1955: Barbara Graham, of “I Want to Live” fame

5 comments June 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Barbara Graham was gassed at California’s San Quentin Prison, along with two confederates in the brutal murder of an elderly widow.

Following the classic sob-story vector from orphan to juvenile delinquent to petty criminal, Graham found her calling as femme fatale.

She entered adulthood with World War II, and spent the war years alternating between failed marriages and the working-girl beat for Pacific military bases.

“Sure, I was a prostitute — and a damn good one,” she later confided to a reporter. “Why do people make so much of sex anyway? It’s part of our natural make-up, like getting hungry for food. If you want to eat, you go to a grocery store or a restaurant. If you need sleep, you sleep. If you want sex, why not get it?” (Source, a thorough .doc file)

Police made a bigger deal of perjury when she unwisely tried to help out some underworld friends by swearing to a demonstrably bogus alibi for them. She did some real time, tried to go straight in a boring Nevada town, and inevitably — for the likes of this site — returned to the siren lures of California.

It was back to the familiar job servicing the familiar hunger … but now with a new hunger of her own: heroin.

And heroin meant a now-ravenous appetite for cash.

Barbara Graham’s trip to the gas chamber and to California crime history began when she and some fellow-addicts tried to satiate that latter craving by burgling the Burbank home of Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to live alone with a lot of portable valuables.

The job was a botch from beginning to end: someone bludgeoned the crippled woman to death, but nobody found the supposed boodle. And as the police investigation led back towards the culprits, two of them flipped on their confederates.

(The first of them was kidnapped and murdered to prevent his testimony while everyone was still on the lam. The second happily took his place as the stool pigeon once everyone was in custody. Graham, proving that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, got caught on a wire trying to suborn perjury on her own behalf, dramatically destroying her alibi defense mid-trial.)

Shock murder authored by vamp courtesan? (The informant would testify that Graham personally pistol-whipped the victim into a bloody heap.) Hellooooo, California noir.

In its day, Graham’s case prompted all the moralistic hand-wringing familiar to the condemned-hottie tableau down to our present age. And at least that much unconcealed voyeurism. On the eve of her death, the Los Angeles Times palpitated:

“Nothing can be done now — I’m lost,” Mrs. Graham sobbed yesterday when told that Federal judges here and in San Francisco had turned down the latest bids for a stay of execution …

Two years in prison waiting for death have taken their toll of the once attractive convicted murderess.

Her reddish-blond hair has reverted to its natural black color. She has lost about 30 pounds. She is gaunt, tense and near hysteria.

The two men who shared her crime, her sentence, and her fate, did not endure a similar public microscope. Why would they? Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins — and this is the first we’ve even bothered to name them in this post — were just two dude hoods from central casting. Three hours after “Bloody Babs” succumbed to the fumes,* Santo and Perkins were gassed together as the forgettable postscript, “chatt[ing] amiably” with one another in the little metal shed while San Quentin’s personnel did all the preparatory business. (Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1955)

Graham’s persistence with a decreasingly plausible innocence story similarly amplified the pathos of her situation.

It also set up a highly sympathetic post-execution cinematic portrayal, the 1958 I Want to Live! — which garnered leading lady Susan Hayward an Oscar for Best Actress. Director Robert Wise actually personally witnessed the real Graham’s gassing as part of his research for the film.

A 1983 television remake starred former Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner.

* Given the standard advice for gas chamber clientele that breathing deeply makes it all go down easy, Graham aptly retorted, “How in the hell would you know?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gallows Humor,Gassed,History,Murder,Pelf,USA,Women

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1984: Elmo Patrick Sonnier, Dead Man Walking

32 comments April 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1984, Elmo Patrick Sonnier was electrocuted in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for abducting and murdering two teens in St. Martin Parish.*

Elmo and his brother Eddie posed as police officers and handcuffed two high schoolers parked at a local makeout point. Then they raped the girl, and shot both of them dead.

Both were given death sentences for the crime.

Eddie managed, as he said, to “give it back” on the grounds that Patrick was the one who did the shooting.

Once Eddie was clear of the death penalty, he tried to cop to the shooting after all, in order to save his little brother.

The appellate life of this case involved unedifying revisions of the “who shot whom” story. Ultimately, Eddie’s later claim to have been the triggerman, though quite possibly true, is not likely to win very much sympathy for his brother. It didn’t help him in the courts, either.

Just the 17th person executed since reinstatement of the death penalty, Sonnier learned that his longshot bid for clemency had been denied straight from the man who denied it — colorful, corrupt Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who personally phoned Sonnier to give him the bad news.

Little did Sonnier know that he had equally famous company meeting him in his cell.

Sonnier was the first condemned inmate to receive the spiritual ministration of Sister Helen Prejean.

The then-obscure Louisiana nun would later write the bestseller Dead Man Walking about her experiences with Sonnier and a second death row prisoner, Robert Lee Willie. Prejean remains among the most well-known death penalty opponents in the world today.

While the book Dead Man Walking treats Sonnier and Willie in a nonfiction vein, the film adaptation (review) amalgamated those people into a single character, the fictional “Matthew Poncelet”. It’s apparent from the flashbacks in Dead Man Walking‘s execution scene, however, that Sonnier is the predominant influence on “Poncelet”.

Dead Man Walking is an interesting movie. Though its principals were all vocal death penalty opponents, the film itself is much better art than propaganda. Arguably, the doomed criminal attains a sort of personal redemption — finally admitting responsibility for a crime he had denied for much of the film; seeking the forgiveness of his victims’ surviving family — only because the death penalty awaits him.

The real-life Sister Helen. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents:An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.

Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for Best Actress for her turn as Sister Helen. Note that while Sonnier was in fact put to death in the electric chair (as was Robert Lee Willie), director Tim Robbins opted to portray a lethal injection because, as Helen Prejean herself put it,

we don’t want to give people the moral out whereby people could say ‘oh well, we used to do electrocution but that’s too barbaric so now we are humane and inject them’

* The murder that led to this date’s execution took place in the same area where Willie Francis survived a trip to the electric chair: the very chair that killed Patrick Sonnier.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Participants,Rape,USA

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1943: Elfriede Scholz, Erich Maria Remarque’s sister

10 comments December 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1943, pacifist novelist Erich Maria Remarque lost his youngest sister to the Nazi regime — beheaded because her “brother is beyond our reach.”

Actually, Elfriede Scholz was convicted (upon the denunciation of her landlady a few weeks before) by the kangaroo People’s Court for undermining the war effort. (“Wehrkraftzersetzung” — German has a word for everything.)

Like her brother, Elfriede was a staunch opponent of the Nazi government, and in 1943 that could certainly have sufficed to get her a one-way trip to Plotzensee Prison.

But Roland Freisler‘s verdict explicitly referenced (German link) her more famous brother — upon whom the Nazis would have poured out an interwar era’s worth of fury had they been able to get to him in America.

Ihr Bruder ist uns entwischt, aber Sie werden uns nicht entwischen! (Your brother is beyond our reach, but you will not escape us!

Though Erich Maria Remarque and Adolf Hitler had served together at the Third Battle of Ypres, they didn’t quite see eye to eye after the Great War.

Remarque’s immortal anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front was banned and burned by war-glorifying Nazis (they also said Remarque was of Jewish descent, apparently without any factual basis).

Erna, Elfriede and Erich Remark — the author later restored an ancestral spelling of his name that had been Germanized in the 19th century — in happier times.

Remarque left Germany, an intellectual celebrity and man-about-town who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marlene Dietrich (with whom he had a passionate affair) and Ernest Hemingway (with whom he did not).

The Nazis stripped his citizenship, and fumed that they couldn’t get their jackboots on him. (At one point, Goebbels invited Remarque to return. Sly.)

But Elfriede, they could get. She had stayed in her native Germany with her husband and family.

Not content with taking her head off, Berlin added a particularly vicious twist by billing the expatriate author 90 marks for the executioner’s trouble.

The author never said or wrote much about Elfriede, even his diaries. But years later, Erich Remarque dedicated his novel about life in a concentration camp, Spark of Life, to his late sister. Today, there’s a street named for Elfriede in the Remarques’ native Osnabruck.

More about Remarque at the German (but the site is multilingual) Erich Maria Remarque-Friedenszentrum and this online exhibit from New York University.

Better still, here’s the 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front — that year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Murder,Notably Survived By,Wartime Executions,Women

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