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.