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Relatives mark ‘American Tragedy’ anniversary

Pregnant woman's murder inspired Dreiser novel, ‘Place in the Sun’ movie
/ Source: The Associated Press

Grace Brown headed to the Adirondack Mountains hoping for a marriage proposal. Instead, authorities said the pregnant woman was murdered by her lover in a sorrowful saga that became the basis for Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, “An American Tragedy.”

The story was later spun into an Oscar-winning movie, television programs, plays, songs, true crime books and most recently an opera on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

In observance of the 100th anniversary of the killing, two of Brown’s relatives gathered Tuesday to help unveil a historical marker next to the lake where she died.

“This is very meaningful, especially since so many people in our extended family don’t ever talk about it,” Robert Williams said of his great-aunt. “By memorializing Grace like this, it feels like we’re bringing her back into the family.”

About 50 people gathered on the western shore of Big Moose Lake to witness the unveiling of the blue-and-yellow marker. Later Tuesday, officials planned to lay a wreath on the lake, near the spot where Brown was believed to have been killed.

On July 11, 1906, Brown and Chester Gillette took an afternoon rowboat ride on the lake. Authorities said Gillette struck Brown in the head with a tennis racket, and she fell into the lake and drowned.

Brown’s body was found the next day in the lake along with the overturned rowboat. Gillette was spotted walking away with his luggage and arrested three days later in nearby Inlet. Soon after, the sheriff found the tennis racket buried under a log.

Gillette’s monthlong trial made headlines across the country. He said Brown drowned accidentally, and that he panicked and fled. In March 1908, he was executed in the electric chair at Auburn State Prison.

Family tried to hide connectionThe story might have faded from public interest if not for Dreiser’s novel. In 1951, the story was adapted to the movie screen in “A Place in the Sun,” which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters, and won six Oscars.

The three upstate New York counties that share the story’s history have held a series of summer events to observe the 100th anniversary, including a re-enactment of Gillette’s trial and a three-day conference for scholars.

Susan Williams, who is Robert’s sister, said other relatives have tried to keep their connection secret, likely ashamed that Grace was unwed and pregnant when she was killed and because of the notoriety Gillette’s trial later brought the family.

Robert Williams said he didn’t learn about the family history until he was in college at Syracuse University and his father saw him reading Dreiser’s novel.

“He said, ’If you don’t tell your mother, I’ll tell you a secret. That story’s about grandma’s sister.’ I didn’t believe it at first,” he said. “But I can tell you, I was much more interested in the book after that.”