Crime | February 25, 2020 7:30 am

Behind the True Crime Story That Inspired “A Place in the Sun”

Over a century before the true-crime boom, People v. Gillette attracted the nation's attention

"A Place in the Sun" movie poster detail
The true story that inspired "A Place in the Sun" and several other fictional works is a fascinating case.
Paramount Pictures

Maybe you’ve seen the 1951 film A Place in the Sun, which stars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift as star-crossed lovers — a pairing that Steve Erickson, in his novel Zeroville, called “the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies.” It could be that you’ve read its source material, Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1925 novel An American Tragedy. Perhaps you’ve even seen the lesser-known film adaptation of Dreiser’s book.

If any of these are the case, then you’re familiar with the legal case The People v. Gillette — a sensational murder trial that occurred in 1906 and drew the attention of the nation. At CrimeReads, S.L. McInnis looked back at this case and its aftermath, and explored two elements of it that haven’t received as much coverage over the years as one might expect.

One involves the defendant, Chester Gillette, who was put on trial for the murder of a co-worker with whom he’d been having an affair. After he began another affair with a woman of higher social standing, Gillette got some news: his co-worker was pregnant. Gillette got nervous, and he and his co-worker took a fateful trip by boat from which only Gillette returned. He was found guilty and executed, but McInnis notes that evidence that surfaced decades later supports Gillette’s innocence.

McInnis also explores the ways in which this narrative — both the original one and its fictional descendants — have proven so compelling over the years.

“What endures about People v. Gillette is a relatable suspect, that evocative love triangle — and a murder with no hard evidence,” writes McInnis. It’s not hard to see a precursor to modern true crime narratives here, in more ways than one.

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