In this episode of The Lady Dicks, the #DickSquad is covering the tragedy of the Grace Brown murder. What she thought was love, was most definitely something else ??
On July 11, 1906, Grace Brown and her future husband (at least that’s what he told her) Chester Gillette, set sail on Big Moose Lake. Only Chester would return to dry land alive. Grace, pregnant, in love and hoping for a nice pre-honeymoon ended up murdered by the one she thought she would spend the rest of her life with.
Join the #DickSquad as they travel back in time to 1906, New York, to tell the story of Grace, the woman who thought she was getting a wedding and ended up with a lot more, or less… depending on how you look at it.
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Grace Mae Brown was born March 14, 1886, to Frank and Minerva Brown of South Otselic, New York. The family lived on a dairy farm on Stage Road, north of the village.
Throughout her childhood, friends and family called her “Billy” after she was caught singing one of her favourite songs, Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey. Later on, she began to refer to herself as “The Kid.”
She completed high school, admirable for a woman in the late 1800s, and left home at 18 to live with her marries sister in nearby Courtland. She was said to be a beautiful girl with a nice figure, blue-grey eyes and dark brown hair worn in a fashionable Gibson Girl style.
She soon found work as a fabric cutter at the local Gillette Skirt Factory. It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of a young Chester Gillette, nephew of the factory owner.
Chester Ellsworth Gillette was born April 9, 1882, to the well-to-do Christian Gillette family. He was born in Montana, but spent part of his childhood in Spokane, Washington.
While his parents were financially comfortable, they were also deeply religious and eventually renounced material wealth to join the Salvation Army. His family travelled around the West coast of the United States and Hawaii during his adolescence, and by the age of 22, he had lived and worked in such exotic places as San Francisco and Chicago.
Though Chester never took to the religious aspects of his upbringing, he did travel around with his family and do missionary work for the Salvation Army which allowed him to attend Oberlin College, which was well-known for its divinity school and missionary work in China.
The tuition for Oberlin was granted by the generosity of a wealthy uncle, but Gillette left after two years in 1903. After leaving school, he worked at odd jobs until 1905 when he took a position at an uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York. And by the standards of turn-of-the-century rural New York, he was considered a man of the world.
Gillette was accepted by the local business community as an up-and-coming young man, and he rose steadily in his uncle’s business, and soon became the factory manager.
He developed social ambitions as well. As a good-looking and charming young man, and he mingled easily with the local gentry and was soon a regular at the parties and other functions of Cortland society.
Still, in his early 20s, Gillette had high hopes of marrying a girl from one of the town’s wealthy families but while he was a Gillette and nephew to the factory owner, his family was not wealthy. Due to their missionary work as he grew up.
Chester Gillette and Grace Brown relationship
Grace’s sister left Courtland in 1905, and Grace started renting a room from a local well-respected woman, Mrs. Wheeler. It was assumed that she would be well chaperoned, but as we can all imagine, she was not.
There was much more privacy in Grace’s new home than her family was aware of and Chester began to be a regular caller. Ever the womanizer (even by 21st century standards), Chester was often seen in public with other young women, especially women from wealthy families.
He never took Grace out and kept their liaison secret. Even so, others noticed an increasing frequency of Gillette’s raised voice and Brown’s tears at the factory.
Being a Gillette, Chester often attended prestigious social gatherings at his uncle’s house, and on one such occasion met the lovely Harriet Benedict, daughter of a local lawyer. It wasn’t long until he was spending his weeknights with the Courland in-crowd and “visiting” Grace two nights a week.
By the following spring, Grace was pregnant. Chester (ever the gentleman) offered to pay for an abortion, but Grace refused, holding out for a marriage proposal.
It was 1906 when Grace became pregnant, and as we can all imagine, single women who were pregnant out of wedlock were ostracized by society. It is believed that when Grace announced her pregnancy, she expected him to marry her. But Chester, the cosmopolitan young man that he was, wanted more than a common young woman such as Grace.
On June 15, 1906, she took leave from her job and went home to South Otselic. She began sewing garments for her trousseau (the clothes, household linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage), and writing daily letters to Chester. All the meanwhile, Chester was partying with his rich friends in Courtland.
While he ignored the first few letters from Grace, he soon realized the problem wasn’t going away when she phoned him at work and threatened to return—he scribbled a quick note that he couldn’t get away until July 7th or 8th, and continued to write infrequently.
However, her friends at the factory wrote her frequently recounting his many indiscretions. He later postponed his meeting with Grace so he could keep plans to spend July 4th at York Lake with Harriet.
Murder in the Adirondacks
Chester decided to “deal” with “the problem.”
He requested an advance from work, and a vacation, and planned to meet Grace in DeRuyter, New York on Monday, July 9, 1906, where they began their journey north to Adirondacks.
He told Grace this was a pre-Honeymoon. They spent July 9 and 10, in hotel rooms along the way, and arrived around 10:30 am on Wednesday, July 11, at the now-demolished Glenmore Hotel on Big Moose Lake.
Chester signed the register at the Glenmore Hotel: Carl Graham, Albany, New York, and Grace Brown, South Otselic, New York; before heading out on Big Moose Lake on a 17 foot Adirondack Skiff rowboat.
They briefly considered taking a steamboat tour, but decided to rent a rowboat. Prior to boarding, Chester left Grace at the dock and returned to the hotel, presumably to retrieve some of their belongings, and returned with his suitcase and a tennis racquet.
Robert Morrison who rented Gillett the boat, watched him place the suitcase in the skiff and wondered why he did not leave it at the hotel. He also noticed that Grace was not wearing a straw hat (that she apparently did bring with her) even though it was a sunny day and ladies in the early 1900s considered freckles and tanned faces unattractive.
Shortly after 6 pm, a piercing cry was heard by Mrs. Marjorie Carey and her husband in a boat on another part of the lake, the scream appeared to have come from the eastern shore of South
Bay. But the Carey’s continued on their way, presuming it was simply a couple of youngsters engaged in “high-spirited horseplay.” Later, three gentlemen encountered a young man on the road to Eagle Bay around 8 pm and one of them recalled the stranger “carried a suitcase in his hand and was walking very fast.”
When the couple failed to return that evening, Robert Morrison reported Grace Brown and “Carl Graham” missing. Later, a boat was discovered floating upside down in Punkey Bay, one of the lake’s most isolated coves.
Grace’s body was found, and as her body was pulled aboard the steamer, onlookers noticed clotted blood about her nose and dark blood drained from the nostrils, along with a gash on her swollen lips exuding blood and a stocking had fallen down over her shoe.
On Saturday, July 14, an autopsy was performed by five physicians. The undertaker who transported her body to Herkimer for autopsy later testified he observed dark discolorations and abrasions on the girl’s face.
Highlights of the final coroner’s report read:
- 5 ft 1 inch
- Approximately 105 – 110 pounds
- Lips swollen and discoloured; tip of the nose presented a like appearance, somewhat flattened
- Left cheek or malar bone presented discoloration
- Right central incisor or tooth was loose in its socket
- Abrasion of the mucous membrane of the lip—this injury to the lip and teeth and nose had been inflicted before death
- Black and blue spot on the cheek with a degree of swelling that had been inflicted before death
- 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.
Two days later, police found Chester in a nearby hotel after a witness had identified him. At first, he denied knowing Grace but recanted and claimed she had drowned herself because he no longer loved her. Few, if any, believed him. He was arrested while attempting to flee and charged with the murder of Grace Brown.
The trial of Chester Gillette
Chester Gillette was arrested while attempting to flee and charged with the murder of Grace Brown. Gillette bide his time at the Herkimer County Jail until November 12, 1906, when he was escorted across the street to the courthouse to stand trial.
Chester’s trial started on November 12, and lasted until December 4, 1906. It took place in Herkimer, New York and the prosecutor was District Attorney George W. Ward, who was set on sending Chester to the electric chair, with Judge Irving R. Devendorf presiding. Gillette’s defense lawyers were Albert M. Mills and Charles D. Thomas.
For unknown reasons, Chester had saved all of Grace’s letters. They were confidcated when police searched his room, entered in to evidence and read in open court. One such letter read:
I am so blue. Oh dear, if you were only here and would kiss me and tell me not to worry anymore … 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.
Reporters covering the trial noted that during the reading of Grace’s letters, the only dry eyes in the courtroom were those of Chester Gillette. The following day, one newspaper called Chester a “callous, cold-hearted brute,” and public opinion became so intense there was talk of storming the jail and lynching the scoundrel.
Chester’s defense lawyer Thomas made the following pitch to the jury:
Now gentlemen, there are such things as moral cowards. 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 at all.
Thomas then called Gillette to the stand, and asked him about the events immediately following what Gillette said was Brown’s decision to kill herself. The following is an excerpt from Thomas’ questioning of his client:
Gillette: Then she said, ‘Well, I will end it here,’ and she, well, jumped into the lake; stepped up onto the boat, kind of threw herself in.
Thomas: What did you do?
Gillette: I tried to reach her, I leaned back in the seat in the other end, the bow seat, I guess. I tried to reach her and, well, 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.
Thomas: Go on and describe what you did.
Gillette: Then I came up. I halloed, grabbed hold of the boat. Then, as soon as I could get the water out of my eyes and see, I got hold of the boat or got to the boat.
Thomas: Did you see her?
Gillette: 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.
Gillette didn’t appear to be grief-stricken or sorrowful. Further, a tennis racquet that Gillette had buried had been discovered, broken as if from striging hard blows.
D.A. Ward knew how thin the defense’s case was. Not only could they not explain the tennis racquet but 5 doctors had testified that Brown’s autopsy showed evidence of blows to the body. Further, Gillette later seemed to change his story, suggesting that the boat had tipped over first and Brown had hit her head against the side before sinking beneath the lake.
One of the more gruesome aspects of the trial occurred while the district attorney was questioning one of the examining physicians. The DA asked a physician to identify a jar containing a uterus and dead fetus. The doctor did so, explaining that during the autopsy, Miss Brown’s womb and unborn child were removed from her body.
The prosecution’s theory was that: Chester, knowing Grace could not swim, rented the boat and rowed to a secluded spot. He murdered her 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 the unborn child lay dead.
The defense’s theory was that: Grace committed suicide by diving into the water during an argument in which Chester refused to marry her.
Immediately prior to pronouncing the sentence, the judge asked Gillette if he had anything to say. Gillette replied: I have. I desire to state that I am innocent of this crime and therefore ought not to be punished. I think that is all.
Judge Devendorf then sentenced Gillette to die in the electric chair. Following Gillette’s trial and sentence, his execution was delayed while Mills and Thomas appealed.
They based their appeals on a lengthy list of objections that they had made at trial and a trial record that was more than 3,000 thousand pages long. On February 18, 1908, the New York Court of Appeals rejected Mills’ and Thomas’ arguments. Chief Judge Frank A. Hiscock’s opinion was terse and unequivocal:
No controversy throws the shadow of doubt or speculation over the primary fact that about 6 o’clock in the afternoon of July 11, 1906, while he was with the defendant, Grace Brown met an unnatural death and her body sank to the bottom of Big Moose Lake.
On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette was executed by electric chair at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York.
Ghost of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette
There are a few hauntings potentially associated with the death of Grace Brown, and even the execution of Chester Gillette:
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.
While the boat that Gillette rented was originally held in evidence, 3 years later it mysteriously disappeared. Shortly thereafter, reports of supernatural activity near the spooky old red brick building commenced. 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 re-enacted 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.”
Chester’s spirit has been spotted at the boarded-up building in Cortland that was once the Gillette Skirt Factory
A phantom carries a tennis racquet and appears to be wearing a white shirt and light-colored pants
Following Gillette’s execution, prisoners confined to the cell once occupied by him 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 whoever was locked in the cell. In every instance, the man in question insisted he awakened and saw Gillette standing beside his cot.
This made moving the frightened prisoner to another location necessary, 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.
However, it 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.
The spirit of Grace was often seen walking among the apple trees on the farm where she once lived. In these instances, she appeared as the happy, carefree young girl she was before Chester Gillette ruined her life.
All of that said, we read that your best opportunity for an encounter with Grace is Covewood Lodge. It was not built until 1924, 18 years after her death death. But it is said the rustic but elegant, hotel, represents the sort of place 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 author of Adirondack Ghosts Lynda Lee Macken her story is as follows:
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 were sitting in the gazebo overlooking the lake, they observed a white mist in the vicinity of South Bay, it slowly floated in their direction. A mass gradually assumed what she said was a “distinct female shape with feet trailing off in the haze.” She said while she wasn’t uncomfortable, she did feel incredibly sad.
Grace has also been known to make her presence clear in the lodge, and has said to turn lights on and off and some employees have glimpsed a luminescent female figure standing at a second-floor window. As well, when 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. She appears only momentarily, but once she is gone it is allegedly cold for moments after.
In the summer of 1999, guest Jim Dunning took a dip in the frigid waters of Big Moose Lake a little before 6 am. As he was headed for his swim, he noticed a single, small wet footprint on the steps leading from the lake to the dock. No one was around, just the footprint. Then, petite Grace entered his mine and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
One summer night in 1988, several employees of the Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake, including Rhonda Bousselot, were approaching the staff lodge. Leading the pack, Rhonda said she was unaware that someone, or something, might be waiting for the group inside. But as they walked in she had the sudden feeling come over her that someone was there. At the same time, outside her friend were witnessing the same story, she said:
“All three of them had the same exact story. It lingered for just a few seconds, and then moved away. All three of them saw the ghost. I didn’t see anything myself, but I felt that somebody was right there, and it was just a strange feeling.”
Visiting Big Moose Lake
Big Moose Lake is situated in upstate New York about two hours from Syracuse. The closest town is Old Forage, New York. This is also a great area to camp in the summer.
While the lodge that Grace and Chester stayed at on that fateful weekend no longer exists, you can visit Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake.
Or you can sign up for an AirBnb account to find unique places to stay in the area!
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The Lady Dicks did not just magically come up with the information for The Ghost of Grace Brown themselves, they, in fact, did research beyond Wikipedia (thanks jerky iTunes reviewer for your one-star comment), and here are those sources:
- July 11, 1906: Grace Brown – Death on Big Moose Lake, What Lies Beyond.
- Inside the brutal murder of pregnant woman by her lover, Deborah Black, Life Death Prizes.
- Ghost Of Grace Brown, Unsolved Mysteries.
- Chester and Grace: The Real American Tragedy, Bloggillette.
- Murder of Grace Brown: Relive infamous crime at Big Moose Lake in Adirondacks, Chuck D’Imperio, New York Upstate.
- The murder at Moose Lake: a young pregnant woman dies but her tragic story lives on, Mara Bovsun, NY Daily News.
- The Case, The Ghost of Grace Brown.
- The Haunting of Big Moose Lake-City Paranormal, Lite 98.7.
- The Grace Brown Murder 1906 – Lured To Her Death With Love, ObsoleteOddity.
- Following the Final Footsteps of Grace Brown, Adirondack Experience.
- Covewood Lodge, TripAdvisor.
- Big Moose Inn and Restaurant, TripAdvisor.
The Lady Dicks Podcast was created by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks are Andrea Campion, Nikki Kipping and Tae Haahr. “The Murder of Grace Brown” was research by Andrea Campion and Nikki Kipping, written, edited and produced by Tae Haahr. The Lady Dicks theme music, A Pink Panther, is licenced through AudioJungle.
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