Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of going on a bus trip that was sponsored by the Herkimer County Historical Society to the sites in Cortland and South Otselic, NY that related to the Gillette Murder Case. It was another major event in the American Tragedy Centennial Year and it is the last one for the next three months until the Ilion Little Theater Club begins the performance run of "Chester and Grace" and the unveiling of the historic marker in front of the 1834 Jail on November 18.
And as you can see, I finally did meet Grace Brown. In a manner of speaking, of course.
Our first stop was to the Cortland County Historical Society where we met Joseph Brownell, the author of "Adirondack Tragedy. " I did get a chance to meet him, got his autograph, and told him about this site. He was very nice and he really knew a lot about the case, most notably about Grace. I learned a lot from him.
After the lecture at the Historical Society, the director came with us on a driving tour of the sites in Cortland. We drove past Grace's boarding house as well as her sister Ada Hawley's house where she stayed when she first arrived in Cortland in late 1904. We also went past Chester's boarding house and the former Gillette Skirt Factory building, which has been a furniture and appliance store for years. I got some good shots of the building. We did not go in the building, but I guess that will be for another time.
After lunch, we drove through DeRuyter, where Chester and Grace caught the train for their trip to the Adirondacks, and arrived at Grace's home in South Otselic, now owned by Robert and Diane Timm. The road that leads up to the farm has since been renamed "Grace Brown Lane" in honor of the house's former occupant. The view from the farm house was the same as I remember from the "Murder in the Adirondacks" book and the house itself was beautiful, despite the fact that the house was being remodeled at the time.
While I was at the house, I started feeling Grace's presence, especially when I passed one of the apple trees on the property. I remembered a photo in "Murder in the Adirondacks" in which a 16-year-old Grace was standing in front of an apple tree. At that point, it all started coming back to me that I was on sacred ground.
Finally we arrived at Valley View Cemetery, located right in town. We had to ascend a flight of moss-covered stairs and walked through the cemetery until we finally got to the Brown family plot and sure enough, there she was. I was actually at the grave that I had only seen in photos before this trip.
We also saw Ada Hawley's grave, which was directly across from Grace's family. We also saw the graves of her best friend/teacher Maude Crumb as well as the grave of her husband, Dr. J. Mott Crumb who represented the Brown family as a witness to Chester's execution in 1908.
Then while the rest of the group went to a peach festival that the town invited us to, I spent an extra twenty minutes or so with Grace in the cemetery. I took a rubbing of the grave that took up about ten minutes or so. I also talked to her a little bit and I may have even cried a little. I guess that once you get to know someone (even someone who's been dead for 100 years), they become a part of you. And I have gotten to know Grace quite well over the course of a year. Of course what was said will remain between myself and Grace.
Before I left, I laid down the flowers that I bought for her before I caught the bus. This time, I delivered them myself and I took a couple more photos of the grave before I said goodbye to her. Hopefully, I will go back there someday and see her again.
All in all, the trip was a bit of a soul-searching experience for me, not to mention that it will be very helpful in finding information so that I can start my book. As a result of everything that has happened, I now believe that me finding out about this case was not an accident. It was fate that led me to the Gillette case and it looks like I am here to stay for the time being.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
As the year of the Gillette Centennial begins to wind down, let me bring you up to speed as to what has happened during the course of the last few weeks.
On July 21, there was another performance of the Ilion Little Theater production, "The People vs. Gillette" at the very same Herkimer County Courthouse where nearly 100 years earlier (the trial happened in November), Chester Gillette was on trial for his life for the murder of Grace Brown. There were some differences at the courthouse performance, such as the addition of the jury box, not present at the Herkimer County Community College performances. Herkimer County Sheriff Chris Farber served as the jury foreman and delivered the guilty verdict to the actor playing Chester Gillette.
There was also another performance at HCCC the night after the courthouse performance and again I attended. I ended up getting autographs from both the cast and crew of the reenactments. They did a really wonderful job and I was glad to be a part of this major piece of history.
This Saturday, I will be going on the bus trip that is being sponsored by the Herkimer County Historical Society that will take me to Cortland and South Otselic that relate to the case, including Grace's house and grave site. In addition to photos, I will be taking a rubbing of her grave. I can't wait.
I also have a lot of things on tap here that will be coming up in the coming months, including the "Dreiser Story," as well as various other things that pertain to the case that will eventually lead up to the Ilion Little Theater Club's upcoming production "Chester and Grace." The year of the American Tragedy is not over yet.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Auburn Prison. March 30, 1908. 3:45 am.
Two guards entered the cell block known as "Murderer's Row" and walked to the cell closest to a large metal door containing a room where no prisoner would ever return. Once they arrived, they awoke the prisoner that resided in that cell and handed him a new prison uniform. This uniform was designed with slits in the sleeves and trouser legs to allow the electrode straps to be fastened to the prisoner's wrists and ankles before the prisoner was executed.
Two hours later, the guards came back and announced that it was time for the prisoner to be led to the electric chair. The other cells on Murderer's Row had to close a curtain over each cell to prevent the other inmates from seeing what was going on, but they didn't need to see what was going on, for soon it would be their turn. Then, Chester Gillette stepped out of his cell along with his spiritual adviser, the Reverend Henry MacIllravy of Little Falls and the prison chaplain to begin the final walk to the electric chair.
The witnesses were all gathered in the execution chamber to see Chester pay the ultimate penalty for the murder of his pregnant lover, Grace Brown. Among them was Austin Klock, who by then was Sheriff of Herkimer County. He was there because Chester wanted him to be there to witness his execution. Representing Grace and her family at the execution was Dr. J. Mott Crumb, the South Otselic town doctor and husband of her teacher and best friend. They could hear the two clergymen reciting the 23rd Psalm as the small procession entered the chamber ahead of Chester, who was flanked by the two guards.
As he did at his trial, Chester displayed no emotion as he calmly walked to the chair and sat down. The guards fastened the straps to his wrists and ankles and fastened the metal cap to his head.
At 6:14 am, the warden gave the order to proceed. The execution threw the switch sending 1800 volts of electricity through the wires to the chair. The witnesses then saw Chester lurch suddenly in the chair and his body shuddered continuously for about a minute before the warden gave the order to cut the power. After the power was turned off, Chester slumped back into the chair. The doctors then examined his body to make sure that the execution was successful.
By 6:18 am, it was official. Chester Ellsworth Gillette became the twenty-seventh victim of Auburn's electric chair. He was only 24 years old. He had been in Auburn for fifteen months.
After the execution, Klock made a statement that he was relieved that Chester was finally out of his misery, while Dr. Crumb commented that he had never seen anything as easy as Chester's execution. The prison officials stated that Chester's execution was the most successful execution in the prison's history. MacIllravy gave the press Chester's final statement (which did not contain a confession) and stated that no legal mistake was made in his execution.
After an autopsy was performed in which his brain was removed, Chester's body was returned to his family for burial. The next day, accompanied by his family and MacIllravy, Chester's body was taken to Soule Cemetery, on the outskirts of Auburn and was buried in an unmarked grave. To this day, no one really knows where it is. A couple of days later, Chester's family gathered Chester's final belongings and left New York State only to fade into history.
Grace Brown remained buried in Valley View Cemetery in South Otselic, where she was buried the day after Chester's arrest in Inlet. Unlike Chester, her grave has a headstone which says that she is "at rest."
Or is she?