Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906
Relive the heart-wrenching story of one of the most famous crimes in New York State history: the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake. Brownell and Enos deliver a fascinating day-by-day account of the events leading to the death of Grace Brown, the media hyped, sensational trial of Chester Gillette, and the cultural immortalization of an Adirondack Tragedy. First published in 1986, Nicholas K. Burns published this revised edition in August of 2003.
Made famous by a media frenzy fueled by the sensational newspaper reporting of 1906, this “crime of the century” seeped into the American culture. The story of Chester and Grace was the inspiration for Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy, the Hollywood movie, A Place in the Sun, and Tobias Picker’s opera, An American Tragedy, performed recently at the Metropolitan in New York City.
This is the true story of Chester Gillette, son of traveling evangelists from the West, and his love affair with Grace Brown, daughter of a simple, hard-working farm family of central New York. It is also the story of turn-of-the-century American values: the Horatio Alger rise to riches of Chester’s uncle Horace, owner of the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland where Chester and Grace worked; the lower class Chester, whose family moved from central New York to seek their fortune in the West; and the farmer’s daughter, Grace, whose unwanted pregnancy with Chester led to her tragic drowning at Big Moose Lake.
Many questions remain unanswered to this day. Did Chester commit pre-meditated murder? Did Grace fall in the lake or was she pushed by Chester? And what about Grace’s eerie prophecy in her last letter to Chester where she tells him that she has been “bidding goodbye” to everything that is her home while terrified of telling her mother of her predicament. She says of her family, “I know I shall never see any of them again, and mamma! Great heavens how I love mamma.” And, “If I come back dead, perhaps if she does know, she won’t be angry with me…. I wish I could die.” The postmark on her letter to Chester was Friday, July 6, 1906; thirteen-year-old Roy Higby discovered her body the next week in Big Moose Lake. Chester Gillette was arrested for her murder, tried, convicted, and executed on March 30, 1908.
Adirondack Tragedy contains 32 black and white photos, 16 maps and drawings, and the never before published reproduction of the original “last letter” of Grace Brown to Chester from the archives of the Hamilton College Library. Three chapters are devoted to Drieser’s novel, the Hollywood versions of the story, and a comparison with the facts of the case.
Joseph Brownell was a young boy in the Adirondack foothills when he overheard his relatives talking about the excitement of an earlier day—a girl died in Big Moose Lake and her friend was accused of murder. Then, years later, he moved to Cortland where the story had started in 1906. He is a geographer, retired from SUNY Cortland. He has done many interviews as an authority on the Gillette case.
Patricia W. Enos is a native of Rochester, New York. She spent twenty-five years at the SUNY Health Science Center in Syracuse where she was privileged to be on the faculty of the medical Radiography Program for twelve of those years. Patricia was also employed at the Monroe County Health Department in Rochester.