Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Chester Gillette on death row

Death Row diaries/blogs are common today and easily accessible on the internet, but such a diary from a century ago is a real find. One written by a young man called Chester Gillette, and recently unearthed by a relative, has been published in time for the 100 year anniversary of his execution.

After leaving school and doing various jobs, Gillette began working at an uncle’s factory (making skirts) in 2005. Here he met Grace Brown who, by the spring of 1906, had become pregnant. She was anxious to get married; Gillette, though, was too busy chasing other skirt. He did, however, agree to take her on a weekend trip to the Adirondacks, a pretty mountainous region in northeast New York. There they went on a boat trip, on Big Moose Lake, from which Brown never returned. Her body was recovered the next day. Gillette claimed she had drowned accidentally and he had panicked and fled. But the court decided he had clubbed her with a tennis racket and left her to drown. It sentenced him to death.

The story entered into the American psyche through Theodore Dreiser’s famous 1925 novel, An American Tragedy, and the 1951 Academy Award-winning film A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens.

Last year, a diary that Gillette kept in Auburn Prison from September 1907 to his death on 30 March 1908 was donated by Marlynn McWade-Murray to Hamilton College. The diary (and some of Gillette’s letters) had been handed down to McWade-Murray, from her father who was the son of Gillette’s sister, Hazel. In advance of the anniversary of the execution, Hamilton College published The Prison Diary and Letters of Chester Gillette, edited by Craig Brandon and Jack Sherman.

Brandon has his own website where he chronicles the finding and publishing of the diary, and where he writes in some detail about the diary. Gillette’s very last entry starts: ‘Went to bed at 12:30 and was asleep in a few minutes. I slept soundly until called at 3:45. Feel refreshed and calm. I am surprised that I can look at this matter so calmly. Had communion for the first time. I feel that I am fully prepared to go and meet Jesus.’ Indeed, it seems from the diary that on death row the young man returned to the deeply religious ways of his parents. Further extracts are available on the Gatehouse News Service website.

These days, diaries and blogs by those on Death Row, or others concerned about them, seem to be the norm - Deathwatch International, for example, has links to several. Others include Vernon, who claims to be the first death row blogger, and Rob Will who’s ‘telling the world in cyberspace what it’s REALLY  like living on Texas Death Row’.

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