When a girl announces she’s pregnant, you could be forgiven for feeling blind panic or giving her a congratulatory hug, but not a club round the head with a tennis racquet.
A close shave
Well that’s how Chester Gillette greeted the news on finding out that his girl was up the duff. Of course, he didn’t just launch an attack on Grace Brown. No, he lured her away from it all by taking her boating on Big Moose Lake.
The poor girl was probably under the impression that he was about to pop the question, but he had the more macabre intention of bludgeoning her to death with a racquet and then leaving her to drown.
Rough with the smooth
So why had the American reacted so badly? Well, by all accounts, Brown – a farmer’s daughter – was his bit of rough. And it appears that she sadly felt more strongly than he did. They’d met while working at his uncle’s factory and started a secret affair. He, on the other hand, may even have been two-timing her and, as a well-to-do college boy, obviously thought he was going places. And he went places alright – jail and then the electric chair.
Gillette hadn’t banked on having to explain away her disappearance. His flaky accounts of what happened helped pinpoint him as the source of the murder, especially as Brown’s body turned up just a day later with hefty evidence of lacerations. First Gillette said she’d fallen and hit her head, then said she’d committed suicide. Despite his best attempts he was charged with murder.
The trial in New York went ballistic when love letters were produced in evidence. Against such tender displays of affection and the belief that he had another woman on the go in the shape of Harriet Benedict, Gillette had no hope.
The best a man can get
He was a weak defendant and none of his stories held water. A jury took just six hours to brand him a guilty man, based purely on circumstantial evidence.
Gillette was sent to the electric chair in Auburn, aged just 24.
Gillette became the inspiration behind the main character in ‘An American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser, which in turn made it to celluloid as the Academy Award-winning film ‘A Place in the Sun’. Brown’s mother Minerva took exception to the original version of the film released in 1931, in which her daughter was depicted as poor white trash and she was prompted to take out a defamation case against Paramount Pictures.