May 2nd, 2010 Headsman
On this date fifty years ago, death row author and celebrity Caryl Chessman choked to death in San Quentin Prison’s gas chamber while the phone outside rang, too late, with his stay.
During his abnormally protracted* (for the times) 12 years fighting death, Chessman became the poster child for the anti-capital punishment cause and the most recognizable face on death row.
He was condemned as the “Red Light Bandit,” a Los Angeles criminal who would waylay cars in lovers’ lanes with police-like flashing red lights, then rob and, for some female victims, rape them. A career felon, Chessman denied his guilt to his death (he insisted that his signed confession was beaten out of him by the LAPD, which would not exactly have been out of character).
The prickly Chessman — “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow,” he conceded about himself — unwisely represented himself at trial, where the confession plus eyewitness testimony of Bandit victims were enough to convict him.
Not, however, of murder.
Instead, Chessman drew two death sentences under one of the country’s several draconian “Little Lindbergh” anti-kidnapping statutes, on the intriguing jurisprudential theory that the Red Light Bandit’s having dragged a rape victim several feet from her car constituted “kidnapping.”**
This astonishingly expansive reading only became more controversial when California repealed the kidnapping law in question in the 1950s. But the repeal was not retroactive.
That left Chessman to fight his sentence with a terrifyingly iron willpower, fending off eight execution dates in the process. The last of them came in February 1960, an 11th-hour reprieve as had been several others, when a two-month stay was granted ostensibly to protect the traveling President Eisenhower from some act of vengeful local retaliation from one of Chessman’s legions of international supporters.
A cat, I am told, has nine lives. If that is true, I know how a cat feels when, under the most hair-raising conditions, it has been obliged to expend the first eight of those lives in a chamber-of-horrors battle for survival, and the Grim Reaper gets it into his head that it will be great sport to try to bag the ninth. All pussy can do is spit. Homo sapiens can write books.
So Chessman wrote.
Fiction and nonfiction books, numerous articles — copping to a criminal life but insistently denying his involvement in the crimes that would doom him. For a time, prison officials seized his work and forbade his writing, and Chessman resorted to sacrificing his sleep to write illicitly by night and encode his work in putative “legal documents”. Bandit or not, the man had an indomitable spirit, and it won him worldwide attention and support.
Books by and about Caryl Chessman
And bandit or not, the Grim Reaper had a mind to take that ninth life.
One might have thought that for such a lightning-rod anti-death penalty case, the election of anti-death penalty Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown in 1958 would spell good news.
But “public opinion mobilized against Chessman,” writes Theodore Hamm in Rebel and a Cause: Caryl Chessman and the Politics of the Death Penalty in Postwar California, 1948-1974. That mobilization “marked the beginning of a larger popular backlash by the New Right against an essentially technocratic campaign to eliminate capital punishment in California.”
According to Hamm, Pat Brown claimed he would have been “impeached” if he had granted clemency to his uppity prisoner, leaving Chessman and his lefty backers† expediently triangulated by a Democratic governor. It’s a timeless story.
With executive clemency off the table, Chessman’s lawyer Rosalie Ashler was scrambling on the morning of the 10 a.m. execution to interest a judge in an appeal claiming that one Charles Terranova was the actual Red Light Bandit. The judge took his time reading the brief, and by the time his secretary placed a call to the death house (legend says, after once misdialing it), the cyanide pellets had already dropped.
Which didn’t mean that Chessman was already dead — not by a long shot.
I thought Chessman must be dead but no, there was another agonizing period during which he choked on the gas. And again. And then again. There was a long period, another deep gasp. At the fourth such straining, Chessman’s head lolled in a half circle, coming forward so that he faced downward with his chin almost touching his chest. This must be the end. But the dying went on.
A deep gasp, his head came up for an instant, dropped forward again. After two or three deep breaths, which seemed something like sobs, a trembling set up throughout the body. Along the line of his broad shoulders, down the arms to his fingers, I could see the tremor run.
Then I saw his pale face grow suddenly paler, though I had not thought that it could be after his 12 years in prison. A little saliva came from his lips, spotted the white shirt that a condemned man wears for his last appearance. Even more color drained from his face and the furrows in his head smoothed out a little. And I knew he was dead.
Chessman would persist as a cultural touchstone for the issue of capital punishment for a generation.
Jim Minor, “Death Row” (1960)
Ronnie Hawkins, “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman” (1960)
Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1968)
(Though this tune about watching men taken to the gas chamber doesn’t explicitly reference Caryl Chessman, it was inspired by Haggard’s own prison stint where he met Chessman and experienced a “scared straight” moment.)
Neil Diamond, “Done Too Soon” (1970)
The Hates, “Do the Caryl Chessman” (1980)
In view of Chessman’s onetime celebrity, he’s an oddly forgotten character today: too strange an individual for easy approachability; too ethically indeterminate for convenient demagoguery; not sufficiently emblematic of any larger cause or community that would tend to his memory. His non-murder death sentence and method of execution seem anachronistic, no longer relevant.
Chessman surely was an avatar of the end to capital punishment that unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, but as it went with his own case, so it went with his legacy: the simultaneous right-wing backlash ultimately rewrote the story. After all, the “liberal” governor too chicken to spare Chessman would go on to lose his office to Ronald Reagan.
Our day’s protagonist might have had a different place in the national consciousness, in stories with the phrase “as late as 1960,” had that interregnum of “abolition” Chessman presaged not turned out to be a false start.
I am not guilty. I am sure a future generation will listen.
* While 12 years between sentence and execution wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today (especially in California), Chessman at the time was thought to have set a record for the longest stint on death row in U.S. history.
** The legal weirdness didn’t stop with the kidnapping law. The official court reporter in Chessman’s case actually died with his trial transcription still in semi-legible shorthand. It was partially reconstructed (by a relative of prosecuting attorney J. Miller Leavy, who also won the death sentence against Barbara “I Want to Live!” Graham), but portions that could not be read were ballparked by the recollections of … prosecutor Leavy.
Appeals courts, of course, frequently have recourse to the original trial record to make various legal determinations; the evidentiary gap left by this second-hand-abridged-by-the-DA transcript was frequently protested by Chessman’s camp on appeal.
A cache of primary records from the case and its many appeals is lodged at this FBI Freedom of Information Act page.
† They weren’t exclusively leftists. William Buckley and Billy Graham both supported clemency for Chessman. Nor were they all political: the directors of the schlocky cult horror flick The Hypnotic Eye crassly pitched the headline-grabbing condemned con on a hypnotism promotional stunt, and ended up themselves being drawn into the case and believing Chessman was innocent.
Also on this date
- 1883: Heinrich "Henry" Furhmann, oldest hanged in Montana
- 1942: José Abad Santos, Chief Justice
- 2000: An adulteress, by stoning
- 1450: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk
- Unspecified Year: Faust's Gretchen
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gassed,History,Kidnapping,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Rape,Reprieved Too Late,Theft,USA,Wrongful Executions
Tags: 1960, 1960s, barbara graham, caryl chessman, cause celebre, charles lindbergh, democratic party, dwight eisenhower, edmund brown, j miller leavy, may 2, pat brown, ronald reagan, rosalie ashler, theodore hamm, writers