February 9, 2012
“But the next morning the boat didn’t come back.” So begins North Woods Elegy, filmmaker Derek Taylor’s documentary on the 1906 Gillette-Brown murder story. The case of a young man murdering his pregnant girlfriend while boating on a lake in the Adirondacks remains one of the most notorious crimes and trials of the early 20th century. Hamilton College possesses of many original documents pertaining to the case, the screening was an opportunity to revisit some of the school’s most noteworthy documents.
The film was screened at Hamilton on Tuesday, with Taylor and leading Gillette case experts Jack Sherman and Craig Brandon present to shed light on a mystery that still fascinates Americans over one hundred years later. North Woods Elegy: Incident at Big Moose Lake centers around the murder of Grace Brown by her lover Chester Gillette. Gillette and Brown worked at a factory in Cortland, NY (roughly an hour southwest of Hamilton), where they secretly became romantically involved. When Brown became pregnant, she left Cortland and wrote to Gillete constantly, begging him to help her. Finally, Chester responded, and the two went north to the Adirondacks. While boating on Big Moose Lake, Brown drowned, and Gillete was soon arrested and charged with first degree, premeditated murder. Brought to Herkimer County for trial, in a case that sparked the attention of New York newspapers and the entire country, he was convicted and received the death penalty.
Taylor has woven these events together in his documentary. The title refers to the Adirondacks, called the “north woods” by New Yorkers during the Victorian Age. North Woods Elegy cuts between photographs and newspaper clippings, a few reenactments, and interviews with Sherman and Brandon. The opening shot of the empty boat on Big Moose Lake is a study in the eeriness that defines the rest of the film, underscored by dark electronic music. The film returns over and over again to photographs of Gillette. “The image of Chester really drew me in,” Taylor said. “People [at the time] were obsessed with his image.” Taylor chose to reenact scenes for which there was no pictorial evidence: Chester and Grace’s courtship, the fateful day on the lake and Chester’s time in jail.
Taylor, who has previously worked mostly in experimental film, first heard the story in 2004 and thought it could make a great documentary. He learned that although the idea had been proposed in the past, no documentary had ever been made. “I took that as a challenge,” Taylor said.
In a panel discussion after the screening, Sherman and Brandon answered audience questions on some of the more ambiguous aspects of the case, particularly the exact details of how Chester killed Grace. They spoke in greater detail about the importance of Grace’s letters to Chester. Beautifully written and filled with heart aching hope and pathos, the publication of the letters during the trial grabbed the country in a sensational hold.
Hamilton College has in its Special Collection both the letters and Gillette’s prison diary. According to Sherman, it is only in Gillette’s diary that we catch a glimpse of his internal emotions after the trial, especially in his fondness for his sister; the diary remained in the family of this sister until its rediscovery in 2007. Since then, Sherman and Brandon have worked to transcribe and track down the many obscure names and references mentioned in it. It was the first book published by Hamilton’s Richard W Couper Press.
Hamilton has a reputation for excellent conservation of Special Collections, which may have led Gillette’s descendant to donate the diary to the College. Since the goal of Burke Library’s Special Collections is, according to Special Collections Librarian Christian Goodwillie, “not only to preserve, but to preserve for use,” the diary was de-acidified so the pages wouldn’t fall apart, and each page can now be viewed individually. The library also has about five boxes of material pertaining to the trial, from newpaper clippings to letters.
Few trials have remained in America’s consciousness for so long. For the past hundred-plus years, the Gillette-Brown murder case has continued to reappear in popular media and scholarly research. From Theodore Dreiser’s acclaimed and heavily dramatized 1925 novel American Tragedy, to Brandon’s 1986 book Murder in the Adirondacks, to multiple dramatizations (including ones which Sherman helped create for Herkimer County) and a Metropolitan Opera presentation of American Tragedy in 2005, the case continues to reappear and fascinate the American public. The events of a century ago put Central New York on the national map, and its story continues to resonate with the residents of the area. Taylor likened a sold-out screening of North Woods Elegy to “a rock concert.”
The Gillette archives are but some of the many important historical documents which Hamilton has in its possession, but their importance to both national and local culture makes them one of the college’s most intriguing collections. “To have this relatively intact archive, and to have it located geographically at the center point of where it all happened, is great,” Goodwillie said. “We’re thrilled to have them.”