Post by Graveyardbride on Jul 11, 2014 11:19:41 GMT -5
July 11, 1906: Grace Brown - Death on Big Moose Lake
It is said that every year in the late afternoon of July 11 – the anniversary of the tragic death of Grace Brown – a bloodcurdling scream disrupts the tranquility of Big Moose Lake.
New York’s Adirondack Mountains tower above millions of acres of wilderness where narrow roads twist through forests of balsam fir, spruce and cedar trees so thick in places the sky disappears completely. Interspersed with deep, blue lakes, miles of sparkling rivers and streams, and numerous recreational opportunities, the area has long been a favorite tourist spot. Cool, clear nights in the Adirondaks are spent gathered around campfires or near the massive fireplaces of secluded hotels and cabins. A vacation in such surroundings would not be complete without a few ghost stories and Grace Brown, who came to an untimely death on Big Moose Lake more than a century ago, is definitely the ghost with the most. In fact, Miss Brown’s sad demise in 1906 has become a legend and entrepreneurs in the Big Moose area are quick to capitalize on the tragedy. For example, Dunn’s Boat Service offers a tour of the 568-acre lake aboard Grace, a restored mahogany Chris Craft and people at Big Moose Station Restaurant are quick to inform customers this is where Grace got off the train just before her fatal boat ride.
Theodore Dreiser thoroughly researched the Grace Brown story and his novel, An American Tragedy, published in 1925, is based on actual events, although he changed the names of both people and locations and set his fictional version of the famous case in the 1920s. In 1951, Dreiser’s book was brought to the silver screen in A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelly Winters. The setting of the film version is the 1950s and there is a greater emphasis on the “other woman” (i.e., Elizabeth Taylor). The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won six. Nevertheless, Shelly Winters, the Grace character, comes across as whiny, dim-witted and dull.
The real Grace Brown, born March 14, 1886, grew up on a dairy farm on Stage Road north of the village of South Otselic, New York. She completed high school, an admirable accomplishment for a country girl in the early 1900s, and at age 18, left home to live with her married sister 20 miles away in Cortland where she found work as a fabric cutter at the local Gillette Skirt Factory. Grace was a pretty girl with dark brown hair worn in the then-fashionable Gibson Girl style, blue-grey eyes and a fetching figure. It wasn’t long before she attracted the attentions of Chester Gillette (born April 9, 1883), who worked in the stock room, and the two began keeping company. Even though Chester was the nephew of the factory owner, he was actually a poor relation whose parents were officers in the Salvation Army. But having traveled extensively with his family, by age 22, he had lived and worked in such exotic places as San Francisco and Chicago. By turn-of-the-century rural New York standards, Chester was considered a man of the world.
When her sister left Cortland in 1905, Grace rented a room from Mrs. Wheeler, a respectable woman, and her family assumed she would be properly chaperoned. Chester continued to call on her and it turned out that in Grace’s new quarters, there was more privacy and the lascivious young man, taking advantage of the fact there were no family members in the house, seduced the naive country girl. It was later suggested that Gillette initially forced himself on the unwilling lady, but whatever the circumstances, the two became intimate and by the following spring, Grace found herself in the family way. Chester claimed he never offered to marry Miss Brown, but in 1906, women who became pregnant out of wedlock were ostracized by society and it is highly unlikely that Grace, an educated girl from a decent family, would have taken such a risk absent a promise of marriage. But the cosmopolitan Chester wanted more from life and wasn’t ready to settle down with a common young woman. He was, after all, a Gillette, and, as such, often attended social gatherings at his uncle’s house. It was on such an occasion that he was introduced to Miss Harriet Benedict, the daughter of a local lawyer. It wasn’t long before he was spending his weekends with the Cortland “in crowd” and surreptitiously visiting Grace two nights a week.
When Grace announced her pregnancy, there is every reason to believe she expected Chester to make an honest woman of her. She took a leave of absence from her job and on June 15, 1906, went home to South Otselic where she began sewing garments for her trousseau – and writing daily letters to the man she loved.
Meanwhile, back in Cortland, Chester was having a grand old time partying with his rich friends. He did not even bother answering the first few letters from the woman who was carrying his child. Finally, however, when Grace telephoned him at the skirt factory and threatened to return to Cortland, Gillette realized the problem wasn’t going away, so he scribbled a few lines explaining he could not get away before the 7th or 8th of July. Chester wrote infrequently, but Grace received letters from friends at the factory recounting her gentleman friend’s indiscretions.
Initially, Gillette postponed his meeting with Grace because he had made plans to meet Harriet Benedict at York Lake for the 4th of July Holiday. He took his camera and one of the photographs (reproduced below) depicts a somewhat pensive Chester sitting in a rowboat, oars in hand – a grim foreshadow of what was to come.
Realizing he had to deal with the problem sooner or later, Chester signed out for vacation, requested an advance and met Grace in DeRuyter, New York, Monday, July 9, and the two began their journey north to the Adirondacks. They spent the nights of July 9 and 10 in hotel rooms along the way and on the morning of Wednesday, July 11, Grace donned a white short-sleeved blouse, light green skirt and black silk jacket. A stylish summer straw hat completed her ensemble. The train arrived at the Glenmore Hotel (now demolished) on Big Moose Lake around 10:30 a.m. where Chester signed the register, “Carl Graham, Albany; Grace Brown, South Otselic.” They initially considered taking a steamboat tour, but instead, rented a rowboat.
The wooden boat Chester rented that day was a 17-foot “Adirondack Skiff.” Prior to boarding, Chester left Grace at the dock and returned to the hotel, ostensibly to retrieve some of their things. He came back carrying his suitcase and tennis racquet. Inexplicably, he did not bring Grace’s straw hat even though it was a sunny day and ladies of the early 1900s considered freckles and tanned faces unattractive. Robert Morrison, who rented Gillette the boat, watched him place the suitcase in the skiff and wondered why the young man did not leave it at the hotel. Chester and Grace rowed out onto Big Moose Lake and were soon out of sight.
A little after 6 p.m., Mrs. Marjorie Carey and her husband in a boat in another part of the lake, heard what Mrs. Carey later described as “a piercing cry, very short” that seemed to come from the eastern shore of South Bay. Assuming it was just a group of youngsters engaged in high-spirited horseplay, the couple did not investigate. Around 8 o’clock that evening, three gentlemen met a young man on the road to Eagle Bay. One of them recalled the stranger “carried a suitcase in his hand and was walking very fast.”
When the pair failed to return, Robert Morrison reported Grace and “Carl Graham” missing and the following afternoon a boat was discovered floating upside down in Punky Bay (a part of South Bay), one of the lake’s most isolated coves. A lady’s black jacket was caught on the keel and a man’s straw hat and some magazines floated nearby. When Grace’s body was brought to the surface, onlookers noticed clotted blood about the nose of the small, pale corpse and dark blood drained from the nostrils as the girl was pulled aboard the steamer. There was also a gash on the swollen lips that exuded blood and one of the lady’s stockings had fallen down over her shoe. The undertaker who transported Grace’s body to Herkimer for autopsy later testified he observed dark discolorations and abrasions on the girl’s face.
Five physicians were present when Grace Brown’s autopsy was performed Saturday, July 14. The final report reads as follows:
“. . . the body of a female, well nourished, height five feet, one inch; weight about 105 or 110 pounds. The lips were swollen and discolored; tip of the nose presented a like appearance, somewhat flattened. The left cheek or malar bone presented discoloration. The right central incisor or tooth was loose in its socket. Found an abrasion of the mucous membrane of the lip – this injury to the lip and teeth and nose had been inflicted before death. Found on the cheek a black and blue spot with a degree of swelling that had been inflicted before death. Found a point of discoloration on the scalp over the right side, about three inches above the ear. On incision, the injury extended beneath the scalp; the blood vessels were ruptured and hemorrhage had occurred at the point of injury. This injury was so great as to lacerate the blood vessels in the periosteum. Beneath the periosteum the blood had clotted about the size of a dime and the injury had penetrated the skull into the brain matter beneath the skull. The injury had produced a small blood clot about the size of a nickel on the brain and the blood vessels in the brain were ruptured. This injury occurred before death and was necessarily such as to produce unconsciousness from shock.”
Chester Gillette was arrested while attempting to flee and charged with the murder of Grace Brown. District Attorney George Ward (played by Raymond Burr in the movie) had already determined he was going to send the young villain to the electric chair. Gillette was held in the Herkimer County Jail until November 12, 1906, at which time he was escorted across the street to the courthouse to stand trial.
For reasons known only to himself, Chester saved Grace’s plaintive letters which were confiscated when police searched his room. They were subsequently entered into evidence and read in open court. At one point, Ward read a particularly heartrending segment from one of the letters:
I am so blue. Oh dear, if you were only here and would kiss me and tell me not to worry any more ... I will try so hard to please you. Darling, if you will only write and tell me that you will surely come Saturday and not to worry. I am crying so I can’t see the lines ... You will never know, dear, how badly I feel or how much I want you this minute.
Newspaper reporters covering the trial noted that during the reading of the dead girl’s anguished pleas, the only dry eyes in the courtroom were those of Chester Gillette. The following day, one paper labeled Chester a “callous, cold-hearted brute” and public opinion became so intense there was talk of storming the jail and lynching the scoundrel.
One of the more gruesome aspects of the trial occurred while the district attorney was questioning one of the examining physicians. The DA sauntered across the courtroom carrying a jar containing a uterus and dead fetus and casually asked the physician to identify them. The doctor did so, explaining that during the autopsy, Miss Brown’s womb and unborn child were removed from her body.
There were many theories as to what happened in the boat on Big Moose Lake that warm July day. The prosecution contended that Chester, knowing Grace could not swim, rented the boat, rowed to a secluded spot and murdered the girl by first striking her with either his tennis racquet or one of the oars. (Strands of long brown hair were discovered on one of the oar-locks.) After stunning her with a forceful blow to the head, Gillette shoved the lady overboard and watched her drown. He then proceeded to row ashore where, after removing the suitcase, turned the boat over and gave it a hefty push in the direction of the area where his lover and unborn child lay dead in a thick layer of mud at the bottom of the cold, dark lake. There were others who believed Grace might have committed suicide by diving into the water during an argument in which Chester refused to marry her. But of all the possible scenarios, the least plausible was offered by Gillette himself.
Chester took the witness stand and claimed Grace became distraught and took her own life after he suggested the two of them go together and explain her predicament to her parents. This was preposterous. In 1906, no halfway sane man would have made such an admission to a girl’s father unless he had a ring in his pocket and the two were on their way to the justice of the peace. Needless to say, the jury did not believe him. Gillette was convicted of first degree murder in short order and a few days later, the judge sentenced him to death in the electric chair. The prisoner was transferred to Auburn Prison where he remained until March 30, 1908, when he was executed. He was 24-years-old. Following execution, Gillette’s body was transported two miles to Soule Cemetery and buried in an unmarked grave. Although he refused to give Grace Brown his name in life, ironically, in death, the name Chester Gillette will forever be linked to that of the girl he murdered.
Many years after the trial, it was discovered that a pike pole (a long, hooked staff) was utilized in the search for Grace Brown’s body. Those who believe Chester innocent claim some of the bruises and lacerations on the girl’s body could have been made by the sharp end of the pole, forgetting, apparently, that injuries sustained postmortem do not result in bruising or swelling.
During the trial, the actual boat in which Grace embarked upon her final journey was brought into the Herkimer County Courthouse as evidence. Three years later, the craft mysteriously disappeared from the evidence room and shortly thereafter, reports of supernatural activity near the spooky old red brick building commenced. The sightings were so frequent and witnessed by so many reputable citizens that the Herkimer Telegram ran the following article:
“The stories have it that the grim tragedy is frequently reenacted in the vicinity of the courthouse, that a boat with ghostly figures of a man and woman are seen as though rowing on water, the features of the man being those of Gillette, that at times a struggle ensues between man and woman, when following a piercingly unearthly scream the latter is hurled from the boat and disappears. Those braver hearted, it is said, have rushed upon the spectral figures in an effort to solve the mystery, only as they reached the figures to have the scene vanish, they grasping but thin air.”
But the apparitions of the doomed couple do not confine themselves to the vicinity of the vintage courthouse in downtown Herkimer. Chester’s spirit has been spotted at the now boarded-up building in Cortland that was once the Gillette Skirt Factory. The phantom carries a tennis racquet and appears to be wearing a white shirt and light-colored pants.
Following his execution, prisoners confined to the cell once occupied by Gillette in the Herkimer County Jail complained that “something else” was in the cell with them. On several occasions, everyone in the building was awakened by the terrifying screams of whomever happened to be locked in Chester’s old cell. In every instance, the man in question insisted he awakened and saw Gillette standing beside his cot. This necessitated moving the frightened prisoner to another location and finally, the sheriff issued orders to use this particular cell only if all others were full. Reports of Gillette’s ghost haunting the cell where he was incarcerated several months continued until the building was abandoned in 1977. The stately, Federal-style edifice still stands in downtown Herkimer and people entering the former jail sometimes feel what they describe as a “presence.” Many wonder if the restless spirit of Chester Gillette is still stalking its dark corridors.
In years past, the tragic spirit of Grace was often seen walking among the apple trees on the farm where she once lived. In this manifestation, she appeared as the happy, carefree young girl she was before Chester Gillette ruined her life. However, the best bet for those hoping for an encounter with the spectral Grace is Covewood Lodge. Although Covewood was not built until 1924, 18 years after Grace Brown’s death, the rustic, yet elegant, hotel, with its birch paneling, hardwood floors and huge fireplaces, represents the sort of place at which the young woman had hoped to spend her honeymoon. There have been several sightings in and around the lodge and in May 1995, the television show, Unsolved Mysteries, filmed a segment called “Grace’s Ghost” at Covewood.
Among those who have encountered the spirit of Grace Brown is Lynda Lee Macken, author of Adirondack Ghosts, a wonderful pamphlet-sized book which briefly describes many local haunts. One night while walking near Covewood Lodge, Ms. Macken claims her flashlight, camera and watch all stopped working at the same time. Later, as she and a friend sat in the gazebo overlooking the lake, they observed a white mist take form in the vicinity of South Bay and slowly float in their direction. The ectoplasmic mass gradually assumed a distinct female shape with feet trailing off in the haze. “I wasn’t uncomfortable,” Ms. Macken recalls, “but I did feel an incredible sadness emanating from the ghostly woman.”
Grace makes her presence known inside the lodge, too. She has been known to turn lights on and off and some employees have glimpsed a luminescent female figure standing at a second-floor window. Also, when the lobby is deserted, guests coming in late at night sometimes see what one lady described as “a vaporous girl in old-fashioned clothes” standing on the staircase landing. The apparition appears only momentarily, but those who have seen the wraith claim the landing remains inexplicably cold for a few moments thereafter.
Jim Dunning, a guest at Covewood Lodge during the summer of 1999, routinely went for a daily dip in the frigid waters of Big Moose Lake a little before 6 a.m. One morning when he returned from his swim, he noticed a single, small wet footprint on the steps leading from the lake to the dock. No one else was around and there was only one footprint. Grace Brown suddenly came to mind and he recalled she had been a petite lady. “It was at that point,” Dunning contends, “that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up!”
Grace Brown has been dead more than a hundred years, but as the sun sets over Big Moose Lake, one of the favorite topics of conversation is still whether or not Chester Gillette was guilty. The general consensus seems to be that the young rogue was guilty regardless of how Grace died because even if she willfully jumped from the boat to her death, she would not have done so had Chester been a man of honor and accepted his responsibilities. Perhaps it is the continuing interest in the circumstances of her demise that continues to draw the melancholy spirit of Grace Brown to the location where her earthly life ended.
Lee Holloway ©2006