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.
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.
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.
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.
† 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.