Murder of Grace Brown
Grace Mae Brown (March 20, 1886 – July 11, 1906) 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.
The young textile worker's life has inspired such fictional treatments as Theodore Dreiser's 1925 novel An American Tragedy, and Jennifer Donnelly's 2003 novel A Northern Light. The murder was analyzed and explored in 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.
Brown grew up in South Otselic, New York, the middle child and a daughter of a successful Chenango County dairy farmer and his wife. She was reportedly given the nickname "Billy" because of her love of the contemporary hit song "(Won't You Come Home) Bill Bailey". She attended grammar school in the village, and became close friends with teacher Maud Kenyon Crumb and her husband. Brown later often signed her love letters "The Kid" after the Western outlaw Billy the Kid.
Chester Gillette, nephew of the factory owner, had had a less stable childhood. He moved to Cortland in 1905 and started working at the company. Because of his uncle, he met people in upper-class society in Cortland. He also began a romantic and sexual relationship with Brown, a "factory girl."
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 writers suggest that Gillette had promised to take Brown to a maternity home in upstate New York, where she could live until she delivered the child.
Gillette and Brown stayed for a night in Utica, New York. They continued by train to Tupper Lake in Franklin County, where they spent another night. Rain the next day ruined their plans for an outing on a nearby lake, so they returned south by train to Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County, New York.
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 (since Gillette's suitcase was monogrammed "C.E.G.", he chose a name with the same initials). While they were on the lake, 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.
After Brown's body was found the next day, Gillette was arrested in the nearby town of Inlet, New York. The defense at trial claimed that Grace had been confused, and suddenly 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."
From 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 gained the trial national attention. In her letters, Brown pleaded with Gillette to accept responsibility for her pregnancy. In her final letter, written July 5, Brown looked forward to her impending Adirondack trip with Gillette. 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."
Copies of Brown's love letters were published in booklet form, and sold outside the courtroom during the trial. Theodore Dreiser paraphrased many of these letters in his novel An American Tragedy, quoting the final letter almost verbatim. Jennifer Donnelly used many of the letters in her novel A Northern Light. Letters written between the two, as well as Gillette's diary, have been donated to Hamilton College.
The trial lasted three weeks, and resulted in a guilty verdict for Gillette for the premeditated murder of Brown; he was sentenced to death. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, and Governor Charles Evans Hughes refused to grant clemency.
- Donnelly, Jennifer: A Northern Light; London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, Plc, 2003.
- Brandon, Craig: Murder in the Adirondacks; Utica, New York: North Country Books, Inc., 1986, 1995.
- Brownell, Joseph and Wawrzaszek, Patricia: Adirondack Tragedy; Interlaken, New York; Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1986.
- Thompson, Herold W. Body, Boots and Britches; Cantry, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1939, 1967.
Dreiser's novel inspired two films, An American Tragedy (1931) and A Place in the Sun (1951). The latter starred Shelley Winters, 19-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift. Elements of the Murder at Big Moose Lake seem to inspire Woody Allen's 2005 film, Match Point, which has been thought to have similarities with A Place in the Sun.
- Murder on Big Moose? (1988) Director Linda Marie Randulfe; Producer, reporter, and writer; Rochelle Cassella; Public Broadcasting Council of CNY.
- Unsolved Mysteries (1996): Executive producer Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove, NBC Broadcasting.
Tobias Picker composed the music for an opera adaptation of An American Tragedy (2005), with a libretto by Gene Scheer. Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, the work premiered at Lincoln Center in New York City.
- "Los Angeles Herald 27 November 1906 — California Digital Newspaper Collection". cdnc.ucr.edu. Retrieved 2019-12-20.
- ovcs.org -Retrieved 2011-02-18 Archived July 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
- "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.
- Staff report (July 14, 1906). "Mystery in Girl's Death: Body Found in Adirondack Lake -- Man Companion Missing"], New York Times
- "Grace Brown a suicide, says Gillette at trial", New York Times, 29 November 1906; nytimes.com -Retrieved 2011-02-18
- "Grace Brown's letters stir audience to tears", New York Times, 21 November 1906
- "Clemency Denied" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-18.
- Brandon, Craig (2006). "Murder in the Adirondacks". Archived from the original on 2011-02-08. Retrieved 2011-02-18.