The Death of Grace Brown, 1906

March 21, 2019 at 1:48 am (True crime)

The Borden killings are baffling and appalling. The same can be said of the killing of Bobby Franks by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold.

The murder of Grace Brown is certainly just as appalling as the above named, but it is not baffling. On the contrary, considering the circumstances in which it occurred, it was almost inevitable. Above all, it is heartbreaking.

In Bringing Down the Colonel (2018), Patricia Miller tells the story of the scandal that broke in 1893 when Madeline Pollard brought suit against W.C.P. (William Campbell Preston) Breckinridge for breach of promise. In the early 1880s, in the words of the jacket copy, Breckinridge was “…a handsome, married, moralizing lawyer running for Congress” when he initiated an affair with Pollard, then a student at Wesleyan Female College, now known simply as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The relationship continued for nearly a decade. The inevitable pregnancies – note the plural – resulted. When Breckinridge’s wife died in 1892 and the anticipated marriage proposal failed to materialize, Madeline Pollard had reached the end of her tether.

Very early in this absorbing chronicle, Patricia Miller states the following:

The charges were shocking, given that Breckinridge was such a well respected figure. What was even more shocking, and novel, however, was what Madeline had to sacrifice to bring the suit. She had to reveal herself as a “ruined” woman–a woman who had acquiesced to sex outside of marriage. Few things could be more injurious to a woman in late nineteenth-century America. A woman’s chastity was  the bedrock of her social capital. Its loss, the specter of the “fallen” woman, haunted society.

When stating her purpose in bringing this suit, Madeline Pollard declared bluntly: “I’ll take my share of the blame. I only ask that he take his.”

Pollard was no ingenue. She was reasonably experienced in the ways of the world, particularly when those ways involved powerful men. Grace Brown was another story altogether. An unworldly farm girl from a small town in upstate New York – South Otselic, in Chenango County – she had come to the “big city” – Cortland – in 1904 to work in the Gillette Skirt Factory. She had a married sister in that city, with whom she could live. Her family back home could use the money she would make at the factory.

In 1906, Chester Gillette, a scion of the factory owner’s family, arrived in town to work at the skirt factory. He and Grace struck up a friendship which soon turned into a love affair.

According to an account told to a reporter after Grace’s death, Chester met Grace when a ring, an inexpensive gold band with an opal stone, slipped off her narrow finger and rolled across the factory floor until it came to rest at his feet. He picked it up and made a bow and a remark before handing it back to her.

From Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon

By such small gestures are our fates determined….

The relationship was secretive. For one thing, Chester was eager to rise into the upper crust of Cortland society. There was simply no place there for Grace. In truth, she was a stopgap for Chester, someone to make him feel less lonely as he was  learning the ropes in an unfamiliar environment.

Just as Chester was starting to pull away from Grace, she gave him news that he did not want to hear: she was pregnant. In those days, if you got a girl “in trouble,” you married her. No question; it was simply what was expected and what was done. Grace was desperate for the marriage to take place. But Chester was just as desperate not to do it.

Chester advised Grace to quit her job at the skirt factory and return for a time to her home in South Otselic. This she did, but once there, she was miserable. She loved her mother and her siblings dearly, but she could not bring herself to confide in them. Eventually, she and Chester made  plan to meet in another town and travel north into the Adirondacks. It was Grace’s fervent hope that they were running away to be married. And yet, in one of her last letters to Chester, in which she describes bidding farewell to the places and people she loves, she betrays her anxiety:

And mamma! Great heavens, how I do love Mamma! I don’t know what I shall do without her (…) Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does not know, she won’t be angry with me.”

At length, they came upon a place called Big Moose Lake. They took rooms there.

The lake was beautiful; the country, secluded. They rowed to a remote spot. Chester claimed that Grace, though fully clothed, had suddenly jumped into the water. Unable to save her, he swam back to shore. The boat, overturned, remained out on the lake; there was no sign of Grace. Her body was recovered the following day. Soon after, Chester was arrested.

The trial was a sensation. Grace’s letters were read, bringing many in the courtroom  to tears. Meanwhile,  when speaking of Chester, prosecutor George W. Ward let loose like an avenging angel:

“He has more stability of purpose, more determination, more cunning than a wolf has got…and when a pretty flower had come down from the hills he scented her out as the instrument of his lust, plucked the petals one by one and threw them under his feet.”

Quoted by Craig Brandon in his book

Chester was judged guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. A subsequent appeal was denied.

There is of course much more to the story than what I have heretofore related. The post on  NewYorkUpstate.com provides a good summary of events and some excellent visuals. If you need more – and I definitely did – I recommend Murder in the Adirondacks by Craig Brandon. (Be sure to seek out the revised and updated edition, copyright 2016.)

Part Two of Brandon’s book is entitled “The Murder That Will Never Die.” First there was Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, based on the events described above and published in two volumes in 1925. This work was adapted for the stage in the early 1930s. The film version, with the same title, came out in 1931. The film A Place in the Sun, a somewhat looser adaptation, came out in 1951. I simply must interject here that this to me is one of the most brilliant films ever made. It starred an impossibly handsome Montgomery Clift, an impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Taylor – at the time of the filming, nineteen years old! – and Shelley Winters as the doomed and desperate Alice Tripp. Utterly riveting.

Finally, an operatic version of the original novel was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The premiere performance was presented in 2005. The composer is Tobias Picker.

In his introduction, Craig Brandon reprints the words to a ‘murder ballad’ called Omie Wise. The crime to which it refers occurred in 1807 or 1808:

I’ll tell you a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.

He promised to marry her at Adams’s spring;
He ‘d give her some money and other fine things.

He gave her no money, but flattered the case.
Says, “We will get married; there’ll be no disgrace.”

She got up behind him; away they did go
They rode till they came where the Deep River flowed.

“Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind:
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.”

“Oh, pity your poor infant and spare me my life!
Let me go rejected and not be your wife.”

“No pity, no pity,” the monster did cry.
“On Deep River’s bottom your body will lie.”

The wretch he did choke her as we understand;
He threw her in the river below the mill dam.

Now Omie is missing as we all do know,
And down to the river a-hunting we ‘II go.

Two little boys were fishing just at the break of dawn;
They spied poor Omie’s body come floating along.

They arrested John Lewis; they arrested him today.
They buried little Omie down in the cold clay.

“Go hang me or kill me, for I am the man
Who murdered poor Naomi below the mill-dam.”

(This ballad exists in several versions; this one is offered by  Bob Waltz.)

Also in his introduction, Craig Brandon offers this provocative theory concerning why  the story of Chester Gillette and Grace Brown has such a hold on the popular imagination:

The real question–why do we still care about Chester after all this time?–continues to evade us. What is it about this story of a cruel and self-centered young man who murders his pregnant lover in a lake only to be discovered and executed? One answer that comes up over and over again is that the story is what psychologist Karl Yung called an archetype, a psychological script so compelling that, once initiated, forces the protagonist to follow it, powerless to resist–and, in this case, compels others to tell the story over and over.

So, did Chester Gillette actually kill Grace Brown? The better question is, Was he responsible  for her death? Craig Brandon quotes this summation by a reporter for the Utica Daily Press:

Whether Chester Gillette struck the cruel blow which killed the girl who loved and trusted him, or whether he overturned the boat with the purpose of drowning her, or whether, according to his own statement, he drove her to suicide by refusing her the only reparation in his power and then cold-bloodedly left her to drown without making one attempt to save her, makes little difference in the essential fact that he was morally her murderer.

Grace Mae Brown, March 20,1886-July 11, 1906

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: