Archival material from 2008, shortly after the murder of Maria Lauterbach.
It’s a grim but true statistic: one of the most common causes of death for pregnant women is homicidal violence. From the folksong “Pretty Polly” to the true story on which the ballad “Omie Wise” is based to the recent Maria Lauterbach murder, pregnant women have fallen victim to men who regard them, and their unborn offspring, as inconveniences.
But Grace Brown’s story is unique, for not only did it inspire a classic American novel; it also formed the basis for two Hollywood films and has as recently as 2005 been the subject of an opera.
Grace “Billie” Brown (1886-1906) was a girl from a small town in upstate New York. In 1905, while working in a textile mill, she met and began a relationship with a young man named Chester Gillette. Chester was the nephew of the mill’s owner, and regarded his affair with Billie as casual, although he probably, as is the way of some men, promised to marry her to get her to sleep with him; he had his sights set on marrying a girl of higher social status and some wealth.
Unfortunately, Billie told him she was pregnant, and began pressing him to honor his promise to marry her.
Chester, of course, had no intention of marrying her, but murder may not actually have been his first thought. He may have been intending to offer her financial assistance or arrange for her to go to a home for unwed mothers when he invited her to come spend a few days with him at a hotel on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks in mid-July of 1906. They spent some time together, and Billie apparently felt she had nothing to fear from him, for she agreed to go out boating with him on July 11th. She was wrong as could be in her lack of concern, for Chester had changed his intent.
One of the things that would convict Chester Gillette was the fact that he took a totally anomalous object on the boat with him—a tennis racket.
It was later alleged that, sometime during that tranquil summer day, Chester beat Billie bloody with the tennis racket, knocking her into the water. Unconscious, pregnant, and burdened with the heavy layers of clothing women wore in those days, Billie drowned. Chester rowed back to shore and took off for parts unknown—but not unknown enough. Billie’s body was found the next day, and he was arrested on the 14th. After a sensational trial that began in November of that year, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Appeals dragged on for nearly a year and a half, but on March 30, 1908, he died in Auburn Prison’s electric chair at the age of twenty-five.
Billie Brown’s death might have been forgotten but for events that began nearly two decades later and, some say, are the reason she haunts Big Moose Lake to this day. In 1925, the American writer Theodore Dreiser based his novel AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY on the case. Dreiser, I’m told (I’ve not read the book), was not sympathetic to Billie—renamed Roberta in the novel—and her unborn child at all; he portrayed her as a neurotic, white-trash harpy who stood in the way of Chester’s—renamed Clyde Griffiths—achievement of his dream of finding true love with a girl of wealth and status. This misinterpretation of Billie’s character persisted through a fairly obscure 1931 film named for the novel and starring Sylvia Sidney in the role of Roberta and also through the famous 1951 film A PLACE IN THE SUN, in which Billie/Roberta was played by Shelley Winters and Chester/Clyde by Montgomery Clift.
The Dreiser novel is also the basis for a Tobias Picker opera called AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY which premiered at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in 2005, with baritone Nathan Gunn in the role of Clyde Griffiths and soprano Patricia Racette in the role of Roberta. Following the novel, the opera does nothing to correct the damage to Billie’s reputation.
Sightings of Billie Brown’s ghost have been reported ever since the Dreiser novel was first published, it appears, leading to the speculation that she is in an uncanny way protesting the way she was portrayed in the novel. Those who have seen the ghost say she appears as a mist that gradually takes shape as a lovely young woman in a Gibson girl high collared blouse with a long skirt and her hair hanging loose down her back. Some have also reported that she brings with her a feeling of deep sadness that somehow imparts itself to them.
The sightings are circumstantial enough to have warranted a segment on a 1996 episode of the late lamented UNSOLVED MYSTERIES, hosted by the late Robert Stack. It was in that segment that the theory was floated that Billie resents the various portrayals of her and will continue to appear until the wrongs done to her reputation are righted.
She does have a point; in the end, she is more sinned against than sinning, a young naïve girl whose great misfortune it was to give her heart and body to a devious and deceitful man, who took a devilish shortcut to rid himself of a woman and child he did not want.
There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a maiden. (Proverbs 30:18, NIV)
That last—especially when it ends in murder—will forever be a mystery to me.