Two Famous Murder Trials

Town of Herkimer
Herkimer County, N.Y

Old Court House

The Red Brick Court House at the Four Corners

The famous Chester Gillette and Roxalana Druse murder trials took place in the Old Court House in Herkimer, which court house was turned over to other functions in October 1999. The new court house is now enclosed in the new County Building.

Betsy Voorhees
October 1999


A fantastic book to read is the account of the famous trial of Chester Gillette as portrayed in "An American Tragedy" written by Theodore Dreiser. The story is about Chester Gillette who was born in Montana and resided in Otselic in Chenango County, New York. While working for his uncle in his factory, he met and fell in love with and was intimate with Grace Brown who was the daughter of a hard-working farmer. Their courtship ensued until she later turned up pregnant, and on confronting Chester with this he promised he would take her on a trip to the Adirondacks. She apparently assumed this would be a wedding trip, and it is not known if he ever actually promised to marry her or if this was just her assumption. Chester knew that Grace did not know how to swim as she had told him this in one of her letters. Regardless of knowing she couldn't swim, he took her for an outing in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. Eventually he took her to Big Moose Lake for a rendevous and they rowed around the lake, where she, before the day was up, "drowned" in the lake.

Chester then took his belongings which he had brought with him and hid at the Arrowhead Hotel in Inlet for three days until he was found and arrested. Chester was brought to trial in Herkimer, as the crime scene at Big Moose lies within Herkimer County. He denied pushing Grace into the lake and hitting her over the head with a tennis racket. He simply repeated over and over that the boat tipped over, and she never came up and he couldn't save her. Until his death by electrocution, he maintained that he was innocent of any crime and that he did his best and couldn't save her from the accidental drowning.

His trial lasted a month in the red brick Court House on Main Street in Herkimer, which court house is still there on the four corners at this date in 1999. He continuously pleaded innocent during his trial up until the time of his conviction. Many people came and would stream by Gillette's cell every day and view him in his predicament out of curiosity as the famous trial commenced. It is said an undersheriff with compassion brought a bouquet of flowers from Big Moose Lake area to Gillette in his cell at one time.

People flocked from all over to listen to the now famous trial and brought their lunches so they could eat and not miss anything as the trial progressed. Grace's love letters were sold by a court stenographer at $5 a copy.

Gillette's mother was brought from Denver to the sentencing and again, people crowded the court house to hear what she had to say about her son, even paying to hear her lectures. She said her son was "heedless and careless" and was disastrous to be entangled in this "unfortunate pre-natal influences."

During his trial in November and December of 1907, Gillette said Grace jumped into the lake and committed suicide because of her pregnancy. The district attorney found evidence suggesting that Chester hit Grace over the head with his tennis racket which he had attached to his suitcase. At the conclusion of the trial the jury found him guilty of first degree murder and sentenced him to die in the electric chair.

Crowds of people gathered at Utica, Oneida and Syracuse train stations when Gillette was being transported after his conviction in Herkimer to the Auburn N.Y. penitentiary for electrocution. There was much media coverage at the time of the sentencing by the New York Journal and the Denver Post. Chester was executed on March 30, 1908. at Auburn, New York. There is also stenographic coverage of over 2,000 pages of the trial from beginning to end at the Herkimer County Historical Society in Herkimer, New York.

There have since been several movies made of the accounts leading up to this American tragedy and there are books written in various languages. Most libraries have a copy of this heart-wrenching story where Chester Gillette claimed his innocence up until the end when he was electrocuted.

Motion Pictures:
An American Tragedy by Paramount Pictures, 1931
A Place in the Sun, Paramount Pictures, 1951

Television Programs of this account:
"Murder at Big Moose?"
"Grace's Ghost," an episode hosted by Unsolved Mysteries, l996
"Crimes in Time," presented on the History Channell in 1997

Needless to say, this is one murder trial which the old Herkimer Court House on the four corners (Main and Court Streets) became famous for. From time to time an enactment is put on in Herkimer portraying the famous Gillette trial.


Roxalana Druse lived in the town of Warren, Herkimer County, New York. Roxalana has gone down in the history of Herkimer County as being the first woman to be hung from the old jail, on the second floor of the old jail. On the back of the jail, people can still observe the boarded up door from which the person being hanged would come out at the time of the hanging. Over this door can still be seen the hook from which the rope was attached for the hanging.

Roxalana was found guilty of killing her abusive husband with an axe with the help of her 14 year-old nephew. She spent the next day chopping him up with the help of her 19 year-old nephew, while a nephew and her son played checkers. She then burned the chunks in the kitchen stove, and poured his ashes in the pig sty. She believed no one would ever know to what magnitude she went to cover up her murder and hoped it would never be disclosed.

Roxalana was a frail, shivering woman as she stood on the scaffold in the jail yard as the State Militia in high bearskin hats kept back the crowd while her execution took place.

Whether she was the first, the last, or only woman hanged in New York State is still open to discussion. The old jail is still there on Main Street at the Four Corners, jail tours being conducted by the Herkimer County Historical Society.

The above accounts were compiled from various excerpts and writings at the village of Herkimer library, the Herkimer County Historical Society and from the internet.

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Created 4/16/01
Copyright © 1999 - 2001 Betsy Voorhees
Picture Copyright © 2000 Betsy Voorhees
All Rights Reserved.