True Crime

True Crime Wednesday: The Murder of Grace Brown

Does the ghost of Grace Brown haunt the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York?

The murder of this young woman was a scandal that rocked the country in the early 1900s. Grace, who hailed from Chenango County, met Chester Gillette while working at a skirt factory his family owned. She was immediately taken with the attractive and athletic young man who descended from one of the area’s wealthiest families. He took great joy in flirting with most of the available young women in the South Otselic area, and Grace was no exception.

During that point in time, it was considered inappropriate for a unwed young woman to be in the company of a man without a chaperone. Chester refused to take her out on dates in public. He convinced Grace, who was 20 at the time, to ignore these social mores, and she soon found herself carrying his child. In the meantime, Chester was unabashedly dating other women, including those from families who were of a much higher social standing than Grace’s.

Grace Brown and Chester Gillette

Grace begged Chester to marry her and set things right. He invited her to go away with him for a weekend in the Adirondack Mountains. He rented a canoe and set out with Grace, who was likely expecting a marriage proposal. Instead, Chester and Grace never returned from their canoe ride on Big Moose Lake. The next morning, the man who had rented the couple the canoe sent a search party out on the lake. There, they discovered the overturned canoe and body of Grace Brown. When Chester was found at a nearby hotel two days later, he told police he didn’t know Grace, and that she had probably drowned herself out of despair. (She had written him letters discussing suicide because she was ashamed of her situation). No one believed his story, because the autopsy showed Grace’s head had been struck multiple times by a tennis racket before she went into the water, and that she was several months along in the pregnancy. Chester was tried for her murder, and despite there being only circumstantial evidence connecting him to the crime, he was convicted. He later admitted that he had done nothing to save Grace from drowning once she went into the lake.

The trial attracted the attention of journalists from all over the country at the time. On March 30, 1908, Chester Gillette was executed in the electric chair.

Over the years, there have been many that claim to have seen the spirit of Grace Brown at Big Moose Lake. Two different eyewitness accounts were shared on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” during Season 8. One group of employees from Covewood Lodge said they spotted a ghostly apparition bearing Grace’s resemblance on an outdoor balcony of the lodge. Another guest was walking at night on a path near the lake and saw the ghost of a young woman, who emanated a deep sense of sadness.

Covewood Lodge on Moose Lake

Based on the history of the case, there are now several places that visitors can check out related to the story—the jail where Chester stayed during the trial, the cemetery where he was supposedly buried in an unmarked grave, a plaque near the shores of Big Moose Lake, etc.

Grace’s murder and the trial that followed inspired the 1925 novel “An American Tragedy,” written by Theodore Dreiser and the 1951 film “A Place in the Sun,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. In 1996, a local college professor named Craig Brandon wrote his own non-fiction book on the murder titled “Murder in the Adirondacks.”

Tragic love stories that lead to hauntings are behind so many legends and folklore, leaving the public fascinated even though this crime occurred in the early 1900s.

“The murder will never die,” Susan R. Perkins, the executive director of the Herkimer County Historical Society, told a New York Times reporter in 2006. The society still receives dozens of requests for information about the case each year.

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