Grace Brown was a farm girl who moved to the big city, she meets and falls in love with Chester Gillette. Grace becomes pregnant and wants Chester to marry her. When Grace’s body is discovered in a Lake, they looked to Gillette. But, could he have murdered her?
My Dear Chester – I am writing to tell you that I am coming back to Cortland. I simply can’t stay here any longer. Mamma worries and wonders why I cry so much and I am just about sick. Please come and take me away to some place, dear. I came up home this morning and I just can’t help crying all the time just as I did that night. My headache is dreadful to-night. I am afraid you won’t come and I am so frightened, dear. I know you will think it queer, but I can’t help it. You have said you will come and sometimes I just know you will, but then I think of other things and I am just as certain you won’t come. I want you to write me, dear, just as soon as you get this and tell me the exact day you can come. I will come back in a little while, I can’t stay here, dear, and please don’t ask me to much longer. . .
Grace Mae Brown was born March 20th 1886 in South Otselic, New York. Her life was simple, she grew up working on a dairy farm that was ran by her family. When she wasn’t working on the farm, she attended Tallet Hill Grammar School. Grace was described as cheerful and she made friends easily. She had a natural beauty to her.
But like most girls that grew up in a small farming community, she wanted to move to the big city. In 1904 she got her wish, when her sister married and moved to the City or Cortland, she invited Grace to come and live with them. Without much hesitation, she packed her bags and moved in.
Grace soon started working at the Gillette Skirt company as a fabric cutter. She made a few dollars a week, but it was more than she made at the farm. Grace enjoyed the city life and was excited for whatever came next. That was when Grace Met Chester.
Chester Ellsworth Gillette was born August 9th, 1883 in Montana. He spent most of his childhood in Spokane, Washington. His parents were reasonably wealthy and deeply religious, eventually his parents gave up their wealthy and material possessions and joined the Salvation Army.
Chester and his family traveled a lot, but he did not share his parent’s religious beliefs. With the help of his uncle, Chester was able to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, but dropped out after two years. For the next few years Chester worked a series of odd jobs, his uncle reached out to him and offered him a job at his factory with the promise of advancement. Chester packed his bags and traveled to begin his new life at the Gillette Skirt factory in 1905.
His uncle started Chester off in the stockroom making $10 a week. Chester wanted to move up in the company quickly, but he knew that he had to work hard to achieve it. However, Chester had a weakness, women. He was known as a playboy and when he first spotted Grace, he knew that he had to talk to her.
Chester began making excuses to leave the stockroom to go and talk to Grace, the small talk turned into a friendship. Grace seemed to enjoy Chester’s company, and he would come by her sister’s house a few times a week to see her. One night, after her sister had gone to bed. Grace and Chester held each other and kissed in the parlor.
Grace was happy, things were going well in her life. But sadly, tragedy struck, her nephew died suddenly. Her sister and husband decided to leave Cortland and move back home. Grace had a decision to make, either return home with her sister, or stay in Cortland. After much thought, Grace decided to stay in Cortland.
Grace moved out of the fifth avenue house that she once shared with her sister and moved into a room at the old Wheeler Farmhouse with the owner Mrs. Wheeler. It was a proper place for a girl on her own. She should have a chaperone when Chester came to visit, and she was able to see the factory from the front door of the house.
They continued to see each other, however they never went out in public together. He would only come to see her at home, their relationship was for the most part, a secret. But Graces friends could see how she was around him. Chester started to ask Grace to see him without a chaperone, and with great risk to her reputation, she agreed. On several of those occasions, Chester tried to seduce Grace. By the fall, after many failed attempts, Grace gave in to him and their relationship went from innocent, to sexual.
Grace’s friends tried to warn her about Chester’s intentions, that he was often seen out with other women. Although Grace was hurt by the news of this, she was deeply in love with Chester and wanted to see this through. But then, life through Grace another curveball.
Spring of 1906, Grace discovered that she was pregnant, she was completely devastated. Her friends noticed her change, but Chester acted the same. He saw her a couple times a week and partied on the weekend. When Grace finally told Chester that she was pregnant with his child, the response she got wasn’t the one she expected. Instead of a proposal of marriage, he offered to pay for her to “get it taken care of”. Grace refused, abortion was illegal at the time, and that was a risk she would not take. She demanded that he do the right thing and marry her.
But, Chester continued to drag his feet, and with no other options at that time. Grace decided to move back home in June. She hoped that Chester would change his mind and come to marry her. When she settled in, she started to write to Chester.
…I hope you are satisfied and having what you call a good time now that you have succeeded in making me leave Cortland for a time. It makes me feel badly, dear, to think that you think I don’t know why you wanted me to come home. I know I may be awfully green, but as you say, ‘I ain’t no fool.’
Chester still seemed as uncommitted to Grace as before, he still continued to see other girls while Grace was away, she found this out and sent him another letter.
This p.m. my brother brought me a letter from one of the girls [at the factory], and after I read the letter I fainted again. Chester I came home because I thought I could trust you. I don’t think now I will be here after next Friday. This girl wrote me that you seemed to be having an awfully good time and she guessed that my coming home had done you good, as you had not seemed so cheerful in weeks. She also said that you spent most of your time with that detestable Grace Hill. … You told me – even promised me – that you would have nothing to do with her while I was gone.
Chester was quick to write to Grace, telling her that whomever had told her that information was exaggerating his friendship with Grace Hill, he told Grace that he loved her and only her. Grace again was quick to forgive Chester and forgot about the other women.
Chester told Grace he would be taking her away for a trip, with the pretense that they would be married while they were away. She visited her family before her trip and wrote to Chester
I have been bidding goodbye to some places today. There are so many nooks, dear, and all of them so dear to me. I have lived here nearly all of my life. … Oh dear, you don’t realize what all of this is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again. And Mama! Great heavens how I do love Mama! I don’t know what I shall do without her. She is never cross and she always helps me so much. Sometimes, I think if I could tell Mama, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I came back dead perhaps, if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me. I will never be happy again dear. I wish I could die.
It was July 6th when Grace met Chester at the train station, it would be travelling from DeRuyter, NY to Canastota. They met each other’s gaze but went to their separate seats. They then boarded another train headed to Utica, when they arrived they checked in at the Hotel Martin and Chester Registered them as “Charles Gordon and wife, N.Y” The following night, they checked into another hotel this time Chester registered them under the name “Charles George and wife New York, N.Y”
On July 11th, they got on to another train heading for Old Forge, Chester wrote a postcard to his uncle asking him to send five dollars to Eagle Bay N.Y so he can receive it by Friday. When they arrived at the station they asked a taxi where they could go to rent a boat for the afternoon, and they were taken to Glenmore Hotel. Grace left her bags behind at the station. Chester checked them into the hotel under the name “Carl Grahm, Albany and Grace Brown, South Otselic.
Grace was happy to be with Chester finally, but she was nervous, Chester knew that she couldn’t swim, but she went with him eager to please and have a romantic day with him on the lake…
Day turned into night, Chester and Grace did not return to the boat house. The Keeper, Robert Morrison became worried. He decided to send out a group to search for them, but when morning came, they were still missing.
They searched the lake throughout the day when they caught sight of an over turned boat. However, there were no signs of anyone around. Roy Higby, a thirteen-year-old who was among the search party noticed what he described as a white blob in the water nearby. When they rowed over to it what they pulled out was the body of Grace Brown.
They continued to search for Chester, but all they found was a hat and coat. Grace’s body was taken to a medical examiner and they Grace had suffered from major head trauma, what was thought to be an accident, turned into a murder investigation. Police were quick to trace the couple’s whereabouts the last couple of days, and they discovered that Chester had Checked into a Hotel across from the lake. He did not even try to cover his tracks and registered under his real name.
He was arrested at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet New York July 14th. The press was completely captivated by the story and tried to talk to Chester. However, police kept Chester away from the public view, only being allowed visits from Family and his attorneys. Prosecutors works hard to gather as much information about Chester and Grace as possible. They found the letters from Grace hidden in Chester’s Hotel room, as well as the numerous alias’ he used when him and Grace were traveling. They found Chester’s luggage and damaged Tennis Racket. They were certain of his guilt. They just needed to prove it.
The Trial of Chester for the Murder of Grace began November 12th. Prosecutors told the jury what they believed happened to Grace. How after telling Chester either to marry her or face the risk of her telling about the pregnancy, Chester planned to take Grace away under the false pretenses of marriage but had planned to murder her. When they got out of the boat, Chester attacked Grace and hit her with his tennis racket then pushing her over board.
Grace’s parents testified, and told the jury about Grace, how she was sweet, a caring daughter and sister, and all she wanted was love. Then, her friends testified about how Chester seduced Grace, but how he was still always out with other women, that they were surprised that he would do this to Grace.
But, the defense told another story, of how Chester cared deeply for Grace, and knew that she was hurting. His lawyer stated “There are such things as moral awards. There are men so constituted that in the presence of a great calamity they must lose themselves, and this boy in my opinion, in that condition, wandered to the Arrowhead and registered under his own name. He didn’t try to run away. He didn’t try to conceal himself.”
The prosecutors argued that Chester didn’t seem to bat an eye when he was arrested for the Murder of Grace, that he was in good spirits, and while he maintained his innocence, he wasn’t upset about her death.
Chester’s attorney called him to the stand and he gave his account of what happened on the lake that day.
We talked about what we ought to do, and I said we ought to not keep on as we had. I finally said I thought her father and mother ought to know of what had occurred. She said she couldn’t tell her mother and cried. I told her she would have to. She said “You don’t know my father, you can’t tell him” We talked for a little bit more, then she got up and jumped in the water, just jumped in. I was in the other end leaning back.
The lawyer asked him what he did
I tried to reach her, I was not quick enough. I went into the lake, too. The boat tipped over as I started to get up. The boat went right over then. Of course, I went into the lake.
The Lawyer asked Chester if he saw Grace when he resurfaced.
No, I stayed there at the boat but a minute or two. It seemed like a long time, anyway, and I didn’t see her. Then I swam to shore.
The trial continued for weeks, the prosecutors brought in a mystery witness who claimed to have heard a girl scream on the lake the day Grace murdered. Chester was becoming nervous, he was losing his cool demeanor. Once the closing arguments were given, the jury was released to make their decision. Was there any reasonable doubt of Chester’s Guilt?
On December 6th on 1906, everyone crowded in the courtroom as the jury came back with a verdict. Guilty! They found Chester guilty of the murder of Grace. His punishment? Was death by execution. Chester’s family was devastated. Grace’s family was relieved, it was a bittersweet day for them. While their daughter was gone, Chester would pay for what he had done.
Chester was executed March 30th 1908, up until that day, he continued to say he was innocent. That Grace took her own life.
It’s been over 100 years since the murder of Grace Brown, and to this day, there are still so many who are still wondering what really happened that day on the lake. Was it Murder? Or was Grace so heartbroken that she simply took her own life and Chester was too cowardly to do anything? Even with the evidence presented, we may never truly know.