Chester Gillette

I love reading about very old cases.... especially those in the late 1800's or early 1900's.  There is just a few very large problems with them.  Getting accurate information is often a huge challenge.  Of course ways of communication and keeping stories straight in those days often seems like playing a game of telephone.  Then as we get into the 1900's and even a few decades in you enter the time of "yellow journalism."  I have spoke of this era many times because it often frustrates me.  I liken it to The National Enquirer, but The National Enquirer of like the 80's.  Those of you who remember those days will remember how light on facts and big on exaggeration they were.  That was how the every day newspaper was in the early 1900's.  It was all about the headline to draw you in and then stories read more like novels than news stories.  Drama was added, usually falsely, to excite the reader.  It was not a time where facts mattered, it was a time of sensationalism.  So in today's time as we look back at stories of those days it is often difficult to determine fact from fiction.  Then there were the legal issues....

It seems that it has only become important in the modern age to basically not stomp on a defendant's rights although even I admit that it goes too far some times in protecting defendants which does not allow a jury to see the full picture of things.  However, in the early 1900's (and well into the century) no one cared.  While we can say today we rarely see a "guilty until proven innocent" air about things, it was ten times worse during this time.  Prosecutors could throw the "kitchen sink" at a defendant whether it was relevant or not.  There were not search warrants or Miranda Rights; there was nothing that could not be used against someone regardless even if the facts were entirely true.  If a defendant had any sort of trait that could be perceived as strange or immoral at the time it was used. Juries often ruled based more of feelings than on facts in those days.  It would likely be fair to say that although the trials of the defendants were often considered fair, just as the majority of today's trials are, but if we were to take those trials today and apply today's standards to them, many would fail in that area.  But, to be fair, to do so would be unfair because we must accept how things were at large in a society and of ways, at least for the most part.  

The trial of Chester Gillette was a media sensation.  It was one of those "Trial of the Century" cases we hear about so often.  Although it was not really accurate, at the time, as well as history tells it as the "Poor Girl, Rich Girl" case.  In essence the theory the press gave, that although the prosecutors basically proved differently but did not correct the media, was that Chester Gillette basically had a litter of women to pick from and after impregnating a "poor girl" he needed to get rid of her in order to be available for a rich one.  In the end it became the basis of a classic book (An American Tragedy by Theodore Drieser) and two classic movies, An American Tragedy (1931) and A Place in the Sun (1951). Then, as is often the case today in 2016, despite name changes these works of fiction (and people knew they were because names were changed) are often cited as things of fact regarding this case.  Reality of it is that Drieser, who had been a journalist at the time of Gillette's trial started out writing his novel with other cases in mind and what he knew about the Gillette case (and probably the others also) were all based on articles in the newspaper which again were often wholly inaccurate.  We all know sensationalism sells, it did then, and it does now.  

It has been said that for decades law schools used this case to show students how well Prosecutor George Ward was able to take a case, based entirely on circumstantial evidence and secure a conviction.  I am certain this is true, however, I am also almost just as certain that it is probably not used as an example today considering much of what was used, how it was used and even how it was obtained would not fly in a court of law today.  But again, I must stress that at the time it was the norm.  So, allow me to quit rambling about the law as I often tend to do and let you decide for yourself just what happened on Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906.

Chester Gillette was born in Montana in 1883.  It seems his parents were fairly wealthy off for the times.  They soon moved to Washington State.  Chester's parents were deeply religious and at some point gave up all their "material" wealth and joined the Salvation Army working as missionaries.  It was said that Chester did not necessarily follow his parents' beliefs or may not have fully enjoyed the work with the Salvation Army that moved the family around quite a bit.  In fact, according to www.findagrave.com while Chester is buried in an unmarked grave in New York near the prison in which he was executed in 1908 his father is buried in Texas, while his mother is buried in California.  It even lists a brother as being buried in Hawaii, so the family seemed to be all over. My other passion in life, aside from true crime, is genealogy and if this line was in my family it would appear they would have spanned literally from one end of the country to the other.  So, while Chester's parents renounced their wealth it seems he did have a few wealthy uncles.  They helped him enroll into college, but he apparently flunked out a few years later.  Eventually in 1905 he ended up in Cortland New York working at a skirt factory owned by one of his uncles (known as Gillette Skirt Factory).  These types of factories were all over New York at the time and just as this was a skirt factory, they were all pretty specific in what type of item they made, unlike today as a clothing factory will produce many types of items.  

Grace Brown was born in 1886 and grew up on a farm in South Otselic New York.  While she was portrayed as 'the poor girl' in print and while it does not seem her family had the wealth that the Gillette's have it also appears that her family was not necessarily all that poor by society standards, at least in their area.  By 1905 Grace would move in with a married sister in Cortland and begin working at the same skirt factory as Chester Gillette.  This is where they would meet.

Chester appeared to have, or at least be given, the reputation of a playboy of sorts.  He was attractive and charming to boot.  Whether he was any of the things the press, or even the prosecutor, made him out to be is anyone's guess and likely simply lost to history. Whether it is true or not, the fact is that Chester and Grace did apparently begin an affair of sorts.  Whether it was kept more quiet because he was the owner of the company's son and fraternizing with employees was looked down upon or for whatever reason it seems that not a lot of people knew there was more than just an acquaintance between the two.  I am sure rumors may have persisted but no one was likely sure what was true and what was not.  When Grace became pregnant in about April of 1906 that was surely not told, even to those closest to Grace.  To be a single pregnant woman in that era would have brought shame and embarrassment not just to Grace (a little less to Chester) but also to her entire family.  At this point it appears that Grace began pressuring Chester to marry, although admittedly she never used that word, at least not in the letters she wrote him that were later found and used at his trial.  She did use phrases like standing up to his "duty" and "doing the right thing."  In those days that meant marriage.  

Information is a bit sketchy here.  Some accounts say that at some point Grace left Cortland in the spring and returned to live with her parents but came back when she heard that Chester was seeing other women and then possibly left Cortland again in June of 1906.  I feel as if some of this data is a bit off due to what was testified to at Chester's later trial.  A doctor testified that according to the size of the fetus that Grace would have likely gotten pregnant in mid-to late April and probably did not even realize it until mid to late May at the very earliest.  You have to remember this was 1906 and you could not just go down to the local drug store to buy a pregnancy test (even if she could she would not have in fear of someone seeing) and even still if you are a woman you know that you do not even suspect anything until you have missed your "flow" as they called it back then. So for me it seems unlikely that she knew very long before she left Cortland in June (and there's no indication she went back after that) and if she did leave prior to that it was not likely because she was pregnant, or knew she was, as has been speculated.  At any rate once she left Cortland and returned to her parents' home she apparently continued to write Chester Gillette very regularly.  The letters that she wrote would play a large role in Chester's trial.  

Chester and Grace planned a "get away" for July.  There is speculation as to just what each thought was going to happen on this trip.  As far as Grace goes there are two or three theories as to what she could have believed, one was that Chester was finally going to marry her hence she would return a married woman and her life be vastly different. Another theory based on information in the letters as well as testimony given at trial was that she was leaving to never return again because she was no longer living. And a third theory is that she took so much luggage with her (some say nearly everything she owned) because there was talk of a home for unwed mothers to which she would have been staying until the birth of her child.  The latter theory was often touted by those supporting Chester indicating that that was his plan also (i.e. take her to the home) but I will discuss later why this seems so unlikely. As far as Chester and the speculation as to what he thought his plans were for the trip they also varied.  Some believe that he did plan to marry Grace but then got cold feet, while the prosecutor and the media portrayed that Chester had planned to murder Grace from the beginning.  

So Chester and Grace traveled up through northern New York to their destination.  They settled at an inn near Big Moose Lake around 11:00 in the morning on July 11, 1906.  Much was made about the fact that Chester apparently registered under the name Carl Grahm. Chester carried luggage with the monogram C.E.G so it was speculated that he was simply clever enough to not bring suspicion in that area so he chose a name with the same initials.  The innkeeper would testify at Chester's trial that he had inquired about a steamboat that gave tours in the area but that the innkeeper was fond of row-boating and had convinced Chester that was a better adventure.  Apparently Chester agreed and he and Grace headed out around 6:00 pm.  There was evidence at trial (apparently also from the innkeeper) that along with his monogrammed luggage Chester also carried a tennis racket.  What exactly happened after Chester and Grace got onto the water continues to be a debate among the masses.  

What we do know is that by the end of the night Grace lay at the bottom of the lake and Chester did not.  The boat was found by people passing by as they saw it was overturned.  Chester's hat was also apparently floating nearby and it was speculated that he had also drowned.  My recent research did not find this but if my memory serves me correctly the boat was being looked for as it had not been returned by the specified time.  We also know that Chester apparently hiked through the woods for about a mile where he checked into another hotel under his own name.  The following day Grace's body was found in the lake and Chester was found nearly just as fast and arrested.  

There has been much speculation as to why it seems that Chester's all caring uncles, the ones who had paid for the college that he did attend, did not come to his aid or at least help provide him with an attorney.  It is said that soon after his arrest one of the uncles (presumably the one who had employed him at the skirt factory) sent an attorney to the jail simply to advise him not to speak to authorities and then it appears that Chester was left hanging.  It was several weeks before he addressed the court, explaining that he was indigent and a public defender by the name of Albert Mills, was assigned to the case.  The prosecutor was George Ward and apparently it was an election year and he was or at least was planning to run to become a judge.  Much was made of this speculating that with all the media already surrounding the case Ward used this case as a stepping stood to a bench.  I did a search to see if this ended up happening but I cannot be sure. 

Chester's trial began on November 12, 1906, just four months after Grace was found in the lake and it was said that since he did not have a lawyer for several weeks they were behind more than usual. So now we're left with the evidence that prosecution, did or did not have to prove Chester Gillette murdered Grace Brown.  

The prosecution would claim that Chester had deliberately killed Grace in order to maintain his playboy sort of life.  They theorized that Chester got Grace out on the lake in the row boat and proceeded to hit her with his tennis racket knocking her into the water and leaving her to drown.  They had obtained letters written to Chester from Grace from apparently his room at the last hotel (it was not completely clear so it could have been from the one he had registered with Grace), something that today would have taken a search warrant to obtain.  They used these letters in the trial to indicate that Grace had told Chester of her pregnancy and was all but insisting on marriage (again, the word marriage was not used specifically).  They also used the fact that he left the scene of the lake, leaving her to drown and went to a different inn instead of the one in which the two had been at.  To attempt to bolster their "kill poor girl to get rich girl" theory they had a woman by the name of Harriett Bennett testify that the media had dubbed her as the other woman.  However, when on the stand the woman insisted there was never any intimacy between the two and they were little more than acquaintances.  Likely the biggest thing they had against Chester was his ever changing story.  In the beginning he stated he was unaware of what had happened at all and was not there, then he would claim it was an accidental drowning and by the time the trial commenced he was claiming that Grace had taken her own life.  It seems though that whatever evidence they did or did not have too a back seat to theatrics and drama. Despite the fact that Chester had apparently admitted that he knew Grace was pregnant and the defense conceded that the child was in fact his the prosecution had the coroner take the stand and discuss a jar that was entered into evidence. Inside the jar was said to be the remains of Grace Brown's uterus and the fetus that she was carrying at the time of her death. This seems to have been purely done to incite the jury.  In today's court it is unlikely that this would be allowed. The fact that he admitted to knowing of a pregnancy and that the child was likely his would be enough.  In fact, in my opinion the prosecution did not even have to prove that Grace was pregnant at all because what really mattered was if Chester believed she was.  The coroner really had little else to offer, or at least in the sense of what we would consider as evidence today.  Apparently the body was almost immediately released to a funeral home and was embalmed before an autopsy was conducted.  My research indicated that there was an attempt at an autopsy later but nothing could really be truly completely determined.  There seemed to have been a mark on her head (hence why the prosecution claimed Chester hit her with his tennis racket) but it was conceded that it could have occurred by the fall or even the recovery of the body.  

I often say that "good people never die" because it seems that no matter what a person does in life, after they pass away everyone forgets that.... except in modern day court of law.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a fond of victim bashing in courtrooms but I am a person of accountability.  However, in the time of this era it was considered extremely wrong to "talk ill about the dead."  In fact, not only was there little 'bad' talk often they were spoken about as if they were nearly saints.  Outside the courtroom and media apparently there were questions as to whether Grace had intentionally become pregnant. Of course in those days it did not really matter because the man was still expected to "do the right thing" as Grace had spoken of in her letters and marry the girl since it does take "two to tango." But inside the courtroom it was Chester who was the demon.  He was the man who had "seduced" the "poor girl" and then murdered her so he was not trapped by her.  

Despite their late start in the preparation for the trial, the defense did not do a bad job at poking holes into the prosecution case.  As stated earlier they put the innkeeper on the stand who stated he felt he had convinced Chester to go out on a row boat as opposed to the steamer, that presumably would have been more crowded and witnesses that a person who supposedly was planning a murder would not have wanted to have.  They also had employees from the skirt factory testify that they had spoken to Grace prior to her leaving in June and that she had made several strange comments that indicated to them that she expected to take her own life or at least consider it.  And, regardless of how they were obtained or that the prosecution had used the letter for what they felt was their advantage, the defense thought they said much more than the prosecutors claimed.  Again, there were several comments that indicated that Grace had thought of suicide or did not intend on coming back home after that trip.  On the flip side of that, since the comments, like everything else in them were not completely spelled out people speculated that she was not talking about death but in essence being the same person to return that left. According to the defense, Chester's story was that while out on the lake Grace had become distraught about their situation and had tipped the boat, jumping in to commit suicide and end her life.  

In the end the defense efforts seems to have fallen on deaf ears and on December 4, 1906, the jury convicted Chester Gillette in the murder of Grace Brown.  He was sentenced to death. After a very long appeal, that I will mention in a bit, and a refusal for clemency from the governor, Chester was executed in the electric chair on March 30, 1908.  He was buried some few miles away in an unmarked grave.  It is speculated, although not proven, that his grave now lays under a road in the cemetery. 

So was Chester Gillette guilty of murdering Grace Brown?  He continued right up until his death to at least publicly deny involvement and insisted she committed suicide.  There were a few rumors that he had confessed to a few people but nothing could ever really be proven and with all of the yellow journalism going on that is highly debatable.  With that being said I do believe that Chester was guilty of the crime.  Now whether he hit her with the tennis racket as the prosecution claimed, or an oar from the boat or he simply pushed her it is unclear and will never be known.  Why do I believe this?  Chester's actions tell us this.  There was a rumor that he was planning to take her to a home for unwed mother's and that maybe they both knew this when they headed out on the trip but Chester never mentioned it through his defense it seems and if that was the case that would seem odd.  It would seem easy to say that it was his intention to take her to the home, that they discussed it, she became upset and distraught and toppled the boat and committed suicide. But again they never mentioned that and in fact the issue of the unwed mother home may have been a fabrication that has just gone down in history.  First you have a man who registers at an inn under a false name with a woman. Some could say that this was simply because of the scandal it could have caused their families, but I do not buy that.  But, more importantly there are his actions after Grace was in the water.  He does not go to find help, he does not tell anyone what happened.  He goes to another inn and although odd, this time registers under his own name. Going to the second inn would possibly not be so incriminating depending on the area and how far it was from the first inn where presumably his things (and likely his car) were kept if he would contacted someone to get help out to Grace.  The fact that his hat was left is suspicious in itself too.  There was no talk about if any innkeeper at the second inn noticed him to be wet or disheveled but then again he had walked over a mile and could have probably dried off considering it was in the middle of the summer.  Then there is the issue as to the stories he supposedly told to the authorities.  It appears that the suicide story came in very late.  

Beyond the fact of if Chester Gillette was guilty or not, one has to ask if he had a fair trial.  By the standards of the time, one would probably have to say yes but had that same trial happened today much of it would not have been entered.  Then again with forensics what they are today there could have possibly been more evidence that could have harmed (or conceivably helped) his case.  I have often said here that my best source of information generally comes when I can find appeal papers on a case.  I have to say that this is the first case in which I have read the appeal and was truly disappointed.  In fact, I could not even get through it all.  It was horrible. It was written much like many of the yellow journalism articles of the day were written.  It was full of dramatics and seemingly exaggerations rather than full of straight forward facts. In fact, this line in the appeal particularly struck me.... "The trial took place within four months of the tragic death of the girl and while, the public's mind was greatly excited."  The wording itself was dramatic and not often seen in appeals.  The word "tragic" indicates a brutality that reaps of bias in my opinion. Also, to me, this line indicates to me that the justices felt it was ok that the trial took place in a time where everyone had it on their mind and remembered things.  If I were to simply go by this line alone I would think there was no way that an unbiased jury could be sat.  But, then again, times were different then.  

In the end this case will go down into history riddled with uncertainties and legend.  Sadly no one will ever truly know what happened on Big Moose Lake on that July evening.  



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