The story of the 1906 Big Moose Lake murder case that was the basis for
Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and the movie "A Place in the Sun."

Gillette on the witness stand.
Crime of the Century

Chester Gillette and Grace Brown worked together in 1905 at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York owned by Chester's uncle.

Chester was born in Montana and traveled around the Pacific Northwest with his parents, who were captains in the Salvation Army. He attended Oberlin Academy prep school and later worked as a railroad brakeman before coming to Cortland. There he met Grace Brown, a farmer's daughter from South Otselic in Chenango County, New York, who had originally come to Cortland to baby-sit for her sister's child.

They dated occasionally but most of their relationship was conducted in secret. In the spring of 1906 Grace found herself pregnant with Gillette's child and she went home to her parents after Gillette promised to take her away on the trip to the Adirondacks. While she apparently assumed this was to be a wedding trip, it is unknown whether Gillette actually promised to marry her.

After a number of letters begging him to fulfill his promise, Gillette met Grace in Deruyter, New York on July 9, 1906 and they began a trip together. They spent the first night in Utica and then took the train to Tupper Lake, where they spent their second night together. On the morning of July 11   they took the train back towards Utica and stopped at Big Moose Lake in Herkimer County. They rented a boat together and spent the entire afternoon out on the water. Grace left her trunk in the train station and her hat in the hotel, but Chester took everything he had with him out onto the boat.

Sometime around 6 p.m. Grace ended up in the bottom of the lake, She had told Gillette in one of her letters that she could not swim. Chester, taking his suitcase, camera and tripod, ran off into the woods and found a trail to the south. Later that night he arrived at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet and stayed there until his arrest three days later.

During his trial in November and December, Gillette said Grace had jumped into the lake and committed suicide because of her plight. The district attorney said Chester hit Grace over the head with the tennis racket that had been attached to his suitcase. The jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair. He was executed on March 30, 1908.

The case has lived on in fiction and legend. 


Gillette being 
sentenced to die
in the electric

The Many Versions of the Story:
    Non-Fiction Books:
      Murder in the Adirondacks By Craig Brandon, North Country Books, 1986.
       Adirondack Tragedy by Joseph Brownell, Heart of the Lakes, 1986.
      Death was the Bridegroom by Charles Samuels, Fawcett, 1955.
    An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, 1926.
   "An American Tragedy" by Patrick Kearney, 1927.
     "An American Tragedy: The trial of Clyde Griffiths" by Erwin Piscator, 1920s.
      "Chester and Grace" by Glenn Allen Smith, 1991, performed in Cortland and Ilion N.Y. 
     Motion Pictures:
   "An American Tragedy," Paramount Pictures, 1931.
     "A Place in the Sun," Paramount Pictures, 1951.
      Television Programs:
   "Murder at Big Moose?" 1988, WCNY Syracuse, for PBS.
       "Grace's Ghost," episode of Unsolved Mysteries, 1996.
       "Crimes in Time," the History Channel, 1997.

      "The Ballad of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette" circa 1910.
        "Entreating" by Maude Gould of Ilion, N.Y. 1907.


Craig Brandon's home page

The International Theodore Dreiser Society

Dreiser Forum

"A Place in the Sun"


Back to the Top
Send me email here.

 This page created by Craig Brandon. It was last updated on July 4, 1999.