The young woman on the left was my cousin, Grace Brown. The young man on the right was Chester Gillette. He was also my cousin. When I started learning their story, I had no idea there was any kinship to add to the many connections of geography, and one other coincidence, which I’ll save for later. On a whim, I took a look at Grace’s ancestry and found we had several sets of ancestors in common. With Chester, there was even more shared ancestry. I haven’t been able to connect their families together, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find they were related to each other.
Grace drowned in 1906. She was 20 years old. Chester was convicted of her murder and was executed in 1908 at the age of 24. Behind those simple, stark facts, there are many details known, and many more obscure.
There are a great many facts known about Chester and the life he led before it was ended in Auburn Prison on March 30,1908. Born in Montana in 1883, he did a great deal of traveling with his parents, “captains” in the Salvation Army. The family’s wanderings are interesting, perhaps, but they hardly seem relevant. There is nothing there that gives us much explanation as to what happened later.
About Grace, there is little to say. She was one of several children of a farming family, and Grace never traveled at all. Still, we are “aware” of Grace in a way that we can never know Chester. You see, Grace wrote letters. Ah, such letters! They tell us worlds about their young writer, about her concerns, her fears, her state of mind. They propelled her story into national prominence, probably contributed to the novel (“An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser) and the movie (“A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelly Winters), and they may well have assured that her fickle boyfriend, Chester, was convicted of her murder.
This is a story of real people and, as such, has no easily identifiable beginning. A young man goes to work in his uncle’s skirt factory in Cortland, New York, where he meets many attractive young women who interest him. There are others that he knows from other settings. Grace was employed in that factory in the cutting room, and she was one of the girls Chester dated.
Perhaps “dated” is the wrong word to use here. Chester did date others, taking them places and attending parties with them, but Grace he visited at her place of residence. For a time she lived in her sister’s home and later in a boarding house. They had a sexual relationship in these houses for perhaps ten months, but they did not appear in public places together, outside of the skirt factory.
During the spring months of 1906, Grace became pregnant. There was never any doubt as to paternity. Whatever the two discussed with each other, whatever alternatives were considered, whatever plans were made are open to speculation, but only to speculation. There were no witnesses to conversations, and nothing was confided by either to any third party, as far as is known.
Grace took time off from work for a “vacation” at home on her parents’ farm. She and Chester kept in touch through letters during this time, and Grace also received letters from friends working in the factory. It was apparent that they were keeping her informed of Chester’s dates with other women. In writing to Chester, Grace alludes to plans they have made to go away together, for him to come and take her somewhere, the destination unspecified and purpose unclear. Were they going to marry? Were they merely planning to live somewhere until the baby was born and they could return to their respective homes? No one knows, and probably this question will be one of many remaining unanswered.
LETTERS FROM GRACE
Chester, I have done nothing but cry since I got here. If you were only here I would not feel so badly. I knew I should worry all the time. I do try to be brave dear, but how can I when everything goes wrong? I can’t help thinking you will never come for me, but then I say you can’t be so mean as that, and besides, you told me you would come and you have never disappointed me when you said you would not. Everything worries me and I am so frightened, dear. It won’t make any difference to you about your coming a few days earlier than you intended, will it dear? It means so much to me…I will try to be brave dear….I don’t believe I will sleep a wink tonight. Please write often and in every one of your letters I wish you would tell me not to worry about your coming for me. If you were only here, dear. I am so blue….Please write often, dear, and tell me you will come for me before papa makes me tell the whole affair, or they find it out themselves. I just can’t rest one single minute until I hear from you….
My dear Chester – I am writing to tell you I am coming back to Cortland. I simply can’t stay here any longer. Mama worries and wonders why I cry so much and I am just about sick. Please come and take me away from some place, dear…..I am afraid you won’t come, and I am so frightened, dear. I know you will think it queer, but I can’t help it….Chester, there isn’t a girl in the whole world as miserable as I am tonight, and you have made me feel so. Chester, I don’t mean that dear. You have always been awfully good to me. You just won’t be a coward, I know….I can’t wait so long for letters, dear….if you think I am unreasonable please do not mind it, but do think I am about crazy with grief and that I don’t know just what to do. Please write to me, dear.
My dear Chester – I am just ready for bed, and I am so ill I could not help writing to you….This p.m. my brother brought me a letter from one of the first [at the factory], and after I read the letter I fainted again. Chester, I came home because I thought I could trust you. I don’t think now I will be here after next Friday. [Grace continues to threaten to return to Cortland, thus causing trouble.] This girl wrote me that you seemed to be having an awfully good time….She also said that you spent most of your time with that detestable Grace Hill….I should have known, Chester, that you did not care for me. But somehow I have trusted you more than anyone else….I presume you won’t think you can come for me when I ask you to, Chester. If I could only die. I know how you feel about this affair, and I wish for your sake you need not be troubled. If I die I hope you can then be happy. I hope I can die….and then you can do just as you like. I am not the least bit offended with you, only I am a little blue tonight….Chester, please don’t think I am unreasonable. I wish I could hear from you, and I wish – oh dear, come please and take me away….I do want you to have a good time, though, and I won’t be cross….
My dear Chester – I am just wild because I don’t get a letter from you….I miss you. Oh dear, you don’t know how much I miss you. Honestly, dear, I am coming back next week unless you come for me right away. [another threat] I am so lonesome I can’t stand it. A week ago tonight we were together. Don’t you remember how I cried, dear? I have cried like that nearly all the time since I left Cortland. I am awfully blue…Please write or I will be crazy. Be a good kid and God bless you.
I would not like to have you think I was not glad to hear from you, for I was very glad, but it was not the kind of letter I had hoped to get from you. I think – pardon me – that I understand my position and that it is rather unnecessary for you to be so frightfully frank in making me see it. I can see my position as keenly as anyone, I think….You tell me not to worry and think less about how I feel and have a good time. Don’t you think if you were me you would worry?….I understand how you feel about this affair. You consider me as something troublesome, that you are bothered with. You think if it wasn’t for me you could do as you liked all summer and not be obligated to give up your position there. I know how you feel, but once in a while, you make me see all these things a great deal more plainly than ever. I don’t suppose you have ever considered how it puts me out of all the good times for the summer and how I had to give up my position there? I think all this is about as bad for me as for you, don’t you?…I don’t suppose you will ever know how I regret being all this trouble to you. I know you hate me, and I can’t blame you one bit. My whole life is ruined, and in a measure, yours is too. Of course, it is worse for me than for you, but the world and you too may think I am the only one to blame, but somehow I can’t, just simply can’t think I am, Chester. I said no so many times dear. Of course, the world will not know that, but it’s true all the same….I wish for your sake things were different, but I have done all I can do to prevent your being bothered. I know you will be cross when you read this, but you won’t be angry and blame me will you?…
[Apparently frightened at the tone of her previous letter and its possible consequences, Grace wrote the next day] …I have been uneasy all day and I can’t go to sleep because I am sorry I sent you such a hateful letter this morning, so I am going to write and ask your forgiveness, dear. I was cross and wrote things I ought not to have written. I am very sorry dear and I shall never feel quite right about all this until you write and say you quite forgive me…..Where do you suppose we will be two weeks from tonight? I wish you would write and tell me, dear, all about your coming….
My dear Chester – I wish you could have known how pleased I was to hear from you today….I think I shall die of joy when I see you, dear….I will try and not worry so much, and I won’t believe the horrid things the girls write….Chester, dear, I hope you will have an awfully nice time the Fourth [of July]. Really dear, I don’t care where you go or who you are with if you only come for me the 7th….I was cross and ill when I wrote about it before, but really, I don’t mind the least bit….
….You must come Saturday, dear, for I can never stay any longer. I have done my best and been as brave as possible these last weeks, but if you should not come I will do something desperate. Or dear, dear, dear! I can’t see anything but just trouble. What if I should not be able to travel? [Grace is apparently weak and ill from loss of weight, worry, and perhaps a difficult pregnancy.] There are so many things to think about. If I had strength dear, I do believe I should walk to the river and throw myself in. It would be rather cowardly, and I despise a coward, but I would not be a bother to you any longer. Oh Chester, the thought that I am in your way just drives me crazy. How I want to die no one but myself knows….I cannot tell how I really and truly need you, and I presume you will never know what I have suffered….And you must not fail to come. I will be so glad to see you, I will promise not to quarrel for a long time. Write as often as you can dear, and please come….