Wednesday, September 19, 2007

9/19/07- New Developments

So far there hasn't really been much going on in the world of Chester and Grace but I haven't really been idle as far as they go. As I continue to write the book, I have received some new documents that pertain to Grace from her grandnephew, Robert Williams on July 11 of this year. Among the new pieces of information is a detailed account of Grace's ancestry that dates back to the Mayflower. This information will be in my book, which at press time is called The Murder That Will Never Die: The Murder of Grace Brown. I am still hoping to get the book done and out by the end of the year.

On August 25, almost a year to the day that I went down to Cortland and South Otselic, I finally went up to Big Moose Lake for a day trip. I went on a tour boat ride and went out to the scene where Grace was murdered and it was really lovely up there. The road up to the Adirondacks appeared to be virtually unchanged from when Chester and Grace went up there by train 101 years earlier. I wrote an account of my trip on my other site. And just for the record, I did not see Grace's ghost up at the lake, even though there is a photo of her on this page. The photo of Grace's ghost comes from the famous Unsolved Mysteries episode from 1996.

I am still waiting on several pieces of information but otherwise, as far as the book goes I am in pretty good shape.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

6/27/07- A Place in the Sun- Movie Review

In 1951, Theodore Dreiser's classic novel, "An American Tragedy" was remade into a movie that was destined to become one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made. The movie's name was "A Place in the Sun."

The movie, which was directed by legendary film director George Stevens served as a contemporary (by 1951 standards that is) retelling of Dreiser's novel as well as another retelling of the famous Chester Gillette murder case that happened 45 years before this movie was made.

The movie centers on a character named George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), a young drifter who is taken in by his rich uncle and given a job at his bathing suit factory in California (a scenery change from both the novel and the Gillette case, both in which took place in Central New York.) Although he pines for the beautiful Angela Vickers (played by Elizabeth Taylor), he soon falls for fellow co-worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), in contrary to the factory's no-fraternization policy. All goes well for George until he finally meets and falls in love with Angela while at the same time, he learns that Alice is pregnant and demands that he marry her or else. Sound familiar?

From there, the movie more or less follows the story written by Dreiser and, to some extent, the Gillette case. After Alice threatens to tell all to his family, George brings her to a secluded lake with the intention to kill her, but like Clyde Griffiths in "An American Tragedy," he fails to go through with it.However that doesn't stop the boat from tipping over accidentally, killing Alice.

After several days of freedom with Angela and her family, George is arrested for murder and is forced to confront the fearsome district attorney (a pre-"Perry Mason" Raymond Burr) who is really intent on destroying George to further his own political ambitions. And of course if you've seen the movie and/or followed both the original story and Dreiser's novel, you can guess what happens after that.

I had seen the movie six times and I thought that it was pretty well done. The performances by Monty Clift as George (Chester) and Elizabeth Taylor as Angela (modeled after Harriet Benedict, one of Chester's rumored lovers) are so wonderful and so believable that you actually sympathize and care about them. Raymond Burr also gave a very powerful and convincing performance as the volatile district attorney. He was based on George Ward, the Herkimer County District Attorney who prosecuted Chester in 1906 despite the fact that the real Ward was nothing like the character in the film.

Shelley Winters was believable as Alice, the poor factory girl who was modeled after Chester's lover/victim Grace Brown. However, Alice's character follows the characterization of Roberta Alden (Grace in "An American Tragedy") and is portrayed as too whiny, too easy, and too unsympathetic, all of which the real Grace wasn't.

When the movie came out in 1951, legendary silent film star Charlie Chaplin called the film "the best film Hollywood ever made." It was a big hit and went on to win several Academy Awards including Best Director for George Stevens. Out of the four major stars of the film, Elizabeth Taylor is the only one who is still alive today. Shelley Winters died in January 2006.

Although the 1931 film is not yet available on DVD, this movie is available on DVD and can be found either at your local video store, local department stores or online at either or eBay.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

6/23/07- Fiction Becomes Fact

When acclaimed author Theodore Dreiser released his classic novel, An American Tragedy, no one could have predicted the overwhelming impact that the story had on the world, and no one would predict how it would alter the true story of the famous murder case upon which it was based.

The novel, based on the legendary Chester Gillette/Grace Brown murder case that occurred in 1906, was so effective that within a few years after its release, the novel slowly started to become confused with the actual facts of the case, especially in the areas where the story took place. Among the facts that were taken from the novel were the fact that Grace and her family were poor; that Chester killed Grace so that he could marry a rich girl; and that there was only one "other girl" in the Chester/Grace triangle instead of several. And that other girl in the novel's eyes was none other than Harriet Benedict.

In truth, Harriet had only gone out with Chester a few times. But the New York City papers (with the exception of the Times) blew everything out of proportion by saying that the relationship between the two was a full-fledged romance and wrote articles saying that they were engaged to be married and that she sneaked into Chester's jail cell during the trial and so on. Seeing potential in those articles, Dreiser took it a step further and turned the Chester/Harriet relationship into a full-fledged romantic relationship so that way readers could sympathize with them better than they could sympathize with Grace, especially after Chester was convicted of murder.

Harriet, who married a Cortland lawyer sometime after Chester's execution in 1908 and gave birth to a son who became a World War II hero, was never able to shake the notoriety that Chester's trial and Dreiser's novel had imposed on her.

In 1931, Paramount Pictures released the feature film version of Dreiser's masterpiece. It was released at a time when movies were coming out of the silent film era and it was notable for the fact that it was one of the first "talkies" to be released into theaters. When it debuted at the Liberty Theater in Herkimer, some of the surviving trial participants such as Judge Irving R. Devendorf and retired sheriff Austin Klock came out to see the film. The lobby also had some of the trial artifacts including Grace's letters and the tennis racket (the murder weapon), on display. It would be the last time the tennis racket would be seen in public until last year when it was on display during the "Chester, Grace, and Dreiser" conference at Herkimer County Community College. It was and still is in the custody of an person who wished to remain anonymous.

However, the film would not go without some controversy. Dreiser unsuccessfully sued the film's director, Johann von Sternberg for plagiarism and tried to have the film's release blocked. However, Dreiser's case was thrown out, but that would not be the only legal block that the movie would face.

In Chenango County (Grace's home county), its residents did not receive the film warmly, especially since it portrayed the Browns in a bad light. Grace's mother Minerva Brown, by then a 73-year-old widow, promptly sued Paramount for libel and defamation of character. The trial was originally held in Norwich, the county seat of Chenango County, but it was later relocated to Ithaca because the defendants felt that the jury would side with Mrs. Brown. Fearing that Minerva would not survive the civil trial, the studio settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that was probably close to a few thousand dollars.

Despite the controversy, the movie was a success and during the 30's, the novel also led to a play called "The Trial of Clyde Griffiths." In the program which explained the origins of the novel and of the Gillette case, it was clear that fiction was actually becoming fact. In fact, local Adirondack legend Roy Higby, the boy who found Grace's body in Big Moose Lake, wrote his account of the case in his memoir, "A Man From the Past." Although his account of finding Grace's body was accurate, the rest of his version of the Gillette case was Dreiser's story. And it would take another 60 years for the truth to finally come out.

But before that could happen, twenty years later, another movie by Paramount would be released. It too would be based on Dreiser's novel and on the Gillette case. But this one would end up being considered one of the greatest movies of all time.

The movie's name? "A Place in the Sun."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

6/12/07- Grace's Song

As you know already, Grace Brown got her nickname "Billy" from a song called "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey." Well today I just happened to come across the lyrics to that song on Google and I have just added it to my ever-growing collection of links on this site if anyone is interested in viewing them.

I just learned that the song was originally published in 1902 by Hughie Cannon (1877-1912). Grace was about 16 at the time so she could not have heard that song any earlier than that. At any rate, the song must have stuck with her because as a result of family and friends listening to her sing that tune, she was given the nickname "Billy."

In a way, I can see why she liked the song so much. I had the privilege of listening to an earlier recording of the song on a recently released Gillette documentary called "An American Murder," currently available at the Herkimer County Historical Society. It does have a really jazzy beat which you can dance to and it definitely fit the times. In Grace's time, ragtime music was all the rage. Over the years, the song had been recorded countless times by different artists, including Louis Armstrong, Patsy Cline, Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, and most recently by Harry Connick, Jr. His version can be found on his latest CD, "Oh, My Nola." If you have a chance, check it out.

Source: Wikipedia Encyclopedia.-

Thursday, May 24, 2007

5/24/07- Creating An American Tragedy

By 1923, author Theodore Dreiser was very hard at work on a novel that he hoped would become his crowning achievement. It was novel about a man who was torn between two women from completely different worlds and while in pursuit of the American Dream, he commits an unforgivable act. He was calling the book, based on the real-life murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette at Big Moose Lake in 1906, "An American Tragedy."

To prepare for his novel, Dreiser obtained a copy of the trial transcript; went on a road trip to view the sites where the story took place, including the murder scene at Big Moose Lake. He also viewed Grace's love letter, which by then were in the possession of the family of District Attorney George Ward, who died in the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. He also went through some of the old New York City paper articles that dated back to the trial which he had saved.

In order to make the novel fictional, he basically changed whatever he could about the events and the locations of the original case. For starters, he changed the Gillette Skirt Factory into a shirt collar factory and he changed the city and the location from Cortland to an area of Central New York that he named "Lycurgus." On a map, it would be near the real-life factory town of Canajoharie. He also changed the name of all of the key players and places that figured into the Gillette story. For example: Big Moose Lake became known as Big Bittern Lake and it was located near the Canadian border. The town where Chester (or Clyde Griffiths as he is known in the novel) was tried in was changed from Herkimer to Bridgeburg and the county name was changed from Herkimer to Cataraqui County.

Dreiser even changed Chester's background a little bit by stating that Clyde originally hailed from Kansas City and most of the events that happened to Clyde in the first part of the novel were based more on Dreiser's upbringing rather than Chester's. However, Dreiser retained the excessively-religious environment that both Chester and Dreiser were brought up in. He also made Grace (renamed Roberta Alden in the book) into a poor farm girl from a poor, unkempt family farm, a far cry from the real Grace's family who were actually middle-class people and very well thought of. Then he turned Ward (renamed Orville Mason) into the main villain of the story, a district attorney who was a raving lunatic looking to send a man to the electric chair to serve his political ends. Ward, although he was elected Herkimer County Judge a week before Chester's trial started, was not like that.

And yet there were some things that Dreiser retained from the Gillette story. In the novel, he used Grace's letters almost word for word; he used Chester's final statement that was written before his execution in 1908 exactly word for word save for Clyde's signature at the end; he kept Auburn as the prison where Clyde was executed even though by the time the novel was published, state executions were only carried out at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY; and using the city papers as a base, he created a love triangle with a rich girl. At the trial, the press made a big deal out of Chester's relationship with Harriet Benedict, the daughter of a prominent Cortland lawyer, even though the true nature of their relationship was strictly based on being merely friendly acquaintances.

It took Dreiser nearly two years to get his book ready for publication and by the end of 1925, he finally unveiled "An American Tragedy" to the world. It was written in three parts and it was well over 800 pages long, about the length of a Harry Potter book. Still the general public bought the book and it became a major sensation.

In Central New York, the novel's release put Chester and Grace back in the news again, especially in Herkimer County. Just prior to Dreiser's novel, the case had been all but forgotten and seemed on the verge of fading into local legend. After Dreiser's novel was released and even a few years afterward, people began to take Dreiser's word as gospel as to what actually happened at Big Moose Lake in 1906 and it would take years before the real story began to filter back to the surface.

But for now, Dreiser finally had his masterpiece and a famous murder case finally achieved legendary status.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

5/2/07- Man With A Vision

In 1906, the Chester Gillette murder trial captured the imagination of people all across the nation. It was the topic of conversation among many people at that time to the point where the story of the young man who murdered his pregnant girlfriend in the Adirondacks overshadowed the other major murder trial that was occurring at the same time: The Harry Thaw case.

Among those who were entranced by the story was a 35-year-old novelist and magazine editor named Theodore Dreiser. He became interested in the case because he was looking for a certain type of crime that reflected the dark side of the pursuit of the American Dream to put into his next novel. He had researched dozens of murder cases before deciding that he was going to use the Gillette Case as the basis for the novel.

Dreiser was born in 1871 in Indiana. Like Chester, Dreiser came from an excessively- religious family and clearly had the same feelings for young women, especially upper-class women, that Chester had. He wrote many short stories before publishing his first novel "Sister Carrie" in 1900. It was pretty much a cutting-edge novel for its era and caused quite a bit of controversy because of the sexual content that was in its pages. It took years for the book to sell partly because of the changing attitudes of the era.

By 1920, after writing several other books, Dreiser was ready to create what was going to be his great masterpiece. He decided that he was going to base his novel on the Gillette case and he was going to call the novel "An American Tragedy." He viewed Chester as a "Horatio Alger gone wrong" character and realized that he and Chester shared a similar background which was essential in the creation of the main character, Clyde Griffiths.

In the novel, Clyde is forced to choose between his poor pregnant factory girlfriend, who was modeled after Chester's lover/victim Grace Brown, and a society girl, who was modeled after one of Chester's upper-class girlfriends, Harriet Benedict. In the book, Clyde planned to kill his poor girlfriend so he could marry his rich girlfriend. At the last minute, he chickened out and the poor girlfriend's death ended up being an accident and he simply did not save her. However, Clyde was still charged with murder and executed in the electric chair.

To prepare for his novel, Dreiser requested a copy of the trial transcript and researched clippings from the New York Sun, which was one of the "yellow journal" papers that covered the trial. Then in 1923, he and then-mistress Helen Richardson took a road trip to tour the sites that related to the case, including Grace's home in South Otselic; the sites in Cortland where Chester and Grace met and worked; Herkimer where the trial took place; and Big Moose Lake where the murder took place.

During their trip to Big Moose Lake, Dreiser and Helen rented a rowboat at the Glenmore Hotel where Chester and Grace also rented their boat and went out on the lake. When they approached the murder scene, Helen noticed that Dreiser had a strange look on his face and she suddenly became frightened. She had a feeling that Dreiser was going to kill her and put that in his book. However, at that moment, she realized that she had cast herself as Grace in that moment.

Also during their tour, they stopped off at the home of District Attorney George Ward, who lived in Dolgeville. Ward had died a few years earlier during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. His daughter allowed him to view Grace's letters which he kept after the trial and he later put the letters into his novel almost word for word.

When he returned from his tour, Dreiser began taking what he had learned about the case and molded it into what he hoped would be the greatest novel he ever wrote. It would be another two years before it would be published, but when it was published it would become one of the greatest classic novels of all time and it would turn the Gillette case into an immortal legend.

Monday, April 16, 2007

4/16/07- The Press vs. Gillette

In 1906, the murder of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake and the eventual trial of her lover Chester Gillette captivated not only people in the area where she was murdered, but the news of her death made national headlines all across the nation. In fact, one of the biggest key factors in the conviction of Chester was the way he was portrayed by the press.

The trial attracted reporters from all over the nation, including reporters from the New York City papers. In those days, the city papers were notorious for their "yellow journalism" style of reporting, meaning that they had the tendency to make up news to sell papers. If people read the local papers (the Utica, Herkimer and Syracuse papers) during the trial, they got the actual truth of what went on at the trial. On the other hand, the city papers went to considerable lengths to get the story, even if they had to make the news themselves.

Among some of the things that the city reporters "reported" on were stories that Chester tried to escape from the courtroom when he was actually trying to give undersheriff Austin Klock his hat; that he had a secret girlfriend who sent him letters and candy which was revealed to be from his younger sister Lucille; that one of his rich girlfriends from Cortland was let into his jail cell; that he was trying to commit suicide; and so on.

Also, frustrated that they could not obtain an actual photo of Grace because the few known pictures of her were being used by the local papers and by the district attorney, the reporters paid off a Herkimer waitress to pose as Grace. The photo first appeared in the New York Journal, one of the yellow journalism papers. As you can tell, the photo looks nothing like her.

But perhaps the most notorious thing that they did to get the story was when they dressed up in old clothes and masks and went over to the Herkimer County Jail and demanded that Chester be handed over to them so they could hang him themselves. After they were chased away by the jailers, they dressed back up in their reporter clothes, went back to the jail and asked the jailers about whether or not a lynch mob came by and threatened Chester's life. After the jailers confirmed it, they went back to their hotel and sure enough, their "lynch mob" story appeared on the front page of the New York Journal the next day.

After the trial ended, Judge Irving R. Devendorf, who was not happy with the way the city papers handled the trial and especially after they insulted both him and the people of Herkimer, issued warrants for one of the yellow journal papers and sent the deputies down to the city to arrest three people connected with that paper. Among those arrested was the legendary Western hero Bat Masterson, who worked at the paper as a sports reporter but had covered the Gillette case for the city papers. They were shipped up to Herkimer and fined fifty dollars each.

The trial was over, but the press' lingering effect lived on and it would soon become source material for an author who became interested in the case and needed a case like the Gillette case for a novel that he hoped would be his "great masterpiece."

His name? Theodore Dreiser.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

3/8/07- Chester's Diary

A new chapter in the saga of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown was opened on Tuesday, March 6 with the donation of Chester's diary to Hamilton College's Burke Library by a descendant of Chester's.

The diary was written during the last six and a half months of Chester's life while he was in Auburn Prison awaiting execution by electric chair and ever since after the execution in 1908, the diary was in the possession of the family of Chester's sister, Hazel Gillette McWade (1887-1975)for generations before it was passed down to Hazel's granddaughter, Marlynn McWade-Murray of Tallahassee, Florida. After conducting an Internet search for her great-uncle and realizing the importance of the diary, she got in touch with Craig Brandon, author of "Murder in the Adirondacks" and "Grace Brown's Love Letters." Craig then put her in touch with Randall Ericson, the librarian at Hamilton College and they agreed that the diary should be donated to the library's vast Gillette collection that included District Attorney George Ward's court documents, old newspaper clippings and of course, Grace's love letters.

In the diary, we are introduce to a very different Chester as opposed to the Chester we know from previous historical accounts. The Chester in the diary is more mature, more spiritual and more concerned for his family's future after his death. This was a far cry from the Chester Gillette that was portrayed in the trial transcript, the press, and history.

In short, the diary is the story of Chester's redemption.

As I sat in the audience listening to the presentation and listening to the passages read from the diary, including his last entry that was written just minutes before he was led to the electric chair, I too was surprised by the new interpretation of Chester. It made me step back and reevaluate what I have learned about him during the year and a half that I have been involved with the story of Chester and Grace.

The only things that the diary does not contain is a confession that many expected Chester to write, nor does it offer an account of what happened to Grace at Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906. However, he does mention Grace only once in a passage where he admitted that he was never in love with her. Other than that, the diary is more about his transition from boy to man as he waited for his death.

I did meet Marlynn before I left the presentation. She is a very nice person and I saw a little bit of her grandmother in her. From what I have learned about her grandmother, who was 19 at the time of the murder in 1906, she was a really strong young woman considering what she had to deal with. And while my heart is still with Grace, Hazel was someone to be admired.

And so was Chester.

Friday, February 02, 2007

2/2/07- New And Improved

Hello, everyone. I would like to welcome everyone to the new and improved "Chester and Grace" blog site. I apologize for the fact that it took me so long to get everything ready, but there was a reason for that and I would now like to share that with you.

During my down time, I was finally able to teach myself a new trick: How to set up links. As you can see on the link bar on the right side of the blog, I have added a whole bunch of links that relate to both the Gillette case and me in general. I am sure that you will like them.

The first link I added are all the blogs I have posted on my primary blog site, "Ultimate Blackcatloner," on Yahoo 360 that is exclusively devoted to Chester and Grace. The second link is a link to my entire blog site, the above-mentioned "Ultimate Blackcatloner" on Yahoo. I put that link there so that way, viewers of this site can see my other written work on other subjects that relate more to me. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the day that I officially opened that site and became an Internet blogger.

Another link I have set up is a link to my Chester and Grace photo page on Yahoo Photos. Most of those photos are photos that I took while others are either submitted by various sources or uploaded off the Internet. That is followed by my blog, "A Valentine to Grace," my "ghost-written response" to her love letters that I wrote last year on the Yahoo site about a month after I received a copy of the final letter.

I also have a link to a transcription of Grace's diary that was provided by her grand-nephew Robert Williams, who has been of significant help to me while I am writing my book on the case as well as a link to the other official site devoted to the Gillette case: Craig Brandon's "Murder in the Adirondacks" site and the Utica Observer-Dispatch Gillette feature site entitled "The Murder That Will Never Die: An American tragedy." That site contains some written articles about the case, as well as a slideshow containing photos of the case and an audio reading of Grace's final letter.

And while I am on the topic of my book on Grace, I just want to say that things are going pretty well. I am writing the book at the Herkimer County Historical Society on a non-Internet connected computer. I am usually there about four days a week at an average of four hours a day. I have received a couple of recommendations as to where I can get the book published, but I am going to wait until I have a full manuscript before I submit it. I am keeping my fingers crossed in high hopes that I will make my target date of 2008 for when I get the book published.

And as far as this site goes, I am planning to keep it open at least until I get the book published. I may not be on here as much being that the Gillette Centennial year is over with, but that doesn't mean that I don't have anything else on tap for this site. I still have to tell the aftermath story and how the case became Theodore Dreiser's novel, "An American Tragedy." I may also provide updates from time to time on any new developments in both the case and on my upcoming book.