Row, Row, Row Your Boat

On 6 July 1906, Grace Brown wrote to her lover, Chester Gillette, who had got her pregnant, that she had “been bidding good-bye to some places today. . .

Oh dear, you don’t realize what all of this is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again, 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 know, she won’t be angry with me.”

Brown seems to have thought that she and Gillette were going to elope. They did take a trip soon after, to the Adirondacks, where they rowed a boat out onto a lake. You know where this is going. According to the indictment in People of the State of New York vs. Chester Gillette,

The said Chester Gillette, on the 11th day of July 1906 . . . did beat and strike the said Grace Brown . . . and . . . did push, cast, and throw the said Grace Brown into the water of Big Moose Lake . . . and did then and there smother, asphyxiate, and suffocate the said Grace Brown beneath the waters of said lake . . . and . . . the said Grace Brown did languish and languishing did die. . . .

If this sounds familiar, it may be because Theodore Dreiser wrote a book about the case, An American Tragedy, and because Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the movie, A Place in the Sun. (Elizabeth Taylor, I hasten to assure you, did not play the Grace Brown role. Shelley Winters did.) Now the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York has digitized the record and briefs of People vs. Gillette, which clock in at over 2,000 pages.

By the way, if the name “Edmund Pearson” means anything to you, and/or if you find that you’re developing a taste for antique murder, check out Clews, the Historic True Crime Blog, by Laura James, which I discovered because she was kind enough to link to an old article of mine not long ago.