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Chester Gillette Trial: 1906

Ward Finishes His Closing Argument

But why had Gillette been so inept in covering his tracks? If Gillette had planned Brown's murder, why hadn't he disposed of the tennis racquet better or otherwise killed her in a less suspicious manner? After all, it had taken practically no time for the police to arrest Gillette. Ward pointed out that the arrogance of murderers is often beyond the pale of ordinary human reason:

He is bloodthirsty and brutal. He is a blunderer. He does not reason on the lines that any one of us do. He reasons on different lines. Everything looks red before him. There is nothing but one object that he is going to grasp, and that is his personal safety, his personal well-being, the possibility of an arrest. He sees nothing else. He cares for nothing else. He casts all these things behind him and says "I can do this slyly. I can get the girl on the bottom of the lake. I can do it secretly. I can do it carefully. I stand well in Cortland. I go to church. They think I am a paragon of virtue, a decent man, when in reality I am a ravisher. What I do in secret will be unknown. I can take her out there and leave her body in the lake.…"

On December 4, 1906, after deliberating for only a couple of hours, the jury announced its verdict: guilty. Judge Devendorf prepared to sentence Gillette to death, as prescribed by New York law. But before he pronounced sentence, the judge asked Gillette if he had anything to say. Gillette replied:

I have. I desire to state that I am innocent of this crime and therefore ought not to be punished. I think that is all.

Judge Devendorf then sentenced Gillette to die in the electric chair. Following Gillette's trial and sentence, his execution was delayed while Mills and Thomas appealed. They based their appeals on a lengthy list of objections that they had made at trial and a trial record that was more than 3,000 thousand pages long. On February 18, 1908, the New York Court of Appeals rejected Mills' and Thomas' arguments. Chief Judge Frank A. Hiscock's opinion was terse and unequivocal:

No controversy throws the shadow of doubt or speculation over the primary fact that about 6 o'clock in the afternoon of July 11, 1906, while she was with the defendant, Grace Brown met an unnatural death and her body sank to the bottom of Big Moose Lake.

With the legal appeals finally at an end, Gillette went to the electric chair on March 30, 1908.

Gillette's story lingered in the memory of a young muckraking novelist. In An American Tragedy, a novel whose plot and principal characters were closely modeled on the events and figures in the case, Theodore Dreiser resurrected Gillette as the embodiment and culmination of the money-grubbing and social climbing that Dreiser believed had corrupted the nation's moral values. The novel's critical and commercial success ensured that the sordid murderer became one of the archetypal and tragic villains in American literature.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Brown, Grace. Grace Brown's Love Letters. Herkimer, N.Y.: Citizen Pub. Co., 1906.

Brownell, Joseph W. Adirondack Tragedy. Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1986.

Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.

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