Working girls didn’t have it easy in the early 20th century. Employers exploited them shamelessly because they were cheaper labor than men, and they could get them to do the dirtiest work for less money (see my blog post here about the wage gap). They worked long hours in very dangerous conditions for employers who skirted safety laws to save money and had no regard for their workers’ safety. They were, in a sense, dispensable labor, more so even than men.
This was never more obvious than in the rise of crimes against working girls in the early 20th century. There were several cases of working girls who came to a bad end. I was browsing YouTube last year and came upon a miniseries made in 1988 about the murder of Mary Phagan in 1915. In my newsletter last year, I talked about a case in 1908 of a schoolteacher in Upstate New York who was murdered by her former student. There is also the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy which I wrote about here.
But perhaps the most famous Progressive Era murder of a working girl was the tragedy of Grace Brown. This case became famous for two reasons. First, author Theodore Dreiser was so deeply touched by it that he wrote a fictional account in 1925 under the title An American Tragedy. Second, this story was turned into a film in 1951 that marked the first of three collaborations between lifelong pals Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.
The story begins in 1905. Chester Gillette, a young man born to ultra-religious and poor people, took a job at his wealthy uncle’s skirt factory in New York. There he met an attractive girl named Grace Brown. Despite the strict factory rules that working men were not to socialize with their female coworkers, Gillette and Brown had a relationship that ended up with Brown becoming pregnant in 1906. This was still a time when the separate spheres were honored which meant a woman who had a child out of wedlock was shunned and disgraced. To avoid this, Brown wrote letters pleading with Gillette to marry her so she wouldn’t be a social outcast. He avoided responding to her for as long as he could.
Gilette finally agreed to take a trip to Moose Lake in the Adirondacks where Brown thought they would get married or at least engaged. But instead, he took her out on the lake and, knowing she couldn’t swim, made sure she drowned. The case became a sensation as Gillette was caught, tried, and convicted in 1908 and died by the electric chair.
The sixth book of my Adele Gossling Mysteries, The Case of the Dead Domestic, is also based on a case of a disposable working girl in the early 20th century. Rather than factory work, Hazel Drew was a domestic servant, and her death, unlike Mary Phagan’s and Grace Brown’s, remains unsolved. If you want to find out all about this unsolved classic true crime (and how it inspired one of the 1990s hit TV series), consider signing up for my newsletter here, as I’ll be doing a series of emails all about this case before the book comes out in August. Plus, you’ll get a free book as a gift just for signing up!
And you can preorder The Case of the Dead Domestic at a special price here.