The “American Tragedy” Murder, 1906

Notes on a killing

Harold Schechter
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

As early as 1892, while working as a reporter in Chicago, Theodore Dreiser began to notice a recurrent type of crime, symptomatic of America’s obsession with what he called “money success.” This was a murder committed by a young man whose lethal act is sparked by an explosive mix of sexual hunger and social ambition. With an eye to treating this topic in fiction, Dreiser began collecting newspaper clippings on a number of these crimes. At first, he attempted to compose a novel, tentatively titled The Rake, based on the sensational 1900 poison-murder trial of Roland Molineux. After producing seven rough-draft chapters of the book, however, he abandoned the project, the details of the Molineux case proving ultimately unsuitable for his fictional needs. Another six years would pass before a murder occurred that provided Dreiser with the ideal raw material for his book. Out of it, he would fashion one of the classic works of our national literature, his 1925 masterpiece, An American Tragedy.

Born in 1883, Chester Gillette was the son of a successful Spokane businessman who, following a religious conversion, renounced his worldly pursuits and, along with his wife, became a roving missionary for the Salvation Army. For several years, young Chester assisted his father and mother in their charitable work. Far from endowing him with a sense of higher vocation, however, the experience left him with a keen distaste for the ascetic existence embraced by his parents and a corresponding belief that the purpose of life was, as he put it, to “have as good a time as you can.” After an aborted stint at Oberlin College’s preparatory school (financed with a loan from a wealthy relation) and a few knockabout years as a railroad brakeman in the Midwest, he moved to the upstate New York town of Cortland to work at the skirt factory of his uncle, Noah Gillette.

Among the 250 other employees at his uncle’s plant was eighteen-year-old Grace Brown, a slender, attractive brunette who had grown up on a farm in the nearby village of South Otselic. Though posthumously portrayed in the sentimentalizing press as a meek and docile maiden, she was in fact a vivacious, fun-loving, and sharp-witted young woman, nicknamed “Billy” after her favorite song—the popular jazz tune “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey”—and so fond of dancing that she was banned from membership in the town’s Baptist church.

Exactly how she first connected with her employer’s handsome nephew is unclear, though legend has it that their relationship began when Grace’s opal ring slipped off her finger at work and Chester, who was walking by, chivalrously stooped to retrieve it. In any event, the two quickly became romantically involved, Chester paying nightly visits to Grace at her sister’s house, where she boarded. There, they spent hours spooning in the parlor. By the summer of 1905, after fending off Chester’s increasingly importunate advances for as long as she was able, Grace became his lover.

No sooner had they consummated their relationship than Chester, who had previously professed his undying devotion, began to turn his attentions elsewhere. His charm and polished manners—to say nothing of his status as Noah Gillette’s nephew—had won him admission to a glittering circle of young people from the upper stratum of Cortland society. Chester soon began leading a double life. Though he still visited Grace regularly for sex, his leisure hours were increasingly spent with his new friends, bicycling, playing tennis, attending their dances and formal-dress parties. However satisfying this existence was for Chester, it grew intolerable for Grace, particularly when, in the spring of 1906, she discovered that she was pregnant.

In mid-June, Grace moved back to her parents’s home in South Otselic, where spent the next few weeks writing desperate letters to Chester. Terrified that her life would be ruined once her condition became obvious, she begged him to make her his lawful wife. “Oh Chester,” she pleaded, “please come and take me away. I am so frightened, dear.”

Despite his declarations of love, however, Chester seemed in no rush to settle down. In Grace’s absence, he had happily pursued other women, including a well-to-do beauty named Harriet Benedict, daughter of a prominent Cortland attorney. When Grace got wind of his dalliances, she threatened to expose him as a heartless seducer. If her life was ruined, she wrote, his would be too. Her warning seemed to work. In early July, Chester invited her to join him on an Adirondacks vacation—a trip that would culminate in their wedding. Or so Grace assumed.

On the brilliantly sunny morning of July 11, 1906, the couple arrived at the Glenmore Inn, a picturesque hotel on the shore of Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County. After checking in under an assumed name, Chester—carrying his suitcase and tennis racket—escorted Grace down to the water where they rented a rowboat for the day.

Precisely what happened in the following hours will never be known. At various times during the afternoon, the two were spotted on the lake by other boaters. At one point, they were seen picnicking on shore. When they failed to return at sundown, Robert Morrison, who had rented out the rowboat, was not especially alarmed. Tourists often misjudged the sheer size of the lake and, finding themselves too far away to make it back before nightfall, rowed to the nearest shore and spent the night at another inn.

It was not until the following morning that Morrison, by then seriously concerned, organized a search party. Setting off in a steamer, they scoured the lake and eventually came upon the rowboat, floating upside down on the water. Peering into the depths, one of the searchers spotted a strange object caught in the weeds on the bottom. Hauled up with a long, spiked pole, it turned out to be the corpse of Grace Brown.

At first, Morrison and the others assumed that she had died in a boating mishap along with her companion—“Carl Graham,” as he had called himself. A search of the lake and shoreline, however, failed to turn up the body of the young man. When the coroner discovered that Grace was pregnant—and found suspicious wounds on her face and head—he became convinced that she was the victim of foul play. By then, investigators, looking into Grace’s background, had learned of her romantic relationship with her co-worker, Chester Gillette.

Three days would pass before Chester—still going under his alias—was arrested. At first, he insisted that Grace had, in fact, drowned accidentally when the boat overturned. Later, he changed his story, claiming that, in her despair, she had deliberately thrown herself overboard. Neither explanation, however, accounted for her ugly head wounds, caused–according to the autopsy report–by a bludgeoning implement, very possibly a tennis racket.

Chester’s three-week trial, which commenced on November 12, 1906, was a media sensation, covered by so many reporters that (as one historian notes) “a special telegraph station had to be set up in the courthouse basement to handle the thousands of words sent out each day” by the press. In his impassioned opening statement, prosecuting attorney George Ward depicted Chester as a heartless brute who, after taking the virginity of an innocent maid and getting her with child, had coldly planned and carried out her murder, so that he could be free to pursue his affairs with “girls from a better class of society.”

The dramatic high point of the proceedings—and the moment that, more than any other, aroused a general “revulsion of feeling against the prisoner”—occurred when Ward read aloud some of the most heartrending passages from Grace’s letters to Chester. “O dear, if you were only here and would kiss me and tell me not to worry any more I would not mind this,” Ward read in a quavering voice, “but with no one to talk to, and ill all the time, I really believe I will be crazy. Darling, if you will only write and tell me that you will surely come Saturday and not to worry. I am crying so, I can’t see the lines and will stop. You will never know, dear, how badly I feel or how much I want you this very minute.” By the time Ward was finished his recitation, there was not a dry eye in the house.

Though Chester’s attorney mounted a vigorous defense—arguing that Chester’s actions were not those of a calculating killer but of a scared boy who had panicked when Grace accidentally tipped over the boat—the jury took only a few hours to find him guilty of murder. Following a failed appeal, he was executed in the electric chair on the morning of March 30, 1908. According to both his mother and his spiritual advisor, the Reverend Henry MacIlravy, Chester, who had consistently protested his innocence, made statements to them just before his execution which convinced them of his guilt. No written confession exists, however, and the matter remains unresolved among students of the case.

Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. He is also the author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
Originally published:
March 4, 2019


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