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SPECIAL FEATURE

New York Court of Appeals Lecture Series

Dreiser's "An American Tragedy": The Law and the Arts
Susan N. Herman, Centennial Professor of Law, Brooklyn Law School
Frascesca Zambello, Internationally Renowned Director of Opera and Theater
Co-Sponsored by:
The Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York


Webcast Available Here

The Murder Trial of Chester Gillette

Chester Gillette, a prep school graduate, met Grace Brown, a farmer's daughter, in 1905 while they were both employed at a skirt factory in Cortland, New York owned by Chester's uncle. Their relationship was kept secret from most of their friends and family. In 1906 Grace discovered that she was pregnant and shortly thereafter she and Chester embarked on a trip to the Adirondacks which Grace assumed was to be their wedding trip. At Big Moose Lake, Herkimer County, Chester rented a boat and rowed to a secluded location in South Bay. Chester and Grace never returned. Grace's body was found the next day at the bottom of the lake and Chester was arrested in nearby Inlet two days later.

Chester GilletteThe prosecution argued that Chester, seeking to extricate himself from the relationship, had murdered Grace by striking her on the head with a tennis racket found near the scene. Chester countered first that Grace had slipped and struck her head, accounting for the cut there. Later he stated that she was despondent and committed suicide.

The month-long trial was an international sensation. The Herkimer courthouse where the trial took place was at capacity each day and the media covered all aspects of the testimony including several of Grace's love letters admitted into evidence. Ultimately Chester was found guilty in one of the first murder convictions based entirely on circumstantial evidence. He was later executed despite pleas to the Governor by Chester's mother and repeated assertions of innocence by Chester.

The Gillette story endures through a best-selling book based on the case, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, two motion pictures, An American Tragedy [1931] and A Place in the Sun [1951]. More recently, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Tobias Picker's work, An American Tragedy which premiered in the Lincoln Center in 2005.

The Dreiser/von Sternberg Dispute: Theodore Dreiser attempted to force changes in the von Sternberg movie, An American Tragedy, (1931). In these fascinating documents (see link below), Dreiser claims that his book "is an indictment of our social system under which individuals are overwhelmed by forces outside themselves, react in certain ways which are due largely to their background and environment, and individually pay the penalty."

Dreiser further maintains that the book presents "the situation of an ordinary but weak youngster named Clyde Griffiths, who, through the vicissitudes of life, over which he had little or no control, was gradually forced to one position after another, until he became involved in a great tragedy." However, Judge Witschief concluded that "[i]n the preparation of the picture, the producer must give consideration to the fact that the great majority of the people, composing the audience before which the picture will be presented, will be more interested that justice prevail over wrong doing, than that the inevitability of Clyde's end clearly appear."

The Minerva Brown Defamation Case: Minerva Brown, Grace Brown's mother, brought a defamation case against Paramount based upon the depiction of the Brown family in the movie, An American Tragedy (1931). In Brown v. Paramount Publix Corporation, 240 A.D. 520 [March 22, 1934], Minerva Brown states that her daughter, "during the year 1906, met her death at Big Moose Lake in the county of Herkimer, N. Y. Chester Gillette was indicted, tried, convicted, and executed for her murder... The defendant [Paramount] caused to be produced for sale or distribution to and exhibition by moving picture houses throughout the country, a talking motion picture production under the title of "An American Tragedy," in which it has caused to be portrayed, by actors, scenes, characteristics, and otherwise what purports to be a reproduction of the lives of Chester Gillette, Grace Brown, and their families by the similarity of the characters, locations, scenes, and incidents so closely associated with the actual incidents of the life of said Chester Gillette and Grace Brown as to induce the public to believe that the same portrayed the conditions surrounding the lives of said characters. The defendant caused these films to be sent generally throughout the State of New York and especially in the locality where the plaintiff resides. After setting forth the plaintiff's good character as well as that of her husband, their respectability, and the proper rearing and education of their daughter, the complaint then alleges: ‘But that disregarding the character, appearance, reputation and good-name of the plaintiff, the defendant willfully, wrongfully and maliciously, through the manufacture, use, lease and exhibition of said films and pictures, purporting of and concerning the plaintiff, the following false, untrue, slanderous, libelous and defamatory matter, to-wit: that the plaintiff was an illiterate, unkempt, slovenly, neglectful and low-grade person; that she was the wife of a mean, illiterate, unkempt, lazy, low-type or degenerate person; that she had neglected her daughter, the said Grace Brown, both educationally and morally, or had compelled her, through lack of care, to seek her own livelihood as a mere child; that she had permitted her said daughter, Grace Brown, to carry on clandestine relations with Chester Gillette, or others, and so depicted the plaintiff, by the manner of said pictures and films, as to render the plaintiff an object of contempt and ridicule among her friends, neighbors, and those who knew her or knew of her; and that the references and allusions to the plaintiff were understood by her acquaintances and friends, and by the public generally, to apply to her; that by such allusions, innuendo and intimation, plaintiff was made therein to appear as poor-white-trash, and a disreputable, untidy product of the hills, without decent care for her daughter and as contributing to the condition in which her daughter found herself."
COURT AND OTHER PUBLIC RECORDS

Following the death sentence, the case was appealed to the New York Court of Appeals (New York's highest court).

The Record on Appeal from the Chester Gillette trial is over 2,000 pages long.
This digital reproduction was made possible through a joint project of the New York Court of Appeals and the New York State Library.

People v Gillette - Appeal Book Volume I
People v Gillette - Appeal Book Volume II
People v Gillette - Appeal Book Volume III

Legal briefs were submitted by the attorney for the Appellant (Chester Gillette) and the Respondent (The People of the State of New York). These digital reproductions were made possible through a joint project of the New York Court of Appeals and the New York State Archives.

Appellant's Points of Counsel before the Court of Appeals
Respondent's Points of Counsel before the Court of Appeals

The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction. The decision of the Court was published in the New York Official Reports at 191 NY 107.

People v Gillette (191 NY 107).

Chester Gillette then sought clemency from the Governor. His clemency application was denied. The Public Papers of Governor Hughes (1908) contain the Governor's response.

Denial of Clemency Application

Chester Gillette was executed at Auburn State Prison on March 30, 1908.

CASES RELATED TO AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY

Dreiser/von Sternberg dispute: Dreiser v Paramount Publix Corporation
These digital reproductions were made possible through a joint project of the New York Court of Appeals and the Westchester County Archives

Minerva Brown's libel case:

Brown v. Paramount Publix Corporation Record
Appellant Paramount Publix Corporation's Brief Respondent Minerva Brown's Brief
Appellant Paramount Publix Corporation's Reply Brief

These digital reproductions were made possible through a joint project of the New York Court of Appeals and the New York State Library

The Appellate Division (with two Justices dissenting) reversed the lower court decision and granted Paramount application to dismiss Minerva Brown's complaint on the ground that it did not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action.

Supreme Court, Appellate Division, decision (240 A.D. 520)

Following the Appellate Division decision, Minerva Brown sought consent to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals (New York's highest Court). Her motion for leave to appeal was denied.

Supreme Court, Appellate Division, decision (241 A.D. 897)

[Photograph of Chester and Grace courtesy of the Oneida County Historical Society, 1608 Genesee Street, Utica, NY 13502-5425.]




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