January 21, 2008


Diary offers insight but no answers

Collection of Chester Gillette’s prison dairy and letters published


Bob Ellis/staff photographer        
Randy Ericson, the librarian at Hamilton College in Clinton, looks through pages of Chester Gillette’s handwritten diary, with the final entry being just an hour or so before Gillette was put to death in March 1908 in an Auburn Prison electric chair. A new book of Gillette’s prison diary and letters has just been published.

Staff Reporter

The most pressing question, the one that’s on the reader’s mind from the moment he or she cracks open the book until the moment it’s set down, is, “Did he do it?”
The second question about his intended audience and motive for writing — perhaps the more important of the two — proves far more elusive.
The material that composes “The Prison Diary and Letters of Chester Gillette” (Richard W. Couper Press, 2007) was discovered last year, when one of Gillette’s closest surviving relatives came forward with the battered notebook and yellowed letters.
The collection was published in December by the Hamilton College Library, which has a large Gillette collection, including not only the diary and prison letters of the infamous convicted murderer, but newspaper clippings and letters from his trial.
Gillette was sent to the electric chair 100 years ago this March 30 for murdering Grace Brown of South Otselic on an Adirondack lake.
Gillette and Brown had been coworkers and met at the Gillette Skirt Co. — now L. Werninck & Sons — just off Miller Street in Cortland.
The diary and Gillette himself can either date themselves or, on occasion, prove far more relevant to our own time than one would expect.
When Marlynn McWade-Murray of Tallahassee, Fla., Gillette’s grandniece, donated the papers passed down through her grandmother and father last March, it seemed to come as no surprise that Gillette failed to make an explicit statement of his guilt or innocence in Brown’s death on July 11, 1906.
A big reason Gillette’s story, spread worldwide by Theodore Dreiser’s novel, “An American Tragedy,” and passed down through various books, movies, plays and even operas, still endures is because of the lingering question of what truly happened. The diary and letters can drive the reader mad with the implications of what Gillette writes, but no solid conclusion can be drawn from the writings.
The materials have been edited by Jack Sherman and Craig Brandon, the two students of the Gillette case who were the first non-family members to read the diary, excepting the officials overseeing Gillette’s incarceration in Auburn prison.
Sherman, a Tompkins County judge, began his career where Gillette lost his trial for Brown’s slaying — Herkimer County. Since that time, Sherman has produced re-enactments of the trial and readings of the letters exchanged between the doomed couple, which had been read during the actual trial to great effect and damage to Gillette.
Brandon, a columnist and editor, is the author of several history books including “Murder in the Adirondacks: An American Tragedy Revisited,” and “Grace Brown’s Love Letters,” the former referencing the novel that portrays a fictionalized version of the Gillette case.
The two editors transcribed and researched the numerous arcane references in the diary, and each begins the collection with a brief introductory piece. Preceding each entry, the editors have provided a short headnote to explain some of the context swirling around Gillette, locked away with his books in a tiny cell on death row, just down the hall from the execution chamber and electric chair.
It is a story about Gillette’s family, from start to finish. In McWade-Murray’s “Reflections” the reader learns about Hazel Gillette McWade, the sister who suffered so much through the year of Gillette’s incarceration that her hair turned white. She grew into a strong, loving woman who helped raise McWade-Murray and lived the happy life that Gillette gave up.
Using newspaper articles from the time, Craig Brandon shows the self-aware, disarmingly naïve Gillette who had begun to embrace his celebrity, charming the theater troupe he shared a car with on his ride from the Herkimer County Jail to Auburn Prison. He bantered with a reporter from the Syracuse Herald about the press coverage of the trial.
Gillette was then locked away and never heard in public again. He died at the age of 24.
The diary gives the only glimpse into Gillette’s thoughts. Begun 10 months into his stay, with no explanation given, Gillette’s diary is mainly concerned with the movements and lives of his immediate family and close friends. Time and time again, he laments his inability to appreciate his family until his trial and incarceration and soon realizes the ordeal he has put them through.
Of particular concern is Hazel Gillette, who moved to Auburn and began factory work to be close to her condemned brother.
Chester Gillette soon focuses on his younger brother Paul, recognizing qualities both foreign and familiar to his own. He holds out hope for his younger sister Lucille, who also moved to Auburn.
His parents, Frank and Louise Gillette, work tirelessly — Frank does his best to support himself and Paul, while Louise travels the country looking for work and sympathy for the soon-to-be-executed Gillette.
In several instances, Gillette acknowledges that prison officials are reading his diary. As a result, only Gillette’s edited thoughts, his censored feelings emerge. There is the chance that Gillette’s constant assertions of remorse for his actions’ effects upon his family and friends — but never for the crime itself — was calculated to show that he felt bad for the life that led him to this point, but had no reason to feel complicit in Brown’s death, which he always maintained was a suicide.
He makes it hard to believe that he could have used a tennis racket to kill an innocent pregnant woman who was once his lover, and the real events were probably far more complicated than Gillette could have ever explained clearly.
Whether drawn into Chester’s world by morbid fascination or by the tragedy of his life and his actions, his diary will serve to satisfy the thirst for just a few more clues, a handful of hints to what really happened on that July day.
But the hook, the draw of the story will always be the single, unanswerable question that ensures no one will ever forget about the real victim, nearly invisible in the diary: Grace Brown.
Did he do it?




Dryden village to vote on sewer contract

Staff Reporter

DRYDEN — The village expects to approve a contract with the town for the town’s use of its sewer service at its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Village Hall.
Mayor Reba Taylor said the Town Board approved the contract at a meeting Friday. The town and village have been without a contract since 2002, when a 20-year agreement ended.
Taylor did not have the terms of the contract available this morning, though she did say it has a clause describing what would happen if the village and town get into a disagreement.
She said disputes would be handled through arbitration as opposed to through a court case.
That was the “last piece of the puzzle” for contract negotiations between the village and town, said Town Councilman Bob Witty.
Taylor said once the village signs the contract, the village can go out to bid for construction plans for a new sewer plant.
The plant is close to capacity, and has a crack, she said. So far this fiscal year the village has spent between $50,000 and $55,000 fixing the plant, Taylor said.
A new plant is expected to cost approximately $5 million.
Once the plant plans are complete the village will have a better idea of the cost of the project, she said.