Gillette would pay a visit to Grace Brown's boarding house where he had his way with her and then went home. On other evenings, Gillette went to dances and parties with the daughters of some of the best families in Cortland.

Those women said later that they had never heard of Grace Brown, but Grace know all about them. When she asked Chester about them, he would only say that he was taking advantage of the social opportunities available to him. He told Grace that he loved only her and that the rest was just having fun.

Finally in the spring of 1906, an event occurred that changed this arrangement. Grace discovered that she was pregnant with Chester's child. Suddenly, all the games and petty jealousies became deadly serious. An unmarried, pregnant woman was as good as dead in 1906 and Grace knew that Chester had to marry her.

There was a confrontation on the porch of Grace Brown's boarding house and Chester and Grace agreed that she would go home to the family farm in South Otselic in Chenango County. Then after a few weeks, Chester would come for her and take her away somwhere.

Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy"But after Grace left, she was all but forgotten by Chester, who made the rounds of summer parties and outings, much as he had done before. Nearly every morning however, waiting for him at the front door of his boarding house, was a letter from Grace. The letters were always pleading, frequently touching and sometimes angry. If he didn't come for her soon, she said, she would come back to Cortland and tell everything.

After a final outing on the Fourth of July, Chester finally met Grace in DeRuyter in southern Madion County. He arrived on Sunday night, July 8, at the hotel and registered under the name of Charles George, N.Y. That was evidence, the district attorney said, that he was already planning a murder and wanted to cover his identity.

Grace arrived there the next morning and they had a quiet reunion. It was finally decided that they would go to the Adirondacks. Chester who had a railroad map of Adirondacks with him, had probably decided that earlier. The district attorney said Chester had already picked out some quiet lakes in the Adirondacks in which a young girl could quietly disappear and be a nuisance to him no more.

When they boarded the train a few minutes later, they said in different cars so as not to attract attention. But if Chester thought he was going to slip away quietly, he was mistaken. He saw his former landlady's son and two girls he knew from Cortland. he told them he was going to visit a friend at Raquette Lake and made and appointement to visit them at the end of the week. It was an appointement he later kept.

Chester and Grace spent their first full night togheter at the Hotel Martin on Bleeker Street in Utica, where they registered as man and wife under assumend names. The next day they went to Tupper Lake, again registering as husband and wife. They went down to look at the lake, but it was rainy and neither of them took a boat ride.

The next day, July 11, they rode the train south, along the way they had come the day before. Grace wrote a postcard to her mother saying that she was in the Adirondacks and she was all right. Chester wrote a card to the factory, asking that an advance of his pay be sent to Eagle Bay, where he knew he would be at the end of the week.

They got off the train at Big Moose Lake and checked into the hotel Glenmore. But this time, they registered as Carl Grahm of Albany and Grace Brown of South Otselic. Chester wanted to make sure the body was identified right away, the district atttorney said, so her parents wouldn't want the scandal of a major investigation of the man who had been with her.

Chester, who was so short on funds that he had left Utica without paying the hotel bill, didn't ask how much it cost to rent the boats at the Glenmore. Again, the district attorney said, that was because he knew he would never have to pay for the boat. Because he knew he would never bring it back.

Chester GilletteThe map in his pocket and the maps at the Glenmore clearly showed that Big Moose Lake was mostly a wilderness, far from civilization. There were many camps around the lake on the southern end, the end closest to his planned escape route. And there was one bay, called Punkey Bay, where it was both isolated and close to the road going south. It was no coincidence, the district attorney said, that Punkey Bay was where Grace Brown's life ended.

There were many people who saw the couple in the boat that day and all of them remembered them because of one singlular fact. In the middle of the boat, between the two riders there was a suitcase with a tennis racket attached to the side. That was no coincidence, the district attorney said. Chester knew he would need to bring his suitcase with him after the murder.

And the tennis racket, he said, was brought along to be the murder weapon. At dinner time, when there were no other boaters on the lake, Chester steered the boat into Punkey Bay and struck Grace Borwn on the forehead with the racket. She fell into the lake and was not found until the next day. Chester brought the boat ashore, took his suitcase and ran down the road that was so clearly marked on the map.

But, again, he wasn't very lucky. Three young men who were going the other way passsed him just before dusk. The reason they were so sure it was him, they said, was that they had never before seen a man walking through the woods carrying a suitcase.

When he reached Eagle Bay, he took the steamer across to the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet, where he registered for the first time under his own name. The next day he met the two women from the train, just as he said he would, and went over to Eagle Bay to check on the money that was to be sent from Cortland.

Everything was going as planned. He told people he had been at Raquette Lake the early part of the week. He played the tourist and visitied Black Bear Mountain and Seventh Lake and sang songs with the tourists on the verandah of the hotel.

On Saturday morning, July 14, he had just finished eating his breakfast and was returning to his room when he saw three men waiting for him at the desk. One was his friend from Cortland, Bert Gross. the other two were Ward and undersheriff Austin B. Klock, who arrested him for the murder of Grace Brown.

After Grace's body had been found on July 12, newspaper reporters and lawmen combined their efforts to track down what information could be found about Grace Brown. At first, it was assumed that she and "Carl Grahm" had drowned together. But when his body was not found, and it was discovered that her boyfriend from Courtland was also in the Adirondacks, everyone suspected that a murder had taken place.

But the arrest of Chester was just the beginning of Ward's work. He spent months tracking down everyound who had seen Chester and Grace during those last days. He found all the letters that Grace had written to Chester. he found the tennis racket where Chester had hidden it and the hotel registers with the false names on them. By the time the trial began in Herkimer on Nov. 11, Ward had over 100 witnesses and 100 pieces of evidence.

On Chester's end of the table where Charles D. Thomas and Albert M. Mills, two of the best attorneys in the county. They knew they had a tough job ahead of them. Chester's rich relatives, who could afford to bring in expensive attorneys from outside the area chose instead to abandon him. Whith out any money of his own, Chester asked Judge Irving R. Devendorf to assign him an attorney.

Mills and Thomas had only a month before the trial to prepare their case and they were far behind Ward. They didn't have the personnel or the financial resources for a major effort, but they spent many hours with him, preparing a defense.

It was clear from the beginning, however, that public opinion and probably the jury was against Chester. Each day, in the front row, sat Grace Brown's parents and sisters, sobbing as each new witness testified and each new bit of evidence was introduced. Chester had no one to weep for him. His uncle from the factory was cold and indifferent as he testified for the prosecution. His family was in Denver, far away from the events.

But besides that, he seem to be doing his best to convict himself. He sat in the court room each day, chewing gum and acting as if it were someone else on trial for his life. When Ward read Grace's letters, even the reporters admitted that they wept to hear the poor girl's pathetic pleadings. Only Chester, they noticed, was not affected. He only chewed his gum and looked bored.

Meanwhile, Herkimer was having its first and only taste of national front page sensationalism. By the time the testimony began, there were 25 to 30 reporters in the courtroom each day, including representatives of New York City newspapers and the national wire services. Since the hotels were already crowded with Ward's witnesses, there wasn't much room at the local inns. Many of the reporters and their copy runners, photographers and artists stayed at the Palmer House, where one veteran said later that they took over the bar room for their own use each evening.

While a few of them, expecially the local reporters, stuck to the news, much of what was reported out of Herkimer was closer to fiction than fact. There were stories that the jury went down to the Mohawk River to see Chester re-enact the crime. There were stories that he tried to commit suicide, that a lynch mob attempted to run off with him, that he tried to escape and that a secret lover visited him in his cell each evening.

Grace BrownChester and the press played an elaborate game every day in a courtroom that was much larger than the one that exists today. There was a large balcony in the back of the room and many other people waited in the hallway.

After long hours of closing statements by Ward and Mills, the trial reached its climax at 10:55 p.m. on Dec. 4 when the jury, after five hours of deliberation, announced that it had found Chester guilty of first degree murder, meaning that he would be sentenced to the electric chair.

Chester was watched carefully for any sign of emotion, but he displayed none. He went on chewing his gum and was asleep in his cell a few minutes later.

Three days later, his mother finally arrived in Herkimer from Denver, where a newspaper had agreed to pay her train fare in exchange for an article written by her on her son's sentence to death the next day. She sat behind him as the sentence was read.

After Chester was taken to Auburn Prison, his mother lauched a speaking tour throughout Central New York to raise money for his appeal to try to shift public opinion in his favor. She tried to do this, in part, by attacking Grace Brown's reputation. She knew that in some eyes the fact that he was responsible for her pregnancy was a greater crime than causing her death. But there was a lot of opposition to those allegations and she soon toned them down.

In the spring of 1908, after the Court of Appeals upheald the conviction. Louisa Gillette visited Gov. Charles E. Huges twice in an effort to obtain a new trial or delay of the death sentence. But on Mar. 29, the day before the execution, he issued his final ruling. He saw nothing in the evidence that showed that justice had not been done.

In the last hours of his life, Chester wrote letters to each member of his family and a public statement that was to be given out after his death. In some of these writings he comes very close to confessing his guilt. He told his brother, Paul, that he should make sure that women were not the cause of his downfall as they were for his brother.

His mother, who also spoke with him in those hours, said later that she was finally convinced that her son was really guilty of causing Grace Brown's death, but would never explain how it happened. She did say, however, that the tennis racket was not the murder weapon.

Chester's life ended at 6:14 a.m. on Mar. 30 when a switch was thrown and 1,800 volts of electricity passed thorugh his body for 61 seconds. He was buried in Soule Cemetery, just outside Auburn, in a grave that has never been marked.

The story might have ended there. His family left New York and probably never returned. The Brown family moved to DeRuyter and carried on with their lives. The lawyers went on to other cases. But in New York City, a magazine editor and sometime author name Theodore Dreiser was reading all those articles and thinking about a novel that would ensure that people decades later would never forget the story of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette.

Written by: Craig Brandon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown, check out Craig Brandon's website at www.craigbrandon.com

We also recommend you checking out this website, created by Tim Haines, telling the story of Chester and Grace -
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