Murder in the First Degree

Classic Arts Features   Murder in the First Degree
As the Metropolitan Opera prepares for next month's world premiere of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy, Charles Sheek reveals some of the true-to-life events upon which the opera and Theodore Dreiser's novel are based.

Danny Pelosi, Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, O.J., and the BTK murderer. There's probably not an adult in America that could not describe at least some details of the trials and supposed crimes that these names and places embody. The fascination of Americans with the salacious and gory details of scandal and murder is far from new and newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th century were well aware that a good scandal and sensational reporting of murders and accidents made for better copy than mere dry politics and social reporting.

In late June of 1906 the country was avidly reading reports of the murder in New York of the prominent architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw. White, it was revealed, had an affair with sixteen-year-old Evelyn Nesbit, an artists' model and Floradora girl from one of the Ziegfeld Follies shows. Nesbit also caught the attention of Thaw, who soon became obsessed with her. On June 25, at the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden, Thaw, in full view of hundreds of other patrons, shot and killed White. Each day's newspaper brought more details of the murder and Thaw's "eccentricities" and drug use as well as White's penchant for dalliances with under-age chorus girls.

On the morning of the 13th of July the first reports of the accidental drowning of two individuals in a lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York had surfaced in the Utica Daily Press. By that evening the Utica Observer had the headline "Big Moose Tragedy," followed by a story containing a quote from the Herkimer County Coroner suggesting that foul play was probably involved in this death since only one body, that of Grace Brown, had been found and on her face there appeared to be blunt force injuries. The body of her companion, a "Carl Graham," had not been located. The drowning officially became a murder when her companion was found alive and more facts of the case emerged in the papers: "Carl Graham" was Chester Gillette, nephew of a well-to-do and highly respected owner of a factory in Cortland, New York; Chester had been secretly seeing Grace Brown, an employee of that factory and not "of his social class"; and the unmarried Grace was pregnant at the time of her death. The newspapers had their man. In the headlines Chester was an unrepentant and murderous monster. Stanford White was yesterday's news and the murder of Grace Brown became the "crime of the century."

Nearly 100 years later the saga of Grace and Chester lives on, due in large part to American novelist Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, and its subsequent adaptations for film (1931's An American Tragedy and 1951's A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, and Raymond Burr), the Broadway stage, and next month's operatic premiere at the Metropolitan Opera with music by Tobias Picker and libretto by Gene Scheer.

As early as 1907 Dreiser had mentioned to acquaintances that he wanted to "get inside the skin of a murderer." One might wonder just why he settled on the Gillette case over other murder trials kept in his files. (A journalist and reporter by trade, Dreiser maintained immense files of research on many topics.) It is true that many of the cases would have provided the plot twists he needed, and certainly would be more shocking, but Dreiser clearly identified with Chester. Both had similar backgrounds: crushing poverty, erratic schooling, repressive religious influences, constant moving about, sickly fathers, and hearty sexual appetites. As a journalist Dreiser observed two disparate elements of American society: the few who were becoming fabulously wealthy and the many who spent their lives laboring in poverty. With the publication of An American Tragedy in 1925, Chester and Grace were once again in the news and Dreiser had created his most lasting work.

Who were the real Chester and Grace?

Chester was born in 1883 in Montana, and his parents, Frank and Louisa Gillette, became members of the Salvation Army in 1892. As officers in the Army they frequently relocated, moving to missions in Washington, Oregon, Wyoming, California, and Hawaii, and as Craig Brandon says in his definitive book Murder in the Adirondacks, "they were pledged to accept a life of poverty, heartbreak, and lonely toil." The Gillettes left the Army in 1901 due to the illness of Frank, but soon became followers of the Christian Catholic Church and moved to Zion‹a theocratic utopian city on Lake Michigan between Chicago and Milwaukee. The enigmatic founder of the Church, Alexander Dowie, claimed to have the power to heal the sick, and required his followers to give up pork, alcohol, tobacco, and to tithe ten percent of their incomes to the church. Life in Zion City was good for Louisa and Frank until Dowie declared that he was a reborn Old Testament prophet, "Elijah the Restorer," and embarked on the quest of converting New York City. The "New York Visitation" was a dismal failure, and the once prosperous church was soon deeply in debt.

Chester's well-to-do uncle, N.H. Gillette, and his business associate Lucien Warner and his wife, made it possible for Chester to get away from the poverty of his home and attend Ohio's Oberlin Academy where his eyes were opened to the refined manners of a more genteel set. In 1905 the young man was invited to work for his uncle at the Gillette Skirt Company in Cortland, New York, where, by virtue of his family name, he was introduced to a whole new level of society.

By the time Grace Brown was born in 1886, her ancestors had lived and farmed the land of New York's Otselic River Valley for nearly 100 years. She was the fifth of seven children born to Frank and Minerva Brown and, by all accounts, lived a comfortable life, but, apparently, longed for a life more fashionable than the farm boys in her hometown of South Otselic could have ever provided. When her sister and brother-in-law, Ada and Clarence Hawley, moved to Cortland, 40 miles away, Grace went for a visit and took a liking to life in the city of 10,000. In the fall of 1904 she applied for and got a job in the new Gillette skirt factory working in a variety of positions before settling in as a clothing inspector.

Craig Brandon writes that "towards the end of March [1905], after Grace had been at the factory about four and a half months, the factory gossips passed on the talk about a new employee, a nephew of N.H. [Gillette], who had just arrived from somewhere in the west and who was full of stories about his adventures in such far away places as Hawaii, San Francisco, and Ohio." To his relations in Cortland, Chester was seen as a courteous well-bred gentleman, but his friends found him exotic and slightly "wild" and were entertained by his off-color stories of his travels.

No one knows exactly when Grace and Chester met. Their paths would seldom have crossed at the factory, but by early summer 1905 they were frequently seen together at work. In October 1905, when Grace had gone home following the sudden death of her sister Ada's infant son, Chester wrote pleading for her to hurry back‹with her gone he had nothing to do. His longing for Grace's return, however, was not to last long.

The late fall and winter were busy times for social activity in Cortland and Chester soon found himself invited into the town's better homes. He quietly moved his relationship with Grace into the background as he entered high society. He no longer appeared in public with the factory girl, but was often seen with young women from the town's wealthy families. The gossips at the factory knew that he had been visiting Grace's boarding house late at night, but most of his friends did not. By May 1906, Grace had confirmed that she was pregnant and while on an extended stay in South Otselic, she wrote daily letters of increasing urgency to Chester reminding him of his "promises," and that she was "frightened," "sick," and "crying all the time." Chester rarely wrote back, but Grace's friends in Cortland kept her abreast of his social activities.

On Thursday night, July 5, in her final letter to Chester, Grace expressed her concern that he would abandon her and not show up at their planned meeting the following Monday. With dark foreboding she wrote:

"This is the last letter I can write dear. I feel as though you are not coming… I have been bidding goodbye to some places today. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them are so dear to me… I know I shall never see any of them again. And Mama! Great heavens, how I do love Mama! I don't know what I shall do without her… Sometimes I think if I could tell Mama, but I can't. She has trouble enough as it is and I couldn't break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps, if she does not know, she won't be angry with me. I will never be happy again, dear. I wish I could die… I am going to bed now dear. Please come and don't let me wait there. It is for both of us to be there. If you have made plans for something Sunday night you must come Monday morning."

Chester did meet Grace and they traveled together to the Adirondacks where they registered at hotels under various assumed names: "Charles Gordon and wife," "Charles George and wife," and on July 11 at the Glenmore Hotel on Big Moose Lake, as "Carl Graham" and Grace Brown. That day the couple rented a rowboat (from a man who later said that he wondered why the young man took along his suitcase, tennis racket, and umbrella) and set out to spend the afternoon on the lake. The next morning when the couple had not returned, a search was organized. The sight of an overturned boat led to the discovery of Grace's body. Later, a man's hat (with the lining removed) and a woman's coat were found but not the body of the young man. Carl Graham and his suitcase, tennis racket, and umbrella had seemingly vanished.

Exactly what happened at Big Moose Lake will never be known. Chester at his trial said that Grace, despondent over her situation, jumped from the boat. In trying to reach her he stood and upset the boat. When he could not find her he swam to shore. To no one did this story ring true. Especially since he also admitted that he swam to shore, changed into dry clothes from his suitcase, buried his tennis racket, walked through the night to a new town, and told no one of the incident. The day after the murder he registered for the first time on that trip under his real name. On Saturday morning, July 14, Chester Gillette was arrested for the murder of Grace Brown, and within a week George Ward, the district attorney in Herkimer, where Chester was to be tried, was convinced that he had collected enough evidence to justify a speedy trial and send him to the electric chair. Ward shared much of his evidence with the newspapers, along with his personal opinions, "This fellow is a degenerate, and all circumstances point to the belief that he knocked the girl senseless and threw her overboard."

Throughout the rest of the month and to the end of August, a steady stream of sightseers came to see Chester in his jail cell. When Chester was indicted on a charge of murder in the first degree he claimed to be indigent and asked the court to appoint former New York State Senator Albert M. Mills and Charles Thomas as his attorneys. Chester's trial was set for November 12.

Grace's sisters and parents attended the trial, but Chester's relatives were conspicuously absent. As the trial went on, reporters and regulars in the courtroom were treated to transcripts of nearly all the desperate letters Grace wrote to Chester, along with the possible motive for murder‹a romantic link between Chester and the beautiful and rich Harriet Benedict (from one of Cortland's most prominent families). They also got to view Chester's tennis racket, suitcase, camera, tripod, and clothes; Grace's trunk and her clothes; the overturned boat; and most sensationally, a sealed and covered package said to contain the fetus that had been removed from the body of Grace.

On December 4, the jury was sent to deliberate. On their first vote on whether a crime had been committed, all 12 responded, "Yes." It then took only six votes and five hours of deliberation before the jury agreed that Chester was guilty of murder in the first degree. The following Sunday night Louisa Gillette, Chester's mother, arrived by train in Herkimer. Her obligations at home, plus the expense of the trip and other factors had prevented her from coming sooner. Surprisingly, she did not arrive as Chester's mother, but as a reporter. The New York Evening Journal and the Denver Times had jointly funded her trip to see her son, and in return, she was to send the newspapers reports of her son's death sentence.

Just before daybreak on March 30, 1908, with all appeals exhausted, and after a rebuff from the Governor of New York, Chester Gillette was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison and buried in an unmarked grave in Soule Cemetery on the outskirts of Auburn.

Chester's life came to an end, but the legend of Chester and Grace had only just begun.

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