Monday, April 16, 2007
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.