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The True Story of An American Tragedy
September 14, 2007 4:56 PM   Subscribe

100 years ago last July, young Chester Gillette took his pregnant girlfriend Grace Brown boating in a lake in the Adironakes. Out on the water he clubbed her unconscious using a tennis racket he had brought along for the purchase, and threw her body overboard, drowning her & his unborn child. 100 years ago next March, he was put to death for the crime, which went on to become the basis for a great American novel, two movie adaptations (some would say three) & as befits a good tragedy, an opera. It's arguable that the soft lens of history plus the addition of the bias of the book & film adaptations have positioned Gillette in a kinder light than he deserves; his crime itself has never fallen out of vogue, sad to say.
posted by jonson (37 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
he had brought along for the purpose?
posted by Joeforking at 5:01 PM on September 14, 2007


purpose! Sorry, stupid typos.
posted by jonson at 5:03 PM on September 14, 2007


You shouldn't have let on, jonson. I was ready to believe that it was some kind of lovely Victorian 18th century usage of the word that was supposed to fit into the 100-years-ago motif.

Good post.
posted by blacklite at 5:16 PM on September 14, 2007


Tennis racket? Didn't he have an anvil or a bomb shaped like a bowling ball to hit her with?
posted by psmealey at 5:31 PM on September 14, 2007


In the spirit of the post . . . Knoxville Girl

Great post btw.
posted by nola at 5:34 PM on September 14, 2007


(I meant 19th century.)
posted by blacklite at 5:37 PM on September 14, 2007


The murder of a young pregnant women by her beau is also the subject of the American folk song Omie Wise.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:38 PM on September 14, 2007


women woman
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:41 PM on September 14, 2007


Terrific post. The book's one of my favorites. Hmm, I should go reread that.
posted by GrammarMoses at 5:45 PM on September 14, 2007


Great post, and captivating story. Your post inspired me to order the American Tragedy book.
posted by applemeat at 5:56 PM on September 14, 2007


Holy god this thread is like a typo trainwrek.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 5:57 PM on September 14, 2007


narrative always overcomes truth, particularly with a great storyteller, because truth is unknowable verging on trivial. i regard julius caesar and richard iii as definitive accounts of the events portrayed.
posted by bruce at 6:04 PM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


who was the mefite who posted recently about attacking a school bully with a tennis racket as it was the best weapon he thought he could keep in his locker, although the post was most likely pure wishful fantasy?
posted by caddis at 6:23 PM on September 14, 2007


his crime itself has never fallen out of vogue, sad to say

No, alas, it hasn't.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:31 PM on September 14, 2007


Whoa! ZenMasterThis, are you implying Kennedy killed Mary Jo Kopechne because she was pregnant? I've never heard that conspiracy theory, merely the "theory" that he was a drunk & an adulterer who left his mistress to drown due to his own inebriation & cowardice.
posted by jonson at 6:47 PM on September 14, 2007


Maybe it's time for someone to pen "The Ballad of Teddy and Mary Jo"?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 PM on September 14, 2007


You'd think a tennis racket would break pretty easily - I guess tennis rackets in 1906 must have been made out of cast iron. Not the first thing that springs to mind as a knocking-unconscious weapon - he must have pounded the crap out of her before she passed out. Poor girl.
posted by Quietgal at 7:08 PM on September 14, 2007


I've tried to make it through that damn book four times in my life. Each time, I'd gotten so affected, so shaken, that I just had to drop it. No other work has ever done that to me.
posted by klarck at 7:21 PM on September 14, 2007


klarck, was it always at the same point?
posted by GrammarMoses at 7:28 PM on September 14, 2007


Adironakes

I suspect that's near the Adirondacks (aka Adirondack Mountains)! ; )

I love their outdoor chairs!!!
posted by ericb at 7:59 PM on September 14, 2007


Holy god this thread is like a typo trainwrek.

Okey-dokey -- whose bin drinkin' 2night?
posted by ericb at 8:01 PM on September 14, 2007


Rasins hand!
posted by ericb at 8:02 PM on September 14, 2007


Err -- raisins hands!
posted by ericb at 8:02 PM on September 14, 2007


Wfiesaelkf fafjfad lfajd.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:18 PM on September 14, 2007


Oops! Misspelled that. I meant to say: Wesejljsffd fasjdidl faiwfvmtuys.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 8:18 PM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well put, matKraftic ablestAdju seeeCh, well put!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:23 PM on September 14, 2007


God werl. jonston1 fLarggde sa fsntox1!
posted by maryh at 8:30 PM on September 14, 2007


Murder is still the leading cause of death for pregnant women.

Here's hoping that changes one day.
posted by emjaybee at 9:08 PM on September 14, 2007


from emjaybee's link:

and, nationwide, the maternal mortality rate was 9.9% in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available.

9.9% seems high, just sayin'.
posted by bruce at 10:49 PM on September 14, 2007


bruce is correct. The NOW release seems to have introduced a spurious % symbol, as the 1999 rate was around 9.9 per 100,000 live births. [CDC PDF] Alarmingly, it has since ticked up past 12 per 100,000 -- a 20% (yes, the symbol is correctly used here) increase in a handful of years, and the kind of thing that gives public health analysts the heebie-jeebies.

Back on topic, that second link is quite interesting. The author is a (distant) cousin to both participants (and also determined that her own parents were fifth cousins or some such, despite being born many states apart). This is actually more common than you'd think as the pool of unrelated people diminishes quite quickly the more generations you go back. Still, most people have no idea who their fourth cousins are and wouldn't blink twice if they found they'd married one. (Despite the 30 Rock storyline.)
posted by dhartung at 11:40 PM on September 14, 2007


It's also a fairly central plot element in the young adult novel A Northern Light.
posted by wsquared at 1:34 AM on September 15, 2007


My wife heard the Louvin Brothers version of "Knoxville Girl" one night as I was playing it, and said the lyrics really bothered her. When I tried to explain the long tradition of killing your wife/girlfriend songs ("Cocaine Blues" by Johnny Cash would be another) in blues and country music, she asked why this should be less objectionable than a long tradition of songs about, say, killing blacks or Jews. And...I didn't know how to respond to that.
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:20 AM on September 15, 2007


And...I didn't know how to respond to that.

Well, I guess I might've responded by saying that wives and girlfriends don't constitute an ethnic or religious group, and that... uh... y'know, I don't think I'll go down this road!

But the Louvin Brothers, man they are GREAT! Check out their MySpace page and listen to four of their tunes!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:27 AM on September 15, 2007


And...I didn't know how to respond to that.

The response is that sexism is not only an ingrained but also on some level accepted part of these cultures.
posted by mistersquid at 7:29 AM on September 15, 2007


And racism isn't?
posted by jonson at 9:54 AM on September 15, 2007


And racism isn't?

In my opinion, given the way in which (North American) media, law enforcement, and the public at large respond to racist incidents versus sexist incidents, sexism is more accepted than racism.

I'm not saying that racism is not a problem (being of mixed race myself, though anecdotal evidence is not conclusive proof, etc.) because it certainly is. My point is only that sexism in the forms of (for example) domestic abuse, pay inequality, sexual objectification, devaluation of childcare, and so on, persist because sexism is on some level accepted in our (North American) culture.

Poor as my reasoning may be, jonson, it's what informed my suggestion to TheCardCheat's non-response to his wife. That is, one of the reasons there are cherished, musical homages to "killing your wife/girlfriend" in the face of a real history of such killings and nearly none of lynching blacks or persecting Jews is because sexism is more accepted than racism and anti-Semitism. (Does Claude McKay's "The Lynching," for example, count?)

I didn't mean to suggest that racism is not, on some level, accepted in North American culture. As you, jonson, have pointed out, it most certainly is.
posted by mistersquid at 11:54 AM on September 15, 2007


Not to take anything away from the actual 'tragedy' of Theodore Dreiser's novel, but I believe the central point of the book was the rise and fall of a man who started dirt poor and fell 'victim' to wanting to reach higher socially, financially etc. He killed the woman who bore his child because she wasn't rich or socially connected and would tarnish his reputation.

The book is a very rich, though uncomfortable, look at American class structure and the American 'dream'.

Excellent post!!
posted by UseyurBrain at 9:23 PM on September 15, 2007


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