The young woman on the left was my cousin, Grace Brown. The young man on the right was Chester Gillette. He was also my cousin. When I started learning their story, I had no idea there was any kinship to add to the many connections of geography, and one other coincidence, which I'll save for later. On a whim, I took a look at Grace's ancestry and found we had several sets of ancestors in common. With Chester, there was even more shared ancestry. I haven't been able to connect their families together, but I wouldn't be surprised to find they were related to each other.
Grace drowned in 1906. She was 20 years old. Chester was convicted of her murder and was executed in 1908 at the age of 24. Behind those simple, stark facts, there are many details known, and many more obscure.
There are a great many facts known about Chester and the life he led before it was ended in Auburn Prison on March 30,1908. Born in Montana in 1883, he did a great deal of traveling with his parents, "captains" in the Salvation Army. The family's wanderings are interesting, perhaps, but they hardly seem relevant. There is nothing there that gives us much explanation as to what happened later.
About Grace, there is little to say. She was one of several children of a farming family, and Grace never traveled at all. Still, we are "aware" of Grace in a way that we can never know Chester. You see, Grace wrote letters. Ah, such letters! They tell us worlds about their young writer, about her concerns, her fears, her state of mind. They propelled her story into national prominence, probably contributed to the novel ("An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser) and the movie ("A Place in the Sun" starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelly Winters), and they may well have assured that her fickle boyfriend, Chester, was convicted of her murder.
This is a story of real people and, as such, has no easily identifiable beginning. A young man goes to work in his uncle's skirt factory in Cortland, New York, where he meets many attractive young women who interest him. There are others that he knows from other settings. Grace was employed in that factory in the cutting room, and she was one of the girls Chester dated.
Perhaps "dated" is the wrong word to use here. Chester did date others, taking them places and attending parties with them, but Grace he visited at her place of residence. For a time she lived in her sister's home and later in a boarding house. They had a sexual relationship in these houses for perhaps ten months, but they did not appear in public places together, outside of the skirt factory.
During the spring months of 1906, Grace became pregnant. There was never any doubt as to paternity. Whatever the two discussed with each other, whatever alternatives were considered, whatever plans were made are open to speculation, but only to speculation. There were no witnesses to conversations, and nothing was confided by either to any third party, as far as is known.
Grace took time off from work for a "vacation" at home on her parents' farm. She and Chester kept in touch through letters during this time, and Grace also received letters from friends working in the factory. It was apparent that they were keeping her informed of Chester's dates with other women. In writing to Chester, Grace alludes to plans they have made to go away together, for him to come and take her somewhere, the destination unspecified and purpose unclear. Were they going to marry? Were they merely planning to live somewhere until the baby was born and they could return to their respective homes? No one knows, and probably this question will be one of many remaining unanswered.
LETTERS FROM GRACE
Chester, I have done nothing but cry since I got here. If you were only here I would not feel so badly. I knew I should worry all the time. I do try to be brave dear, but how can I when everything goes wrong? I can't help thinking you will never come for me, but then I say you can't be so mean as that, and besides, you told me you would come and you have never disappointed me when you said you would not. Everything worries me and I am so frightened, dear. It won't make any difference to you about your coming a few days earlier than you intended, will it dear? It means so much to me...I will try to be brave dear....I don't believe I will sleep a wink tonight. Please write often and in every one of your letters I wish you would tell me not to worry about your coming for me. If you were only here, dear. I am so blue....Please write often, dear, and tell me you will come for me before papa makes me tell the whole affair, or they find it out themselves. I just can't rest one single minute until I hear from you....
My dear Chester - I am writing to tell you I am coming back to Cortland. I simply can't stay here any longer. Mama worries and wonders why I cry so much and I am just about sick. Please come and take me away from some place, dear.....I am afraid you won't come, and I am so frightened, dear. I know you will think it queer, but I can't help it....Chester, there isn't a girl in the whole world as miserable as I am tonight, and you have made me feel so. Chester, I don't mean that dear. You have always been awfully good to me. You just won't be a coward, I know....I can't wait so long for letters, dear....if you think I am unreasonable please do not mind it, but do think I am about crazy with grief and that I don't know just what to do. Please write to me, dear.
My dear Chester - I am just ready for bed, and I am so ill I could not help writing to you....This p.m. my brother brought me a letter from one of the first [at the factory], and after I read the letter I fainted again. Chester, I came home because I thought I could trust you. I don't think now I will be here after next Friday. [Grace continues to threaten to return to Cortland, thus causing trouble.] This girl wrote me that you seemed to be having an awfully good time....She also said that you spent most of your time with that detestable Grace Hill....I should have known, Chester, that you did not care for me. But somehow I have trusted you more than anyone else....I presume you won't think you can come for me when I ask you to, Chester. If I could only die. I know how you feel about this affair, and I wish for your sake you need not be troubled. If I die I hope you can then be happy. I hope I can die....and then you can do just as you like. I am not the least bit offended with you, only I am a little blue tonight....Chester, please don't think I am unreasonable. I wish I could hear from you, and I wish - oh dear, come please and take me away....I do want you to have a good time, though, and I won't be cross....
My dear Chester - I am just wild because I don't get a letter from you....I miss you. Oh dear, you don't know how much I miss you. Honestly, dear, I am coming back next week unless you come for me right away. [another threat] I am so lonesome I can't stand it. A week ago tonight we were together. Don't you remember how I cried, dear? I have cried like that nearly all the time since I left Cortland. I am awfully blue...Please write or I will be crazy. Be a good kid and God bless you.
I would not like to have you think I was not glad to hear from you, for I was very glad, but it was not the kind of letter I had hoped to get from you. I think - pardon me - that I understand my position and that it is rather unnecessary for you to be so frightfully frank in making me see it. I can see my position as keenly as anyone, I think....You tell me not to worry and think less about how I feel and have a good time. Don't you think if you were me you would worry?....I understand how you feel about this affair. You consider me as something troublesome, that you are bothered with. You think if it wasn't for me you could do as you liked all summer and not be obligated to give up your position there. I know how you feel, but once in a while, you make me see all these things a great deal more plainly than ever. I don't suppose you have ever considered how it puts me out of all the good times for the summer and how I had to give up my position there? I think all this is about as bad for me as for you, don't you?...I don't suppose you will ever know how I regret being all this trouble to you. I know you hate me, and I can't blame you one bit. My whole life is ruined, and in a measure, yours is too. Of course, it is worse for me than for you, but the world and you too may think I am the only one to blame, but somehow I can't, just simply can't think I am, Chester. I said no so many times dear. Of course, the world will not know that, but it's true all the same....I wish for your sake things were different, but I have done all I can do to prevent your being bothered. I know you will be cross when you read this, but you won't be angry and blame me will you?...
[Apparently frightened at the tone of her previous letter and its possible consequences, Grace wrote the next day] ...I have been uneasy all day and I can't go to sleep because I am sorry I sent you such a hateful letter this morning, so I am going to write and ask your forgiveness, dear. I was cross and wrote things I ought not to have written. I am very sorry dear and I shall never feel quite right about all this until you write and say you quite forgive me.....Where do you suppose we will be two weeks from tonight? I wish you would write and tell me, dear, all about your coming....
My dear Chester - I wish you could have known how pleased I was to hear from you today....I think I shall die of joy when I see you, dear....I will try and not worry so much, and I won't believe the horrid things the girls write....Chester, dear, I hope you will have an awfully nice time the Fourth [of July]. Really dear, I don't care where you go or who you are with if you only come for me the 7th....I was cross and ill when I wrote about it before, but really, I don't mind the least bit....
....You must come Saturday, dear, for I can never stay any longer. I have done my best and been as brave as possible these last weeks, but if you should not come I will do something desperate. Or dear, dear, dear! I can't see anything but just trouble. What if I should not be able to travel? [Grace is apparently weak and ill from loss of weight, worry, and perhaps a difficult pregnancy.] There are so many things to think about. If I had strength dear, I do believe I should walk to the river and throw myself in. It would be rather cowardly, and I despise a coward, but I would not be a bother to you any longer. Oh Chester, the thought that I am in your way just drives me crazy. How I want to die no one but myself knows....I cannot tell how I really and truly need you, and I presume you will never know what I have suffered....And you must not fail to come. I will be so glad to see you, I will promise not to quarrel for a long time. Write as often as you can dear, and please come....
Chester wrote Grace one last letter a week after his previous one. In it, he says
I think it is best that you should go to Hamilton next Monday and meet me there. It would be better to go where we are not known and so we can leave there that day, although I don't know where we can or will go. I have really no plans beyond that, as I do not know how much money I can get or anything about the country. If you have any suggestions to make I wish you would and also just when and where you can meet me....Don't worry about anything and tell me about what I ask about the time and so forth.
Don't worry about anything? Grace was entrusting, had to entrust, her whole well-being and future to this man who had no plans.
LAST LETTER FROM GRACE
My dear Chester - I am curled up by the kitchen fire....Everyone else is in bed....This is the last letter I can write dear. I feel as though you are not coming. Perhaps this is not right, but I cannot help feeling that I am never going to see you again. How I wish this was Monday [the day they planned to meet in the village of DeRuyter]....
I have been bidding goodbye to some places today. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here nearly all of my life. First, I said goodbye to the spring house with its great masses of green moss; then the beehive, a cute little house in the orchard, and, of course, all of the neighbors that have mended my dresses from a little tot up to save me a thrashing I really deserved.
Oh dear, you don't realize what all of this is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again. And Mama! Great heavens, how I do love Mama! I don't know what I shall do without her. She is never cross and she always helps me so much. Sometimes, I think if I could tell Mama, but I can't. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn't break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps, if she does not know, she won't be angry with me. I will never be happy again, dear. I wish I could die.
I am going to bed now dear. Please come and don't let me wait there. It is for both of us to be there....I shall expect and look for you Monday forenoon.
Heaven bless you until then.
Lovingly and with kisses, The Kid
Contrary to Grace's worst fears, Chester did meet her in DeRuyter as planned. There are so many "what ifs" in this story, as there are in all stories, one of which is what if Chester had backed out, leaving Grace there in that tiny hamlet alone. Would she have gone home, confided to her mother, a sister, a friend? Would she have lived?
The journey from DeRuyter to Big Moose Lake took from Monday to Wednesday, requiring two nights in hotels. Chester registered under false names for himself, as he had done in DeRuyter. At Big Moose Lake, he rented a row boat and the pair set off from the shore. The boat was observed by several witnesses, some on the shore, others on the lake. The understanding of the proprietor of the Glennmore Hotel, where Chester rented the boat, was that the couple would return in time for dinner. They didn't return, and the next day several people became involved in the search for the boat and its occupants. The boat was found, floating upside down. Grace was found, drowned. There was no sign of Chester.
Chester's account of what happened fluctuated, but he settled on a story about Grace being distraught and jumping into the lake to commit suicide, overturning the boat in the process. Unable to rescue her, he swam to shore and then walked four miles to Eagle Bay. When the boat left the Glennmore dock, it was known that he had a suitcase with him. His explanation for the dry clothes he was seen wearing on his hike was that the suitcase was left on shore when the couple stopped to picnic. He said he had planned to retrieve it on the way back to the Glennmore.
There never was a satisfactory explanation as to why Chester failed to seek help or report the incident. He arrived at Eagle Bay on foot, then took a small steamboat across the lake to the village of Inlet. He registered at the Arrowhead Hotel under his own name, Chester Gillette, Cortland.
For the next three days, Chester behaved very much like a young man with not a care in the world, on vacation, and enjoying every minute. He acted like any other tourist, hiking up a nearby mountain, conversing freely with people he met, and generally being charming, particularly when chatting with young women.
For Chester, life was about to change dramatically.
Grace died on Wednesday, July 11, 1906. Chester was arrested for her murder on Saturday, right after eating a leisurely breakfast at the Arrowhead Hotel.
Auburn Prison, Site of Chester's Execution in 1908
Chester was tried in Herkimer, Herkimer County, and the outcome was never in very much doubt. He had competent lawyers acting in his defense, but the prosecutor had amassed an astonishing amount of evidence against him. That evidence was entirely circumstantial; there were no witnesses to what happened to Grace on that summer day in the Adirondacks. Some of the evidence was secured in ways that would not be legal procedures today, but rights of the accused were secondary in that era.
The defendant himself had made too many mistakes, had acted like a man planning a crime before the fact with his use of aliases, had failed to do what "common decency" dictated when he walked away from the scene of Grace's death. When he then proceeded to act the tourist and enjoy life, he may have offended every last person who might otherwise have wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Publicly, Chester maintained to the end that he did not kill Grace. He may have confessed privately shortly before his execution; both his religious advisor and his mother said later he had. New York State's Governor, Charles E. Hughes [at left], called the prison the night before the execution and spoke with the former. He was apparently informed that a confession had been forthcoming.
Governor Hughes proved himself a bright star in public life, an honorable man before, during, and after his brief career as Governor of New York State. It seems likely he made that phone call to the prison in good faith and a willingness to act, had he been given any reason to do so.
Chester Gillette was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison on March 30, 1908. He was buried in a cemetery in Auburn. His grave is unmarked and its exact location is unknown. Grace Brown is buried in a cemetery not far from her family home. Her small headstone, aside from her name and dates of birth and death, says only "At Rest."
All of the scenes of this story are very familiar to me, having lived most of my life in Central New York State. The landscape, the small towns, the lakes and mountains of the Adirondacks, the farms and open fields spreading across the countryside are as familiar to me as my own neighborhood. South Otselic, DeRuyter, Cortland - places I have visited and explored many times. Herkimer County, even including the lakes in its northern region, is my territory too. Many of my extended family and their friends had small farms like the one that nurtured and sheltered Grace Brown, and as a child I loved visiting those rural homes.
Chester Gillette's life seems more remote, several times removed from the places where I grew up. He was in Montana and Oregon, Washington State, California. He was in the east only the last two years of his short life.
Still, in addition to our common ancestors, there is another coincidence in our respective lives. As I read his story, particularly the way it ended, I couldn't help thinking of a story my mother told many times. As a young child, she lived for a while in Auburn. The Prison's warden was a family friend, and he gave my mother and her family a tour of the prison. The itinerary included the "death chamber", no longer used by that time. Electrocutions were then held only at Sing Sing State Prison. Would she like to try out the electric chair? She would. And she did. For a lark, someone flipped the light switch, as if power was surging to the chair. My mother laughs when she tells that story.