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An American Tragedy

The Gillette Skirt Company on Miller Street in Cortland where Grace Brown and Chester Gillette first met. Chester's uncle owned the factory. Today the building is home to Wernick L. and Sons Supply Co. Inc.

[Gillette, Chester]. The Gillette Skirt Factory. Cortland, New York, [circa 1905]. Grace Brown, murdered by Chester Gillette in 1906, was an employee of the Gillette Skirt Factory. 'According to seller's information, the photograph had been in the possession of a woman who worked in the Gillette factory in Cortland, New York, where Chester Gillette and Grace Brown met. It is not known whether the photograph was taken before or after Grace's murder, nor if Grace is actually in the photograph.'--Gallery of Sinister Perspectives: An Exhibition of Highlights from the Borowitz True Crime Collection, J14. The Gillette case is the basis of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Filed in oversize box.

The actual case behind An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser
by Eric Rainey

Many consider Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy to be his greatest work, his magnum opus. Prior to the novel's runaway success, Dreiser had struggled for years to be a renowned author; but his fascination with a turn of the century crime of passion would reward him with the fame and success he sought. The plot of An American Tragedy deals with a love triangle that escalates into a tragic murder, and the subsequent trial of the main character, Clyde Griffiths. Clyde, a working class bellhop with dreams of the 'good' life, is torn between the allure of high society and well-to-do vixen Sondra Finchley, and his romance with a working class farmer's daughter, Roberta Alden. When Roberta reveals that she is bearing Clyde's unborn child, he decides to finish the matter once and for all, on a lake deep in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The resulting trial and its aftermath conclude the novel. The story spawned several films and plays based on its themes of love, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder. It's a tale that still appeals to us nearly a century later, and is considered to be an American literary classic, but it is often forgotten that the novel itself is based upon a real life American tragedy.

The murder of Grace Brown shocked the American public in 1906, when her young beau was put on trial for her gruesome dispatch; it was what we might call today, a 'media circus.' Dreiser researched the story religiously, and kept newspaper clippings for nearly 15 years before embarking on his epic rendition of the events. The novel greatly resembles the Clyde Griffiths was based on Chester Gillette: a young man was from a humble, yet tumultuous background. His parents were strict followers of the Salvation Army; their missionary lifestyle demanded constant travel, and caused upheaval for young Chester. As Chester matured, his wealthy uncle, Noah Horace Gillette, took him in, to see that he would receive a proper education. Chester was no scholar, however, and after he dropped out of the prep school two years later, his uncle secured employment for him at his prosperous factory, the Gillette Skirt Factory, located in Cortland, New York. While working his trade, Chester met a kind young farmer's daughter named Grace Brown, who also worked in the factory, while living locally with her sister. Over the months, they pursued a joyful romance (as displayed in their passionate letters), although it was rumored that Chester saw other young ladies whenever Grace returned to visit her parents upstate.
In these times during Grace's absence, his uncle introduced Chester to the upper crust of the local social circles, and the ambitious young man mingled with the affluent society girls. It was clear that Chester had no desire to follow his parents' spartan lifestyle. The elegant balls and soirees appealed to a young social climber like Chester Gillette. However, Chester's carefree existence came to a halt when Grace returned to Cortland to reveal that she was pregnant with his child, which would be a source of major embarrassment for a young man trying to break into the social strata. With this ultimatum, Chester did make his decision, but it wasn't what Grace, or anyone else, would have imagined.

He planned for the couple a trip to Big Moose Lake in the Adirondack mountains, where he intended to settle the matter permanently. However, his bizarre behavior during this trip would lead to his own undoing. During the numerous stops on the way to the lake, Chester used various aliases, even when they rented a boat from a lakeside innkeeper. Oddly, Grace signed her own name on the register. They were last seen by the innkeeper heading to the rowboat, and Chester was carrying only a suitcase and a tennis racket. Other witnesses would state that they noticed the young couple on the lake during the day, but as the darkness set, the true course of events were shrouded in mystery.

The next morning, the innkeeper was concerned that the couple had not returned as they said they would, and he, with a small party, went looking for the boat. Far down the lake, they discovered it overturned, and in the process of retrieving it, saw an unusual form lurking beneath the surface. As they pulled it up with a spiked staff, it was found to be the body of a young woman; her beauty marred by vicious lacerations across her face. The innkeeper recognized her, and despite their efforts, could not locate her companion. Later on, investigative inquiries into Grace's background revealed that she was known to be the sweetheart of Chester Gillette.

In the meantime, Chester was cavorting around the inns and tourist spots of the Adirondacks, and witnesses recalled his giddy, upbeat manner.. He made no mention of the events to anyone; instead he seemed to be immersed in a pleasurable tour of the Adirondacks. His trip was cut short when he was found by the authorities, and arrested after a fine breakfast at a local hotel. The trial of Chester Gillette for Grace Brown's murder was a major sensation at the time, and journalists converged from near and far to report every sordid detail. It contained all the lurid elements that the public loved (and still continue to love): an illicit affair, a scandalous illegitimate pregnancy, the brutal death of a lovely young girl. As far as Chester's legal prospects went, he was left to his own devices, and had to employ public defenders; his uncle distanced himself from his disgraced nephew and offered no aid whatsoever.

Due to the fact that there were no witnesses to Grace's death, the prosecution's evidence against Chester was wholly circumstantial. They argued that Chester beat Grace with his tennis racket (which was never recovered), and these are what caused the lacerations on her face. His mannerisms in the days after her death, his use of aliases, and lack of character witnesses were also key factors in the prosecution's case. The defense's version of the events, which included testimony by Chester himself, stated that Grace was upset about the situation, and recklessly stood up in the boat, only to fall in and drown. Chester said that the boat overturned when he tried to rescue her, and he fell into the water himself. He could not save her and was forced to swim ashore alone. Chester admitted to burying the tennis racket, but it was done in a misguided attempt to deflect any blame on himself in the event he was blamed for her death.

Obviously, the weak defense and his own dubious testimony sealed his fate, and the jury soon found Chester Gillette guilty. He spent two years on death row, and despite some informal claims of an eleventh hour confession, he never officially admitted to his guilt. Chester was executed in the electric chair on March 30, 1908.

Dreiser's masterful retelling of the events hit a nerve with the American public nearly two decades later, when An American Tragedy was published in 1925. There was some fictional embellishment involved, besides changing the names of the parties, most notably when Dreiser added a third character to the mix: the lovely socialite Sondra Finchley, whom Clyde pined for as his interest in Roberta faded. Regardless, this was in the days before the hard-boiled factual genre of True Crime existed, and the novel undoubtedly set the foundation for those authors, just as much as Capote's In Cold Blood did nearly thirty years later. The novel remains to this day highly regarded for its addressing of topics such as materialism, abortion and the death penalty (all of which were highly taboo at the time). An American Tragedy recounts the tale of a compelling mystery whose real truth lies forever in dark, still waters of Big Moose Lake.

author, Eric Rainey. posted on Thursday, February 10, 2011

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