Infamous murder revisited
By Betsy Kepes
It’s been over one hundred years since a search party found Grace Brown’s body in the bottom of Big Moose Lake, an overturned rowboat floating nearby. In 1906 the face of the man who walked away from that remote bay would become familiar to many Americans as he sat slouched in a chair at his murder trial in Herkimer. The local and national press wrote front-page stories about Chester Gillette, the handsome young man who murdered his pregnant girlfriend so he could rise up the social ladder.
Craig Brandon has a section in the new edition of his book called “The Murder That Will Never Die,” and certainly for him as a writer this is true. Brandon first published Murder in the Adirondacks in 1986, and the book sold well. When North Country Books asked if he’d be interested in writing a revised edition he jumped at the chance.
In the thirty years since he wrote Murder in the Adirondacks, Brandon has acquired more photos and newspaper clippings, donated to him by other “obsessive Gillette aficionados.” With this new information Brandon re-organized the whole book and spaced the photos throughout the text, a definite improvement over the clustered photos in the first book. He’s eliminated some photos and added many others. Unfortunately a few of the photos are still blurry. The new edition also has an updated typeface that’s easier to read, but I’m not a fan of the new cover. It seems a bit cartoonish; a casual bookstore browser wouldn’t realize that the interior of the book is serious and well-written.
The Gillette/Brown drama was the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s hefty novel An American Tragedy. That book inspired a 1931 movie of the same name, and then in 1950 Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the blockbuster movie A Place in the Sun. After reading Brandon’s book I feel I know more about an important event in American literary and film history.
Chester Gillette and Grace Brown both worked at the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland and met in the evenings in the parlor of the house where Grace lived with her married sister. When Grace discovered she was pregnant she moved back home to nearby South Otselic and sent Chester a torrent of letters pleading with him to leave Cortland and join her. But charming Chester liked parties and women. He had even taken Harriet Benedict, a lawyer’s daughter, on a Fourth of July outing. He didn’t want to meet Grace, but, Brandon writes, “postponing it any further risked the possibility that Grace would come to Cortland and expose him as a seducer to his friends, and family, a social disaster.”
The pair traveled north to the Adirondacks, writing false names in hotel registers, and once, in Utica, skipping out without paying the bill. Brandon does a good job at sticking to the facts, though it must have been tempting to imagine and write the scene that left Grace dead at the bottom of Big Moose Lake. No witnesses saw Gillette kill Brown, but after an autopsy a team of doctors believed she’d been struck in the head, perhaps with an oar or the tennis racket that Gillette had strapped to his suitcase.
Remarkably, Gillette continued his vacation after Grace drowned. He walked away from the scene of the crime to Eagle Bay on the Fulton Chain of Lakes, stashing his tennis racket along the way. He climbed up Black Bear Mountain the next day with a group of tourists, took photos with his camera, and carved his name on a rock.
Even after Gillette was arrested a day later he remained nonchalant. On the train to Herkimer, where he’d be jailed, he sang songs with a baseball team. At his trial he sat and joked with reporters. After he’d been convicted of murder he chatted with a theater troupe on the train that was taking him to the state prison in Auburn. He even talked to Edith Cornwall, a reporter for the Syracuse Herald, about how she had covered the trial. Brandon writes: “Cornwall was amazed at his ability to talk about it as if it were someone else who was facing the electric chair. From the amount of feeling in his voice, she said, he might have been chatting about the beefsteak he had for breakfast.”
Brandon calls Gillette’s attitude a “cockeyed optimism” in the belief that an appeal would set him free, but others see Gillette as a sociopath who completely blocked the murder he’d committed from his memory. Even in his prison journal, a piece of evidence that wasn’t located until 2007, Gillette makes only one short reference to Grace Brown.
The trim text and well-spaced photos make Murder in the Adirondacks easy to read. Brandon has done a tremendous amount of research into the background of all the “characters” in his book and admits he’s obsessed with the Big Moose Lake murder.
There is one little nugget of information that I can add to the Gillette/Brown story. My husband’s grandmother, Marion Brown, was born in Boonville in 1911. Her family had hoped to name their first daughter after a favorite aunt, but that name had to be put away for a couple of generations. It wasn’t the time to name a baby girl Grace Brown.