Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

An American Tragedy: The Murder of Grace Brown

Last Chances and Legacy

Justice was to be speedy, and Chester was scheduled to be executed the last week of December. But an appeal began almost immediately, and reporters hounded Chester for a dramatic confession that he would not give. His mother Louise sent a telegram begging him to confess and repent. Chester responded testily with a message that said he was sorry to learn that his mother had believed the newspapers over his own words.

Chastised, Louise renounced any thought of Chester's guilt and began aggressively seeking funds for her son's pending appeal.

The Denver Times decided to make the most of Louise's passions, and sent her back to New York to cover Chester's story from her unique point of view. Louise happily accepted the Times' money, and supplemented her earnings by giving lectures on Chester's situation to groups of interested people. She ultimately failed to raise enough money, however, and had to return to Colorado.

The appeal was finally brought before the Appeals Court in early 1908, and was denied in mid-February. Chester was again scheduled for execution – this time in the final week of March.

Louise again tried to drum up support of her son's innocence to anyone who would listen – even bringing forth a theory that Grace had died in an epileptic fit that caused her to fall overboard. She traveled again to New York to petition the governor, who refused to intervene.

During his final days, Chester spoke several times with his mother and with a minister (sparking even more newspaper claims of a final confession), and on the morning of March 30, 1908, he was electrocuted and later buried in an unmarked grave near Auburn, New York.

An American Tragedy
An American Tragedy
The sad tale of Grace Brown and the questionable actions of Chester Gillette most likely would have been forgotten in later years, if not for author Theodore Dreiser, who avidly read the accounts of the investigation and trial, and who began sculpting a book based on the case. The resulting novel, An American Tragedy, established his reputation as an outstanding American novelist, brought the case back into the public's eye upon its publication in 1925, and remains on several lists of the "best" novels ever written.

Historians and scholars of the case debate how close to the actual tale Dreiser stayed when he told the story of Clyde Griffths (Chester Gillette) and Roberta Alden (Grace Brown). Dreiser certainly played up the tenuous "love triangle" aspect involving Sondra Finchley (Harriet Benedict) that may never have occurred in real life.

The novel's publication brought new debates about the somewhat forgotten case, and theories – such as the injuries to Grace's face were not caused by Chester's tennis racket, but were the result of the use of the spiked pole that fished her out of the water – were presented and argued heatedly.

Stage versions of Dreiser's novel were quickly presented in New York, and even the young movie industry came calling, resulting in a Paramount production of the novel in 1931.

The film resurrected the saga of Grace and Chester yet again, but brought newfound controversy and legal actions. Dreiser sued to have the movie's release stopped, as he was reportedly unhappy with the adaptation. Grace's mother soon followed with her own lawsuit against Paramount, saying that despite the fact that fictitious names were used, it portrayed Grace and the Brown family in a false and unflattering manner. Dreiser's suit was ultimately thrown out, and Mrs. Brown settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

A Place in the Sun
A Place in the Sun
Hollywood's best adaptation of the story, however, was an updating of Dreiser's novel titled A Place In The Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters as the Chester and Grace characters, with Elizabeth Taylor thrown in as the Harriet Benedict character. The 1951 movie was a critical and popular success, going on to be nominated for nine Oscar awards and winning six.

Today, Grace and Chester's story is popularly known only by these fictionalized accounts. Historians and crime writers occasionally tackle the case and try to conclude exactly what happened that dark night on Big Moose Lake, but without a confession or witness, they can only present educated guesses.

The truth was only known to Grace and to Chester, and, as a ballad inspired by the true tale said long ago:

Away from the sight of people

where nobody heard her last call,

or no one could tell how it happened…

But God - and Gillette - know all.


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