Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

An American Tragedy: The Murder of Grace Brown


The evidence against Chester was plentiful, including his suspicious use of false names, the letters, and his carefree manner in the days following Grace's death. But without a confession or a witness, Ward knew that everything was circumstantial, and he made every effort to make as much of the evidence's inferences as he could.

Harriet Benedict, profile
Harriet Benedict, profile

Chester's trial began November 12, 1906, in the Herkimer County Courthouse. Spectators crowded into the courthouse as Chester's arrest and the investigation had produced a frenzy of gossip and speculation among the locals. One popular tale featured a Miss Harriet Benedict, a well-to-do acquaintance of Chester's that the newspapers speculated was the "other woman" that Chester had left Grace for. Harriet heatedly denied this, even 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 that not a word or suggestion was ever made between us (about an engagement)."

District Attorney Ward began the prosecution's case by bringing to light all the circumstantial evidence and posing several damning questions: Why was Chester using aliases on that particular journey? Where was the tennis racket he was seen to have at Big Moose Lake, but was gone by the time he arrived in Inlet? If he had witnessed a tragic accidental death of someone he cared for, why had he been so affable in the days leading up to his arrest? Had he purposely rowed to a particularly uninhabited part of Big Moose Lake to increase the chances of having no witnesses to Grace's premeditated murder?

D.A. George Ward
D.A. George Ward

If so, Ward said, the defendant was mistaken, and Ward promised to bring an actual witness to the crime later in the trial. This bit of information began a new swarm of conjecture in the newspapers and even more waves of excitement among the courtroom's observers.

Ward presented witnesses that could attest to every phase of the July journey. The coroner testified about his post-mortem examination of Grace's body and stated that she had drowned or died from blows to her head and face. Ward's anticipated witness to the crime, however, was anti-climactic, as he called to the stand a woman who claimed to have heard what she thought was a scream from the lake sometime on the evening of the 11th.

The Defense presented a different picture, and, using the desperation of Grace's last letters, stated that the young lady had committed suicide. When Chester took the stand, he reinforced the idea, saying that while on the boat he told Grace that he wanted to tell her family about the baby, but Grace, who could not swim, had panicked at the suggestion and jumped into the water. The boat had overturned in his unsuccessful attempts to save her, and so he swam to shore.

He explained damaging circumstantial evidence by testifying that he had taken the suitcase on the boat because it contained the lunch he and Grace shared that day – and he had buried the tennis racket on the way to Inlet out of fear that it might be mistakenly associated with Grace's accidental death.

Chester's somewhat feeble testimony was followed by a few witnesses to Chester's upstanding character, and then the Defense rested on the evening of December 4. The jury deliberated, and everyone expected a long wait until the verdict.

Everyone was surprised when, after only six hours, the jury returned and announced their verdict, which Chester immediately telegrammed to his family in Colorado:

"I am convicted. Will write."

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