The trial of the century

By Fred Rosen

William Barclay "Bat" Masterson still holds great influence.  

Remembered by many for his adventures in America’s Old West - buffalo hunter, scout, gunfighter, Dodge City sheriff - in 20th Century New York City, he became a sportswriter.  However, Masterson left a legacy that is much more intricate. He always stood up for the underdog. And his real legacy was how he fought for one. 

After the days of the Old West ended, he laid down his gun and picked up his pen. So great was his writing that he was vastly respected for his opinions on many topics of the day, including crime, politics and war.  Except for boxing, Bat had had it with violence. He was happy that he didn't have to investigate murders anymore.  

In 1906, Bat was in the city room of his newspaper, the Morning Telegraph, when a story broke about an alleged murder in Upstate New York by Chester Gillette.  His editor, William Lewis, knew that Bat was the perfect reporter to cover the story for his paper. Despite what the other papers wrote, if Gillette was innocent, Bat had the courage to write the truth. Lewis assigned Masterson to cover Gillette's murder trial in November 1906 in Herkimer, New York.  It became the most notorious murder case in New York State history

 

Gillette, a factory manager, impregnated his girlfriend Grace Brown.  She wanted to get married. Chester? Wishy washy. They wound up going to Big Moose Lake in the Appalachian Mountians to go row-boating.  Grace drowned. Chester was charged with her murder. The case's details were so salacious it became known as The Trial of the Century. It was the first time that phrase was used.

Bat's train chugged into the Mohawk and Malone Railroad Station in the village of Herkimer. When he got off the train, he did not attract a crowd.  Masterson appeared as a middle-aged stocky man with a pudgy face, his stomach pushing at his belt a bit. Dressed as always like the dandy he was, with a starched white shirt beneath a brown suit and a jaunty tapered tan Panama, with a contrasting black band. It also hid his receding hairline.  

During discovery before trial, D.A. Ward established his timeline of the alleged murder. It began with Chester Gillette and Grace Brown first meeting the previous year, 1905, at the Gillette Skirt Factory, owned by Gillette's uncle in Cortland, New York. Grace was a worker who cut cloth for skirts, while Gillette worked as a manager for his uncle. 

Bat noticed that every day of the trial, in the front row sat Grace Brown's parents and sisters. Each time a witness testified,  each time a piece of evidence was brought into court, they cried. The jury took it all in. 

When Ward presented the state’s case, he had guards bring in the twelve-foot rowboat the couple was in, from which Brown wound up in the water.  He also brought in the fetus recovered from Brown's body, contained in a jar of formaldehyde. And he read Grace's letter to Gillette, in which she talked about suicide.

During jury deliberations, a lynch mob formed outside the courtroom. Masterson had seen that before on the frontier. On Tuesday, December 4, the jury sent word that after five hours of deliberations, they had reached a verdict. Bat walked into the courtroom with the expectant crowd. The jury was led in and took their assigned seats in the jury box. The jury foreman, Marshall Hatch, stood to pronounce the verdict.  Gillette and his counsel stood up. Everyone in the courtroom, including Masterson, sat forward in their seats.

“The jury finds the defendant Chester Gillette guilty of murder in the first degree,” announced foreman Hatch.

Masterson felt Gillette had been railroaded.  His story of the Trial of the Century ran on the front page of The Morning Telegraph, December 9, 1906:

NEW STYLE LYNCH LAW IN UPSTATE NEW YORK Mob Compels Jury to Do Its Work in Gillette Case Conviction Forced by Savage Threats of Herkimer County Bushmen By W.B. "Bat" Masterson

"Chester Gillette, who has been on trial for the murder of his sweetheart, Grace Brown, at Big Moose lake up in the northwoods last summer, was found guilty the other day of murder in the first degree by a Herkimer county jury. It cannot be said the verdict was much of a surprise to those who had followed up the trial of the case. In fact any other verdict than the one returned would have been little less than amazing in view of the influence with which the trial was surrounded from beginning to end. Even though the jury had deposed to try the case fairly, and impartially according to the evidence, the hostile attitude of the mob that had gathered in the street outside the courthouse for the purpose of lynching Gillette made it utterly impossible for it to have followed such a course. The only alternative that the mob gave the jury was to convict Gillette of murder in the first degree. There was neither going to be an acquittal or a compromise verdict. It must be murder in the first degree or the mob would proceed to act. It is extremely doubtful if in the history of murder trials in this country, a parallel can be found for the Gillette trial. Besides

being a flagrant travesty of justice, it was an inexcusable insult to the intelligence and civilization of the state of New York. The entire proceedings from beginning to end, were subversive of law and order and a disgraceful mockery of justice.” 

Masterson’s reporting made Judge Devendorf look like a judicial idiot. Since he had political aspirations, Devendorf could not let that stand. D.A. Ward had similar political aspirations. While it could never be proven, it certainly looked like Ward and Devendorf were working together. They needed a reporter and a newspaper to prosecute. The First Amendment clearly meant nothing to them.  

With the trial over, Ward presented Masterson's article to the grand jury, for the purpose of indicting him, editor William Lewis, and publisher H. N. Carey for what he had written. Just as Ward wanted, they were indicted for criminal contempt of court. Bench warrants were made out for their arrest. Herkimer County Deputy Sheriff Ingraham took the trains down to New York City. He served them on Bat and Cary at the Telegraph. Lewis was out, they called him, he came in and was presented with his warrant. 

Under arrest, Masterson, Lewis, and Cary were taken before Recorder Goff, who fixed bail at $500 each, $14,2440 in 2018 dollars. Cary produced the cash for all three. District Attorney Jerome then decided that a real estate bond would be required, or they'd have to go to the Tombs overnight, until they came up with it. The Tombs was the universally reviled lock-up of the New York Police Department. It was full of murderers, thieves; you name it - not a good place to be even temporarily. 

Masterson did not own any real estate, and it is unclear whether the other two men did. Regardless, what occurred was that one of their attorneys got all three bailed out through the good auspices of publisher Henry C. Bicknell. He put up his home in Brooklyn as security for the bail bonds for all three men.

This time, Bat had time to pack before leaving town. And he was smart enough to give a statement to the press before he left to go upstate again. "I've been through a great deal out west. Lived in Dodge City when it was the toughest town on the cattle trail, ran a vaudeville house, and enlisted as a [Army] scout under General Miles against the Comanches. And here in my sober forty-second year, I get into trouble for writing something in the paper.”

The case became the basis for the 1925 novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the 1953 film, A Place in The Sun that starred Montgomery Clift as Gillette; Elizabeth Taylor as his fictional paramour; and Shelly Winters as Grace. 

What has gotten lost in the fictional retelling of the trial and its aftermath is that Bat Masterson, covered the trial for The New York Morning Telegraph and stood up for Gillette.

Fred Rosen is a true crime author with 24 books published world-wide.  His new book, Bat Masterson, The First Dreamer, includes seven murders Masterson was involved in.  It's available on Amazon.

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