Murder of Grace Brown

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Grace Brown

Grace Mae Brown (March 20, 1886 – July 11, 1906) was an American skirt factory worker whose murder caused a nationwide sensation, and whose life inspired the fictional character Roberta Alden in Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy as well as Jennifer Donnelly's novel A Northern Light . The facts of the real murder are laid out in the two non-fiction books, both published in 1986: Adirondack Tragedy: The Gillette Murder Case of 1906, written by Joseph W. Brownell and Patricia A. Wawrzaszek, and Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited, by Craig Brandon.

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).

<i>An American Tragedy</i>

An American Tragedy is a novel by American writer Theodore Dreiser, published at the end of 1925. He began the manuscript in the summer of 1920, but a year later abandoned most of that text. 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.

Jennifer Donnelly American writer

Jennifer Donnelly is an American writer of young adult fiction best known for the historical novel A Northern Light.



Brown grew up in South Otselic, New York, the daughter of a successful Chenango County farmer. She was reportedly given the nickname "Billy" because of her love of the contemporary hit song Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey ; Brown often signed her love letters "The Kid" after the Western outlaw Billy the Kid. She attended grammar school in the village, and became close friends with teacher Maud Kenyon Crumb and her husband. In 1904, she moved to nearby Cortland to live with a married sister, and went to work at the Gillette Skirt Company. [1]

Otselic, New York Town in New York, United States

Otselic is a town in Chenango County, New York, United States, situated on the north border of Chenango County, northwest of the city of Norwich. The population of the town was 1,054 at the 2010 census. The town is named after a river flowing through it, the Otselic, which is an Oneida word for "place of wild plums". The Otselic valley is the predominant geographic feature in the town, connecting it to the surrounding region north and south.

Wont You Come Home Bill Bailey song performed by Al Hirt

"(Won't You Come Home) Bill Bailey", originally titled "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please.... Come Home?" is a popular song published in 1902. It is commonly referred to as simply "Bill Bailey".

Billy the Kid American cattle rustler, gambler, horse thief, outlaw, cowboy and ranch hand

Billy the Kid was an American Old West outlaw and gunfighter who killed eight men before he was shot and killed at age 21. He took part in New Mexico's Lincoln County War, during which he allegedly committed three murders.


Chester Gillette, the company owner's nephew, moved to Cortland in 1905, and began a romantic and sexual relationship with Brown. In Spring 1906, Brown became pregnant, and she returned to her parents in South Otselic. Gillette agreed to take her away to the Adirondacks, apparently promising marriage. Because Brown packed her entire wardrobe for the trip and Gillette packed just a small suitcase, some 21st-century historians conjecture that Gillette had promised to take Brown to a maternity home in upstate New York. Gillette and Brown stayed for a night in Utica, New York, and then continued by train 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 again by train to Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County, New York. [2]

Chester Gillette

Chester Ellsworth Gillette, 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.

A maternity home, or maternity housing program, is a form of supportive housing provided to pregnant women. Today’s maternity housing programs support a woman in need of a stable home environment to reach her goals in a variety of areas, not just pregnancy. In the past, many maternity homes had jailhouse aspects and forcibly institutionalized lower-class "fallen" unwed pregnant women.

Utica, New York City in New York ----, United States

Utica is a city in the Mohawk Valley and the county seat of Oneida County, New York, United States. The tenth-most-populous city in New York, its population was 62,235 in the 2010 U.S. census. Located on the Mohawk River at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains, Utica is approximately 95 miles northwest of Albany, 55 mi (89 km) east of Syracuse and 240 mi (386 km) northwest of New York City. Utica and the nearby city of Rome anchor the Utica–Rome Metropolitan Statistical Area, which comprises all of Oneida and Herkimer counties.


On July 11, the couple were seen rowing out on Big Moose Lake near Covewood Lodge. Gillette had entered the pseudonym "Carl Grahm" in the hotel register (Gillette's suitcase was monogrammed "C.E.G.", and he was careful to choose a name with the same initials). Gillette is believed to have struck Brown over the head with a tennis racket, and she fell out of the boat and drowned. Gillette returned alone, and gave varying explanations for what had occurred. [3] Brown's body was found the next day, and Gillette was arrested in the nearby town of Inlet, New York. The defense at trial claimed that Grace was perplexed, and just jumped out of the boat and into the water, despite being fully clothed. Gillette testified, "We talked a little more, then she got up and jumped in the water, just jumped in." [4]

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 part of Herkimer and Hamilton counties, covering portions of the towns of Webb and Long Lake. Located southwest of the lake is the hamlet of Big Moose.

Covewood Lodge United States national historic site

Covewood Lodge is a historic summer camp complex located at Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County, New York. It was built during the 1920s and consists of the main lodge surrounded by 18 historic cottages. The main lodge is a T-shaped rustic camp building built in 1924–25. It is a two-story structure, built of logs and sheathed with vertically and diagonally laid planks. It features a two-story verandah supported by massive tree trunks.

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.

Love letters

In Gillette's rented room, authorities confiscated Brown's love letters to Gillette as evidence. District attorney George Ward read the letters aloud to the court during the trial in the fall of 1906, and Brown's letters gave the trial national attention. Brown pleaded with Gillette in the letters to accept responsibility for her pregnancy. In her final letter, written July 5, Brown looked forward to her impending Adirondack trip with Gillette, and she said farewell to her childhood home of South Otselic, wishing she could confess her pregnancy to her mother: "I know I shall never see any of them again. And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don't know what I shall do without her (...) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, 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." [5]

Copies of Brown's love letters were published in booklet form, and even sold outside the courtroom during the trial. Theodore Dreiser paraphrased many of the actual letters in An American Tragedy , quoting the final letter almost verbatim. Jennifer Donnelly used many of the actual letters in A Northern Light . Letters written between the two, as well as the diary of Gillette, have been donated to Hamilton College.

<i>A Northern Light</i>

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.

The trial

The trial lasted three weeks, and resulted in a guilty verdict and a death sentence. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the judgement, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes refused to grant clemency. [6]

Gillette was executed on March 30, 1908 in Auburn Correctional Facility by electrocution. [7]


A Place in the Sun is a 1951 American drama film based on the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser



An American Tragedy: Tobias Picker; 2005 opera premiered in the Lincoln Center.

Related Research Articles

This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1906.

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.

<i>The Titan</i> (novel)

The Titan is a novel by Theodore Dreiser, completed in 1914 as a sequel to his 1912 novel The Financier. Both books were originally a single manuscript, but the narrative's length required splitting it into two separate novels. Dreiser's manuscript of The Titan was rejected by Harper & Brothers, publisher of The Financier, due to its uncompromising realism; John Lane published the book in 1914. The Titan is the second part of Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire, a saga of ruthless businessman Frank Cowperwood. The third part of the trilogy, The Stoic, was Dreiser's final novel, published in 1947 after his death.

<i>Jennie Gerhardt</i> novel by Theodore Dreiser

Jennie Gerhardt is a 1911 novel by Theodore Dreiser.

Thelma Somerville Cudlipp was an American artist and book illustrator.

<i>Loon Lake</i> (novel) novel by E. L. Doctorow

Loon Lake is a 1980 novel by E. L. Doctorow published in 1980. The plot of the novel is mostly set on Loon Lake in the Adirondacks during the Depression. The novel is one of the more experimental works of Doctorow, incorporating a great variety of different techniques, many of which are used for preventing the reader from an easy understanding of the narration: traditional narratives, stream of consciousness, poetry, mixed up chronology.

<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.

American Tragedy may refer to:

<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 is a 1931 Pre-Code drama film, produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures, and directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film is based on Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, which itself alludes to the real-life 1906 murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette.

The Woman on the Jury is a lost 1924 American silent drama film produced and released by Associated First National and directed by Harry Hoyt. It is based on a Broadway stage play, The Woman on the Jury, and stars Sylvia Breamer and Bessie Love. The story was refilmed in 1929 as an early talkie under the title The Love Racket starring Dorothy Mackaill.

Edna Kenton

Edna Kenton was an American writer and literary critic. Kenton is best remembered for her 1928 work The Book of Earths, which collected various unusual and controversial theories about a hollow earth, Atlantis, and similar matters.

Moss Lake also known as Whipple Lake is located northwest of Eagle Bay, New York. The outlet flows into North Branch Moose River. Fish species present in the lake are brook trout, lake trout, atlantic salmon, brown trout, yellow perch, and black bullhead. There is trail access located off Big Moose Lake Road. There is no ice fishing allowed on Moss Lake.


  1. -Retrieved 2011-02-18 Archived July 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Herkimer County Courthouse and the Trial That Inspired "An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser". UCS Benchmarks. New York State Unified Court System. 2006. Retrieved 27 March 2013.
  3. Staff report (July 14, 1906). Mystery in Girl's Death: Body Found in Adirondack Lake -- Man Companion Missing. New York Times
  4. Grace Brown a suicide, says Gillette at trial New York Times, originally published: November 29, 1906; -Retrieved 2011-02-18
  5. Grace Brown's letters stir audience to tears
  6. "Clemency Denied" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-18.
  7. Brandon, Craig (2006). "Murder in the Adirondacks". Archived from the original on 2011-02-08. Retrieved 2011-02-18.