July 12th, 2006
100 years later, murder still intriguing
Anniversary marked at site of Cortland woman’s death
Photos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
In a boat named “Grace,” people pause to pray Tuesday after laying a wreath near the spot in Big Moose Lake where Grace Brown was found dead. Standing in the boat are, from left, Frank Carey, whose grandmother reportedly heard Brown scream when she was killed; and Sue Williams and Bob Williams, who are Brown’s great-niece and great-nephew. Seated at far right is Craig Brandon, author of “Murder In The Adirondacks,” which tells the story of the murder case. The ceremony was the culmination of daylong events on the lake Tuesday.
BIG MOOSE LAKE — The chill would reappear suddenly. The sun was hot, but only when it broke through the dense, dark mounds of clouds that shifted over this Adirondack lake on Tuesday.
The weather and the mood could be somber on the 100th anniversary of Grace Brown’s death at the hands of fellow Cortland resident Chester Gillette.
South Bay is the fork of water that extends east from the south side of the lake, where search parties found the overturned rowboat and Grace’s body. The wide mouth of the bay was immediately visible from the historical marker on the east end of Big Moose Lake.
The marker sat close to the shore of the lake and behind the boathouse of the Hotel Glennmore (often spelled “Glenmore”), which was the last building in which Brown ever set foot. A fire destroyed the hotel in the 1950s.
About 50 people gathered on the gently sloping lawn leading down to a historical marker — the only one in Herkimer County commemorating Grace Brown, according to Charlie Adams of Dunn’s Boat Service.
“Welcome to our historic occasion,” Adams said to the crowd gathered in the cool morning air, occasionally punctuated by smatterings of raindrops. “So many of us have tried to do this for several years.”
Assemblyman Marc Butler (R-Newport) is a lifelong resident of Herkimer County, and he spoke at the dedication Tuesday.
“There are just so many ramifications to the story,” Butler said afterward. “It just goes in so many directions, but the basic elements are so classic … I just think all the elements come together so perfectly. I think it’s a story probably everybody’s familiar with, and it draws people here. It’s a part of our identity.”
Adams acknowledged there were relatives of Grace Brown at the ceremony, but he did not point them out before the marker had been unveiled.
The blue-and-yellow marker, a style familiar throughout New York state, reads: “Glennmore Hotel — On July 11th, 1906, Chester Gillette and Grace Brown left here for a boat trip ending in her death and his 1908 execution for murder — Basis of ‘An American Tragedy.’”
“An American Tragedy” was written by Theodore Dreiser and published in 1925. It renewed interest in the case and inspired two film adaptations, including in 1951 “A Place in the Sun,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift, as well as several plays and even an opera.
Jennifer Pokon is a member of the Ilion Little Theatre and has been playing the part of Grace Brown since 1999. In November, Pokon will perform in the play “Chester and Grace,” written by Glenn Allen Smith, at the Ilion Little Theatre, and tonight at the Big Moose Inn, Pokon will read letters written by Grace.
Cortland Repertory Theatre had asked Smith to write the play to commemorate the theater’s 25th anniversary celebration, and the Herkimer County Historical Society had brought the play to the attention of the Ilion Little Theatre, director Dave Stritmater said.
Pokon said the play had been performed in 2001 at the Old Forge Arts Center.
“The whole cast came up (to Big Moose Lake) in costume. They threatened to throw me into South Bay,” Pokon said. “It was a grand time.”
Stritmater, a retired psychologist, said that he would characterize Gillette as a sociopath.
“He failed to demonstrate much feeling, or remorse, or sympathy,” Stritmater said. “He certainly didn’t do most of the things people would expect from an innocent Chester — or a guilty Chester.”
Joseph Brownell, professor emeritus of geography at SUNY Cortland and the author of “Adirondack Tragedy,” which documented the murder case and was first published in 1986, was on hand for much of the day-long event.
“Boy, I’m glad I’ve come today. I’ve seen people I haven’t seen in years,” Brownell said after the memorial dedication. “Everyone who’s interested seems to have shown up.”
Brownell and Craig Brandon, the author of “Murder in the Adirondacks,” also published in 1986, signed books later that day underneath tents set up between the Big Moose Inn and Dunn’s Boat Service. Dunn’s conducted boat tours of Chester and Grace’s rowboat route that fateful summer day in 1906.
“I’m really glad they’ve put that marker up — It should have been up a long time ago,” Brandon said as he sat next to Brownell.
“I wondered what my grandmother would have thought about the plaque, it’s so nice,” said Sue Williams of Southville, Mich., as she admired the marker. Grace Brown was Williams’ great-aunt. She and her brother, Bob Williams of Atlanta, Mich., had arrived at Big Moose Lake Sunday for the event.
“The organizers of this event don’t want to portray this as a celebration, but as a memorial. But in a way it is a celebration of her life,” Bob said from the porch of the Big Moose Inn later in day. “I was worried it would be melancholy or sad. That hasn’t been the case.”
Many of those in attendance were Herkimer County residents, and locals, like Dennis McCallister, who eagerly explained their connection to the murder.
“My grandfather (Jim McAllister) was the stage drive who brought Chester and Grace to the Glennmore, McAllister said in between guiding boat tours. “I knew my grandfather; I just didn’t know how to talk to him about the murder. I was just a little tyke.”
The stage driver for the final portion of Grace’s journey was also represented by his granddaughter, Martha Denio of Old Forge.
“My grandfather John was the last living witness from the Gillette trial … My grandfather had the wagon that brought the body to the hotel,” Denio said.
Joane Gates of Cortland had driven up to Big Moose to kayak and attend the event. She brought a Gillette Skirt Catalog from the 1903-04 fall and winter line of “Petticoats” and “Ladies Tailoring,” that she had found in the attic of her parents’ home.
“I have no idea why they had it. My sister’s class reunion is this year, and I was looking through stuff that I had,” Gates said as Brandon looked on.
“I’ve been working on this case for 30 years, and I’ve never seen one of these before,” Brandon said.
In the early evening, the Williamses and other honored guests boarded the “Grace,” a wooden-hulled 1955 Chris Craft belonging to Dunn’s Boat Service, while a fleet of party barges formed a procession down the lake.
As a gentle breeze blew down off the domed hills and carried the earthy smell of the woods and the lake over South Bay, about 20 boats drew close to the two floating docks anchored offshore, as Pokon read from Grace’s last letter to Chester.
Bob and Sue Williams laid a large, brightly colored wreath in the water, a yellow sunflower sitting just above the dark waterline.
Grace Brown’s relatives display pieces of her life
ABOVE:Grace Brown’s sewing kit was among items the Williams family brought to display Tuesday at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks.
BELOW:Brown’s great-nephew, Bob Williams, displays a lock of her hair, top, and her diary.
BIG MOOSE LAKE — Sitting on the porch of the Big Moose Inn on Tuesday, Bob Williams held mementoes of his great-aunt, Grace Brown, who had been murdered on the lake 100 years earlier to the day.
“It’s left its impact for generations, and now we’re just starting to talk about it,” Sue Williams, his sister, said at the dedication of a plaque commemorating the murder case that drew national attention through news media accounts, and later song, plays and movies.
Sue Williams and her brother, who both live in Michigan, found out about their relationship to Grace when they were in college, Sue Williams said.
“My brother was reading ‘An American Tragedy,’ and my father said to him, ‘Do you like the book you’re reading? And my brother said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK,’ and my father said, ‘Did you know that girl was your grandmother’s sister?’”
Williams said he couldn’t wait to tell his friends at Wayne State University in Detroit. Both Bob and Sue Williams attended the school at different times.
“It was kind of interesting because I had this conversation with my father, and my sister then was four years younger and she didn’t know anything about it,” Bob Williams said in a telephone interview this morning. “She had the exact conversation with my father when she was assigned the book (four years later).”
Sue Williams said. “I asked my mother why she didn’t tell us, and she said, ‘We didn’t know what it would do to you.’”
Since then, the Williams siblings have even traced their Brown lineage back to two Mayflower passengers — Richard Warren and William Brewster.
Bob Williams said it was unusual for members of the Brown family to come forward about the infamous murder.
“I was in contact with another Brown family member … and we had a good e-mail contact with her, and then one day I brought up that I had the Grace Brown artifacts, and that was the last I heard from her,” Bob Williams said.
“Can you believe? In this day and age?” asked Bob Williams’ wife, Diane. “They’re all hung up.”
Bob Williams sat on the porch of the Big Moose Inn and talked about some of Grace’s personal possessions that the Williamses brought with them — including Grace’s sewing kit, which she might have used to make the dresses she brought with her on her trip from Cortland to the Adirondacks.
In a pattern book from the Gillette Skirt Factory that Grace had used to keep track of her stock, the girl’s well-formed cursive jumps from the page as distinctively as it does in her love letters to Chester, or the diary Bob Williams displayed.
“In this diary she celebrates her 16th birthday and discusses the gifts from her family, and they’re mostly mundane things,” such as a comb, Bob Williams said. The diary is signed “G. Mae Brown — ‘The Kid.’
“The Kid” would be her nickname at home, and with her friends and with Chester, and relates to the nickname “Billy,” which she had earned when, as a young girl, she had taken a liking to the song “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey.”
One of the more somber articles is a lock of Grace’s hair, which Bob Williams said had been taken by the family after her death. The chestnut ring of hair is kept in a plastic baggy, and looks as though it could have been snipped from a young lady’s head the day before.
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