Did Life Imitate Art in 1934?
It was the summer of 1906 and a young woman named Grace Brown – 20-years-old and a few months pregnant – was on her way to the Adirondacks region of New York to be married, or so she thought. She had spent the last several months living on her parents’ farm, writing desperate letters to her boyfriend, Chester Gillette, begging him to marry her and make an honest woman out of her.
Chester, who claimed that he loved the pretty young woman, had no urge to settle down. Although he came from a poor family, Chester was college educated and his uncle owned the factory where Grace had worked. He believed he was several social rungs above his lover, a young girl that he had seduced and then forgotten. He wanted to marry one of the daughters of a wealthy man in town, not a struggling factory worker and daughter of poor farmers. He pursued other women and when Grace learned of this, she threatened to expose her pregnancy and ruin his life – but all that would be forgotten if they married.
The threat seemed to have the desired effect and Chester invited Grace on vacation to the Adirondacks. It was a sort of pre-wedding honeymoon. On July 6, they checked into the Glenmore Inn on Big Moose Lake, using assumed names. After settling in, they rented a rowboat for a picnic on the lake. The boat was never returned and Grace was never seen alive again. Her drowned corpse was found floating in the lake the following morning. Chester was arrested three days later. Although he claimed to be innocent, he was tried for Grace’s murder, convicted, and died in the electric chair in March 1908.
The trial was a media sensation, but was soon forgotten. The sad tale would have likely faded into obscurity if not for author Theodore Dreiser. For years, the writer had been searching for a crime that embodied his own personal obsessions with sex and social ambitions in America. He found the perfect material in the life and crimes of Chester Gillette. In 1925, he published his bestselling work, An American Tragedy, based on the murder. The story of the trusting young woman and her murderous, social-climbing beau became a part of American culture.
But then a story of art imitating life was turned around in 1934 when An American Tragedy was brought to life.
On the evening of July 30, 1934, Robert Allen Edwards – a clean-cut, church-going, 21-year-old, with striking good looks that made him very popular with the opposite sex – took his girlfriend, a homely but outgoing 27-year-old named Freda McKechnie for a drive. The young couple stopped by to visit Freda’s seven-year-old niece, and then went on to Harveys Lake, a popular resort located about 12 miles west of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Freda and Bobby – as everyone called him – both came from respectable families. They Lived around the corner from one another in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and attended the same church. The young couple spent a great deal of time together -- much more time, in fact, than their parents suspected. Besides the usual small town activities like church socials, picnics and movie dates, they passed many hours in various secluded romance spots, including the town cemetery. Despite the difference in their ages and the glaring disparity in their physical attractiveness, everyone assumed the two sweethearts would eventually get married.
Bobby, though, had other ideas. Three years earlier, he had gone off to Mansfield State Teachers College (now Mansfield University), where the popular, black-haired young man was elected president of the freshman class. While there, he met a talented singer and pianist, a senior named Margaret Crain. The bespectacled brunette came from a middle-class family from East Aurora, New York. Though Margaret was, by all accounts, even less attractive than Freda, Bobby was entranced with her. Margaret was flattered by his attention. No young men had been interested in her before, and she soon succumbed to her handsome lover’s charms. Before long, they had started a passionate affair.
With American still in the grip of the Depression, Bobby was forced to drop out of college in his junior year. He moved back home to live with his parents, and took a job with the Kingston Coal Co., where his father and Freda’s father both worked. By then, Margaret had graduated and was working as a high school music teacher in Endicott, New York. Although separated by more than two hundred miles, they kept up a steady correspondence, sending fervent, heartsick letters back and forth. In his letters, Robert called her “my dear wife” and made pledges of future matrimony.
Bobby Edwards and Freda McKechnie
Eventually, Margaret gave Robert $100 to make a down payment on a used 1931 Chevrolet, which they nicknamed “The Bum.” The car would be jointly owned, and Bobby would use it to travel to see her. Sometimes, they would meet midway for trysts at the Plaza Hotel in Scranton. Over the next year, Robert made regular weekend trips to Margaret’s family’s home, where he impressed her parents as a fine young man who would be a worthwhile future son-in-law.
But what Margaret and her parents didn’t know was that during his time back home in Edwardsville, Bobby was still sleeping with Freda McKechnie. This affair would likely have remained a secret if not for the fact that, on July 23, 1934, Freda had gone to a doctor and learned that she was four months pregnant. When she broke the news to Bobby the following day, he agreed to do the right thing and marry her. They would elope to West Virginia. The date was set for August 1, just a week away, after Bobby received his next paycheck. Thrilled, Freda began assembling a trousseau. Many would recall later that they had never seen her so happy.
On Monday night, July 30, after a dinner at the McKechnie home, Bobby and Freda went out for a drive. Even though the sun had set and a hard rain was falling, Freda – giggling with excitement over the upcoming wedding – proposed that they go for a swim at Harveys Lake, one of their favorite trysting spots. They arrived there shortly after 9:00 p.m. and parked at a spot called Sandy Beach. They changed into swimsuits and waded out into the water.
An hour later, Bobby left the beach alone.
Early the next morning, a 15-year-old girl named Irene Cohen was canoeing on the lake with her younger brother and one of her friends when she spotted a woman’s body, wearing an orange bathing suit, floating face-down beneath the water. Terrified, she paddled over to Sandy Beach and got two lifeguards, who plunged into the water and pulled the lifeless body out onto the sand.
The police were summoned, along with a local physician, Dr. Harry Brown, who quickly determined that the woman had not drowned. She had died from a savage blow to the back of her head with a blunt instrument. When he removed her bathing cap, clotted blood came out, and he could see a laceration on the top of her head. The murder weapon was discovered a short time later when investigators, who scoured the beach, found a leather-covered blackjack in the sand. By then, the victim had been identified as Freda McKechnie, whose parents had spent a sleepless night wondering why their daughter had never returned home from her drive with Bobby Edwards.
Within hours, Edwards had been picked up by the police on suspicion of murder. At first, he denied that he and Freda had gone to the lake at all. He told the police that after driving around for a little while, he had dropped Freda off in town. Then had gone to meet some friends whose names he could not remember. When investigators revealed that the tire tracks found at the crime scene matched the tires on his car, he sheepishly admitted that he had been lying and offered to tell “what really happened.”
He admitted that he and Freda had, in fact, driven out to Sandy Beach. Even though it was raining and there were flashes of lightning in the sky, they decided to go swimming. After changing into their bathing suits, they “went into the water and waded to the float.” (This was a wooden platform floating on top of metal barrels that offered swimmers a place to relax in the sun.) Edwards went on, “I got a notion to dive. I dove. When I came back up, my hand struck her under the chin. She fell backward and hit her head against the float.”
Stunned but still conscious, she had swum out farther into the water. A moment later, according to his wildly implausible account, Edwards saw “her white bathing cap disappear. I went out for her but couldn’t find her. I went back, got in my car and drove away.”
On the morning after his arrest, police officers took him out to the crime scene to get his version of the events once more. He revised his story again. This time, Edwards admitted that he had hit Freda with the blackjack. But he insisted that she was already dead when he hit her.
In this version of events, he and Freda had taken a rowboat out to the float. After swimming for a little while, Freda complained of being cold. As she stepped back into the rowboat to return to shore, she suddenly collapsed. Edwards tried to revive her but was unable to find a heartbeat. Panicking, he swam back to shore and ran to his car. As he climbed in, he thought of the blackjack. It belonged to his father, and he had put it in his glove box -- for protection, he said. He told the investigators, “It occurred to me that if there was some mark on Freda’s body, it might look like her death was an accident and I would be left out of it. I knew Freda was pregnant. I knew she was not allowed to swim. When I returned to the boat, she was in the same position. She had not revived. I could do nothing. I put her head on my left arm and struck her on the back of the head with the blackjack. I didn’t even realize what I had done, and I carried the body out to the water up to my chest and let it drop.”
By this time, the investigators knew that Edwards was in a relationship with another woman and had a compelling motive to do away with Freda, who was secretly pregnant with his child. When they confronted him with all of the circumstantial evidence against him, he finally broke down. This time, he revealed the truth of the murder. He choked, “Freda didn’t faint. She didn’t fall and hurt herself. I had been thinking of doing this since she told me she was to become a mother – because I wanted to marry Margaret Crain. We swam for a while. We talked about her having a baby. The water was a little over four feet deep, and when she ducked down once, she came back up with her back to me. I pulled out the blackjack quick and hit her on the back of the head. I hit her with the blackjack and then I left her in the water.”
After tossing the murder weapon into the lake, Edwards got dressed and drove home. He even stopped along the way at an all-night drugstore to buy some chocolate bars for his mother. Before going to bed, he hung his swimsuit on the backyard clothesline to dry. He slept soundly that night and got up and went to work the next morning as if nothing had happened at all.
No one knows which reporter first dubbed the case the “American Tragedy Murder.” Newspapermen from two Philadelphia papers, the Record and the Bulletin, both claimed to have dreamed it up, as did a writer for the United Press syndicate, and a reporter from the New York Times. It’s not hard to imagine that all of them latched onto the idea independently, since the details of this latest tragedy were strikingly similar to the case that spawned Theodore Dreiser’s bestselling book and the recent film. Within days of Edwards’ arrest, newspapers all over the country were suggesting that the novel – or more likely the movie version of it – had provided the confessed killer with the blueprint for his crime.
As is the case with just about every work of literature or mass entertainment that has been blamed for inciting a murder, there turned out to be no truth to the accusation. By all accounts, Edwards had never read the book or seen the film that was based on it. Still, the startling resemblance between the murder of Freda McKechnie and Dreiser’s fictionalized version of the Chester Gillette-Grace Brown case turned the story into a national sensation.
Dreiser himself saw the Edwards case as “an exact duplicate of the story which I had written” and wondered whether “my book had produced the crime.” When the New York Post offered to pay him to travel to Pennsylvania and cover the trial, he eagerly accepted. On the opening day of the trial, October 1, 1934, he was one of 50 reporters who jammed into the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The scene, he wrote, was “quite a spectacle.”
The hundreds of spectators who pushed and shoved their way into the courtroom, hoping for an exciting show, were not disappointed. The questionable high point came when the district attorney read a series of Bobby’s steamy love letters to Freda McKechnie. The contents were allegedly so salacious that, according to one observer, they made John Cleland’s pornographic classic Fanny Hill: or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure “look like a toned-down version of Little Women.”
By then, Edwards – whom the papers were gleefully calling “the Playboy of the Anthracite Fields” – had recanted his confession and gone back to his claim that Freda had died accidentally. His testimony failed to persuade the jury, and they took only 12 hours to convict him and sentence him to death.
Theodore Dreiser was unhappy with the verdict. He believed that Edwards, like his predecessor Chester Gillette, was a victim of tremendous American social pressures. Dating back to his days as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, Dreiser had “observed a certain type of crime in the United States.” It was one that “seemed to spring from the fact that almost every young person was possessed of an ingrowing ambition to be somebody financially and socially.” This distinctly American brand of crime, according to Dreiser, involved “the young ambitious lover of some poorer girl who had been attractive enough to satisfy him until a more attractive girl with more money or position appeared and he quickly discovered that he could no longer care for his first love. What produced this particular type of crime was the fact that it was not always possible to drop this first girl. What usually stood in the way was pregnancy.”
To support this claim, he pointed to a half-dozen such murders, including the Gillette-Brown case of 1906 that had served as the basis for An American Tragedy. It wasn’t a perfect fit, as Margaret Crain’s family was not rich; she was a high school music teacher and her brother was a Baptist minister, but still, the two cases had much in common. Dreiser blamed the crimes committed by these men on American society and its “craze for social and money success.” He believed that Edwards was just another in a long line of such killers. Dreiser was one of hundreds of people who wrote to Governor George H. Earle in a futile attempt to win a pardon for the condemned young man.
Just after midnight on May 6, 1935, after spending hours reading his family Bible, Edwards walked calmly to the electric chair at Rockview Penitentiary in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. According to one reporter, he was murmuring a prayer as the black hood was placed over his head.
This American tragedy had finally come to an end.