Fatal Journey Part Three

Grace died on Wednesday, July 11, 1906. Chester was arrested for her murder on Saturday, right after eating a leisurely breakfast at the Arrowhead Hotel.


Auburn Prison, Site of Chester’s Execution in 1908


Chester was tried in Herkimer, Herkimer County, and the outcome was never in very much doubt. He had competent lawyers acting in his defense, but the prosecutor had amassed an astonishing amount of evidence against him. That evidence was entirely circumstantial; there were no witnesses to what happened to Grace on that summer day in the Adirondacks. Some of the evidence was secured in ways that would not be legal procedures today, but rights of the accused were secondary in that era.


The defendant himself had made too many mistakes, had acted like a man planning a crime before the fact with his use of aliases, had failed to do what “common decency” dictated when he walked away from the scene of Grace’s death. When he then proceeded to act the tourist and enjoy life, he may have offended every last person who might otherwise have wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.


Publicly, Chester maintained to the end that he did not kill Grace. He may have confessed privately shortly before his execution; both his religious advisor and his mother said later he had. New York State’s Governor, Charles E. Hughes [at left], called the prison the night before the execution and spoke with the former. He was apparently informed that a confession had been forthcoming.


Governor Hughes proved himself a bright star in public life, an honorable man before, during, and after his brief career as Governor of New York State. It seems likely he made that phone call to the prison in good faith and a willingness to act, had he been given any reason to do so.


Chester Gillette was electrocuted at Auburn State Prison on March 30, 1908. He was buried in a cemetery in Auburn. His grave is unmarked and its exact location is unknown. Grace Brown is buried in a cemetery not far from her family home. Her small headstone, aside from her name and dates of birth and death, says only “At Rest.”


All of the scenes of this story are very familiar to me, having lived most of my life in Central New York State. The landscape, the small towns, the lakes and mountains of the Adirondacks, the farms and open fields spreading across the countryside are as familiar to me as my own neighborhood. South Otselic, DeRuyter, Cortland – places I have visited and explored many times. Herkimer County, even including the lakes in its northern region, is my territory too. Many of my extended family and their friends had small farms like the one that nurtured and sheltered Grace Brown, and as a child I loved visiting those rural homes.


Chester Gillette’s life seems more remote, several times removed from the places where I grew up. He was in Montana and Oregon, Washington State, California. He was in the east only the last two years of his short life.


Still, in addition to our common ancestors, there is another coincidence in our respective lives. As I read his story, particularly the way it ended, I couldn’t help thinking of a story my mother told many times. As a young child, she lived for a while in Auburn. The Prison’s warden was a family friend, and he gave my mother and her family a tour of the prison. The itinerary included the “death chamber”, no longer used by that time. Electrocutions were then held only at Sing Sing State Prison. Would she like to try out the electric chair? She would. And she did. For a lark, someone flipped the light switch, as if power was surging to the chair. My mother laughs when she tells that story.

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