Chester Gillette

Last updated
Chester Gillette Chester-Gillete.jpg
Chester Gillette

Chester Ellsworth Gillette (August 9, 1883 – March 30, 1908), an American convicted murderer, became the basis for the fictional character Clyde Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy , which was the basis of the 1931 film An American Tragedy and the 1951 film A Place in the Sun .



Gillette was born in Montana, but spent part of his childhood in Spokane, Washington. His parents were financially comfortable, but deeply religious, and eventually renounced material wealth to join The Salvation Army. The family traveled around the United States West Coast and to Hawaii during his adolescence. Chester never took to the religious aspects of his upbringing. He attended Oberlin College's preparatory school on the generosity of a wealthy uncle, but left after two years in 1903. After leaving school, he worked at odd jobs until 1905 when he took a position at an uncle's skirt factory in Cortland, New York.

Murder of Grace Brown

Grace Brown Grace brown photo.jpg
Grace Brown

At the factory, Gillette met Grace Brown, another employee. Gillette and Brown soon began a sexual relationship, with Brown assuming Gillette would marry her. In the Spring 1906, Brown revealed that she was pregnant. She continued to pressure Gillette to marry her, often writing him pleading letters. 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 story involved Miss Harriet Benedict, a wealthy acquaintance of Gillette who the newspapers later speculated was the "other woman" for whom Chester had left Grace. Harriet heatedly denied this, 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 ... not a word or suggestion was ever made between us [about an engagement]." [1]

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, and Gillette played for time with vague statements about their future and of their going away on a trip sometime soon. [2]

Finally, Gillette made arrangements for a trip to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. The pair stayed for a night in Utica, New York, and then continued to Tupper Lake in Franklin County, spending the night. Rain the next day ruined their plans for an outing on a nearby lake, so they returned south to Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County. At the lakeside Glenmore 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 July 11, Gillette took Brown in a rowboat on Big Moose Lake, where he clubbed her with his tennis racquet and left her to drown. An overturned boat was found floating in the lake, together with Gillette's hat, leading authorities initially to believe both had drowned. Meanwhile, Gillette, carrying a suitcase, hiked through the woods to Fulton Chain Lakes, where he checked into the Arrowhead hotel under his real name. Later, witnesses said that Gillette seemed calm, collected, and perfectly at ease; nothing seemed to be amiss. Brown's body was found at the bottom of the lake the next day. An autopsy revealed she had suffered major head trauma, turning an accidental drowning case into a murder investigation. [3] [ better source needed ] Gillette had done a poor job of planning the cover-up, and was quickly arrested in nearby Inlet, New York.

Trial and execution

The trial took place in Herkimer County, and quickly drew nationwide attention. Gillette's uncle refused to pay for his defense. Court appointed attorneys claimed that their client was innocent, that Brown had committed suicide, and that Gillette was a helpless onlooker to the suicide. It did not help that Gillette had changed his story - claiming he wasn't there when Brown drowned, then accidental drowning, then suicide. He also had a hard time explaining to the jury Brown's injuries, why he took his suitcase on a boat ride, and how it ended up dry even though the boat overturned. The jury convicted Gillette of murder. The New York Appeals Court upheld the verdict, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes refused to grant clemency or give a reprieve. [4] On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette was executed by electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York. [5] The case was officially reported as People v. Gillette, 191 N.Y. 107, 83 N.E. 680 (1908).

In recent years

The television series Unsolved Mysteries aired an episode about the historical incident of Gillette and Brown in January 1996

In 2007, Gillette's diary, which he wrote during the last seven months he was in prison, was donated to the Hamilton College Library by Gillette's grandniece. In addition to the diary, 12 letters written by Gillette during his time in prison also were donated. Eleven of the letters were addressed to Bernice Ferrin, a friend of the family who moved to Auburn, New York to stay with Gillette's sister Hazel. The twelfth letter, a farewell letter written the day before his execution, was addressed to Hazel Gillette. The diary and letters were published in December 2007, almost 100 years after the execution of Chester Gillette.

Theodore Dreiser's 1925 An American Tragedy is based on the case. [6] His novel inspired two films in turn: An American Tragedy and A Place In The Sun .

Related Research Articles

Theodore Dreiser Novelist, journalist

Theodore Herman Albert Dreiser was an American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school. His novels often featured main characters who succeeded at their objectives despite a lack of a firm moral code, and literary situations that more closely resemble studies of nature than tales of choice and agency. Dreiser's best known novels include Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925).

Oneida County, New York County in New York

Oneida County is a county located in the state of New York, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the population was 234,878. The county seat is Utica. The name is in honor of the Oneida, one of the Five Nations of the Iroquois League or Haudenosaunee, which had long occupied this territory at the time of European encounter and colonization. The federally recognized Oneida Indian Nation has had a reservation in the region since the late 18th century, after the American Revolutionary War.

Inlet, New York Town in New York, United States

Inlet is a town in Hamilton County, New York, United States. The population was 333 at the 2010 census. The name is derived from its location at the east end (inlet) of Fourth Lake, part of the Fulton Chain of Lakes.

Herkimer (village), New York Village in New York, United States

Herkimer is a village on the north side of the Mohawk River and the county seat of Herkimer County, New York, United States, about 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Utica. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 7,743. It was part of the Burnetsfield Patent and the first European-American settlement this far west in the Mohawk Valley.

Herkimer (town), New York Town in New York, United States

Herkimer is a town in Herkimer County, New York, United States, southeast of Utica. It is named after Nicholas Herkimer. The population was 10,175 at the 2010 census.

<i>An American Tragedy</i> Novel by Theodore Dreiser

An American Tragedy is a 1925 novel by American writer Theodore Dreiser. He began the manuscript in the summer of 1920, but a year later abandoned most of that text. It was based on the notorious murder of Grace Brown in 1906 and the trial of her lover. In 1923 Dreiser returned to the project, and with the help of his wife Helen and two editor-secretaries, Louise Campbell and Sally Kusell, he completed the massive novel in 1925.

Area codes 315 and 680

Area codes 315 and 680 are telephone area codes serving the same area of north-central New York. The territory stretches from the western side of Wayne County to Little Falls, north to the Canada–United States border, east to Massena and south to near Cortland. Most of the area's population lives in Syracuse and its suburbs. Other major population centers include Utica and Watertown.

Central New York

Central New York is the central region of New York State, roughly including the following counties and cities:

Carl Eugene Watts serial killer

Carl Eugene Watts, also known by his nickname Coral, was an American serial killer dubbed "The Sunday Morning Slasher". He died of prostate cancer while serving two sentences of life imprisonment without parole in a Michigan prison for the murders of Helen Dutcher and Gloria Steele, although the number of his victims may have exceeded 80.

Big Moose Lake

Big Moose Lake, at the head of the Moose River, is a large lake about five miles (8 km) north of Fourth Lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The lake is within both Herkimer and Hamilton counties, and covers portions of the towns of Webb and Long Lake. Located southwest of the lake is the hamlet of Big Moose.

<i>A Place in the Sun</i> (film) 1951 film by George Stevens

A Place in the Sun is a 1951 American drama film based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the 1926 play, also titled An American Tragedy. It tells the story of a working-class young man who is entangled with two women: one who works in his wealthy uncle's factory, and the other a beautiful socialite. Another adaptation of the novel had been filmed once before, as An American Tragedy, in 1931. All these works were inspired by the real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette in 1906, which resulted in Gillette's conviction and execution by electric chair in 1908.

Auburn Correctional Facility is a state prison on State Street in Auburn, New York, United States. It was built on land that was once a Cayuga village. It is classified as a maximum security facility.

Leatherstocking Council is the Boy Scouts of America council which serves Herkimer, Oneida and Madison Counties as well as part of Hamilton, Otsego, Delaware and Lewis counties in the State of New York.

<i>A Northern Light</i> book by Jennifer Donnelly

A Northern Light, or A Gathering Light in the U.K., is an American historical novel for young adults, written by Jennifer Donnelly and published by Harcourt in 2003. The story is known as Realistic Fiction because of the untrue life story of Mattie Gokey, the real death of Grace Brown, and the events that could take place in the 1900s. Set in northern Herkimer County, New York in 1906, it is based on the murder of Grace Brown case —the basis also for An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925). It features a girl -the narrator-, who gets caught up in the events.

Mayerling incident event

The Mayerling incident is the series of events surrounding the apparent murder–suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover, Mary Freiin von Vetsera. Rudolf, who was married to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, and was heir apparent to the Imperial throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Murder of Grace Brown

Grace Mae Brown was a young American woman who was known for having been drowned by her boyfriend on Big Moose Lake, New York, after she told him she was pregnant. The events and trial of the suspect attracted national newspaper attention.

David Carpenter American serial killer on death row

David Joseph Carpenter, a.k.a. The Trailside Killer, is an American serial killer known for stalking and murdering a variety of individuals on hiking trails in state parks near San Francisco, California. Carpenter killed at least ten individuals, with two attempted victims, Steven Haertle and Lois Rinna, surviving. He used a .38 caliber handgun in all but one of the killings; a .44 caliber handgun was used in the killing of Edda Kane on Mount Tamalpais.

<i>An American Tragedy</i> (opera) opera

An American Tragedy is an opera in two acts composed by Tobias Picker, with a libretto by Gene Scheer. This was Picker's fourth opera, written four years after the debut of Thérèse Raquin. Based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, An American Tragedy, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and premiered in New York City on December 2, 2005.

<i>Avana Ivan</i> 1962 film by Sundaram Balachander

Avana Ivan is a 1962 Indian Tamil-language thriller film directed by S. Balachander. The film was an adaptation of the 1951 American film A Place in the Sun, itself adapted from the novel An American Tragedy written by Theodore Dreiser. The novel was based on the Gillette murder case that shook America in the early 20th century.

<i>An American Tragedy</i> (film) 1931 film by Josef von Sternberg

An American Tragedy (1931) is a pre-Code drama film directed by Josef von Sternberg. It was produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy and the 1926 play adaptation. These were based on the historic 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake in upstate New York.


  1. "truTV - Reality TV - Comedy". truTV. Archived from the original on 2011-10-20. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  2. "truTV - Reality TV - Comedy". truTV. Archived from the original on 2010-04-26. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  3. Blanco, Juan Ignacio. "Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers".
  4. "Reprieve Denied" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-01-02.
  5. Brandon, Craig (2006). "Murder in the Adirondacks". Archived from the original on 2011-02-08.
  6. Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 195-196. ISBN   0-86576-008-X