Thursday, May 25, 2006
On the evening of July 14, 1906, a train pulled into the station in the town of Herkimer, NY. Herkimer was the county seat of Herkimer County. There were huge crowds of people lined up at the station because one of its passengers was a young man who had been arrested for the first-degree murder of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake.
As soon as the train stopped, Chester Gillette was led off the train by two men, one of them being Undersheriff Austin Klock and led to a waiting wagon. They then departed down a back road to avoid being mobbed on Main Street and arrived at the Herkimer County Jail where Chester would remain until he stood trial for murder, a crime which if convicted, meant that he would be executed in the electric chair.
That evening and even in the days that followed, the news of Chester's arrest and stay in the 1834 Jail spread like wildfire. People flocked from all around to see the young murderer in his cage. One of the spectators was Frank Brown, Grace's father who had just buried his daughter in South Otselic. Once he saw Chester, he moved to attack him and would have succeeded had Klock not intervened. Some reacted to him in that manner. However others had somewhat favorable opinions of him. Not surprisingly, many of those people were young women.
The district attorney, George Ward, started gathering evidence for his case against Chester with the intention that the evidence would send him to the chair. To date, he had obtained Grace's trunk from Old Forge where it was delivered the day she died. In the trunk were Chester's seven letters to her. He also obtained Grace's letters to him from his room in Cortland; Grace's autopsy report; a wrapped jar containing her unborn fetus; the hotel registers containing Chester's fake identities; and the boat which he requested the Glenmore Hotel to give to him to use as evidence. He was still missing some key pieces of evidence, including the tennis racket and Grace's final letter.
Three weeks after Chester's arrest, his landlady found Grace's final letter hidden beneath his collar rack and she had it mailed to Ward. The tennis racket was found a month later hidden under a log near Big Moose Road. It was believed that Chester had made a deal with Klock that if Chester told him where the racket was, he would receive better food and treatment. As a result of him giving up the location of the racket, he began receiving his meals from the local hotels and from the sheriff's wife.
For Chester, life in the 1834 Jail was like living in the Hilton. After all, his cell was basically a three-room suite. The main cell was his sitting room and exercise area. The left cell was his bedroom and the right cell was his walk-in closet.
At his arraignment, Chester was appointed two defense attorneys by the courts because he could not afford a lawyer and lawyers in Cortland declined to get involved, partly because of the reputation of Chester's rich uncle. As a result, the papers viewed this as though the Cortland Gillettes had officially abandoned Chester. The defense attorneys appointed for Chester were Albert Mills, a former state senator, and Charles Thomas, a prominent Herkimer lawyer. They were considered the best lawyers to defend Chester.
The only real problem facing the defense was timing. Since they were appointed only ten weeks before the trial, with a governor-appointed judge at Ward's recommendation, would take place. It was also an election year, as Ward was running for County Judge and any earlier date would conflict with his campaign. And Ward did not want the trial to start after his term as District Attorney had ended. Ultimately, they decided on mid-November to start the trial. So the only thing that the defense could do was to get their story ready for the trial, including a story that Grace committed suicide that day on Big Moose Lake and that Chester's failure to save her was an act of fear rather than premeditation.
The only question was, would it be enough to save Chester from being ensnared in the noose that Ward was already tightening around his neck?