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The Case of Chester Gillette: The Real American Tragedy

As you might know from reading my preview of An American Tragedy, this novel is based on a true story—the Chester Gillette murder case of 1906.

After dropping out of prep school, Gillette took a job at his rich uncle’s skirt factory. There, he met Grace Brown, another worker at the factory. They began a relationship which soon turned sexual, with Brown believing Gillette would marry her soon.

Wikipedia describes the rest of the story this way:

In the spring of 1906, Brown revealed that she was pregnant. She continued to pressure Gillette to marry her, writing him pleading letters often. Brown then returned to her parents’ home for a time, but returned to Cortland when she discovered that Gillette had been courting other girls. One popular tale featured a Miss Harriet Benedict, a wealthy acquaintance of Gillette that the newspapers later speculated was the “other woman” that Chester had left Grace for. Harriet heatedly denied this, even going so far as to issue a formal press release proclaiming: “I have never been engaged to Chester E. Gillette … our acquaintance was of … a limited duration and that not a word or suggestion was ever made between us (about an engagement).”

As the spring and summer of 1906 progressed, others noticed an increasing frequency of Gillette’s raised voice and Brown’s tears at the factory or at each other’s homes. Brown continued to press Gillette for some kind of decision, while Gillette played for time with vague statements about their future and of their going away on a trip sometime soon.

Finally, Gillette made arrangements for a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York. The pair stopped and stayed for a night in Utica, New York and then continued to Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County. At a nearby hotel, Gillette registered under a false name (although one that used his own initials, to match the monogram on his suitcase). He was carrying one suitcase and a tennis racquet. Brown at this point may have expected some kind of elopement ceremony.

On the morning of July 11, Gillette took Brown out in a rowboat on Big Moose Lake, where he clubbed her with his tennis racquet and left her to drown. He returned alone and laid low at his hotel. Later, witnesses would say that Gillette seemed calm, collected and perfectly at ease; nothing was amiss. Brown’s bruised and beaten body was found at the bottom of the lake the next day. Gillette had done a poor job of planning the cover-up and was quickly arrested in nearby Inlet.

After a three-week long nationally publicized trial, Gillette was convicted of murder. No doubt that the “rich man murders poor factory woman” headlines were all over the papers, and rightfully so.

Gillette was sentenced to death and electrocuted in Auburn, New York in March 1908.

As a guy who’s always been fascinated by prison documentaries and the real-life stories of criminals and their backgrounds, I find the Gillette story fascinating.

To think that this murder occurred 105 years ago, and it’s still well known today. Just knowing that An American Tragedy is based on this story makes the novel all that more interesting.

So who’s reading along on this one?

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fascinating!

    Like

    June 18, 2012
  2. Lost me on that one ;). I love your blog. Thanks !

    Like

    June 18, 2012
  3. I know you’re busy with fiction for a while yet, but keep the name Erik Larson and his books “Devil in the White City,” and “Thunderstruck” on the sticky side of your mind. “Devil” tells the true story of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the bustle around Chicago’s 1893 World Fair to his advantage (and many other’s disadvantage). And “Thuderstruck,” another true story, tells the story of Hawley Crippen, a mild-mannered pharmacist with an extremely overbearing wife. He parallels this story with a look at the development of the wireless telegraph which intersects with Crippen’s story in a surprising way. Both books are extremely well written and researched, and both were nearly impossible for me to put down once I started.

    Like

    June 18, 2012
    • Great suggestions. I’ll make a note of them and get to them one day.

      Like

      June 18, 2012
  4. As I read An American Tragedy, I couldn’t help but think of the Scott and Laci Peterson tragedy, which occurred the same time that I read the book. Gillette and Peterson are, like you say, 100 years apart, yet act in the same selfish way. They even murdered the same way, but luckily did not get away with it.

    Like

    June 18, 2012
    • I thought of that too. It’s amazing how stupid these guys can be.

      Like

      June 18, 2012
  5. I’m actually from the Auburn, NY area–it’s the closest “city” to where I grew up (a 10 mile commute and where most people went to work). I had no idea all of this took place in NY and that he was executed (electrocuted) in the Auburn prison. Wow. Now I’m a lot more interested in reading this book.

    Like

    June 18, 2012
    • I think you’d like it. His style is a bit wordy and clunky, I think, but the story itself is mesmerizing. If you live near the area, it would probably draw you in even more.

      Like

      June 18, 2012
  6. Tèresa #

    I started it, but his verbosity is slowing me down. How do you feel about his style?

    Like

    June 18, 2012
    • The story itself is carrying me through it. Typically, his style would probably wear me down and/or drive me crazy, but I’ve been able to overlook it. The story is definitely the star.

      Like

      June 18, 2012
  7. That’s really interesting…I had no idea it was based on a real person. I’ve only read Sister Carrie and really loved it, so I’ve been wanting to read another Theodore Dreiser book for some time now. Maybe that time has come! I’ll see if I can squeeze it into my book rotation. 🙂

    Like

    June 18, 2012
  8. Mike Hancock #

    I recently read Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and was reminded of “An American Tradegy” . . . some similarity in the plots. I remember seeing “An American Tradegy” on the book shelves at home as a teenager . . . and I think I read it at the time. I am currently about half way through a recently acquired copy. Dreiser is certainly wordy . . . long involved sentences and unusual words . . . today’s was tergiversation.

    Like

    July 20, 2014
  9. I went to Cortland State University in the late 1980’s and the girl I was dating at the time pointed out to me the old Cortland Corset Factory to me, which must have once been the Cortland Skirt Factory. Amazing historical facts.!

    Like

    August 8, 2016
  10. I know who the real victim was, Chester Gillette my relative, later on someone got married out of Grace browns family and I’m related to both , my worst fear he was raped in prison then fried after things got out of hand. It’s so taken out of proportion in Hollywood. I wish you would drop the book off the list of every book club and the movie. Instead of family memorbillia they died young and everybody is haunted by a man hanging to death practically Jesus. What an awfull torture they probably beat him up too. If there’s any way the state of NY can pay , or who got the money for the movie some gradatude or thanks for using my family I would certainly to appreciate it to any of my family or me. all I do is sit home poorly and reminis on the good old days, not even , probably for this reason. My mother got very obcessed about I’m sure for years. out here in Montucky what the fuck am I gonna do with my life thinking about the Great American Tragedy, the first electric chair they only tested on mice in the state. I demand a settlement from everyone. my grampa Al brown even had to sell his cabin on those lakes and I never had fun when I went he was so heartbroken finally I know why they all dreaded it lost, Sally included, crying at the move we can’t pay for another month. I want money state of NY and some kind of reembersment for something I don’t have a normal family. God help us all today they get out. Pay everywhere.

    Like

    May 1, 2017
  11. Thanku for making a big deal for this character we will all miss dearly , much obliss.

    Like

    May 1, 2017

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