Friday, June 30, 2006
Last week at Herkimer County Community College, I took part in a really historic event. Last week marked the premiere performance of this summer's Gillette Trial Reenactment, entitled "The People vs. Gillette," written by Jack Sherman, a judge from Ithaca. He first originated the idea for the trial reenactment back in 1977 while he was an assistant district attorney in Herkimer and revived it for the centennial of Chester's famous trial for the murder of his pregnant sweetheart, Grace Brown.
Members of the Ilion Little Theater Club played the key characters in the reenactment with Sherman playing Judge Irving Devendorf. The performances were really interesting and it felt like you were immediately taken back to the legendary trial that made headlines back in 1906.
I was there as a volunteer, but I was able to see the show anyway. For me a few characters stood out for me, including the guy who played District Attorney George Ward. He brought depth to the role of Ward and the opening scene where he read Grace's letters in open court brought out the emotional quality of the man he played. Also for me, Art Wilks stole the show as Undersheriff Austin Klock. He brought humor and wit to the show and it was very well done. And the climatic showdown between Chester and Ward, which took place during the second half of the reenactment gave you a sense into what it was really like. The guy who played Chester also did a pretty good job.
In case you missed it at HCCC, the next reenactment will be held on July 15 and 16 in Old Forge before returning to Herkimer on July 21 at the very same courthouse where the trial actually took place. That is definitely not to be missed. And there will be one more performance at HCCC on July 22.
In the meantime the next Gillette-related even is today at Ward's Pond Bed and Breakfast in Dolgeville. It is a dramatic reading of Grace's letters called "My Dear Chester, again written by Jack Sherman. Then on July 11, the memorial for Grace will be held at Big Moose Lake. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend either one, but I will be there at least in spirit.
Saturday, June 24, 2006
6/24/06- THE PEOPLE VS. GILLETTE
I FIGURED THAT TODAY I WOULD TAKE A LITTLE BREAK FROM THE STORY EVEN THOUGH I DO NOT HAVE THAT MUCH FURTHER TO GO TO TALK ABOUT SOMETHING REALLY IMPORTANT. LAST NIGHT, I HAD THE PLEASURE OF VOLUNTEERING FOR THE PREMIERE OF THIS SUMMER'S TRIAL REENACTMENT, ENTITLED "THE PEOPLE VS. GILLETTE" AT HERKIMER COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE RIGHT HERE IN HERKIMER. IT WAS PART OF THE THREE-DAY LITERARY CONFERENCE "CHESTER, GRACE, AND DREISER: THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN TRAGEDY," WHICH HAS BEEN GOING ON SINCE THURSDAY AND ENDS TODAY.
THEY ALSO HAD A DISPLAY ROOM WHICH HAD A WHOLE COLLECTION OF RARE ARTIFACTS FROM THE CASE, SOME OF WHICH HAD NOT BEEN SEEN SINCE 1906. MOST OF THE ARTIFACTS INCLUDED NEWSPAPER ARTICLES FROM 1906 AS WELL AS SIGNED STATEMENTS FROM CHESTER GILLETTE'S SPIRITUAL ADVISORS AFTER HIS EXECUTION IN 1908 AND A LIST OF PEOPLE WHO ATTENDED THE EXECUTION. THERE WERE ALSO LETTERS FROM GRACE BROWN, AS WELL AS CHESTER'S FINAL LETTER TO GRACE IN THE THREE-WEEK PERIOD LEADING UP TO HER DEATH, AND A LETTER FROM HARRIET BENEDICT ASKING CHESTER FOR A "POSTER."
BUT THE BIGGEST DRAW OF ALL HAD TO BE THE TENNIS RACKET WHICH CHESTER USED TO KILL GRACE WITH THAT DAY ON THE LAKE. IT WAS RECENTLY AUTHENTICIZED BECAUSE THEY FOUND AN EXHIBITION NUMBER ON IT. THIS ALSO MARKS THE FIRST TIME THAT THE MURDER WEAPON WAS PUT ON DISPLAY SINCE THE 1931 PREMIERE OF THE MOVIE "AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY," THE FIRST MOVIE BASED ON THEODORE DREISER'S NOVEL.
I WILL HAVE TO STOP NOW, BUT I WILL HAVE MORE ON THIS MONDAY.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
AUBURN. THE MOST FEARED INSTITUTION IN NEW YORK STATE DURING THE VICTORIAN ERA. KNOWN FOR THE "AUBURN SYSTEM" (ABSOLUTE SILENCE), STRIPED UNIFORMS, AND THE LOCKSTEP, IT GAINED ITS BRUTAL REPUTATION AND THEREFORE MADE A POPULAR TARGET OF REFORMERS. ON AUGUST 1, 1890, AUBURN BECAME KNOWN AS "THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE ELECTRIC CHAIR" AS A CONDEMNED MURDERER NAMED WILLIAM KEMMLER BECAME ITS FIRST VICTIM.
ON DECEMBER 12, 1906, AFTER A TRAIN RIDE FROM HERKIMER WHICH INCLUDED INTERACTIONS WITH A TRAVELLING VAUDEVILLE SHOW WHERE HE SIGNED AUTOGRAPHS FOR ITS FEMALE PERFORMERS, CHESTER GILLETTE ARRIVED THERE TO AWAIT HIS TURN IN THE CHAIR FOR THE MURDER OF HIS PREGNANT GIRLFRIEND, GRACE BROWN. HE WAS HANDED OVER TO THE WARDEN BY HERKIMER COUNTY DEPUTY SHERIFF AUSTIN KLOCK, WHOM CHESTER REGARDED AS A FATHER FIGURE. AFTER HE WAS PROCESSED, CHESTER THANKED KLOCK FOR HIS HOSPITALITY AND, DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE KNEW THAT HIS ATTORNEYS FILED AN APPEAL ON HIS BEHALF, INVITED HIM TO WITNESS HIS EXECUTION IF IT EVER CAME TO PASS.
CHESTER WAS THEN LED TO A CELL ON THE BLOCK KNOWN AS "MURDERER'S ROW," AS DEATH ROW WAS THEN CALLED. THE BLOCK CONSISTED OF FIVE SOLITARY CELLS AND A METAL DOOR WHICH LED TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. CHESTER WOULD REMAIN ON MURDERER'S ROW FOR THE NEXT SIXTEEN AND A HALF MONTHS.
HE PASSED THE TIME READING AND MADE FRIENDS WITH ANOTHER CONDEMNED MAN, WILLIAM BRASCH. HE WAS THE SAME AGE AS CHESTER AND LIKE HIM, WAS CONVICTED OF DROWNING A LOVED ONE. IN HIS CASE, IT WAS HIS WIFE. WHENEVER THEY GOT A CHANCE, THEY PLAYED CHECKERS BETWEEN THE WALLS THAT SEPARATED THEM.
FAMILY MEMBERS CONTINUED TO VISIT CHESTER THROUGHOUT HIS TIME IN AUBURN, ALONG WITH A YOUNG MINISTER FROM LITTLE FALLS WHOM CHESTER'S MOTHER HAD MET WHILE ON HER LECTURE TOUR. THE REVEREND HENRY MacILLRAVY FREQUENTLY VISITED CHESTER IN HIS CELL AS HE PROMISED HIS MOTHER HE WOULD. DURING HIS VISITS, MacILLRAVY WAS SOON ABLE TO TURN CHESTER INTO A BORN-AGAIN CHRISTIAN. BUT WOULD THAT BE ENOUGH TO SAVE HIM FROM THE FATE THAT AWAITED HIM?
IN JANUARY, 1908, CHESTER'S CASE WAS FINALLY BROUGHT BEFORE THE COURT OF APPEALS. WHILE THE JUDGES THERE FELT THAT CHESTER WAS TREATED UNFAIRLY, THEY ALSO FELT THAT HE WAS GUILTY BECAUSE OF THE FACT THAT HE SHOWED VERY LITTLE EMOTION AT THE TRIAL, ESPECIALLY WHEN THE D.A. READ GRACE'S LETTERS IN OPEN COURT. THEY PROBABLY TOOK INTO ACCOUNT CHESTER'S MOTHER'S LECTURE TOUR IN WHICH SHE BADMOUTHED THE VICTIM. THEY DECIDED THAT THE VERDICT WOULD BE UPHELD.
CHESTER NOW HAD SIX WEEKS LEFT TO LIVE.
Saturday, June 10, 2006
6/10/06- A MOTHER'S CRUSADE
ON DECEMBER 10, 1906, NEARLY A WEEK AFTER HE WAS CONVICTED OF THE FIRST DEGREE MURDER OF GRACE BROWN, CHESTER GILLETTE ARRIVED IN THE COURTROOM OF THE HERKIMER COUNTY COURTHOUSE FOR THE LAST TIME AS THAT DAY WAS THE DAY THAT WOULD DECIDE THE REST OF HIS LIFE.
THE COUNTY CLERK CALLED CHESTER UP TO THE STAND AND ASKED HIM IF THERE WAS ANYTHING THAT HE WANTED TO SAY BEFORE SENTENCING. CHESTER REPLIED BY SAYING, "I DESIRE TO STATE THAT I AM INNOCENT OF THE CRIME AND THEREFORE OUGHT NOT TO BE PUNISHED. I THINK THAT IS ALL."
THE JUDGE, IRVING R. DEVENDORF, HAND-PICKED BY THE GOVERNOR OF THE STATE TO PRESIDE OVER THIS TRIAL, WAS FACED WITH HIS FIRST MURDER TRIAL AND THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME THAT HE HAD TO SEND A MAN TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. HE DID HAVE SOME HELP FROM THE LAW IN THAT AREA BECAUSE ONCE A MAN WAS CONVICTED OF FIRST-DEGREE MURDER IN THOSE DAYS, A DEATH SENTENCE WAS INEVITABLE. THEREFORE, REGARDLESS OF HIS OWN FEELINGS, HE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO CONDEMN CHESTER TO DIE IN THE ELECTRIC CHAIR.
SEATED BEHIND CHESTER AND HIS DEFENSE ATTORNEYS WAS HIS MOTHER, LOUISA RICE GILLETTE. SHE HAD ARRIVED IN HERKIMER THE NIGHT BEFORE ON A TRAIN FROM DENVER, COLORADO, WHERE SHE AND HER FAMILY HAD BEEN LIVING SINCE LEAVING THE ZION CITY CULT THE YEAR BEFORE. SHE WAS THERE ON ASSIGNMENT FROM THE DENVER TIMES NEWSPAPER TO COVER THE SENTENCING. SHE SHOWED NO EMOTION WHEN THE FATEFUL SENTENCE WAS PRONOUNCED BECAUSE SHE HAD FAITH THAT THERE WOULD BE AN APPEAL THAT WOULD GRANT CHESTER A NEW TRIAL.
AS SOON AS SENTENCE WAS PRONOUNCED, CHESTER'S ATTORNEYS FILED THE APPEAL TO PREVENT THE PROPOSED EXECUTION DATE OF JANUARY 28, 1907. IT WAS ACCEPTED AND THE EXECUTION WAS POSTPONED UNTIL THE APPEALS WENT THROUGH THE COURTS.
HOWEVER, THE APPEALS PROCESS WAS VERY EXPENSIVE AND LOUISA FIGURED THAT SHE COULD RAISE MONEY AND PUBLIC SYMPATHY BY EMBARKING ON SPEAKING TOURS TO PROCLAIM HER SON'S INNOCENCE AND HELP HER RAISE MONEY SO THAT CHESTER COULD GET A NEWER AND FAIRER TRIAL. HER LECTURES BEGAN IN THE BEGINNING OF 1907. THROUGHOUT HER LECTURES, LOUISA PROCLAIMED HER SON WAS NOT GUILTY AND TREATED UNFAIRLY BY THE COURT. BUT SHE INFURIATED THE PUBLIC BY CRITICIZING GRACE BROWN IN FRONT OF PEOPLE WHO OTHERWISE WOULD HAVE SIDED WITH HER. SHE SAID THAT GRACE WAS TO BLAME FOR EVERYTHING BECAUSE SHE "TEMPTED" CHESTER INTO THE RELATIONSHIP AND SAID THAT IF IT WAS NOT FOR HER, CHESTER WOULD NOT BE IN AUBURN STATE PRISON AWAITING ELECTROCUTION.
DESPITE SOME LAST-MINUTE INTERVENTION FROM FORMER D.A. GEORGE WARD, BY THEN A COUNTY JUDGE, LOUISA'S LECTURES PROVED TO BE A FAILURE. SHE DID NOT RAISE ENOUGH MONEY AND PUBLIC OPINION WAS AGAINST HER. BUT STILL SHE WOULD NOT GIVE UP, NO MATTER HOW LONG IT TOOK. BUT THERE WASN'T REALLY ANYTHING SHE COULD DO IF SHE STAYED IN NEW YORK. AT CHESTER'S INSISTENCE, SHE BOARDED A TRAIN AND RETURNED TO DENVER TO BE WITH THE REST OF HER FAMILY TO WAIT FOR THE OUTCOME.
BUT NEW YORK STATE HAD NOT HEARD THE LAST OF LOUISA GILLETTE. SHE WOULD PLAY A BIGGER ROLE IN THE YEAR TO COME.