Susan N. Herman, Centennial Professor of Law, presented a compelling analysis of a 100-year old murder case and the classic novel that it inspired, “An American Tragedy,” by Theodore Dreiser, at the New York State Court of Appeals on June 26. She spoke as part of a lecture series co-sponsored by the Court and the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York, and hosted by Chief Judge Judith Kaye. Also on the program was Francesca Zambello, the acclaimed director of an opera based upon the novel that had its world premiere in 2005 at the Metropolitan Opera.
Chester Gillette was found guilty in December 1906 of the first-degree murder of Grace Brown who drowned during a rowboat ride with him the previous summer on Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. The Court of Appeals upheld the guilty verdict and Gillette was executed in 1908 at Auburn State Prison. A case of circumstantial evidence, it continues to interest scholars of literature and the law.
In her presentation, Professor Herman described how Dreiser, writing in 1925, changed the facts of the case to highlight important moral and societal questions and criticisms of the American legal system. Professor Herman is a widely regarded expert on the Supreme Court, particularly in the area of criminal procedure, and teaches a Law and Literature Seminar, among other courses. She regularly speaks to judges and lawyers around the country and appears in panel discussions on a range of issues. Among her many professional activities, she serves as General Counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, and as a member of its National Board of Directors and Executive Committee.
Read an account of the case and court documents
Read more about Professor Herman