March 10, 2007

Jailhouse diary surfaces a century after convicted killer’s execution


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Chester Gillette's final entry in his personal handwritten diary was on Monday morning, March 30, 1908, about a hour before he died in the electric chair at Auburn State Prison. The diary is now in the collection of Hamilton College, donated by Gillette’s grandniece, Marlynn McWade-Murray.

Staff Reporter

CLINTON — He was a convicted murderer, and in history, that will be Chester Gillette’s defining epitaph.
But now Gillette can be seen in his last months from a different perspective — his own.
After spending almost 100 years in the possession of his sister Hazel’s family, Gillette’s jail-time diary now is part of a collection at Hamilton College. Gillette’s grandniece, Marlynn McWade-Murray, of Tallahassee, Fla., donated the diary on Tuesday.
After murdering South Otselic native Grace Brown July 11, 1906, on the waters of Big Moose Lake, Gillette stood trial in Herkimer County Court. He was convicted of first-degree murder on Dec. 4, and his execution by electric chair took place March 30, 1908, in Auburn State Prison.
The Revelation
The diary had been in McWade-Murray’s possession for more than a year, and she had taken it to an appraiser — along with several other antiques — who had assessed the diary’ s value between $500 and $1,000.
“When I went home after talking to that antique dealer, that’s when I typed Chester Gillette into the search engine,” McWade-Murray said.
She found Web sites for the collections of Hamilton College and Syracuse University, and “Murder in the Adirondacks” author Craig Brandon. She contacted Brandon, who referred her to Hamilton College Librarian Randy Ericson in November.
There was the possibility that if the diary was auctioned off, Ericson told her, it could end up in the hands of a collector of “murderer memorabilia,” which McWade-Murray said would be entirely inappropriate.
“We’re certainly very modest means people, but that would be a drop in the bucket. And plus, I think of my grandmother and that’s not what our family was about — we just wanted to do the right thing. … Its highest and best use is to be read by anyone who would want to read it,” McWade-Murray said. “Parts of it are actually crumbling, and that was also on my mind — would it be preserved? And I wasn’t expecting that there would be so much interest in it still.”
Also included in the donation are nine letters Gillette had written to Bernice Ferrin, a close female friend he had met in Illinois (the only non-relative allowed in the cell to visit with him), as well as a much-read letter written to Hazel.
The Burke Library already is the keeper of Brown’s diary and correspondence between the two, as well as court documents from the murder trial, hotel registers and assorted newspaper clippings. Ward Halverson of Dolgeville, the grandson of the Herkimer County district attorney who prosecuted Gillette and had taken home some “souvenirs” of the trial, donated the original collection.
Tragedy and Trial
It was in the interim between his conviction and death that Gillette wrote the diary and the newly-donated letters, which had been turned over to his family after his execution.
During the trial, the jury and the news media saw a calm 23-year-old man, lounging against the defense table with an expressionless face, as the prosecution made the case that he had killed his pregnant former lover in cold blood, with a tennis racket, on a rocking boat in a sheltered and deserted bay on an Adirondack lake.
Although he had registered at the previous hotels under an assumed name, Gillette then reappeared in nearby Inlet and resumed using his own name, picking up mail he had forwarded before Brown’s death — this has been cited as evidence of pre-meditation.
The Real Chester
In the century since the murder, Chester Gillette was remembered as an apparently emotionless killer who had seduced, neglected and ultimately destroyed an innocent young farm girl who only recently had moved into the city of Cortland to work in the skirt factory of Gillette’s uncle.
McWade-Murray said she first read the diary as a young teenager one summer, after she had raided her father’s bookshelf and he had handed the thin, darkly-bound composition book to her and explained that it was written by her grandmother’s brother.
“As a 14-year-old, I wasn’t a very deep thinker and I didn’t really understand the fact that I had this young man’s last words and his last thoughts, and all the spiritual growth he went through. Want to know what I was reading it for? To find out if he was innocent or guilty,” McWade-Murray said Thursday evening. “But when I reread it as an adult, then it had a whole different … It was pretty moving.”
There was never any official confession or admission of guilt heard from Gillette, aside from a post-mortem release by his spiritual advisers stating that “no legal mistake was made in his electrocution,” and the diary includes neither a confession nor an expression of remorse for anything except the pain he had caused his family.
In fact, he only mentions Grace Brown once, and in passing.
But in his journal, McWade-Murray said, Gillette reveals himself as something the public could never understand at the time and probably couldn’t have for years afterwards — a selfish and impetuous young man, the product of a scattered childhood, coming to terms with his own impending execution.
“The sad thing is, he was a very immature, young individual — shallow, even,” McWade-Murray said. “About midway through, he began to realize what he had done to his family — that it wasn’t just about him anymore.”
Although his parents had been strictly religious, Gillette himself never embraced faith until his final months, Ericson, the librarian, said.
“He does embrace Christianity in his last year, and that is certainly a theme here in this diary,” Ericson said Thursday afternoon as he looked over the roughly 120-page volume, filled top to bottom in Gillette’s simple cursive script. “This is a Chester that no one knew existed. It’s such a contrast to the Chester as evidenced in his trial and in his letters — just a more thoughtful, a more considerate person.”
At the very end of the diary, Gillette included quotations and poems from some philosophers and writers — Aristotle, Plato, Voltaire and Robert Browning, among others.
“His reading earlier would have been magazines … It just seemed to reflect a different person from what was evident earlier. It’s not a confession or a statement, but sort of the evidence of his journey those last seven months.” Ericson said.
The New Chester
“What will change, possibly, is maybe some appreciation for him as a person going through a maturation process; coming to grips with what he was faced with and the pain he’d caused. He’s become more of a sympathetic character,” Ericson said.
Retired SUNY Cortland professor Joseph Brownell, author of “Adirondack Tragedy,” a chronicle of the Gillette murder case, said Thursday he was never impressed by Gillette and said Chester had an “unorganized mind.”
But Brownell looks forward to the opportunity to study the journal and delve further into Gillette himself.
“At the anniversary of her death last summer (at Big Moose Lake), the rumor was going around that someone had turned up letters or a diary written while he was in prison, but it wasn’t clear at that time,” Brownell said Thursday morning, excited to learn that the rumors had proven true.
Ericson said although the diary is too fragile to be studied page-by-page until it’s preserved properly, it would be digitally captured and transcribed, and that it eventually would be available online. Hopefully, it eventually would be published in the same format.
“That would make my grandmother a very happy person, that people could come together and talk about it and not point fingers,” McWade-Murray said. “That would make her happy, to know that people have a legitimate intellectual interest.
“They were between a rock and hard place — who hasn’t ever been there?”

Thoughts from the past

Chester Gillette wrote in his diary from Sept. 18, 1907, to March 30, 1908.
Hamilton College Librarian Randy Ericson estimates the final entry must have been made within the last two hours of Gillette’s life.
The author of “Murder in the Adirondacks,” Gillette murder case historian Craig Brandon, reviewed the Gillette diary over the course of last weekend along with Tompkins County Judge and former Herkimer County Assistant District Attorney Jack Sherman.
In remarks labeled “Some First Thoughts on the Gillette Diary,” Brandon stated: “The diary, which begins nearly a year after the conclusion of the trial, shows an introspective young man who reads several books a week, is deeply connected and worried about his family and spends several hours a day with Henry McIlvary, his spiritual advisor.”
In much of the diary, he appears hopeful that he might receive a last-minute pardon from the governor and even speaks about joining his father and his younger brother, Paul, at a newly acquired ranch in Colorado. Gillette’s grand-niece, Marlynn McWade-Murray, said this isn’t necessarily a rational hope so much as an initial immature inability to grasp the true gravity of his situation.
The following are excerpts from the diary.
Tues. March 24, 08 (Tuesday, March 24, 1908)
“Read ‘Navigating the Air’ yesterday and found it intensely interesting. I should like very much to take a trip in a balloon and especially long ones. I did desire that, even when I was a boy (a long time ago) at county fairs or whenever I saw a balloon ascension. It would be something new, a new experience, and so just suit me. I have enjoyed this confinement for this reason, as it is an entirely new and unusual experience and one that few experience. Then I have a chance to study people under new circumstances. I feel somewhat the same way about death. It will be a condition much different, and I am sure interesting, tho I may not realize that. It will be a change, a development and advance, I hope. Altho I do not want to die, I haven’t the fear of it one expects to have.”
Thurs. 3-26-08 (Thursday, March 26, 1908)
“‘Mac’ (MacIlvary) came this morning before I was thru work and I learned that the Governor had decided not to interfere in my case. I was very much surprised but I hope it was for the best.”
 Saturday 3-28-08 (Saturday, March 28, 1908)
“The ‘kids’ (his siblings) were in this morning early, and so we had a good long visit. Tho it was hard, yet not as hard as I feared, thanks to Paul and the girls. They were all so brave and helpful, I hope I said what would help and encourage them.”

“There is so much that I want to say, but I can’t write it, knowing that others will read it. I have been by myself so much that I find it hard to express my feelings or talk of my deeper thoughts.”

Monday Morning (Monday, March 30, 1908)
“Went to bed at 12:30 and was asleep in a few minutes. I slept soundly until called at 3:45. Feel refreshed and calm. I am surprised that I can look at this matter so calmly. Had communion for the first time. I feel that I am fully prepared to go and meet Jesus. I shall watch for the others. Was so glad when Mac told me that Paul had taken a stand for Christ. This makes me happier than anything else could have done. May the rest be comforted as I have been in these last moments. Had a very nice little breakfast and appreciate everyone’s kindness. They have all been so kind and courteous. I am very grateful to each one. Good morning All.
P.S. If it isn’t any extra expense and too much trouble please have ‘Taps’ played at the last.
Gone to be with Jesus”
— Chester



Legislators grill administrator on land deal

Staff Reporter

Legislators peppered Cortland County Administrator Scott Schrader with questions Friday regarding his authority to seek properties and put together a preliminary plan for a new public health facility on south Main Street.
Schrader maintained that he was simply doing his job.
Although Schrader was officially addressing the Legislature’s special committee, which is looking closely at various aspects of the canceled land deal, a handful of legislators not on the committee were in attendance — and they produced much of the questioning.
“That’s the bottom line, I don’t think he had the authority to go ahead with it,” said Legislator Kay Breed (R-Cortlandville).
Much of the questioning from Breed, Newell Willcox (R-Homer) and Tom Williams (R-Homer) revolved around Schrader’s use of Barton and Loguidice, whom the county retains for engineering services, for the project.
Barton & Loguidice first became involved in the project in last March, Schrader said, when the firm helped him develop building specifications for the county’s needs for a public health facility, a new motor vehicles office and a new county jail.
The firm then again provided services beginning in September, when the south Main Street plan began to take shape, and through December, when the engineering firm’s preliminary renderings of the building were made public, Schrader said.
Williams and Breed pressed Schrader on the propriety of using Barton & Loguidice for a capital project, saying that the county’s contract with the firm is geared primarily toward highway projects.
“The contract specifically states highway projects, and when you look at the scope of services, nowhere does it talk about anything besides the highway department,” Breed said after the meeting.
Schrader countered by pointing to calls for “construction engineering” and “building and highway facility engineering” in the scope of services.
“A project like this is precisely why we have a contract with them,” Schrader said.
Breed also questioned the cost of the engineering services — approximately $11,000 — and noted that Schrader is prohibited from moving more than $10,000 within the county’s budget without legislative approval.
Schrader, however, said that $8,500 of the funding had come from a discretionary professional services account, which is meant for services such as engineering services, and that he’d only moved about $3,000 to cover the costs.
Meanwhile Willcox continued to stress that the Buildings and Grounds Committee, of which he’s a member, did not have enough oversight of the project.
Committee Vice-chairman Dan Tagliente (D-7th Ward) was involved in the project from the beginning, Willcox noted, but the rest of the committee was not informed of initial interest in the Moose Lodge property in February 2006.
“Absolutely I feel like I was left out of this process,” Willcox said.
The initial dealings with the Moose Lodge were not reported to Buildings and Grounds, Schrader said, because it was not deemed a viable option considering limited available space.
Only after Schrader asked Cinquanti Real Estate to look at acquiring properties surrounding the Moose Lodge did it become a viable project, he said.
Although Schrader was put on the defensive for much of the meeting, some legislators did come to his defense.
Tagliente said that, throughout the process, Schrader had insisted on taking things slowly to be sure they were done properly, while Legislator John Steger (R-Preble and Scott) said after the meeting that Schrader was doing the job he was hired to do.
“A budget of this magnitude cannot be financially administered efficiently without daily supervision, and legislators are only part time, so that’s why we hired an administrator,” Steger said. “Someone has to be on top of all the projects, someone has to be putting all the leg work into it.”


Time Warner cable rates to go up

Staff Reporter

Monthly standard cable TV rates are set to increase by about 6.6 percent for Time Warner Cable customers in the Cortland area on April 1.
Time Warner’s Cortland area customers consist of the city of Cortland, towns of Cincinnatus, Cortlandville, Homer, Preble, Scott, Virgil, Taylor, Willet and villages of Homer and McGraw in Cortland County and the town of Georgetown in Madison County, said Jeff Unaitis, vice president of public affairs for the company’s Syracuse division.
Unaitis said the increase results mainly from an increase in programming costs.
“The costs of the networks we carry are accelerating,” Unaitis said.
Standard service cable, which includes more than 70 channels, will increase from $48 a month to $51.15 a month.
That amount is less than the Syracuse area's $55.43 a month because rates still haven’t evened out after regulation ended in the 1990s, Unaitis said.
Cable subscribers who get a Digital Explorer Pak, which has the standard 70-plus channels, about 50 more video channels, about 50 audio music channels and high-definition channels, will see their rates increase by almost 2 percent, from $57.95 a month to $58.95 a month.
Cortland area customers with Time Warner’s biggest cable packages, which also include digital phone and Road Runner, will see their monthly rates increase between less than 1 percent and little more than 1 percent.
The “All the Best” package will increase from $124.95 to $125.95, while the “Get It All Package” will increase from $154.95 to $156.95.
The company’s basic cable service plan is the company’s smallest plan and will not see a rate increase. The plan, which includes the major networks, public broadcasting channels and News 10 NOW, costs $16.95 a month.
Other rate changes will take place for special cable stations, such as HBO, Cinemax and Showtime, full digital cable and DVR service. All of those rates will go up by about $1 a month.
Unaitis said that the basic rates for cable are regulated at either the state or the local level, but that the company’s tiers, packages and premium channels are not regulated.
He said Time Warner Cable’s cable subscribers have been notified of the upcoming rate increases. The company has about 10,000 customers in Cortland County, Unaitis said. That number has stayed steady over the last few years.


Homer school budget ups spending 8.5 percent

Staff Reporter

HOMER — The preliminary 2007-08 school budget would increase spending by 8.5 percent from $33.3 to $36 million.
Some of the biggest spending increases include employee benefits, special education costs and bonds for school construction and bus purchases.
The district has yet to create a preliminary budget for revenues, and thus no tax levy change has been determined.
The current tax levy is $12.9 million.
The governor’s 2007-08 budget proposal would allocate $19.5 million in state aid to the district.
The Homer budget would increase spending on employee benefits by 11 percent, from $6.7 million to $7.5 million.
Mike Delair, the district’s business director, said not all of the numbers are set in stone, because not all of the rates have been set. He said he thought the predictions were pretty close, though, as they are in line with increasing benefit costs in other sectors.
Special education costs would increase by almost 9 percent from $3.6 to $4 million under the proposed budget.
Delair said one reason for the significant increase is the number of severely disabled children in the district is increasing, and it can cost up to $60,000 to support each of those children.
The district budgeted for 10 students with severe disabilities for this school year, but the district  ended up having 12 students with severe disabilities this year. It has budgeted for 14 disabled students next year, he said.
Bond costs would increase by 10 percent from $1.8 million to    $2 million. The increase in costs is mostly attributed to the school buying five more buses and a van this year, Delair said.
The preliminary budget also calls for increasing the amount allotted for lawyer fees by 60 percent from $25,000 to $40,000; increasing the amount for guidance by 10 percent from $430,000 to $470,000; and increasing central data processing spending by 9 percent from $240,000 to $260,000.
Transportation costs are only budgeted to increase by 2.7 percent to $1.5 million after having been budgeted to increase by 20 percent from last year to this year.
“With gas prices down we have some room in our budget for next year,” Delair said.
He said the preliminary budget doesn’t include any new positions or programs. He said the board will be discussing any potential new items at its budget meetings over the next month.