Research on the 1906 Adirondack murder that inspired Dreiser's An American Tragedy and the film A Place in the Sun opens a new chapter this spring with the publication of The Prison Diary and Letters of Chester Gillette.
Published by Hamilton and its Richard W. Couper Press and edited by Jack Sherman and Craig Brandon, the book comes in time to mark the 100th anniversary of Gillette's March 30, 1908, execution at Auburn (N.Y.) State Prison for the slaying of Grace Brown on Big Moose Lake nearly two years earlier. Gillette kept the diary over the seven months before his death. The original was donated to Burke Library in March 2007 by Marlynn McWade-Murray, Gillette's grandniece.
Couper Librarian Randy Ericson believes the scholarly impact of the diary's publication is likely to be substantial. "Any scholar who does research on this case is going to want to read the diary," he says, "because this is almost the only information we have directly from Chester, and the only information we have from his time in jail."
According to Ericson, the diary charts "a transformation in [Chester's] character from what was seen in the trial and what he expressed before. To get a better, more rounded sense of the person, I think the scholar is going to want to look at these materials."
The diary does not provide new evidence of Gillette's guilt or innocence in the notorious case. Ericson notes that Sherman provides "a very strong case for his guilt" in the new volume, but he also says that "by today's standards, the forensic evidence was really sketchy." And he recalls that Brown entertains thoughts of death in her final letters. "The last letter in particular can be interpreted as suicidal," he says.
But while the case against Gillette was based on circumstantial evidence, Ericson says, "that evidence led to a conviction and an execution…. What counted against him a great deal was how he behaved afterward and the callow, insensitive and self-absorbed attitude that people perceived during the trial. And that's the transformation that takes place" over the course of the diary. "He becomes much more concerned about the feelings and hardships of others, particularly the impact on his family."
McWade-Murray inherited the diary and letters in 2003 and learned about Burke Library's collection of other items related to the case, including letters exchanged by Chester and Grace. She donated the materials to Hamilton because she wished them to be handled in a fair-minded, scholarly manner. Held by the family since Gillette's death, the diary and letters have never before been published.
The book also includes personal reflections by McWade-Murray; a biography of Gillette and summary of the case by Brandon, an author and journalist; and an introduction to the diary and letters by Sherman, a Tompkins County judge. There are 32 black-and-white illustrations and photographs as well as a Gillette family tree. The book retails for $25 and is available from the Couper Press and North Country Books. For additional information or to order a copy of the book, call 315-859-4475 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Richard W. Couper Press, established in 2006, is named in honor of the late Richard W. Couper '44, an alumnus and life trustee of Hamilton and benefactor of the Burke Library.
The Couper Press continues its publication schedule this spring with Vol. 2, No. 1 of the American Communal Societies Quarterly, with articles devoted to the planning, construction and "mythical structure" of the communal dwelling of the Mount Lebanon Center Family in the mid-1800s; and the interactions — particularly regarding celibacy — between communal groups at Bishop Hill, Ill., and Pleasant Hill, Ken., during the same era. Ericson says the press may also reprint various editions of early apostate writings from the 1780s.
"One of the intentions of the Couper Press is to reprint publications that are difficult to obtain but that are important to the history of the Shakers and other communal groups," he says. "We want to present new research but also documents that are long out of print and difficult to find."