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Chester Gillette Trial: 1906

Tragedy At Big Moose Lake, Chester Gillette: Murderer Or Coward?, Ward Finishes His Closing Argument

Defendant: Chester Ellsworth Gillette
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Albert M. Mills and Charles D. Thomas
Chief Prosecutor: George W. Ward
Judge: Irving R. Devendorf
Place: Herkimer, New York
Dates of Trial: November 12-December 4, 1906
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by electrocution

SIGNIFICANCE: The sordid murder of a secretary by her social-climbing boss received its share of press attention at the time but would be long since forgotten had it not provided Theodore Dreiser with the inspiration, the characters and the plot of arguably the greatest novel of the literary movement known as "naturalism": An American Tragedy.

Chester Ellsworth Gillette was born in 1884 to a well-to-do Christian family. His youth gave no inclination that he would become one of the most famous murderers of his time. As a child, Gillette did missionary work for the Salvation Army. He went to prestigious Oberlin College, which was well-known for its divinity school and missionary work in China. After Oberlin, Gillette went to work for a wealthy uncle who owned a dress factory in Cortland, a town located in upstate New York not far from Syracuse.

Gillette rose steadily in his uncle's business and soon became the factory manager. The local business community accepted Gillette as an up-and-coming young man. Gillette developed social ambitions as well. He was good looking and charming, and he mingled easily with the local gentry. Soon Gillette was a regular at the parties and other functions of Cortland society.

Still in his early 20s, Gillette had high hopes of marrying a girl from one of the town's wealthy families. There was an obstacle to Gillette's plans, however. Grace Brown, nicknamed "Billie," had left her parents' farm in South Otselic, New York, for Cortland and a clerical job at Gillette's factory. Gillette had an affair with her, and in 1906 she became pregnant. If he were to marry Brown, it would ruin Gillette's ambitions as a social climber.

One of the characteristics of the criminal mentality is that when faced with a difficult personal situation, a criminal will go beyond the boundaries of normal behavior and use violence to resolve the problem. Gillette was such a man. In July 1906, he went on vacation, taking Brown with him to a hotel on the shores of Big Moose Lake outside the little town of Herkimer, New York, roughly 60 miles from Cortland. Grace Brown never returned from this vacation.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917