Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks, upstate New York, is a popular tourist spot – for boating, water-skiing and hiking in summer, and cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter. Big Moose, remote and beautiful, is also notorious as a murder site – and for its haunting by the tragic victim…
In 1905, beautiful, small-town girl Grace Brown was working in a petticoat factory in Cortland, New York. It was here the 18-year-old met the owner’s nephew, 22-year-old Chester Gillette.
Chester was charming, popular and handsome, and considered quite a catch by many of the local girls. But he also had a racier reputation as a womaniser. By spring 1906, Chester and Grace had begun a relationship. However, for its time, it was considered a scandalous romance – Chester persuaded Grace to see him without a chaperone, risking her reputation.
And, for Chester, the liaison was secret. He never took Grace out in public, or acknowledged their relationship, and was often seen with other young women, especially those from the town’s wealthier families. But Grace was young and in love, blinded to Chester’s rakish behaviour.
Then, in May 2006, the unworldly Grace discovered she was pregnant. When she told Chester, he offered to pay for her to have an abortion, but she didn’t want to. She wanted Chester to marry her.
At the time, it would have meant ruin to be an unmarried mother, and distraught Grace begged Chester to make her his wife. But the young man was less than thrilled to have found himself in such a position – and stalled as long as he could, while not actually refusing Grace.
However, increasingly desperate when his proposal never came, Grace moved back to her family’s farm. From there, Grace wrote many letters to Chester, presumably pleading with him to do the right thing by her.
Then, in July 1906, Chester told Grace to meet him at a hotel for what she assumed was a wedding trip. Excited and relieved, she met Chester, and they boarded a train for Big Moose Lake, a journey of about a day. Checking in at the Covewood Lodge, Chester signed the register under an assumed name.
The next day, the couple rented a small rowing boat from a local man. Chester told the boat owner they’d be back around dinner time, and the couple set out for a jaunt on the beautiful lake. Grace must have been thrilled to think she would at last be married to the man she loved, and freed from the anxiety of the past few months.
But, when the boat owner realised the couple hadn’t returned when expected, he became worried. As soon as it was light the next morning, he organised a search party – which soon discovered the capsized boat.
A short distance from it, they found Grace. When her lifeless body was pulled from the lake, there were bruises on her forehead. It appeared she’d been attacked before she drowned.
Two days later, police found Chester Gillette in a nearby hotel, after he was identified by a witness. At first, Gillette denied even knowing Grace Brown. Then he claimed Grace had become flustered and confused when he told her he no longer loved her and, in despair, had thrown herself from the boat.
Few believed Gillette’s version of Grace’s death. Police claimed Gillette had lured the unsuspecting Grace onto the boat, then struck her on the head with a tennis racket, stunning her and causing her to fall into the lake and drown.
Chester Gillette’s trial lasted three weeks, and the judge and jury found him guilty of the first-degree murder of Grace Brown. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, and the Governor refused to grant clemency.
Gillette was executed in the electric chair on 30 March 1908. The papers at the time reported, ‘It was the most successful electrocution that ever took place in the local prison. The current was of 1,800 volts at seven and a half amperes and it was held on one minute and three seconds.’
And so Chester Gillette – faithless lover and heartless killer – met his end. Some would say, for poor Grace, justice had been served. But it seems, despite her killer paying for her death with his own life, the spirit of Grace Brown still could not rest…
Haunting at the Lake
Since her death, the ghost of Grace Brown has been seen in and around Big Moose Lake and the hotel the unhappy couple stayed. It’s said the ghostly apparition of a young woman is often witnessed drowning, but some have also reported seeing her wandering around the lake shore, or visiting the small cottages nearby, where she seems to try to extinguish all the lights.
Some tell of a rolling fog coming from the lake, bringing with it Grace’s spectre. Everyone who has seen it say they feel a deep sense of uneasiness and sadness surrounding the spirit.
One summer night in 1988, several employees of the Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake, were going back to their quarters. One female staff member, leading the way, went into the lodge and upstairs, to turn on the lights. But someone – or something – was waiting inside.
As she got to the top of the stairs the woman had an overwhelming feeling she was not alone. A woman was standing beside her. However, although spooked, she said she didn’t feel the spirit was malevolent.
Apparently, even more spine-chilling events were happening outside. All three of her friends plainly saw the ghost of a young woman, who lingered for a few seconds before vanishing.
At the Lake
Another visitor had an encounter with tragic Grace just a few months later, when she was walking towards the lake after dusk. As she drew nearer to the lake, her flashlight started to fade until, as she reached the water’s edge, it died completely.
When she turned to go back to her hotel, the figure of a young woman stood before her. The awestruck visitor was certain she was looking at a ghost, and experienced an intense feeling of sadness.
Was it the ghost of Grace Brown? Down the years, there have been many spooky sightings and phenomena. Is Grace’s troubled spirit doomed to haunt Big Moose Lake forever?
Ironically, it seems Chester Gillette may also be unable to rest in peace. It’s said Auburn prison, where he lived out his last days before his execution, is also haunted by his ghost…
It seems the couple’s tragic story has captured the imagination of many. A folk song written at the time, The Ballad of Grace Brown and Chester Gillette, asks in one verse, ‘Did she think when he gathered those flowers, That grew on the shores of the lake, That the hand that plucked those sweet lilies, Her own sweet life they would take?’
The classic novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, is based on the story of Grace and Chester. The book was later adapted into the film A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters.
Some think Chester Gillette may not have murdered Grace, that the evidence against him was circumstantial and he wrongfully went to the electric chair in 1908. Some say Grace wasn’t such an innocent, and had set her sights on catching a husband by any means.
Whatever the truth, as the folk song ends…
‘And nobody knows how it happened – but Gillette and God know it all.’