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?