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Benchmarks: Journal of the New York State Unified Court System

Summer 2006

HISTORIC NEW YORK STATE COURTHOUSES

HERKIMER COUNTY COURTHOUSE AND THE TRIAL THAT INSPIRED “AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY” BY THEODORE DREISER

HERKIMER COUNTY COURTHOUSE
Location: 320 N. Main St., Herkimer, N.Y.
Houses:
The Supreme, County, Surrogate’s and Family Courts were located here until 1998, when they moved to the County Office Building, a handicapped-accessible facility. The building now houses the Sheriff’s Department and the Rural Health Network, a county organization.
Judicial District:
Fifth
Built:
1873 for $46,471.12
Architect:
A.J. Lathrop
Architecture: Post-Civil War, with a distinctive mansard-roofed cupola
Historic Status: On the National Registry of Historic Places, as well as the state and local registries

THE CHESTER GILLETTE MURDER TRIAL
Chester Gillette, a prep school graduate, began dating Grace Brown, a farmer’s daughter, in 1905 while both were working at the Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, N.Y. The factory was owned by Chester’s uncle, and the Gillette family enjoyed a good reputation among upstate New York’s upper crust.

While Cortland was a bustling industrial town, it was small enough that people noticed Gillette was also dating other women. According to historian Mark Simonson in an April 26, 2003, column for “The Daily Star,” an Oneonta newspaper, Gillette allegedly promised to marry Brown when she discovered she was pregnant, and he sent her home to her parents’ farm in Chenango County to prepare for the wedding. When word reached Brown that Gillette was seeing other women, she wrote to him, begging him to keep his word. Finally Gillette agreed to meet her in the Adirondacks, where she believed they were to be married. He registered at the Glenmore Hotel in Big Moose Lake under an assumed name, Carl Graham.

One hundred years ago, in July 1906, Gillette rented an Adirondack skiff at Big Moose Lake and took Grace, who could not swim, to a remote part known as South Bay, supposedly for a picnic. He brought along his luggage with a tennis racket strapped to the outside. Brown’s body was found in the lake the next day with a gash in her forehead. While it is believed that the luggage was left on land near their picnic site, the tennis racket may have been used in the crime. Gillette left Big Moose Lake and never reported the incident. He was arrested three days later in Inlet, a town in Hamilton County, where he had taken a room at the Arrowhead Hotel under his real name.

Ninety-seven witnesses testified against Gillette before the Herkimer County grand jury. When it came time to impanel a jury for the trial, 240 potential jurors were examined. According to “Historic Courthouses of New York State,” many of the jurors seated said they had a strong opinion of Gillette’s guilt but could be convinced of the contrary by evidence the defense might submit.

At the trial, people sobbed as the district attorney read Brown’s letters to Gillette. It is believed that Gillette was dating a wealthy socialite and felt his situation with Brown jeopardized his future. No one was ever specifically named as the socialite and no one ever came forward. The prosecution argued that Gillette murdered Brown by striking her with the tennis racket. Gillette accounted for the cut by claiming that Brown had slipped and struck her head. He also claimed Brown was despondent about her condition and committed suicide.

The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Gillette’s mother led a campaign to save her son’s life. A stay postponed the execution until his appeal could be decided by the Court of Appeals. The sentence of the trial court was affirmed, and the governor denied last minute appeal requests. Gillette was executed at Auburn State Prison on March 30, 1908, never having admitted his guilt.

The trial endures through books, movies and theatrical presentations. Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 best-selling novel “An American Tragedy” is based on the trial. Two books were published in 1986: “Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited” by Craig Brandon and “Adirondack Tragedy” by Joseph Brownell and Patricia Enos. Austrian- American filmmaker Josef von Sternberg directed the 1931 movie “An American Tragedy, “ and the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun,” with Elizabeth Taylor, is also based on the Dreiser novel. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City commissioned “An American Tragedy,” a two-act operatic version of the story by composer Tobias Picker with a libretto by Gene Scheer, which premiered in December 2005.

Postscript: Herkimer Community College organized a 100th anniversary conference this year called “Chester, Grace and Dreiser: The Birth of An American Tragedy,” which was held June 22-24. In addition to scholarly panels devoted to the Gillette-Brown case and its book and film adaptations, plans included displays of artifacts and documents relating to the trial, a re-enactment of the trial by a local theater company, screenings of the films based on Dreiser’s novel, tours of the jail and courthouse where Gillette was held and tried, and an excursion trip to the murder site on Big Moose Lake.

Among other commemorations of the Gillette trial, the topic of the second lecture in the New York State Court of Appeals Lecture Series, held June 26, was “Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy:’ The Law and the Arts,” an event co-sponsored by the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York.

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Web page updated: September 1, 2006 - www.NYCOURTS.gov