A North Woods Elegy: Incident at Big Moose Lake investigates the circumstances surrounding the murder of Grace Brown by Chester Gillette on July 11, 1906 in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. Covering the ensuing trial and Gillette’s subsequent incarceration and execution, the film explores the fascination America had, and still has, with the case, encompassing issues of class, jurisprudence in America at the turn of the twentieth century and ethics and sensationalism in news reporting.
On July 11, 1906, Chester Gillette and Grace Brown, factory workers from Cortland, NY, traveled a circuitous journey into the Adirondacks on what was purportedly a “vacation”. The couple ended up at Big Moose Lake and rented a canoe for the day. Witnesses reported seeing Grace Brown visibly distraught that day and also noticed that Chester was carrying what seemed to be a suitcase with him on the boat. The couple was last seen rowing toward the southwest of Big Moose Lake to an area called Punkey Bay and were also seen drifting about throughout the day in this area. Grace Brown was never seen alive again after these local sightings. She was found the next day at the bottom of the lake, the apparent victim of a drowning. Questions began to emerge as to the whereabouts of her travel partner, Chester Gillette (who had registered at hotels under different aliases throughout their journey, so the authorities were searching for Carl Graham). Evidence would later determine that Chester Gillette had fled the scene on foot, with his suitcase in hand, attempting to distance himself from involvement in the case.
Chester Gillette and Grace Brown were harboring an intimate secret, which may have been the impetus for their ill-fated journey. The autopsy on Grace Brown revealed that she was pregnant, not a well-received predicament for unwed women to be in at the turn of the 20th century. Through her correspondence with Chester one can ascertain Grace’s desire to escape from the morals of her rural upbringing and escape with Chester to a new life together. Whether her goal was to marry Chester or to have the baby outside of her close-knit family circle may never be known. Chester clearly had other plans for their future together, if there was to be one.
Chester Gillette enjoyed the finer things in life. After a meager upbringing with missionary parents he escaped this past and attended an elite prep school in Ohio (funded by an affluent uncle). He eventually made his way east and began working for another uncle in his skirt factory. It turns out that Chester was running in social circles with some of the “elite” young women of Cortland, NY; social circles unattainable by Grace Brown due to her stature in the community (she was generally perceived as an ordinary, non-descript girl). Chester was perceived as a debonair young man in the community but he was also living a lie, spinning elaborate yarns about his “world travels” and life experiences. Grace, on the other hand, was rooted in rural life, the archetypal farmer’s daughter. The unlikely couple was seemingly doomed from the start.
After Chester was captured the District Attorney in Herkimer County, NY, George Ward, prosecuted the case vigorously (oftentimes controversially). The case against Chester Gillette was largely based on circumstantial evidence and the jury in 1906 was asked to consider a range of possible scenarios related to the death of Grace Brown. The trial was a rousing display of jurisprudence at the time and the local and national newspapers reported contradicting stories leading to an array of misinformation and sensationalism in news media at the time. The stories (oftentimes false) reported in the major daily newspapers in New York City were the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy novel in 1925. Chester Gillette was eventually found guilty of murder and spent a little over a year in prison before being executed in 1908. To this day there is still debate as to whether Chester ultimately confessed to the crime.