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Chester Gillette Trial: 1906

Chester Gillette: Murderer Or Coward?

Mills and Thomas knew that the evidence of Gillette's guilt was highly persuasive. He had been on the boat with Brown, left the scene under highly suspicious circumstances, and had the stigma of having gotten Brown pregnant but having not married her. However, they believed they could make a reasonable defense, based on Gillette's story that the boat had capsized after Brown jumped in the lake. According to Gillette, after the boat tipped over, he fell into the water. He came up but could not find Brown. Could it be that he had panicked and fled? This would indicate poor judgment, in that day tantamount to cowardice. But poor judgment and cowardice are not murder.

Thomas made the defense's pitch to the jury:

Now gentlemen, there are such things as moral cowards. There are men so constituted that in the presence of a great calamity they must loose themselves, and this boy, in my opinion, in that condition, wandered to the Arrowhead and registered under his own name. He didn't try to run away. He didn't try to conceal himself at all.

Thomas then called Gillette to the stand, and asked him about the critical events immediately following what Gillette said was Brown's decision to kill herself. The following is an excerpt from Thomas' questioning of his client:

Gillette: Then she said, 'Well, I will end it here,' and she, well, jumped into the lake; stepped up onto the boat, kind of threw herself in.

Thomas: What did you do?

Gillette: I tried to reach her, I leaned back in the seat in the other end, the bow seat, I guess. I tried to reach her and, well, I was not quick enough. I went into the lake, too. The boat tipped over as I started to get up. The boat went right over then. Of course, I went into the lake.

Thomas: Go on and describe what you did.

Gillette: Then I came up. I halloed, grabbed hold of the boat. Then, as soon as I could get the water out of my eyes and see, I got hold of the boat or got to the boat.

Thomas: Did you see her?

Gillette: No, I stayed there at the boat but a minute or two. It seemed like a long time, anyway, and I didn't see her. Then I swam to shore.

District Attorney Ward, knowing the thinness of the defense's argument, pressed home his attack. Not only could the defense not explain the tennis racquet, but Ward had five doctors to testify that Brow's autopsy showed evidence of blows to the body. Further, Gillette later seemed to change his story, suggesting that the boat had tipped over first and Brown had hit her head against the side before sinking beneath the lake. This sounded like an attempt to explain away the results of the autopsy. Ward said of the defense:

When the learned counsel made this address to you in a despairing effort to withdraw from the clutches of the law a man whom he knows and whom I know and whom you all know that this evidence condemns beyond all question, when he stands up here and says that five of these doctors, men who enter your houses day after day and have your lives and the lives of your families in their hands, are perjurers and wanton liars, it ought not to be necessary to make an argument against such a statement as that.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Chester Gillette Trial: 1906 - Tragedy At Big Moose Lake, Chester Gillette: Murderer Or Coward?, Ward Finishes His Closing Argument