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Barbara GRAHAM






A.K.A.: "Bloody Babs"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 9, 1953
Date of arrest: May 4, 1953
Date of birth: June 26, 1923
Victim profile: Mabel Monahan, 64
Method of murder: Suffocation with a pillow
Location: Burbank, Los Angeles County, California, USA
Status: Executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison on June 3, 1955
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Barbara Graham (June 26, 1923 – June 3, 1955) was an American criminal and convicted murderer. She was executed in the gas chamber on the same day as two convicted accomplices, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. Nicknamed "Bloody Babs" by the press, Graham was the third woman in California to be executed by gas.

Early life

Graham was born Barbara Elaine Wood in Oakland, California.

California Birth Index, 1905-1995, Name: Barbara E Ford, Birth Date: 26 Jun 1923, Gender: Female, Mother's Maiden Name: Ford, Birth County: Alameda

When Barbara was two, her mother, who was a teenager, was sent to reform school. Barbara was raised by strangers and extended family, and, although intelligent, had a limited education. As a teenager, she was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to serve time at Ventura State School for Girls, the same reform school where her mother had been.

Released from reform school in 1939, Barbara tried to make a new start for herself. She married and enrolled in a business college and soon had her first child. The marriage was not a success, and by 1941 she was divorced. Over the next several years, she was married twice more and had a second child, but each of these attempts at a normal life failed.

After this string of failures, Barbara is said to have become a prostitute: during World War II, she was a "seagull" working near the Oakland Army Base, Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and Alameda Naval Air Station. In 1942, she and some other "seagulls" flew down to Long Beach and San Diego. She was arrested on vice charges in these naval cities and in San Pedro.

At 22, with her good looks, red hair, and sex appeal, she worked for a time in San Francisco for brothel madam Sally Stanford. She soon became involved in drugs and gambling and had a number of friends who were ex-convicts and career criminals. She served five years for perjury as an alibi witness for two petty criminals, and served her sentence at the California Department of Corrections Women's State Prison at Tehachapi.

After her stint in state prison, Barbara moved to Reno, Nevada and then Tonopah. She worked in a hospital and as a waitress. Barbara became bored and got on a bus for Los Angeles, where she got a room on Hollywood Boulevard and returned to prostitution. In 1953, she married a bartender, Henry Graham, with whom she had a third child, named Tommy.

Murder of Mabel Monohan

Henry Graham was a hardened criminal and drug addict. Through him, Barbara met his criminal friends Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. She started an affair with Perkins, who told her about a 64-year-old widow, Mabel Monohan, who was alleged to keep a large amount of cash in her home in Burbank.

In March 1953, Barbara joined Perkins and Santo, as well as John True and Baxter Shorter (two of their associates), in robbing Monohan's home in Burbank. Barbara reportedly gained entry by asking to use her phone. Once Monohan opened the door for Graham, the three men burst in. The gang demanded money and the jewels from Monohan, but she refused to give them anything. At this point, Barbara reportedly pistol-whipped Monohan, cracking her skull. They then suffocated her with a pillow.

The robbery attempt was a futile effort; the gang found nothing of value in the house and left empty-handed. They later learned that they had missed about $15,000 in jewels and valuables stashed in a purse in the closet near where they had murdered Monohan.

Arrest and conviction

Eventually, some of the gang members were arrested and John True agreed to become a state witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In court, True testified against Graham, who continually protested her innocence. The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs," reflecting the public disgust for her alleged actions.

Graham damaged her own defense when she offered another inmate $25,000 to hire a friend in order to provide an alibi. The inmate, however, was working in league with an undercover policeman in order to reduce her own vehicular manslaughter sentence. The officer offered to pose as the "boyfriend" Graham was with the night of the murder, if she admitted to him she was actually at the scene of the crime. The officer recorded the conversation. This attempt to suborn perjury as well as the confession she was at the scene, destroyed Graham's credibility in court. When questioned about her actions at the trial, she said, "Oh, have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it means not to know what to do?" Graham was ultimately convicted while the informant was immediately released from jail and her sentence commuted to time served.

Appeals and execution

Graham, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Graham appealed her sentence while serving time at the California Institute for Women in the city of Corona. Her appeals failed, and she was transferred to the death row at San Quentin State Prison to await execution.

On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 a.m., but that was stayed by California governor Goodwin J. Knight until 10:45 a.m. At 10:43 a.m., the execution was stayed by Knight again until 11:30 a.m., and a weary Graham protested, "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at ten o'clock." At 11:28 a.m., Graham was led from her cell to be strapped in the gas chamber. There, she requested a blindfold so she wouldn't have to look at the observers. Her last words were "Good people are always so sure they're right."

Barbara Graham is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, San Rafael, California.

In popular culture

Actress Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Academy Award for playing Graham in the movie I Want to Live! (1958), which strongly suggests Graham was innocent. However, much of the film is fictionalized—in particular, the presentation of the manner in which the police found and arrested Graham. Evidence clearly pointed to her guilt. Reporter Gene Blake, who covered Graham's murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, called the movie "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."

Graham was also portrayed by actress Lindsay Wagner in a 1983 TV version of I Want to Live!

Jazz/pop singer Nellie McKay has an hour-long touring production entitled I Want To Live! that tells the story through standards, original tunes, and dramatic interludes.


Famous American Crimes and Trials

Volume III: 1913–1959
Frankie Y. Bailey and Steven Chermak

The Barbara Graham Murder Case: The Murderess “Walked to Her Death as if Dressed for a Shopping Trip”

Sheila O’Hare

Barbara Graham (1923–1955) was found guilty of the murder of Mabel Monahan and was executed, along with two codefendants, on June 3, 1955. Graham achieved popular culture immortality via the later Hollywood film I Want to Live!(1958), featuring Susan Hayward’s Academy Award–winning performance. Based on San Francisco Examiner reporter Edward Montgomery’s coverage of the case, the film treats Graham’s case as an exemplar of partisan and sensational news coverage. The Montgomery character in the film initially characterizes Graham in a manner that summarizes the majority of actual news articles about the crime and trial: “It’s Mrs. Graham’s tough luck to be young, attractive, belligerent, immoral, and guilty as hell” (Wanger and Wise, 1958). Montgomery later underwent a change of opinion and came to believe Graham’s protestations of innocence. Graham’s guilt is still debated today along with the legal issues raised by her trial and execution.

The Death of Mabel Monahan

The crime occurred on the evening of March 9, 1953. The victim, Mabel Monahan, was a sixty-four-year-old widow who lived in Burbank, California. Monahan’s gardener arrived at the house on the morning of March 11. He notified the police when he noticed that the front door was ajar and that the house appeared to have been ransacked. Monahan’s body was found in a blood-spattered hallway, partly within a closet, hands bound behind her back. She had been struck repeatedly on the head and strangled with a strip of cloth. While Monahan’s purse containing $474 and items of jewelry had been left behind, the intruders had pulled up carpeting, emptied drawers, and thoroughly searched the house.

Monahan was a frail, partially disabled woman, which made the assault seem particularly vicious; newspapers described it as a “fiendish slaying,” linked to the gambling underworld via her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Luther B. (Tudor) Scherer (Walker, 1961). Her cause of death, according to the coroner’s office, was asphyxiation. Monahan’s daughter offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. This provided motivation for an informant who led Burbank police a week later to Baxter Shorter, an ex-convict with a record of property crimes.

Shorter made a statement to the police on March 31. The motive for the crime was robbery. Shorter’s crime partners had heard that Tudor Scherer had hidden several caches of $100,000 apiece in the Burbank house. Shorter was able to provide the first names of three of his partners (Emmett, John, and Jack) and a physical description of the fourth partner, a woman. Police quickly focused on John Santo (b. 1900) and Emmett Perkins (b. 1908), long-time felons whose known previous offenses included robbery, weapons violations, and kidnapping. Perkins and Santo were also responsible for a quadruple murder in 1952 in Plumas County, though they would be tried for the Monahan murder first.

Known associates of Santo and Perkins included deep-sea diver John True and Barbara Graham, who was then identified as Perkins’s girlfriend. True was arrested by police, questioned, and released; he claimed to have no knowledge of the crime or any of the alleged crime partners other than Santo. However, the April 13 edition of the San Francisco Examiner reported that a suspect was being held in the Monahan murder, and hinted that other suspects had been identified. The repercussions were immediate. In the first of many instances in which news coverage impacted the course of the case, Shorter was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home on April 14 and, presumably, murdered in retaliation for his confession.

Shorter’s kidnapping and disappearance gave True second thoughts, and when he was rearrested by police, he agreed to testify against Santo, Perkins, and Graham in return for an immunity agreement with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. True had no criminal record, which made him preferable to the missing Shorter as a witness. His account of the crime was generally consistent with Shorter’s, but he placed the responsibility for Monahan’s injuries on Graham.

According to both True and Shorter, Graham was the first person to approach the Monahan house, using a ruse about car trouble to gain entry. Shorter’s account was as follows (Walker, 1961): True entered the house after Graham, Perkins, and Santo a few minutes later, and Shorter last of all. Shorter saw True holding Monahan’s head down on the rug; she had already been “beaten horribly.” The woman (Graham) said, “Go on and knock her out” (p. 25), and Perkins struck Monahan in the temple with a gun. Santo and Perkins tied up Monahan, dragged her to a hall closet, and joined with the others in searching the house for a safe or cache of valuables. They did not locate Scherer’s money or anything of value, and left empty-handed.

True’s statement (Walker, 1961) added significant and incriminating details. He stated that when he came into the house, he saw Graham striking Monahan on the face and head with a gun. True, shocked and frightened (by his own account), “grabbed her head in my lap” (p. 80). The others tied Monahan’s hands, put a pillowcase over her head, and dragged her body away. They then searched the house for fifteen or twenty minutes. True went into another room and heard someone strike Monahan again in his absence. When they left the house, Santo, Perkins, Graham, and True returned to their base at the La Bonita Motel in El Monte, where they cleaned up. True and Santo left for northern California that same night.

Police also interviewed William Upshaw, who had been approached by Santo about the robbery but had backed out of the venture before the evening of the crime. Upshaw would later testify at trial about his meetings with Santo, Perkins, Shorter, and Graham, and a drive they made past Monahan’s home in preparation for the robbery.

The district attorney’s office, doubtless wishing to avoid another Shorter incident, moved quickly. True told his story to the Los Angeles County grand jury, and it returned indictments against Perkins, Santo, and Graham. Knowing that they were being sought by police, Santo, Perkins, and Graham made several moves after April 10: first from their homes to the Ambassador Motel, then to Seal Beach, and finally to an apartment in a Lynwood machine shop building. (At trial, Graham explained these relocations by a complicated story involving a guano deal, but she also admitted that she was aware of news stories stating that True had identified his crime partners.) The three were arrested there on May 4, 1953, after an undercover police officer followed Graham to the building.

Graham became the center of media attention almost immediately. The San Francisco Chronicle identified the three as suspects in both the Monahan and the Plumas County murders, noting that Jack Santo was the “hottest suspect” and Perkins and Graham were believed to be accomplices. However, the reporter specifically noted “the puncture marks on [Graham’s] arms, apparently from using narcotics” and that the three suspects were found “in various stages of undress” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1953, May 5, p. 11). Other reports described Graham as naked, or as rising from a bed she was sharing with Santo (Walker, 1961). The Times and the Examiner featured banner headlines on the arrest, with accompanying photos of Graham.

Who Was Barbara Graham?

To a certain extent, Graham had always been a lightning rod for controversy. Born Barbara Elaine Wood on June 26, 1923 in Oakland, California, she had a troubled childhood. She was the eldest of three children of Hortense Wood, a teenaged mother who had spent time in a female reformatory, the Ventura School for Girls. Graham’s putative father, Joe Wood, was absent from her life at an early stage; Hortense is listed as the head of household in the 1930 U.S. census, her occupation indicated as “none.” Graham’s Alameda County Juvenile Court report from 1937 describes her mother’s conduct as “questionable,” tagging her as a poor moral influence on her daughter. In later life, Graham spoke of her mother with bitterness: “She’s never cared whether I lived or died so long as I didn’t bother her” (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962).

Graham ran away from home in December 1936. She was located by authorities and made a ward of the court on March 19, 1937, classified as a wayward girl on the grounds of immorality (she admitted to having multiple sex partners) and being a runaway. She was placed first at the Convent of the Good Shepherd, but she promptly escaped again. In July 1937, the court subsequently sent her to the Ventura School for Girls, where Hortense Wood had also been incarcerated some years before. Graham seemed unable even to feign conformity. Staff at Ventura noted that she attempted escape on several occasions, “smirks and struts around,” and was frequently “written up,” as much for her attitude as her conduct.

She remained at Ventura until April 1939, and was released from parole in January 1942, an officer noting that she was “impossible to supervise.” Graham constantly traveled up and down the state, working at various occupations. She later listed several of them: cocktail waitress, dice girl or gambling shill, hotel clerk, and manager of a “call house” (a brothel).

In the slang of the era, she led the life of a “sea gull,” a term for women and girls who hung around the navy yards of Oakland, Long Beach, and San Diego to meet sailors on shore leave; and of a “B-girl,” a term for bar women who illegally solicited drinks. On some occasions, Graham admitted to working as a prostitute (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962); on others, she flatly denied it (Execution file, B. Graham). In any case, her activities were morally questionable in the 1950s and implied promiscuity and criminality.

She was also, intermittently, a housewife. Graham married four times (in 1940 to Harry Kielhammer; 1944 to Aloyse Puechel; 1947 to Charles Newman; and 1950 to Harry Graham). She had three children. Sole custody of her two older sons was given to Kielhammer, their father; her third son, Tommy Graham (b. 1951), would feature prominently in media coverage of the trial and its aftermath.

In the same time period, Graham also accumulated a record of petty offenses. She was arrested for disorderly conduct in 1940 and 1942 (under the names Barbara Redcliffe and Barbara Kielhammer), and for vagrancy and suspicion of prostitution in 1941, 1943, and 1944. As Barbara Kielhammer, she was charged with perjury in 1947 for supplying a false alibi for Mark Monroe and Thomas Sittler, who had been charged with assault with intent to commit robbery. She spent one year in the San Francisco County Jail for that offense. In 1951, she was arrested on suspicion of a narcotics violation, but was released the next day for lack of evidence. She had no record of violent offenses. She did, however, frequently associate with men who had records of violent crime.

Media Coverage

Graham was an ideal subject for media coverage. In the 1950s, Los Angeles’ five daily newspapers—the morning Examiner and Times; and the evening Mirror, Herald-Express, and Daily News—were all fiercely competing for readers, and crime stories were always popular. As a woman accused of murder in the course of a robbery—a “man’s crime”—Graham’s case was particularly attention-getting. The Los Angeles Examiner and Los Angeles Herald-Express were both owned by William Randolph Hearst, who reportedly favored crime stories involving women, especially when embellished by slangy tags. “Bloody Babs,” a nickname reputedly derived from prosecutor Adolph Alexander’s opening statement at trial, was one example. Graham was also tagged as the “icy blonde,” with phrases like “icy-calm” and “stony” attached to descriptions of her courtroom demeanor. Santo and Perkins did not acquire popular nicknames.

Nichols (1990), in a detailed study of newspaper coverage of the Graham case, reviewed reportage in the five Los Angeles daily papers from Graham’s arrest through her execution. He noted that all five papers failed to cover the story objectively, and that all tended to disregard legally significant developments in favor of speculative or sensational articles. This was particularly evident in three areas: (1) the constant emphasis on Graham’s appearance, (2) the assumption that Graham was guilty, and (3) the focus on tangential, often lurid, aspects of Graham’s personal life.

Appearance and Character

Two of the evening dailies, the Los Angeles Mirror and the Los Angeles Herald-Express, were well known for their sensational stories, bold headlines, and large photos. Graham’s youth and attractiveness made her a better subject than the rather unprepossessing Santo and Perkins. This fact was to her disadvantage during the heated media coverage of the pretrial and trial phases.

In much of the trial’s media coverage, Graham was portrayed as a true-crime vamp: callous and emotionless, overly concerned about her appearance, unremorseful, and deceitfully seductive. In one example, Graham’s fall down a flight of stairs inspired a number of colorful articles. The Los Angeles Mirror used the headline “Bloody Babs’ Falls; Delay in Monahan Murder Trial” (1953, August 19, p. 4); it also described how Graham “yawned and stretched languorously” during a description of the brutal murder, and how she “studied her lacquered fingernails” in court. In a follow-up, the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, August 20) reported that she was “resting easily, wisecracking and flippant … after falling down a flight of stairs and delaying her death penalty trial” (p. 2). A reader could easily infer that Graham was unremorseful, vain, and hardened; further, both articles imply that Graham staged her fall to delay the trial.

Graham’s hair color was a topic of persistent interest, though it was alternately described as blonde, red, or brown. Graham was referred to as “golden-haired,” “reddish-blond,” a “bottle blonde,” a “redhead,” and, later, as a prim brunette. Reporters used her hair color, whether dark or light, to suggest Graham’s bad character; she was either flashy and dishonest or “prim” and insincere. Her clothing, pallor, shoes, and weight all received media scrutiny. A single article in the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, September 1) included references to Graham’s “strong hands,” “shapely thigh,” “bronzed [complexion],” and “tight-fitting summerweight suit,” along with a comment that a specific plainly dressed female juror would probably not approve of Graham’s clothing (pp. 1, 10).

Needless to say, the male co-defendants’ hair color and clothing were rarely, if ever, noted. At the very least, the cumulative effect of all the media interest in Graham’s physical appearance was to minimize reportage on Santo and Perkins. Further, it was a small step for the reader to assume that Graham was conducting herself with an inappropriate frivolousness, or attempting to use her good looks to sway the jury. The Los Angeles Mirror(1953, September 16) suggested exactly that in a headline that read “Babs Makes Goo-Goo Eyes at Jurors, D. A. Charges” (p. 2). The story actually referred to Deputy District Attorney Leavy’s caution to the jury that “Mrs. Graham believes she can turn your heads,” a statement that was rhetorical rather than literal.

Bias toward Guilt

Nichols (1990) notes that news stories tended to emphasize Graham’s role in the crime. One article referred to Graham as the “key defendant” in the case (The Los Angeles Herald-Express, 1953, August 19, pp. 1, 4), a characterization never used by the prosecution or police. Headlines used terminology like “Execution of Barbara Graham, 2 Men Set Tomorrow” and “Barbara, Pals in San Quentin Death Cells Still Hope for 11th Hour Stay” (two examples from The San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 3, pp. 1–2).

Preconviction news stories often displayed a bias toward guilt on Graham’s part, failing to qualify statements with “allegedly” or other terms designed to reflect the presumption of innocence. In other instances, Graham was described as having “ducked” questions, implying that she was evasive. Some articles included claims that were utterly unsupported by evidence, as when one article described Graham as “standing unconcernedly by” while Monahan was garroted by Santo and Perkins (Los Angeles Mirror, 1953, August 19, p. 4).

Graham’s Personal Life and “Sordid Past”

Los Angeles Times Reporter Gene Blake, interviewed in 1988 about the Graham case, discussed the constant pressure on reporters to find fresh angles for their stories, even if no new information was available (Nichols, 1990). While both Santo and Perkins had equally sordid pasts, as well as extensive and violent criminal records, Graham’s past and personal life received far more attention.

Her life story was used as a cautionary tale. According to a vivid front-page article in the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, August 28),

[I]n the wreckage of Barbara Graham’s past, littered with broken marriages, smashed hopes and three children … lay the story of how she faces the gas chamber today with icy composure…. [S]he easily slipped from truancy to highpowered crime. From various sources, including the reports of police and probation officers in San Francisco, where she has a considerable police record, the biography of a bawd who stumbled along the primrose path from being “very promiscuous sexually” to association with the “bigtime” crooks she so admired, can be developed in all its sorry detail. (p. 1)

Loaded terms like “highpowered crime,” “considerable police record,” “bawd,” and “bigtime crooks” were statements of opinion, but they served to paint Graham as a thoroughly bad character who was about to receive her just desserts.

Other reportage downplayed fact in favor of opinion. In its trial coverage, the Los Angeles Daily News(1955, September 4) described “unfaithful wife Barbara Graham” as she “looked to her husband for forgiveness but blank-faced Henry Graham avoided her eyes” (p. 3). The story focused on the reporter’s speculations about the Graham marriage and Barbara’s guilty conscience, rather than the substance of Henry Graham’s testimony. Graham’s visitors also received coverage. She was photographed during visits with her youngest son, Tommy—placing her in a more sympathetic light, but also pointing out how especially reprehensible her conduct was for a young mother. Visitors seen by Santo and Perkins, including Perkins’s son, were of no interest to reporters.

Did sensational newspaper coverage of the trial influence the jury? Graham raised the issue on appeal, as discussed below, without success.

Imprisonment and Trial

While awaiting trial in Los Angeles County Jail, Graham, who was bisexual, became involved in an intimate relationship with a fellow prisoner Donna Prow. Prow was serving a short sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Prow was approached by law enforcement with a deal to reduce her jail time in return for helping to obtain a confession from Graham. As instructed, she approached Graham with an offer of a false alibi, which would be provided by a friend of hers in exchange for $500. Graham, faced with True’s testimony, felt desperate enough to seize the opportunity. Prow’s supposed friend, actually an undercover police officer named Sam Sirianni, visited Graham in jail on three occasions to plan the alibi. Sirianni taped all of their conversations with a hidden recorder. They discussed the details of the alibi—that they had spent the night together in an Encino motel—to make it convincing. Graham made several incriminating statements during these conversations, including references to Shorter (“he’s been done away with”), her need for the alibi (“without you as an alibi, I’m doomed to the gas chamber”), the date and time of the murder (“early in the morning of March 10” rather than the evening of March 9), and, most damningly, an admission that she had been with True, Santo, and Perkins “when everything took place.” Prow’s sentence was reduced to time served, and she was released from prison.

Graham and her codefendants pled not guilty at their joint trial, which began on August 14, 1953, and lasted five weeks. Police acted on reports that the defendants were part of a “crime mob” by taking extraordinary precautions at her trial. Armed guards were stationed in the courtroom to avert gangland reprisals directed at True or Upshaw, and spectators were searched before entering the courtroom.

True was the prosecution’s star witness, but Sam Sirianni’s testimony proved to be the most explosive. Apparently Sirianni’s testimony as a prosecution witness was unexpected by Graham and her defense attorney Jack Hardy; Hardy moved to withdraw as Graham’s attorney, but the court denied the motion. Sirianni testified to his conversations with Graham, reading from a transcription, and the tape recording of one of their exchanges was played in court. The impact of the tape recording was enormous; as attorney Hardy certainly knew, the damage to Graham’s credibility was irreparable. In the closing argument, both Hardy and the attorney for Santo and Perkins, Ward Sullivan, denounced the “utterly ruthless” and “deceptive” manipulation of Graham.

Neither Santo nor Perkins took the stand during the trial. Graham, however, elected to testify. She admitted to knowing Santo and Perkins, but stated that she did not know Shorter or Upshaw. Moreover, she said that she had not been with any of them on March 9 and that she had gone along with Prow’s plan out of desperation. The prosecution introduced some of the amorous notes exchanged by Graham and Prow, something Graham found particularly distressing. She now testified that she had been home with her husband and son on the night in question. However, the testimony of Henry Graham, a heroin addict, was both vague and contradictory.

The jury deliberated for less than five hours and returned guilty verdicts against all three defendants.

Appeals and Execution

After Graham, Santo, and Perkins had been sentenced to death in the gas chamber, Graham met the press “with all the aplomb of a movie queen starring in a colossal production” (Los Angeles Times, 1953, September 25, p. 1). Her confidence would be badly shaken during her time leading up to her execution, and reporters began to refer frequently to her “frail” appearance. Graham also suffered from tooth and jaw pain, for which she was prescribed Demerol. Prison psychiatrists found Graham verbally facile, well oriented, of above-average intelligence, and thoroughly sane, though she was “not forthcoming” with them.

Graham was initially held at the State Institution for Women at Corona. She was moved from Corona to San Quentin on November 11, 1953, out of concern that attempts might be made on her life; a memorandum in her file also indicates that officials had received reports that someone might try to free her or even impregnate her via artificial insemination to delay her execution (Execution file, B. Graham). The expense of housing Graham at San Quentin and providing security for her became another hot topic for the media. Her cell was inaccurately described as “luxurious”; it was actually a small, improvised space in the prison hospital. She was returned to Corona on June 23, 1954, with the imminent threat deemed to have passed.

Santo, Perkins, and Graham appealed the trial court judgment and petitioned for a new trial on several grounds: that principal witness True’s testimony was insufficiently corroborated, that prejudicial news coverage denied them a fair trial, and that the armed guards and searching of spectators were grounds for a mistrial or change of venue. In its August 11, 1954, opinion in People v. Santo, 43 Cal. 2d 319, the California Supreme Court held that the defendants’ contentions were without merit. As to True’s account, the court found that the testimony of Upshaw and Sirianni, and the evidence of flight on the part of the defendants—the moves that ended in Lynwood—corroborated True.

Further, the court rejected defendants’ allegations regarding the effect of prejudicial news coverage. The court noted that (1) the parties had stipulated that no member of the district attorney’s office had any part in the adverse publicity, (2) there was no evidence that the adverse news was given to the jury, and (3) the jury, having been admonished to disregard news reports on the case, was presumed to have heeded the court’s directive. As to the other contentions, spectators were not searched in front of the jury, and the security precautions were within the trial judge’s discretion. Graham alone contended that she should have received a separate trial, particularly because testimony was introduced at trial that was admissible against Santo or Perkins but inadmissible against her. Again, the California Supreme Court held that the trial judge had acted appropriately in admitting the testimony along with an instruction to the jury. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of the defendants, and a petition for rehearing was denied on September 8, 1954.

Graham’s case made its way through the federal courts as well. The United States Supreme Court denied the defendants’ petition for certiorari(a writ of review) on March 7, 1955, without opinion. Her application for a writ of habeas corpus was denied on May 31, 1955, by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

The legal maneuvering continued until the last hours of Graham’s life. On June 3, 1955, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Graham v. Teets, 223 F. 2d 680. Graham’s appellate attorney, Al Matthews, argued that constitutional questions raised by the case had not been considered by the California Supreme Court, and thus the judicial remedies open to Graham had not been exhausted (a prerequisite to execution). However, the court noted that Matthews could have filed for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court as early as March 7, 1955, the day the U.S. Supreme Court denied Graham’s petition for certiorari. Instead, he waited until May 31 to file his application for the writ in the U.S. district court, where it was promptly denied. He petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court for a stay only on the afternoon of June 2, the day before the executions were scheduled. The Ninth Circuit chided Matthews, stating that “[b]y this purposeful device there is thrown on such federal judges as the writer the strain of hasty consideration of the contentions presented…. This I regard a gross misuse of the functions of an officer of the court.” Nonetheless, the petition was denied.

Graham was returned to San Quentin on June 2, 1955, the day before her scheduled execution in the gas chamber. She was scheduled to die at 10 a.m. on June 3, but Governor Goodwin J. Knight’s office stayed her execution twice, first setting the time back to 10:45 and then to 11:30. In the end he found no basis for executive clemency. Graham was quoted as saying, “Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at 10 o’clock.” She wore a blindfold at her own request and thus did not make eye contact with spectators.

At least sixteen reporters were present at Graham’s execution, and they again depicted her physical appearance in detail. “The brashly attractive 32-year-old convicted murderess, her bleached blond hair turned to its natural brown … walked to her death as if dressed for a shopping trip” (Los Angeles Times, 1955, June 5, p. 1). Even the blindfold Graham requested was treated as a fashion accessory in some accounts: “Her face was an ivory cameo accented by the mask [blindfold] and her rouged crimson lips” (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 4, p. 1); “the mask hid her tired eyes and she looked pretty in her beige suit” (The San Francisco Chronicle, 1955, June 4, p. 1). Her hands trembled, and “her small pendant earrings quivered nervously” (The San Francisco Chronicle, 1955, June 4, p. 1), but she retained her composure.

The pellets dropped at 11:34 a.m. Gene Blake of the Los Angeles Times reported that “it seemed an interminable time before death came…. She gasped and drew her head up twice. Then came another gasp. Then her head tipped far back, her mouth agape. Again and again she gasped until her head pitched forward for the last time at 11:37. Her gasps came slowly and fainter. And finally stopped” (Los Angeles Times, 1955, June 5, p. 1). Al Martinez, another journalist present at the event, wrote that Graham “gasped and strained against the straps that bound her … [f]oam bubbled at her mouth” (Los Angeles Times, 1990, March 31, p. 2). She died at 11:42 a.m. Graham’s body was claimed by her husband Henry, and she was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in San Rafael.

Perkins and Santo were executed at 2:30 p.m. on the same day. They slept soundly, ate heartily, and joked irreverently as they went to the gas chamber (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 4).

Consequences and Implications

Graham’s case raised several significant legal issues. Some newspapers described the reprieves and delays as uncivilized, products of a sadistic legal system that dangled last-minute hopes in front of the condemned woman, only to snatch them away. California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, later governor, commented on what he called the “cat and mouse” game with Graham’s life in her final days. According to Brown, “[t]he way the death penalty has been administered in California in the last two years is a disgrace to the administration of justice. The way the Graham woman was executed was a sad commentary on legal killing in California” (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 5). Brown urged the abolition of the death penalty, or, barring that, a provision to reduce the time for disposition of appeals.

Graham’s trial occurred well before the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on criminal procedure that protected suspects from coercive police tactics; for example, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, was not decided until 1966. Coerced confessions—including those elicited by abuse, manipulation, or in violation of the accused’s right to counsel—would be inadmissible by the mid-1960s. The use of the Sirianni testimony would probably have fallen into this category (Foster, 1997).

In March 1960, then-Governor Brown called the legislature into special session to consider a bill to suspend the death penalty. The next-to-last speaker was Deputy District Attorney J. Miller Leavy, who opposed the bill. In the course of his testimony, Leavy stated that he learned in 1959 that Barbara Graham had orally confessed to the murder of Mabel Monahan during a private conversation with San Quentin Warden Harley Teets. Leavy’s bombshell served its intended purpose; the bill failed to pass by one vote. But was the confession story credible?

California Senate subcommittee hearings in 1960 were held to determine whether Graham had been deprived of due process by the prosecution’s failure to turn over the transcript of True’s original interrogation to the defense. The transcript apparently revealed variations from True’s trial testimony, and could have been used to impeach him. Though it seemed hardly relevant, the hearings also included testimony related to the alleged Graham confession. According to Marin County District Attorney William Weissich, Teets (who died of a heart attack in 1957) made the statement as he and Weissich drove to San Quentin on August 30, 1957. Weissich did not reveal this information until 1959, when he was contacted by prosecutor Leavy in connection with a proposed book (later published as The Case of Barbara Graham in 1962). As the reporter’s transcript of the 1960 hearings reveals, much effort was expended on determining when Graham could have spoken to Teets privately. The hearing’s findings on this issue were inconclusive.

Was Graham, in fact, guilty? San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bernice Freeman Davis interviewed both Graham and True, and noted that “Barbara had been convicted largely on John True’s testimony, and from my own experience I knew that he was careless with the truth.” Davis believed that Graham was innocent of the attack on Monahan, but that she had been present during the crime. Graham was short, slender, and did not have a record of violent offenses; it seemed more likely that Santo or Perkins would have physically subdued Monahan (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962). Nonetheless, Graham was almost certainly a participant in planning and carrying out the robbery.

Edward Montgomery, reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later proponent of Graham’s innocence, first raised the argument that the left-handed Graham would not have pistol-whipped Monahan with her right hand, as described by True (Sub-committee hearing, 1960). On the same occasion, Montgomery recounted a conversation he had had with Emmett Perkins in prison. According to Montgomery, Perkins stated that Monahan was beaten with her own cane, rather than a gun. Moreover, he allegedly said that Santo had told him “we got to keep the girl out front,” presumably because a jury would have difficulty sentencing a young mother to death and her codefendants would benefit by association.

Legal and Popular Significance

As noted above, Graham’s trial and execution occurred at the beginning of an era of anti-death penalty activism. Both pro- and anti-capital punishment advocates used the case as an illustration, and its thirty-two-year-old female defendant continued to have media appeal.

Executions of women have tended to give rise to strong sentiments. The “chivalry thesis,” which attributes a protective motive and a disbelief in female violence to society in general, is one explanation for the cultural reluctance to execute women. However, a corollary to the thesis is that when women are condemned, they are portrayed as inherently pathological, cunning, and unwomanly—a process of “othering” that allows society to make an exception (Keitner, 2002). This “evil woman” theory places the female defendant outside the definition of appropriately feminine conduct (Shapiro, 2000). Thus, executed women tend to display dominant personalities, seen both in their active participation in the crime and other evidence of aggressive and willful character traits (Carroll, 1997). Graham initiated the violent attack on Monahan and pistol-whipped the victim. Further, she used a ruse to enter Monahan’s home and had a record of perjury. Graham’s conduct was not simply brutal, but also deceitful. She was attractive and feminine, even demure, but she was revealed to be promiscuous and bisexual. She had a record of perjury and had attempted to buy an alibi. All of these factors made her an aberration, a member of the “unholy trio” (according to the prosecution’s closing argument) and utterly unlike the rest of womankind.

Those who felt that Graham had been treated unfairly by the media and the criminal justice system found a vigorous advocate in reporter Edward Montgomery. He continued to be Graham’s champion after her execution and successfully lobbied producer Walter Wanger to make a film version of Graham’s case, resulting in the 1958 motion picture I Want to Live!

I Want to Live!, based on Montgomery’s reportage, presents Graham as a streetwise woman who was also a caring mother and loyal friend. Her refusal to “finger” Santo and Perkins as the Monahan killers, while consistent with her personal code of honor, makes her a dupe for the self-serving True, police, and press. Critical reaction to the film was generally positive, and reviewers were impressed by the film’s chilling depiction of the execution process and its indictment of capital punishment (New York Times, November 19 and 23, 1958). A paperback novelization of the film (Rawson, 1958) included stills from the movie and closely followed its script. It was advertised and promoted as the “true story” of the case.

The movie, in fact, fictionalized or omitted elements of Graham’s life in its first half. She was portrayed as a devoted mother to her son Tommy, but her two other sons were not even mentioned. Nor were her first three marriages and her own narcotics use. Her movie arrest took place at night, with Graham stepping alone into the police spotlights; while the depiction had some allegorical truth to it, Graham was actually arrested along with her codefendants at 4 p.m. Edward Montgomery is shown working on the case before Graham’s arrest, when he actually did not begin to report on it until the latter part of the trial. On the other hand, the second half of the movie, which concerns the time leading up to Graham’s execution, was substantially accurate. Producer Wanger, a death penalty opponent, deliberately set out to show the bleak horror of the death chamber, and also chose to portray Graham sympathetically for maximum effectiveness (Nichols, 1990).

Not surprisingly, some viewers saw the film as propaganda cloaked in a pseudo-documentary style. To Los Angeles Times reporter Gene Blake, the film was neither “true” nor “factual” nor a “documentary” (Los Angeles Times, 1958, November 28). Bill Walker, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Express, also remained convinced of Graham’s guilt. In part as a rebuttal to the I Want to Live! movie and book, Walker collaborated with prosecutor J. Miller Leavy on The Case of Barbara Graham, a retelling that amasses the evidence against Graham. Leavy believed that there was no ambiguity in the case whatsoever. As he stated in 1990, “I didn’t prosecute to deter. I prosecuted to punish. Sending her [Graham] to the gas chamber didn’t bother me at all” (Los Angeles Times, 1990, March 31, p. 2). The Case of Barbara Graham provides an excellent chronology of events in the case and large portions of testimony, but it neglects any evidence that would cast doubt on the jury verdict. Since it was intended as a corrective to I Want to Live!, the authors are, unfortunately, equally partisan. Graham’s case still awaits an objective full-length treatment. Many of the key figures in the case have died, including defense attorney Matthews in 1986, reporter Montgomery in 1992, Burbank police chief Rex Andrews in 1993, and prosecutor Leavy in 1995. The Graham case was referenced in each of their obituaries.

Barbara Graham has remained an intriguing figure in popular culture, though on a more modest scale. In the 1960s and 1970s, her case was included in true crime anthologies, where she again made for colorful and politically incorrect copy. For example, Miriam De Ford wrote, “weak, malleable, self-indulgent, and foolish she always was, but by the ordinary criteria she was as sane as the next stupid little girl with bad heredity and worse upbringing.” A 1983 television movie, also called I Want to Live(sans exclamation point), retold her story sympathetically, but far less effectively than the original did. Death penalty studies continue to refer to her case and its procedural irregularities (e.g., Bedau and Radelet, 1987; Shipman, 2002). However, Graham’s story is, first and foremost, a case study in the influential role of mass media in the criminal justice setting. Newspapers and reporters created the streetwise, loyal, and innocent Graham and the cold-hearted, duplicitous murderess; they were her biggest supporters and harshest accusers. They also ensured that Graham’s case—and her elusive character—would retain a place in popular culture.


  • Bedau, H. A., and Radelet, M. L. (1987). Miscarriages of justice in potentially capital cases. Stanford Law Review, 40, 21–173.

  • California Department of Corrections. (n.d.). Execution files [Barbara Graham, Emmett Perkins, John Santo]. Manuscript, California State Archives.

  • California Legislature, Assembly Interim Committee on Criminal Procedure. (1960). Sub-committee hearing re alleged discrepancies and suppression of evidence re Barbara Graham confession: Reporter’s transcript of testimony and proceedings, March 21, 1960, Sacramento, California. Sacramento, CA: The Assembly.

  • Carroll, J. E. (1997, May). Images of women and capital sentencing among female offenders: Exploring the outer limits of the Eighth Amendment and articulated theories of justice. Texas Law Review, 75, 1413–1452.

  • Davis, B. F., and Hirschberg, A. (1962). Assignment San Quentin. London: Peter Davies.

  • De Ford, M. A. (1965). Murderers sane and mad: Case histories in the motivation and rationale of murder. New York: Abelard-Schuman.

  • Foster, T. E. (1997). I want to live! Federal judicial values in death penalty cases: Preservation of rights or punctuality of execution? Oklahoma City University Law Review, 22(1), 63–87.

  • Keitner, C. L. (2002). Victim or vamp? Images of violent women in the criminal justice system. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, 11, 38–86.

  • Nichols, R. C. (1990). Los Angeles newspaper coverage and dramatization of the Barbara Graham case. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California State University, Northridge.

  • Parrish, M. (2001). For the people: Inside the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, 1850–2000. Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press.

  • Rawson, T. (1958). I want to live!: The analysis of a murder. New York: New American Library.

  • Shapiro, A. (2000). Unequal before the law: Men, women and the death penalty. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law, 8, 427–470.

  • Shipman, M. (2002). The penalty is death: U.S. newspaper coverage of women’s executions. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.

  • Walker, B. (1961). The case of Barbara Graham. In collaboration with J. Miller Leavy. New York: Ballantine Books.

  • Wanger, W. (Producer), and Wise, R. (Director). (1958). I want to live![Motion picture]. United States: MGM


The TRUE Story of Barbara Graham by Clark Howard


Execution Day -- 6:00 am

Barbara Graham paced back and forth in the execution chamber holding cell at San Quentin Prison, just north of San Francisco. It was not much of a pace: four steps up to the cell door, four steps back to the wall. But it was better than just sitting.

It was six o'clock in the morning. Her execution was scheduled for ten.

Barbara wore flame-red silk pajamas in the holding cell. She had brought them with her the previous day when they had driven her up to San Quentin from the women's correctional facility in Corona, nearly five hundred miles to the south. The trip had taken ten miserable hours. Stifling heat, in the back seat of a state car, hands cuffed together, back aching, legs cramping, wrists chafing. Agony. On top of everything else, she had a goddamned toothache.

They got to San Quentin just before five o'clock and she had been taken, nervous and trembling, directly to the holding cell next to the gas chamber. So that she would not actually have to see the gas chamber on her way to the cell, Warden Harley O. Teets had ordered a large tarpaulin draped along the route to cover it. Teets, a somewhat bland, neat gentleman, had come up through the ranks as a guard in federal penitentiaries, reached the level of lieutenant, then was hired as a captain at Folsom, the toughest joint in California in the 1940s. Later he became associate warden under the legendary Clinton Duffy at San Quentin, and succeeded Duffy late in 1951 as warden. During his six-year tenure, he endured an investigation of alleged brutality within the prison which was generated by a series of San Francisco Chronicle articles written by a young reporter named Pierre Salinger.

When Barbara Graham had arrived at his prison the previous day for her scheduled execution, Teets had personally come down to the death house to see her. In his calm manner, he had sat in the cell with her, asked her for a cigarette, and helped her to begin unwinding as much as she could. Before he left her to settle in, he ordered that she be served as many double-chocolate milkshakes as she wanted. That was all she consumed for the rest of the night.

Now it was early morning, June 3, 1955, and Barbara, in her red silks, was waiting for her breakfast -- a hot fudge sundae. While she waited, she chain-smoked Camels in a black plastic cigarette holder. Every once in a while, she said to the death watch matron, "I can't believe I only have four hours to live. I can't believe it."

"Maybe something will happen," the matron reassured. "Maybe you'll get a stay of execution."

"Oh, sure," Barbara replied wryly. "I never got a break in my whole goddamned life and you think I'm going to get one now' Not a chance, lady. Not a chance in hell."

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Hortense Wood was adolescent and unwed in 1923 when she gave birth to a baby girl in a shabby boarding house district of Oakland. It was lucky for the baby, who was named Barbara Elaine, that Hortense was part of a loosely extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins, and close neighbors, because just two years later the young mother was deemed by a juvenile court to be recalcitrant and wayward, and was committed to the Ventura State School for Girls.

Although left without a parent, little Barbara, who was called "Bonnie," somehow did not fall into the hands of any state welfare agency, but was kept in Hortense's extended family and cared for as a kind of afterthought by first one, then another, for several years until her mother was released and returned home.

Hortense's habits apparently had not been modified to any degree by her incarceration, because it wasn't long after her return that she was pregnant again. She had a boy this time. And a couple of years later had another daughter. Bonnie got little attention after that and continued to live a kind of unfettered existence, not really being raised, but simply growing up, getting older, surviving. From the age of about nine, she rarely stayed with Hortense, more often than not living elsewhere in the extended family with whomever would take her in. Her elementary school education was casual, at best, but she was a naturally bright child, and that, together with a pretty face and outgoing personality, usually got her by. Hortense, however, never allowed her to forget that she was illegitimate and would probably turn out "bad" because of it. In retrospect, looking back years later from a prison cell, Barbara told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bernice Freeman, "My mother never cared whether I lived or died, as long as I didn't bother her."

Barbara almost got the best break of her life when she was twelve. A welfare worker who had been familiar with Barbara's situation for several years decided that she would like to adopt her and give her a better life. Ed Montgomery, another reporter, tracked down the woman to interview for a series of articles he was writing for the San Francisco Examiner. Remembering Bonnie, the woman said, "The poor little kid never had anyone who really loved her. And she was the most beautiful thing in the world. She was a little doll, always so lively and full of fun. I managed to take her to live with me for a couple of months, but Hortense would not even consider letting me adopt her. She was a spiteful, vindictive woman. I believe she truly hated Barbara."

Maybe she did, because the next year, when Barbara was thirteen, Hortense turned her over to the juvenile authorities, claiming she was unmanageable. Barbara was sent to the same reformatory Hortense had gone to, the Ventura State School for Girls.

Mother's prediction had come true; she had personally seen to it. Barbara had gone "bad."

The Reformatory

Prior to being sent to the reformatory, Barbara had managed to get through life pretty much on her looks, personality, and cunning. But in Ventura, she also learned to be tough. There, she was thrown in with kids who were really "bad." Kid from Los Angeles and San Francisco streets, from migrant worker camps, from early Pachuco gangs; kids whose fathers were in Folsom, mothers in Tehachapi; kids who knew how to make and use brass knuckles and knives.

With a determination born in her ability to survive whatever environment she was in, Barbara succeeded in this new challenge, as well. She learned to face up to girls who tried to bully her, learned to push back when she got pushed, and learned to fight with fists, feet, and fingernails when she had to. A little bit of her sunshine personality fell by the wayside in the process, but that was to be expected. A girl had to get by however she could.

To say that Barbara disliked Ventura would be gross understatement. She despised and abhorred the place. Twice during her first year there, she ran away. Got to the Coast Highway and hitchhiked the 350 miles back up north to Oakland. Reaching home, she pleaded with Hortense to let her stay, to hide her. Both times, Hortense summoned the police and turned her in.

An ongoing problem to the reformatory administration, they finally decided to strike a bargain with the rebellious teenager. Settle down, study, complete one year of high school, and they would release her. Barbara agreed. Clearly the staff there, recognizing Barbara's intelligence, was counting on her enjoying school enough to want to continue. But Barbara's education had been so sporadic up to then, she simply had no use for the classroom.

She did what she had agreed to do, and asked for her release. She got it. This time, she rode the bus back to Oakland.

The Seagulls

Back in the old Oakland neighborhood, there was no way Barbara was going to live with Hortense again. Sixteen now, with a nicely developed figure, she was determined to make it on her own. But at her age, and with her recent background, there were no jobs to be found. And she was too old to live around from place to place within the extended family which had once taken her in; a homeless little kid was one thing, a nearly grown woman something else. But Barbara soon found a way to get along.

Some of Barbara's friends from the Oakland neighborhood, girls she had grown up with here and there, made spending money for themselves in the evenings and on weekends by going out with sailors from the Oakland navy yard. They hung around outside the main gate until they got picked up by young sailors going on shore leave for the night or the weekend. The sailors called the girls "seagulls," after the hungry birds that flocked to the shores of San Francisco Bay. Soon Barbara had joined the group.

The liaisons weren't always for sex; sometimes just friendly company, a hamburger and Coke somewhere, and youthful conversation with boys not much older than the girls themselves, boys away from home for the first time. This was 1939, remember, and the subject -- and actual activity -- of sex was not as common or fashionable as it would one day become. More likely, the seagulls and their sailor pickups would talk about Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" on the jukeboxes, a wonderful new movie called "The Wizard of Oz," Bing Crosby's latest record, or a rising young Hollywood starlet with chestnut curls named Susan Hayward.

If one of the seagulls got a free meal and could "borrow" a dollar from her young friend after some "necking" in the park, letting the guy "cop a few feels," then it would be a good, easy evening. But a lot of times it went farther than that; a lot of times the girls had to "go all the way" in the back seat of a car, or on a blanket spread on the grass in the dark. But that was all right, too; after the first few times, it got to be easy. 

The main thing for Barbara was that she was making it on her own. Without Hortense.

A Good Girl

Barbara was smart enough to know that she didn't want being a seagull to become her life's work. She saw too many women for sale on the night streets who were no older than her mother, and already used up. That was not for Barbara. She wanted something better.

When she got a little money ahead, Barbara enrolled in National Business College to learn skills that would help her get an office job of some kind. She also met a young man named Harry Kleman (a fictitious name being used here in the interest of privacy), who worked as a shipping clerk but was attending night school at a business college similar to the one Barbara attended. They quickly became intimate, and Barbara quickly became pregnant. The young couple decided to marry. It rankled Barbara that because she was only seventeen, permission had to be obtained from Hortense. But, determined that her baby would not be illegitimate like she herself was, Barbara gritted her teeth and asked for the necessary papers from her mother. She got them.

Barbara's child was a boy, whom she named Harry after his father.

For a while, the young family lived a modest but contented life, and their future, while not exactly bright, at least was uncomplicated. Barbara managed to continue in business college while working as a waitress, and things were going along well until she became pregnant again. Then, with her not working, the money got tight and the marriage got tense. To make matters worse, Barbara's past caught up with her.

Harry knew virtually nothing about the girl he had married: not about her illegitimacy, the reformatory, the seagulls. When he found out -- it may have been through Hortense, it may not have been -- he was stunned. Even before their second child, another son, was born, both Barbara and Harry knew that the marriage was over.

Both little boys were still toddlers when Barbara and Harry divorced. He asked for, and got, custody of his children.

All Alone Again

With her new life as a wife and mother snatched out from under her, Barbara sank into a pit of deep depression. Losing her husband and kids wiped out her future, leaving her nothing but a great emptiness in which she was once again all alone. It was ironic that her past, which had risen up to obliterate her life, rose up once again to rescue her from the abandonment she now felt.

Some of the seagulls, tiring of Oakland, were going south to ply their trade at other U. S. Navy facilities in Long Beach and San Diego. They invited Barbara to come along. Why not, she thought. She'd had more than enough of Oakland. Barbara flew south with some of the other 'gulls.

At this point in her young life, Barbara Graham went into prostitution all the way. No more young-girl-young-sailor platonic dates; now she sold sex, plain and fancy, on a full-time basis. By the end of 1942, before she was twenty, she had arrest records in both Long Beach and San Diego, on charges of disorderly conduct and vagrancy. Most of the time she simply pled guilty, paid a fine, and was released. If she was unable to pay the fine, she did jail time, once for sixty days. But despite what the law said, Barbara did not feel that what she was doing was wrong.

"Sure, I was a prostitute," she admitted to reporter Bernice Freeman more than a decade later, " -- and a damn good one. Why do people make so much of sex anyway'" she demanded. "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' What's the difference'"

One sailor in San Diego apparently agreed with Barbara's philosophy, because he asked her to marry him. Barbara said sure, why not' She became Mrs. Al Bushnell (again, a fictitious name in the interest of privacy). Bushnell was a nice enough guy and the newlyweds were happy together -- for about four months. Then the sailor must have realized what he had done, because he quickly got an annulment, which Barbara didn't contest.

By then she was sick of southern California anyway, so she took off for the Bay area again, deciding to try her luck in San Francisco.


In San Francisco, Barbara became a mid-class call girl, taking care of small Union Square hotel business, hoping to work her way up to Nob Hill clientele. World War Two was winding down to a close. Barbara was twenty-two now, a good-looking, stacked young woman who knew how to strut her stuff. In San Francisco she made good money, wore good clothes, and had good times. Once in a while, like everybody else who lived on the edge, she took a fall. In 1944, using the name Barbara Klemmer, she did four months for vagrancy (a catch-all charge used when the law couldn't prove prostitution). But all in all, she did pretty well in the City by the Bay. Until she agreed to do a favor for a couple of guys she knew.

Like everyone who lives the kind of life she led, Barbara's acquaintances were pimps, other prostitutes, petty thieves, con men, and hustlers of every imaginable variety. When two such types she knew, Mark Monroe and Tom Sittler, were about to go on trial for theft, they asked Barbara to testify as an alibi witness for them. Good-time gal that she was, she never said no to a friend. Unfortunately, after swearing in court that she had been with the two men at the time of the crime, the prosecution was able to prove that she had not even been in San Francisco on the date in question.

Under the name of Barbara Klemmer, she was charged with and convicted of perjury. Sentenced to the women's prison at Tehachapi, she later managed to get the sentence suspended on condition that she serve one year in the San Francisco county jail and remain on probation for an additional five years.

It was now May 1, 1948, and Barbara was twenty-four years old.


When Barbara was released from jail in the summer of 1949, she was a woman desperate to straighten out her life. Still young at twenty-five, she felt much older, felt once again as if she was beginning to become used up, like so many of the street women she saw around her. Vowing to somehow make a new start, she began in good fashion by getting out of California -- leaving behind all the bad influences in her sordid life.

Barbara traveled to Reno, Nevada, and looked for work. In the newspaper, she saw a Help Wanted ad for nurses' aides in the little town of Tonopah, halfway between Reno and Las Vegas. The ad said no experience necessary, will train. Barbara bought a bus ticket.

Tonopah was a perfect place to stay out of trouble. High desert, low crime rate, crooked roads but straight people. Barbara worked at the Nye County Hospital, lived in a respectable boarding house, and began to make new friends -- the right kind this time. Before long she was dating a clean-cut town bachelor who worked as a salesman for an auto supply store, named Charles Oldman (name fictionalized in the interest of privacy). After several months, Barbara married for the third time.

Soon leaving her job at the hospital, Barbara took a better one managing a small luncheonette. It was hard work: she waited tables when it was busy, and helped out in the kitchen too. And the hours were long. Then she had to take care of the house they were renting, and cook for her husband, and she suddenly had a dread fear that she might get pregnant again --

It just wasn't the kind of life Barbara had hoped it would be. One day she packed her bag and got on a bus for Los Angeles.

And that, as the saying goes, was that.

Back on the Edge

In Los Angeles, Barbara rented a room and started working the bars along Hollywood Boulevard and its environs. She worked alone, freelancing, but over time got to know some of the bartenders, and let it be known that if they threw a little business her way, she would always slip them a few bucks for their trouble.

One such bartender that she particularly liked was Henry Graham, a somewhat bland-faced man with thick, wavy hair that started far up on his forehead. She began to see him after work and he introduced her to drugs for the first time.

"We messed around with some marijuana and some laudanum pills I got from a doctor," Graham admitted years later in an interview about Barbara. But drug use wasn't the worst thing Henry Graham introduced Barbara to; that dubious distinction went to a balding ex-convict with jug ears named Emmett Perkins.

Emmett, Henry told Barbara, ran a couple of illegal poker and dice games in El Monte, a tacky little suburb about eight miles east of Los Angeles. Barbara could make some easy money by shilling for Perkins; taking her pickups out for a little gambling before she took them home for playtime. Barbara naturally thought it sounded like a good deal. Henry took her out to meet Perkins and the arrangement was made.

In the coming months, Barbara and Henry got to be pretty cozy, began living together, and eventually decided to marry. When she became Mrs. Henry Graham, it was Barbara's fourth marriage. Soon after she settled down with Henry, Barbara became pregnant. Early in 1952, at the age of 28, Barbara Graham gave birth to her third son. She named him Thomas James Graham, calling him Tommy.

Dope City

After he became a father, Henry Graham seemed to slip a couple of steps down life's ladder. He was a good bartender, but he couldn't seem to keep a job.

The fact that he had escalated from laudanum pills and marijuana to heroin might have been the reason. Plus, he probably figured, he didn't really have to work anyway since he set Barbara up with Emmett Perkins; she was back doing well shilling for him, as well as hustling a little on her own on the side. They were doing all right -- or so he imagined.

But the stress was all on Barbara: the stress of earning the living, the stress of seeing that Tommy was cared for when she was out, the stress of staying out of the hands of the law (they were after her for violating her perjury probation by writing a few checks on accounts she didn't have; she paid the doctor who delivered Tommy with a bad check).

Occasionally, when the pressure of her nervous life got to be too much for her, Barbara would ask Henry for a short pop of his heroin and he would give her one. Convinced, as people always are, that she could "handle it," Barbara began to look forward to her stress attacks so that she would have an excuse to ask Henry for "a little relief." And the short pops turned into longer ones, until the time came when the last needle mark in her arm hadn't healed before the next one was made. Barbara had joined Henry in dope city. She had become a full-blown junkie, with a hypodermic needle and spoon in her purse at all times, just like her cigarettes and lipstick.

Dopers do well together as long as there's enough stuff to go around. But when the supply begins to dwindle, nerves tense up and suspicions rise. Weren't there four caps left' Did you use an extra one' You son of a bitch, get a goddamned job and buy your own! Don't touch my stash again!

Henry's habit was deeper and wider than Barbara's; he had been at it longer. It got to the point that Barbara's stash was not safe anywhere; the minute she left the house or went to sleep, Henry found it and got it into his arm fast enough that he would be high when she found out and started screaming at him. With enough heroin in him, even Barbara's shrieks sounded like whispers in a breeze.

But Barbara wasn't the sort to put up with such flagrant disregard of her property rights. One day she took all the dope in the place, all the money, a few clothes, and walked out. She went straight to the little house that Emmett Perkins rented in El Monte.

"I left Hank and the kid, Perk," she said. "Can I crash here for a while'"

"Why, sure, doll, sure," Perkins said. "Come on in. Stay as long as you like."

Ferret-faced Emmett's mouth must have been watering. He had always had a craving for Barbara.

Bloody Murder in Burbank

On the morning of Wednesday, March 11, 1953, Mitchell Truesdale parked his gardening truck in front of Mrs. Mabel Monohan's neat, well-tended home on the corner of Parkside and Orchard, in a pleasant, tree-lined residential area of Burbank, 12 miles north of Los Angeles. Taking his equipment from the bed of the truck, he proceeded to mow and edge the front and side lawns. When he finished, he went to the front door and rang the doorbell to get the key to the driveway gate so he could do the backyard.

When Truesdale got to the front door, he found it open, just barely, less than an inch. But that was enough to cause him to be taken aback. Mabel Monohan, a 62-year-old widow who lived alone, never left a door, window, or gate unlocked, much less open. She was obsessively safety-conscious; the gardener had to lock the driveway gate even when he was in the backyard. 

Truesdale rang the bell several times without getting a response. Then he opened the door far enough to yell inside, "Mrs. Monohan, it's Truesdale, the gardener! Can I have the key to the back gate, please'"

When there was still no answer, he pushed the door open a little farther. What he saw inside stunned and frightened him. The house looked like a cyclone had gone through it: furniture was turned open, carpets had been peeled back, drawers pulled out and emptied onto the floor. And everywhere -- on walls, floor, furniture, rugs -- there were bloodstains. And a trail of blood led down a nearby hallway.

Mitchell Truesdale backed out of the front door and ran to call the police.

Crime Scene

The body of Mabel Monohan was half in and half out of a closet that the trail of blood led to. Her hands were tied behind her with a strip of bed sheet. A pillowcase was over her head, tied very tightly around the neck with another strip of bed sheet. When the pillowcase was removed, police saw that the frail widow had been beaten viciously about the face and head with a blunt instrument.

"Pistol-whipped, sure as hell," said one veteran detective, who had seen such handiwork before.

The entire house had been ransacked, top to bottom; even a furnace vent in the floor had been torn out. The trail of blood continued throughout the house, as if the victim had been manhandled from room to room, being beaten along the way with increasing fury when the intruder failed to find what he was looking for. Despite this activity, the crime lab would not find a single fingerprint or other physical evidence.

Surprisingly, in a bedroom closet where numerous purses and pieces of luggage had been opened and cast aside, detectives found a shabby old black purse, hanging from a hook that had not been touched. In it was $475 in cash and an estimated $10,000 in miscellaneous jewelry.

Preliminary investigation revealed that the victim's daughter, Iris, had once been married to a Las Vegas gambler named Luther Scherer, and that the Scherers had once occupied the house. When Iris and the gambler divorced, Iris got the house as part of her settlement. Iris later remarried, a wealthy importer named Robert Sowder, and gave the house to her widowed mother when the Sowders went to live in New York.

Investigators also learned that Mabel Monohan and her former son-in-law maintained a close, affectionate relationship that continued even after Iris and Luther divorced. Scherer still had a closet full of suits and personal effects in the house that he used when visiting the area. And once, when Scherer was seriously ill with cirrhosis of the liver, he came home to Mabel and she nursed him back to health, cooking and caring for him so he would not have to hire a stranger.

There were rumors among numerous people that the police interviewed that Luther Scherer even had a safe somewhere in the house, and was believed to leave large amounts of cash there with Mabel for safekeeping.

With that information, police believed they might have found the motive for Mabel Monohan's vicious murder.

Links in the Chain

In the week that followed Mabel Monohan's murder, two significant events took place.

First, at the coroner's inquest it was ruled that the victim's cause of death had been asphyxiation due to strangulation -- not, as the story would be retold over the years, from being pistol-whipped to death. It was true that she did have twelve head wounds that had crushed her skull in two different places, but those blows had not killed the elderly widow; the strip of bed sheet around her neck had done that.

The second significant event was that Mabel Monohan's daughter, Iris Sowder, so anguished over her beloved mother's ghastly death, publicly offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of her killer or killers. The reward information spurred a small time criminal named Indian George Allen to telephone Burbank police chief Rex Andrews and request a meeting. Allen said it was about "a recent unsolved homicide."

Chief Andrews met with Allen and was told that sixteen months earlier, in December 1951, Allen and four other men had discussed a plan to rob the Monohan home when Mabel was away visiting her daughter, because it was believed that Luther Scherer kept sizeable amounts of skimmed gambling money in a safe there. The plan had never come off, but Allen strongly suspected that one or more of the other four men might have been involved in the recent plan.

Indian George Allen was the first link in an investigative chain that would eventually lead police to Mabel Monohan's killers. Two of the men Allen named were Baxter Shorter and John Wilds. Shorter was an ex-con who had done time in San Quentin for burglarizing a dozen hotels in the Los Angeles area. He was also known as an expert safe blower.

Wilds had once operated illegal gambling clubs in the Los Angeles area and was reputed to have worked for local mobster Mickey Cohen at one time. When police located him now, however, Wilds had apparently gone straight and owned a legitimate aircraft parts business in which he was doing very well financially. He did admit, however, that he had been involved in a discussion to rob the Monohan home, and that he had mentioned the discarded robbery plan to a man named Jack Santo, who had tried to sell him some hijacked gold. Santo, he said, lived somewhere in northern California.

While police looked for Santo, Baxter Shorter was arrested and questioned about the Monohan murder. A cherub-faced, experienced criminal, Shorter denied any part in the crime and refused to answer further questions. He was eventually released, but was warned that because of the public indignation over the savage, merciless killing, and the strong suspicion that he was involved, he was going to be dogged constantly by police until the crime was solved.

Shorter went at once to a prominent Beverly Hills attorney for advice. A short time later, that attorney telephoned Los Angeles county district attorney Ernest Roll and inquired about an immunity arrangement for a client of his who had information on the Monohan case.

A meeting was set for nine o'clock that night in a suite at the Miramar Hotel in nearby Santa Monica.

The Confession

That night, Baxter Shorter related to a group of high-level Los Angeles county lawmen how he had received a telephone call from a man named Emmett, whom he did not know, but who stated that two friends of his had a "business proposition" that could be very much in his interest. Shorter was asked to meet two men named Jack and John the next day at a motel in El Monte.

When Shorter kept the appointment, he met a swarthy man with a pencil moustache, named Jack, and a muscular, wiry man, deeply tanned, with prematurely gray hair, named John. No last names were given. Jack asked whether Shorter was still interested in robbing the Monohan house in Burbank, as he had discussed with some other men a couple of years earlier. Shorter was not enthusiastic; he was not convinced there was really a safe full of money in the house.

"There is," the man named John assured. "I recently drove with Luther Scherer from Las Vegas and he brought a shoebox with a hundred grand in it."

"You personally know Luther Scherer'" Shorter asked.

"Sure do," John boasted. "He even invited me to his daughter's wedding."

Convinced, Shorter agreed to come in on the job.

A second meeting was set for the next night at a drive-in on Ventura Boulevard. At that time, Shorter met Emmett, the man who had telephoned him, a hick type with large jug ears, along with a good-looking woman about thirty with reddish-brown hair, whom they called Mary. Again, only first names were used. Shorter balked at having a woman along. Emmett said she was necessary.

"The old lady who lives in the house might spook easy," he explained. "She might not open the door to a guy at night."

Shorter conceded. A plan was agreed upon. The job would be pulled the following night.


Night of the Murder

The five conspirators met the next night at the Smoke House Restaurant in the San Fernando Valley and had dinner. Then, well after dark, they drove in two cars to the home of Mabel Monohan. Shorter and Emmett were in one car; Jack, John, and Mary followed in a second. Shorter and Emmett parked just around the corner on the side of the house, where they could see the porch. Jack parked across the street from the front door. The woman called Mary was let out and went up to the front door. The bell was rung, the porch light came on, and there was muted conversation through the door for two or three minutes. Finally the door was opened and Mary went inside. A couple of minutes later, John went up to the door and went in; he was followed at short intervals by Emmett, then Jack, so all of them would not be crowding in at one time. Baxter Shorter waited in the car for them to find the safe

After a few minutes, Jack came out to the car where Shorter waited. "Come on in," he said to Shorter. "We can't find nothing."

Shorter followed Jack into the house. Inside, Shorter saw Mabel Monohan on the floor of a hallway, lying half in and half out, badly bleeding about the head and face, blood all over the rug, moaning loudly through a gag over her mouth, with her hands tied behind her back. John was kneeling beside her, Mary bending down over her.

"Knock her out!" Mary said. She handed a nickel-plated revolver to Emmett, who began slugging the woman in the temple.

Shorter claimed at that point that he grabbed Emmett and threw him down on the floor, yelling, "What the hell are you doing' This isn't the way it was supposed to be! This is no good!" The woman appeared to Shorter to be choking from the gag. "Jesus Christ, this is no good!" he continued to protest. "This woman's in bad shape! Take that gag off her so she can breathe!"

John looked up to Jack for instructions. "Shall I do what he says'"

Jack shrugged. "What's the difference'"

John opened a pocketknife and cut the gag off Mabel Monohan's mouth. 

Jack gestured around the ransacked house and said to Shorter, "I called you in here to show you there's no safe. The information you gave us was wrong."

"John was the one who came down here with Scherer and the shoebox full of money," Shorter defended.

"Sure," said John, "but he didn't bring it here."

They all stared at each other, realizing they had bungled the whole thing.

"Look," Shorter said, trying to regroup, "we've got to get some help for this woman. She's in bad shape." Shorter quickly searched the ransacked house until he found a utility bill with the street address on it. "I'm going to call and get some help for this woman," he announced. By now Mabel Monohan was lying very still and a pillowcase had been put over her head.

A few minutes later, Emmett, John, and Mary left the house and went to the car across the street. Jack said to Shorter, "I'll ride with you this time. Take me back to where we met tonight."

On the drive back, Shorter again said he was going to telephone for help for the woman in the house. "I don't give a damn what you do," Jack said. "That woman stopped breathing before we left."

"Jesus Christ, that's murder then!" Shorter exclaimed.

"So what'" said Jack.

When Shorter dropped Jack off, Jack said to him, "You're not much of a man, are you'"

"Not when it comes to a thing like this, I'm not," the professional burglar replied.

"Well, don't forget we know how to get in touch with you," Jack said. It was clearly a threat.

As soon as he let Jack off, Shorter found a service station with an outdoor phone booth. Dialing the operator, he told her it was an emergency call, that a woman needed an ambulance immediately, and he read the address, 1718 Parkside Drive, off the utility bill he had taken from the house. Then he hung up and fled.

There was a record of the call Baxter Shorter made. The operator attempted to dispatch an ambulance, but no such address could be found in Los Angeles. Shorter had been so nervous that he had neglected to tell her it was in Burbank.

Jack and John

While Baxter Shorter was laying out the botched Monohan job for the district attorney's office, Burbank detectives were still going after the second suspect they had learned about from John Wilds: the man who lived in northern California, Jack Santo.

Both the Los Angeles and San Francisco police departments were brought into the loop now, and it was learned that Santo had a long criminal and prison record for robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder, and transporting stolen automobiles. He lived in Auburn, north of Sacramento. A known criminal, his activities were loosely monitored by law enforcement on an ongoing basis. For the past three months, he had been seen often in the company of a man who lived in nearby Grass Valley, a deep-sea diver and general roustabout named John True, who surprisingly had no known criminal record. Santo was described as swarthy, with a pencil moustache. True was a muscular, well-built man with wavy gray hair. Together they had recently left the area for a trip to Los Angeles.

Bingo, thought the Burbank detectives. Jack and John.

More links coupled up when veteran Los Angeles detective Dick Ruble joined the expanding investigation. Ruble pegged the name Emmett to Emmett Perkins, a longtime safe burglar and gambler who had done time at both San Quentin and Folsom. Ruble and Perkins had known each other since 1943 and had an informal, but by no means unusual, working arrangement under which Perkins committed no crimes in the Los Angeles department's jurisdiction, and in turn. Ruble would use department informant money to buy information from him about other criminals who were operating in Ruble's area. Ruble also knew about the illegal gambling operation Perkins currently had going in El Monte -- and he knew that for some time a shill that Perkins had named Barbara Graham, who was a heroin addict, had been living with him, after leaving her husband and child. Barbara Graham was known to frequently use the name "Mary" when picking up men.

Perkins, Dick Ruble knew, was a suspect in a $7000 payroll stickup in northern California a year earlier. He was believed to have pulled it with an old prison buddy of his -- Jack Santo.

Jack, John, Emmett, and Mary.

All the names Baxter Shorter had given authorities in his Miramar Hotel statement.

The First Arrest

The whereabouts of Perkins, Graham, and True were known, but Jack Santo had dropped out of sight. A decision was made not to arrest Perkins and Graham until Santo was located, but since True was not a known criminal, it was felt that he could be picked up without alerting the others. It was to be a quiet arrest, without fanfare or media involvement. Burbank Chief of Detectives Robert Coveney, Burbank detectives Robert Loranger and Ed Vandergrift, and Dick Ruble's partner from LAPD, Ed LaVold, drove north in an unmarked car and put True's Grass Valley residence under surveillance. Wearing workmen's clothes, one of the officers went up to the house and was told by True's girlfriend told that True was in Reno, but was expected back the following day because his friend, Jack Santo, was coming to town.

The detectives held their breaths, hoping to get both suspects, but they were disappointed. True returned as planned, but Santo never showed up. He had telephoned the house and True's girlfriend had casually mentioned that some man she did not know had been there looking for John. Santo immediately dropped out of sight again.

True was arrested while taking a bath and quietly driven south to the Burbank jail. Word got out, however. True's girlfriend thought he had been kidnapped, and reported it to the local police. By the time the real facts of the situation had been established, local newspaper reporters were onto it. Two days later, the Los Angeles Examiner broke the story on its front page: SUSPECT HELD IN MONOHAN MURDER!

The Kidnapping

The first thing that Los Angeles county district attorney Ernest Roll did after the story broke was contact Baxter Shorter's attorney and offer to take the informant into protective custody. When advised of the offer, the streetwise Shorter turned it down flat.

"I'd be in more danger in custody than if I was out and able to take care of myself," he said. He remained at large.

The following evening, Shorter and his wife, Olivia, were watching television in the living room of their small apartment in the Lancaster Residential Hotel at 121 N. Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles. The doorbell rang and Shorter went to answer it. Lifting a blind on a small window on the door, he saw a man he knew and opened the door. The man immediately pulled a gun on him.

"Let's go, Baxter," he said coldly.

Olivia left her chair and rushed to her husband's side, but Baxter pushed her back from the doorway, away from the gun. "It's okay," he told her tensely. To the gunman he said, "I'll go with you." He walked out.

Olivia, who had been a part of her husband's criminal life for a number of years, rushed to the kitchen and snatched a loaded rifle from its hiding place. Hurrying through another door, she intercepted the two men in the hallway. The gunman heard her cock the rifle. He put his pistol against Baxter's ear and warned, "Get back inside or Baxter dies right here!"

"Go on, honey," Shorter told his wife.

Olivia obeyed. She got to the front window in time to see the gunman move Baxter out to the curb, where what she believed was a late-model Dodge or Plymouth pulled up, picked up the two men, and sped away.

Frantic, Olivia called the 116 police emergency line and reported that her husband had just been kidnapped at gunpoint. Within minutes, officers were at the scene and Olivia told them that her husband had just that morning confessed to her that he had been at the scene of the Monohan murder. He had, she said, cried like a baby at the relief of getting it off his chest. Olivia also knew that he had already talked with the police.

Within an hour, all of the investigators on the Monohan case were alerted about the kidnapping. Olivia, brought to headquarters, unhesitatingly picked out a mug shot of Emmett Perkins as the man who had kidnapped Baxter.

Detective Dick Ruble quickly took half a dozen men out to the El Monte house where Perkins conducted his illegal gambling, and where Barbara Graham had been living with him since leaving her husband and son. But Ruble was too late. Perkins and Graham had moved out that afternoon. Along with Jack Santo, their whereabouts were now also unknown.

The Unexpected Visit

The whole story broke the following morning. Under a headline that blared," KIDNAPPED L.A. INFORMANT SLAIN, POLICE BELIEVE", were photos of the missing Baxter Shorter, and of Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham, who were now officially wanted on suspicion of murder in the Mabel Monohan case. In addition, Perkins, having been identified by Olivia Shorter, was wanted for the kidnapping of Baxter Shorter.

On the following Saturday night, late in the evening, Los Angeles police detective Dick Ruble was lounging in his ground floor apartment in pajamas and robe when his doorbell rang. When Ruble opened the door, there stood his old friend Emmett Perkins.

"I want to talk to you, Dick," Perkins said nervously.

"Come on in," Ruble said. Perkins shook his head.

"Out here. My car’s at the curb."

"Okay," Ruble said. He had no reason to fear Perkins; they had a working relationship the rules of which neither man had breached in thirteen years. Still, Ruble felt a tad uneasy. He was unarmed, in his robe and slippers, and Perkins was now wanted for murder and kidnapping, and knew it. Then again, Perkins could not have known that Ruble was working with Burbank police on the case. So Ruble decided to play it tough. Perkins did too.

"What’s all this heat on me for’" Perkins demanded as soon as they got in the car, Ruble in the back seat, Perkins in the front passenger seat. A woman was behind the wheel.

"You brought the heat on yourself, you crazy bastard!" Ruble snapped. "You and I both know you were in on the Monohan murder! You dumb son of a bitch, I never thought you’d go a route like that!"

"It wasn’t supposed to turn out the way it did!" Perkins defended.

"Why’d you people have to beat that poor old woman like you did’" Ruble accused.

"The old gal just wouldn’t shut up, Dick! Babs slugged her four or five times and the old bitch just kept hollering."

Now the woman behind the wheel turned around in her seat and Ruble saw that it was Barbara Graham. "They’ll never prove we did it," she said coldly. "Even if they know we did it, they’ll never be able to convict us!"

Ruble glared at her in the light of the dashboard. "I wouldn’t be too sure of that, Babs," he said evenly.

"Now look, Dick, you and me have always been straight with each other," Perkins reasoned. "I never pulled a single caper on you here in Los Angeles. I’ve stayed out of your precinct and kept our agreement. Now look, I can scrape up a hundred grand to square the Monohan beef. I just want to know how to go about it."

"You could scrape up a million and it wouldn’t square the Monohan beef, Perk," the detective told him. "Besides, you’ve been fingered for the Shorter kidnapping, too."

"That woman, Olivia Shorter, is a goddamned dirty liar!" Perkins raged. "She can’t identify me!"

"Look, Perk, I’ve never lied to you," said Ruble, softening his tone a little. "You’re in the worst fix of your life. I’m telling you straight up, there’s no way you can walk away from this. Smartest thing for you to do is go in and give yourself up."

"Maybe you’re right," the homely little man said quietly, slumping back against the seat. "But I’ve got a few things to straighten out first. Look, I’ll get in touch with you Monday, Dick, and maybe I’ll come in and give myself up to you personally."

Ruble got out of the car and it sped away. He was unable to make out the license number, but within minutes he had ordered an All Points Bulletin for a two-tone green four-door Oldsmobile being driven by a woman with long chestnut hair, carrying a male passenger with an egg-shaped head and jug-handle ears, both possibly armed, both definitely dangerous.

Despite the quick alert, however, the car and its occupants disappeared into the cool California evening.

Emmett Perkins failed to surrender the following Monday.


For the next three weeks, a vast network of police officers combed Los Angeles County for the fugitive trio. Authorities were certain they were still in the area; every bus station, train depot, and airport was being watched around the clock, and all vehicles leaving California into Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon were checked by highway patrolmen; cars crossing the Mexican border were checked by U. S. Border Patrol agents. Photos of the three suspected killers were in constant circulation, and newspapers kept the story alive. Law officers were certain that one of the three would be spotted sooner or later. And they were right.

In the end, it was Barbara Graham’s addiction to heroin that got them caught.

Three weeks after Emmett Perkins had made his unexpected visit to Dick Ruble, a policewoman working undercover for LAPD narcotics was present when Barbara Graham set up a heroin buy with a dope pusher she had used in the past. Barbara, whose hair was now bleached a dazzling blonde, and the dealer made an appointment to complete the sale in a bus depot in Huntington Park, a suburb south of Los Angeles. The undercover officer called in an urgent alert and the entire area was staked out, predominantly with female officers whom it was felt would be less suspicious to the wary murder suspect.

Barbara made her buy as arranged, and went into the ladies room to shoot up in one of the stalls. When she left the depot, three women officers, of various ages, in very different attire, followed her onto an inter-city bus, while others trailed the bus in unmarked cars, alerting other officers ahead of the bus. Barbara led them through three more south Los Angeles suburbs to Lynwood, where she entered a shabby, single-story apartment house next to a noisy tire retreading shop. It was Monday, May 4, at three o’clock in the afternoon.

Within minutes, LAPD Chief of Detectives Thad Brown, Detective Dick Ruble, and twelve other heavily armed male officers moved quietly and undetected up to the apartment door where it had been determined the trio was living. Brown, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, and Ruble, with a cocked .45 automatic, got into position and on a silent count of three slammed their shoulders against the flimsy apartment door, taking it completely off its hinges. In a combination bedroom-living room, they met no resistance at all from the surprised fugitives. In fact, they couldn’t have burst in at a more opportune time.

Barbara Graham, totally nude, straightened up in shock from an open sofa bed she had been leaning over. Jack Santo, also naked, was stretched out on the bed with an erection. Emmett Perkins, naked, was walking out of a nearby bathroom.

Chief of Detectives Brown shoved the muzzle of the shotgun roughly into Santo’s stomach, while Ruble aimed his .45 directly between the weasel eyes of his old pal, Emmett Perkins.

"Don’t shoot!" Perkins begged. "Don’t shoot, please!"

Jack Santo, who had probably just established a world record for losing an erection, glared hatefully at Chief Brown, a legendary lawman of the era.

"Want to try anything, Jack’" Brown asked quietly. "Go ahead."

Santo didn’t try anything. Barbara Graham, now held back by other officers, cringed in terror against the wall, attempting to cover her nudity. Perkins was put down on his knees, hands on his head.

"Pull your shorts on, Jack," said Thad Brown. "You’re embarrassing us."

Santo pulled on his underwear. All three were cordoned off in a corner of the room and allowed to dress in carefully examined clothing, while the rest of the grubby little apartment was being searched. As soon as the fugitives were dressed and handcuffed, officers led them out to three separate cars. No more than half a dozen passersby even noticed the scene. No media were present.

The hunt for Mabel Monohan’s suspected killers was over.


Emmett Perkins was quickly put into a live lineup of twelve men and immediately pointed out by Olivia Shorter as the man who had kidnapped her husband at gunpoint. "That’s him," she said emphatically. "Without a doubt, that’s him. I’d never forget that face!"

There had still been no trace of Baxter Shorter, but police found an abandoned late-model Oldsmobile several blocks from the Lynwood apartment where the trio had been captured. It had Washington state license plates on it, and four additional sets of California plates under the seat. The original registration of the vehicle traced back to a woman named Bernadine Pearsey, who lived up north in Auburn, California, where Santo lived with another woman who was his common-law wife. Bernadine was subsequently identified as a girlfriend that Santo had on the side. The interior panels and floor matting of the trunk had been torn out and were missing. Crime lab technicians found bits of weed and grass under the chassis that were indigenous to the California desert 75 miles or so outside of Los Angeles.

Charged with suspicion of murder, Perkins and Santo were booked into the Los Angeles county jail. They were put into an area with several jail informants, in the hope that some incriminating conversation between them might be overheard. But the two career criminals were much too seasoned to fall for that. They shunned everyone, prisoner and guard alike, and only spoke to each other in whispers through cupped hands.

Barbara Graham was housed in the women’s jail. Ironically, Detective Dick Ruble, the old friend of Emmett Perkins, was one of those who escorted her there to be locked up. The last time they had met, Ruble had been wearing pajamas and a robe, sitting in the back seat of a car. Now, on her way to jail, Barbara nudged Ruble playfully in the ribs, and whispered, "What are you booking me on’"

"Suspicion of murder, Babs," he replied.

"Well, remember what I told you, Dick," she said confidently. "You’ll never prove it."

Once in the lockup, Barbara, like Perkins and Santo, also kept mostly to herself. But while they had each other for moral support and company, she was alone in that respect. Needing someone, Barbara finally settled on a non-criminal type she thought would be safe, a woman named Donna Prow. A petite, pretty, 20-year-old divorcee, she was serving one year in the county jail, with five years of probation to follow, for driving under the influence of barbiturates and causing a head-on collision that killed a 51-year-old woman and severely injured her husband. Donna was in her third month of the sentence, had virtually no friends in the snake pit environment of the women’s jail, clearly was frightened most of the time, and seemed genuinely grateful when the 30-year-old, high-profile Barbara Graham "adopted" her. In no time at all, the two became close friends.

Very close.

Wheels of Justice

J. Miller Leavy, the preeminent prosecutor on District Attorney Ernest Roll’s staff, and the man who put notorious "Red Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman on San Quentin’s death row, prepared to do the same with the four people he now had in custody for the Mabel Monohan murder: Perkins, Santo, Graham, and John True. But Leavy had a problem: the statement given by Baxter Shorter during the interrogation session at the Miramar Hotel, was inadmissible as evidence without Shorter taking the witness stand to repeat it in open court. Unless the prosecution had Shorter, the statement was nothing but hearsay. And nobody -- nobody --expected to ever see Baxter Shorter alive again.

So Leavy turned his attention to the one person he felt he could use to replace Baxter Shorter. That was John True. It was a logical choice. True had only just met Jack Santo a short time before the Monohan job. He had no criminal record, had never been arrested for anything, and while he had succumbed to Santo’s invitation to participate in what was supposed to be a walk-in, walk-out robbery, he basically was an honest, if not too bright, individual.

Leavy decided to offer True immunity. True leaped at the chance to take it.

The story John True told the prosecutors about the crime was essentially that same as that related by the missing Baxter Shorter, with a few details Shorter had not known. First, True had never been acquainted with Mabel Monohan’s former son-in-law, Luther Scherer, and had never driven with him from Las Vegas to the Monohan house, or any other house, with a shoebox full of cash. Santo had explained to True that he and his partner, Perkins, needed somebody "clean," completely unknown in criminal circles, to tell the concocted story to convince safecracker Baxter Shorter to come in on the job. Perkins himself could crack a simple, uncomplicated safe, but he had nowhere near the expertise Shorter was known to have. But Shorter had passed on the same job once before, and they were afraid he would do it again unless they had some good "bait" for him. That bait was John True. In addition, they needed a "front man" to back up Barbara Graham, who was going to con her way into the house by asking to use the telephone because her car wouldn’t start. True was to go into the Monohan house after Barbara was in, just in case there was anyone else inside with the widow, and get Barbara out by saying that he had managed to get the car started.

Prosecutor Leavy was elated by that last part of the plan, because it meant that his witness had been the second of the five people to enter the Monohan home that night. He had observed virtually everything that had transpired -- and had, when he entered the house, seen Barbara Graham pistol-whipping Mrs. Monohan with a chrome-plated revolver that earlier, in True’s presence, had been given to Barbara by Emmett Perkins. He had also observed Barbara hand the pistol to Emmett Perkins and say, "Knock her out!" -- which had happened just as Baxter Shorter came in, and which Shorter had related in the statement given before he was kidnapped.

J. Miller Leavy felt he now had his case. He presented the evidence he had, with John True as a witness, to a Los Angeles county grand jury, which returned murder indictments against Perkins, Santo, Graham, and True himself. At the opening of the trial, Leavy promised, the prosecution would ask that the charge against True be dismissed.

John True was then taken outside Los Angeles to the country sheriff’s honor farm, to be kept in seclusion there until time for him to testify.

Jailhouse Panic

When news of John True’s testimony before the grand jury made the newspapers, Barbara Graham all but went into shock. That condition quickly elevated to anger. In the day room of the lockup, she paced up and down like a caged cheetah and declared for all to hear, "I may go to the fucking gas chamber, but I’ll sure as hell take some people with me!"

Later, when both the shock and anger had subsided, Barbara was beside herself with despondency. Huddled in a private corner with her recently found friend, Donna, she let a growing desperation surface.

"What am I going to do’" she pleaded. "What the fuck am I going to do now’"

"Don’t worry, Mommy," Donna consoled. "It’ll be all right."

The "Mommy" endearment was an example of how the relationship between the two women had ripened during the month or so they had known each other. Barbara was "Mommy" because she was older by ten years; Donna was "Candy Pants." Because they were celled on different tiers, the only time they could be together was in the day room or when they could slip off to an unoccupied cell for a few minutes of quick intimacy. On days when they could not be together in the day room, they exchanged torrid love notes which were carried back and forth by trusty inmates who had the run of the jail. In some of the notes, which were introduced as evidence at Barbara’s murder trial, Barbara addressed Donna as "Sweet Candy Pants," admitted that she had fallen in love with the younger woman, told her how lovely and desirable she was, talked of their kisses, and drew candy canes on the note to show how sweet Donna tasted.

Now, at this low point in Barbara’s life, when an accomplice in the Monohan robbery-murder had agreed to testify for the prosecution, Candy Pants came up with a desperate, audacious plan for her. Donna knew a guy named Sam who, for the promise of a sum of money to be paid in the future, might agree to provide Barbara with an alibi -- such as saying Barbara was in a motel room with him all night the night Mabel Monohan was killed.

Mommy liked the idea. She told Candy Pants to get in touch with her friend.

A Visitor for Barbara

Sam, Donna’s friend, was a dead-ringer for a young actor named John Derek, who had made his screen debut three years earlier in a Humphrey Bogart movie called Knock On Any Door. Thick, dark hair, broad shoulders, almost too handsome, he might have piqued Barbara’s interest if she hadn’t been so involved with Candy Pants. As it was, the only interest Sam held for her was a possible round-trip ticket to the Monohan murder trial.

Sam had visited Donna first on the morning of August 7, just eleven days before the trial was to begin. At that time, Donna gave him a password to use to prove to Barbara that he was the friend Donna had contacted to provide Barbara an alibi for the murder night. After getting the password, Sam then obtained a second visitor pass, this one to see Barbara.

When Barbara was brought into the women’s visiting area and left alone facing Sam through a metal grille divider, she said to him, "I came like water," and he replied to her, "And like wind I go." It was a quote from a book of poetry by Omar Khayyam that Barbara was reading.

"I guess you’re okay," Barbara said then.

"Does your attorney know anything about this’" Sam asked.

"No, he doesn’t. Listen, if we need more time to make up this alibi, I can probably get the trial postponed a week or so by asking to change attorneys."

"I don’t think you should do that," said Sam. "We’ve got a week to get our stories straight."

"Well, I’m naturally worried," Barbara told him. "Without you as an alibi, I’m doomed to the gas chamber."

"Well, what I’m worried about," Sam countered, "is this guy Baxter Shorter I’ve been reading about. Rumor’s out that the cops have him hidden away and ready to bring to trial. If he tells the same story that True tells, I can get nailed for perjury."

Barbara shook her head. "He won’t be at the trial. He’s been well taken care of."

"Well taken care of’" Sam questioned.

"Yes," Barbara said, lowering her voice to a whisper, "he’s been done away with. I guarantee you he won’t be at the trial."

"Okay," Sam said. "Now this Monohan murder took place on March ninth, right’"

"Yeah. Actually, it was early in the morning of March tenth."

"Okay, how about if I set it up that you and I were out of town together, say, from March eighth to eleventh’"

"Great! That would be wonderful. That would clear me fine."

That first visit between Barbara and Sam was a brief one, primarily to establish contact. Sam returned for a second visit three days later on August 10, and again two days after that on August 12, for his third and last visit with her. During those two meetings, both longer, Sam verified twice more that Baxter Shorter would not turn up as a surprise witness.

"Okay, now what about Bax again, Barbara’" he asked. "That’s one thing you’ve got to positively assure me about. Where is he’"

"I can only say that he definitely won’t be around."

"Do you know personally what happened to him’"

"You can use your imagination. I tell you, he won’t be here."

Another time, Sam said, "I’m still thinking about Bax. That guy worries me. The papers keep hinting that he may be a secret witness."

"I know. Every time I read that, I laugh," Barbara told him.

"So you know what happened to him’"

Barbara nodded. "Just don’t worry. He won’t show up."

The alibi they finally agreed on, to keep it from becoming too complicated, was that on the night of the murder, they were at a motel together at 17448 Ventura Boulevard in the northwestern suburb of Encino. They had checked in under the names of Mr. and Mrs. J. Clark from San Francisco. Both would say that they had been off-and-on lovers since the summer of 1950, before Barbara married Henry Graham. They happened to run into each on March 9, were eager to resume their affair, and checked into the motel late in the afternoon, remaining there together until seven o’clock the following morning. Sam was to pay the desk clerk to fix the guest register to back up their story.

"Okay," Sam finally said, "now I want to know where you really were that night, Babs, because I’ve got to be absolutely sure that I’m protected in this. I mean, if somebody -- anybody -- saw you someplace else that night and came into court with it, I’d get nailed for perjury right away."

"That won’t happen," Barbara assured him.

"Because you were with those four guys that night’"

"I was with them," Barbara admitted.

At the end of their third and last meeting, Sam sat back and asked, "Well, is there anything else we have to go over’"

"No, I think that will do it, Sam," Barbara replied.

"You think we have your alibi covered’"

"I sure do," she said confidently.


The Trial: Part One

The case of the People of the State of California versus Emmett Ray Perkins, John Albert Santo, Barbara Diane Graham, and John Lawson True, was held in Department 43 of the Los Angeles Superior Court, in an eighth-floor corner courtroom in the Hall of Justice. It began on Friday, August 14, 1953, five months and five days after the vicious murder of Mabel Monohan. The judge was Charles W. Fricke, bald, bullet-headed, bespectacled, a lawyer for more than fifty years, nationally respected in the field, a scholarly writer on criminal law and evidence, a lay expert in the areas of ballistics, forensic chemistry, crime scene photography, medicine and psychiatry, and a living legend in criminal jurisprudence. In his spare time, he grew delicate, crossbred, prize-winning orchids in a greenhouse behind his home.

Barbara was brought into the courtroom wearing a form fitting tan suit, high heels, her hair up and rolled in back into a French twist, nails manicured, looking sleek and stylish. Perkins and Santo, in sport coats and open collars, looked as they always did: seedy and shifty. John True wore a new blue sport coat and tie. The court had appointed three of the city’s best criminal defense attorneys to the case -- one each for Perkins, Santo, and Barbara; a public defender represented True. All of them had been working on rebutting the state’s case for more than three months. J. Miller Leavy led the prosecution team.

It took three days to empanel a jury of twelve and four alternates. The first order of business after that was a motion by Leavy to dismiss the charge against John True for the purpose of using him as a prosecution witness. Since that was allowable under Section 1099 of the California Penal Code, Judge Fricke granted the motion. Under icy stares from the three remaining defendants, True was escorted from the courtroom.

Leavy put on the state’s case in his usual precise, straightforward manner. He first called Mrs. Merle Leslie, the elderly victim’s closest friend and the last person, other than her killers, who had seen her alive. Mabel and Merle had known each other more than twenty-five years. Both widows who lived alone, they frequently stayed overnight in each other’s home, as Merle had done the night before the murder. Merle had then gone home mid-afternoon on the day of the crime, but spoken to Mabel about six p.m. that evening on the telephone. Mrs. Leslie emphasized that her friend was very security-conscious, keeping doors, windows, and gates locked at all times. She was wary of strangers and would never open he door to someone she did not know -- except perhaps in some kind of emergency situation where she felt the need to help.

The next witness was gardener Mitchell Truesdale, who told how during his normal routine of caring for Mrs. Monohan’s yard, he had discovered the grisly crime scene.

Next up was Lieutenant Robert Coveney, of the Burbank Police Department, who led the team that rushed to the Monohan home after the murder had been discovered. He described how he had untied the tight strip of cloth around the victim’s neck, and untied the strip of cloth that bound her hands behind her back. He also read the inventory of cash and jewelry that had been overlooked by the intruders. At this point in his testimony, Perkins and Santo glanced at each other in disgust, while Barbara Graham merely frowned in confusion. During further lengthy questioning about the crime scene, Coveney stated that no fingerprints found there matched those of defendants Perkins, Santo, or Graham.

Dr. Frederic Newbarr was next on the stand. The coroner’s surgeon who had performed the autopsy on Mrs. Monohan, he caused a slight stir in the courtroom when he stated that the cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation. For months before the trial (and for several decades after it), the most common belief was that she had been brutally pistol-whipped to death. Dr. Newbarr clarified that. The ligature around the neck had slowly shut off oxygen to her brain. That resulted in stimulation of her sino-auricular nodes, causing a reflex action which stopped her heart. There was also intracranial hemorrhaging caused by being struck on the left side of the head by a blunt instrument of a shape resembling a pistol barrel. In Dr. Newbarr’s opinion, that bleeding inside the head would have caused the victim’s death in a very few minutes, but the asphyxiation worked faster and killed her first.

At this point, there was an interruption in the trial. Following the graphic testimony of Dr. Newbarr, when Barbara was being returned to her cell, she became dizzy while climbing steel jail stairs and fell, badly spraining her ankle. Judge Fricke ordered a five-day recess in order for her to have a complete physical examination and several days of rest for the ankle.

The Trial: Part Two

When trial reconvened on Tuesday, August 25, there was heightened anticipation in the courtroom. J. Miller Leavy had carefully established the brutal crime for the jury; now he was ready to establish blame for it. When the prosecutor rose, he said in a loud, clear voice, "The state calls John Lawson True."

The double doors of the courtroom swung open and John True, in the middle of an escort of nine guards, strode up the aisle to the witness stand. Barbara Graham's eyes followed him in a hateful stare, while Perkins and Santo merely looked scornfully at him.

On the stand, True related under direct questioning how he had met Jack Santo the previous January in Grass Valley, California, and how their friendly relationship had led him to agree to participate in the Monohan robbery. The reasons for his decision were straightforward but naive: they would not be stealing money from Mabel Monohan herself, but money skimmed by her former son-in-law from a Las Vegas casino; it would be a quick in-and-out robbery; and, most importantly, no one would get hurt.

When his testimony got to the details of the robbery itself, True told how Barbara Graham had gone onto the porch, rung the bell, and after a minute or two of conversation, the door had opened and she had entered the house. Moments after she was inside, Jack Santo had told True to follow her to get her out if there were other people in the house. Asked what was the first thing he saw when he got in the front door, True replied, "Barbara Graham was striking Mrs. Monohan in the face with a gun, and Mrs. Monohan was crying out, 'No, no!'"

A wave of horror and disgust rippled through the courtroom. Barbara now stared off into space, as if in a trance. Santo nervously fingered a pencil on the counsel table in front of him. Perkins tilted his chair back and sneered at the witness. The scenario continued.

How was Barbara Graham holding Mrs. Monohan' Either by the back of the neck or by the hair on the back of her head.

Was Mrs. Monohan bleeding' She was, across the face.

How many times did he actually see Barbara Graham strike her with the gun' Two or three times.

Then what happened' Mrs. Monohan collapsed.

True then claimed that he quickly knelt on the floor and held the widow's head in his lap. Perkins came in then, took her away from True, and quickly tied her hands behind her back. Then Perkins dragged her back into the house and partway into a hall closet. Barbara Graham put a pillowcase over her head. Santo had come inside by now and secured the pillowcase over the victim's head by tying a strip of cloth tightly over it around her neck. Everyone then began searching the house. Mrs. Monohan was moaning inside the pillowcase. No safe or other hiding place for money was found. Baxter Shorter was called in to be shown that there was no safe.

True estimated that the five of them were in the house as a group between fifteen and twenty minutes. At some point, Mrs. Monohan stopped moaning, but True noticed that she apparently continued to bleed through the pillowcase. Finally Baxter Shorter said, "There is nothing here. We might as well go."

After leaving the house, True rode with Perkins and Graham to the La Bonita Motel in El Monte, where Perkins had a room. True had blood on his trousers from holding the victim's head in his lap, so he washed it out as best he could. Sometime after midnight, Santo came by and picked up True in a blue Oldsmobile and they started driving toward northern California. Early in the morning of March 10, they arrived at Santo's home in Auburn. A woman named Harriet, whom True believed to be Santo's wife, then drove True to his own home in Grass Valley. That night was the last time he had seen Perkins, Santo, and Graham except for the first day of the trial -- and the last time he had seen Baxter Shorter ever.

After John True's direct testimony ended, the Los Angeles press categorized him as "an overgrown boob."

The Trial: Part Three

On cross-examination by the attorneys for the defense, John True admitted that he had agreed to participate in the Monohan robbery in order to raise money to finance a venture involving the salvaging of sunken logs in the northwest lumber camps. He claimed that he first met Barbara Graham when he and Santo arrived in El Monte from northern California, and that it had been Emmett Perkins who introduced them.

Regarding the murder itself, he was forced to reenact the pistol-whipping of the victim, he playing the part of Barbara Graham, one of the lawyers being the victim. True then had to admit that when first arrested as a suspect, he had denied any participation in the crime, which was a lie. He continued to lie in that manner until offered immunity for his testimony. Questioned again about the murder itself, True was asked why at some point he had not just walked out of the house when he had seen that the simple robbery, as planned, had turned into a vicious beating of a helpless old lady. His answer: "I was afraid to walk out. Afraid of the people in that house."

When John True's ordeal on the witness stand was over, the nine guards surrounded him once again and escorted him back out of the courtroom.

With Barbara Graham now believing that her guilt, as well as the guilt of Perkins and Santo, had been sealed by True's testimony, she tried a last, desperate measure. All along she had taken the position that she could not remember where she had been on the murder night. Now, she met with her attorney, Jack Hardy, after court in a conference room and told him she had finally recalled the night: she had been in a motel in Encino with an old friend named Sam. He had just visited her in jail and reminded her of it. Sam would be in court tomorrow to confer with Hardy and establish, finally, an alibi for her. Hardy, who had never quite trusted Barbara since the day he had been appointed by Judge Fricke to represent her, had emphasized to her that she had to be completely honest with him if he was to help her. He reminded her now that she had promised to do so, and she swore to him that her alibi was factual and that Sam was a legitimate witness. Hardy told her to have him in court the next day to be interviewed by him.

That night, in the women's lockup, Mommy passed a note to Candy Pants to use the inmate pay phone and call Sam right away to be in court. At that point, Barbara thought she was home free. Emmett and Jack were going to take a hard fall for this rap, and that was tough luck for them. She knew they were counting on her to help them beat the death sentence; they didn't think the jury would send a good-looking young mother to the gas chamber -- and if she didn't go, they wouldn't go.

But Babs had found herself a way out, and she was taking it.

She liked Emmett and Jack -- but not enough to take a chance on dying for them.

The Trial: Part Four

The next day, when court convened, Barbara saw Sam standing at the back of the courtroom. Handsome, wearing a light summer suit and neat bow tie, he looked squeaky clean and respectable. Barbara pointed him out to Jack Hardy, who looked and nodded. Then, as the day's proceedings began, the world Barbara had made for herself, fell completely apart.

Prosecutor Leavy rose and said, "Call Sam Sirianni to the stand."

Sam came down the aisle without a glance at Barbara and walked up to be sworn in. Barbara looked in disbelief at Jack Hardy and stammered, "But -- but -- Mr. Hardy, that's Sam, my alibi witness, the man I spent that night with in a motel. How can he be a witness for the prosecution'"

All Hardy could do was stare at her incredulously. Barbara leaned to the other side and quickly whispered something to Emmett Perkins. The jug-eared co-defendant reared back in his chair, looked at her in shock, and quickly passed the news to Jack Santo, who was sitting next to him. Santo's square jaw clenched as if he had been slapped.

After Sam took the stand and stated his name, Leavy asked him, "What is your occupation'"

His answer: "Police officer."

"Where are you employed'"

"Los Angeles Police Department."

Sam testified that a policewoman named Shirley Parker, working undercover as a women's jail inmate, had reported to her superiors that an intimate friendship had begun between Barbara Graham and Donna Prow. A check of Prow's record showed that she was not a criminal type but rather doing time for vehicular manslaughter: a year in jail and five years on probation. She was approached with a deal to reduce that jail time and probation if she would participate in a police trap to get a confession from Barbara Graham. Prow had agreed.

Through Prow, Sam had contacted Barbara in the women's jail, using a password Prow had given him. He related how he had met with Barbara three times: August 7, 10, and 12, and how on the third visit he had been wired with a Minifon and had recorded the conversation between them.

At that point in the trial, prosecutor Leavy requested and was given permission by the court to call in police electronics technician Roger Otis for the purpose of playing the recorded conversation for the jury.

Barbara could do nothing but sit stunned, one hand on her cheek, as the sound of her voice filled the courtroom. Her words, when Sirianni asked for her assurance as to where she had been on the night of the murder, were clear and indisputable as to Perkins, Santo, True, and Baxter Shorter.

"I was with them," she said.

At the end of the handsome young officer's testimony, Judge Fricke recessed court for the day to give Barbara's attorney, Jack Hardy, time to regroup. As reporters rushed from the courtroom to file their stories, two matrons handcuffed Barbara, while bailiffs were doing the same to Perkins and Santo. The usually inscrutable Santo snapped angrily at his buddy, "This is what we get for having a goddamned woman with us!"

When Barbara arrived back at the jail, she learned that Donna Prow, "Candy Pants," had been taken back to court that afternoon. She would later hear that Donna had been re-sentenced to time served and no probation, and released.

Donna immediately left Los Angeles.

The Trial: Part Five

Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo, sensible career criminals that they were, both pragmatically declined to take the witness stand. The verdict, although unspoken as yet, was already in on them and they both knew it. Perkins had once said that the only way he would ever return to San Quentin would be if he went back to be "topped" -- executed. He was certain that death row awaited him now, as well as it did Santo. The only satisfaction he had was in knowing that Babs had signed her own death warrant as well as theirs.

But Barbara wasn't giving up. She agreed to take the stand in her own defense, and the duped and deceived Jack Hardy agreed to make a last-ditch effort to save her from the executioner. Shapely and attractive in a tailored pearl-gray suit, her hair formed into a conservative bun in back, Barbara was prepared to portray herself not as a member of cold-blooded murder gang, but simply a young housewife whose desire for the easy life had landed her in bad company. It was going to be a stretch, she knew. However, under Hardy's quiet questioning, Barbara emerged as a victim of a sordid, shabby life.

Barbara's reformatory background was explained, as were her four marriages and three sons, her work as a gambling shill for Perkins, and her effort to settle down with Henry Graham and their little son. She admitted to knowing Jack Santo casually through Perkins, said that she had met John True once very briefly, but denied ever knowing or meeting Baxter Shorter. She vehemently disputed True's testimony that she had been at the murder scene, and explained that it was only because she actually couldn't recall where she really was on the night of the murder, that she had tried to arrange a fake alibi with Sam Sirianni.

"I felt he was my last chance," she swore on the stand, voice breaking, hands nervously balling up the same Kleenex over and over. "I couldn't prove where I really was, and if he (Sam) walked out, well, I just wouldn't have anyone."

She said she had admitted being with the gang only to reassure Sirianni that he wouldn't get caught committing perjury. For that same reason she led him to believe that she knew Baxter Shorter was dead.

"I had read several times that Baxter Shorter was kidnapped and had not been seen since," she testified with a shrug, "so I took a chance telling Sam what I did."

Asked for her best guess as to where she had been on the night of the murder, she said that she now thought that she had left Emmett Perkins, with whom she had been living, and gone back to her husband and child. She was unable to prove that, since Henry Graham had moved out of state, and his whereabouts were unknown. Henry Graham's mother was caring for their toddler son, Tommy.

Her explanation of being caught by police in the company of Perkins and Santo was that when she learned that the two men were being sought for the murder, that a woman accomplice was also being sought, and since she had been known to associate with them, and since she was in violation of her perjury probation, she thought it best to hide out with them until they could "clear things up" through a lawyer Perkins knew.

All of it was the best that Jack Hardy could do for a client for whom lying was a way of life. And after it was over, all he could do was turn her over to J. Miller Leavy -- and hope she survived.

Leavy questioned Barbara about the inmate in the women's jail named Shirley Parker, who was actually an undercover policewoman. When an article had appeared in the newspaper about Jack Santo's background, had not Barbara remarked in Shirley Parker's presence, "Jesus, maybe I'll be smelling that cyanide yet."

Barbara's answer: "I hardly think so."

Didn't Barbara also say to Shirley Parker that she, Barbara, would be able to fool a jury, but not some judges, like Fricke'

Barbara: "No."

Leavy brought out the love notes exchanged between Mommy and Candy Pants, and forced Barbara to read them aloud to the jury. It was a mortifying experience for Barbara, but she braced up and tried to get through it. When one letter got particularly intimate, she could not continue. Leavy offered to read it for her. Barbara blinked back tears, looking stricken. "Mr. Leavy, do you have to read that'" she implored.

Leavy, a relentless prosecutor who believed to his very core that the woman before him helped kill elderly, frail, helpless Mabel Monohan, had not an iota of mercy for her. He read aloud, "'I do love you, honey. You are so lovely and desirable, sweetheart. I want so much to show you how I love you. I am sure I can make you happy -- '"

The note went on, a heartfelt expression of the love of one woman for another, by someone who, perhaps, had never really felt deep, sincere love from anyone -- not even her own mother. But the revelation made Barbara squirm; this was 1953, when homosexual love in America was not only predominantly in the closet, but the closet was locked as well. For Barbara, it was an excruciatingly humiliating few minutes. 

Leavy went on to ask questions about the prior conviction for perjury; to enumerate the many other times Barbara had told lies, and the people she had lied to, from those who accepted her bad checks, to probation officers, all the way up to her own lawyer defending her now. Leavy forced her to admit that, had the Sirianni scheme been real instead of a police set-up, she -- and he -- would have been lying to this very jury.

Leavy then tried to connect Barbara to Baxter Shorter's disappearance. In several of Barbara's notes to Donna Prow, she made reference to "the other party" showing up at the trial. In one note, Barbara had written, "It won't happen," and underlined the words three times.

"Who were you making reference to in that note'" the prosecutor asked. 

"Offhand, I don't remember," Barbara replied.

"Not Baxter Shorter, of course," Leavy said sarcastically.

"It could have been," Barbara admitted, bottom lip trembling. Then she began sobbing and shouted at Leavy, "Have you ever been desperate' Do you know what it is'"

"Was it or was it not Baxter Shorter'" Leavy asked doggedly.

"It probably was," she finally said wearily, quickly controlling her sobs.

Later, when Leavy was finished with her, Jack Hardy managed on redirect examination to get Barbara to retract her admission and tell the jury she now believed her estranged husband, Henry Graham, was the person to whom she was referring as the "other party." Barbara said she wrote the note because Donna was jealous of Henry and afraid Barbara would go back to him and little Tommy if acquitted of the Monohan murder. It was yet another stretch for the jury to believe -- and few thought they did.

As Barbara Graham stepped down from the witness stand, the expression on her face clearly told everyone that she wished she had never let herself be sworn in. Following her testimony, Perkins and Santo completely ostracized her; they did not speak to or even look at her for the remainder of the trial.

Once again, Barbara was alone.

The Trial: Part Six

The five-week trial slowly began to wind down. Eleanor Perkins, Emmett's legal wife, testified that her husband was with her the night of the murder. Thelma Sustrick, Emmett's sister, said that her brother was at her home in Alhambra, 40 miles from the murder scene, helping her husband John Sustrick, plant a nectarine tree in their yard until late in the afternoon, when he allegedly was with Santo and the others planning the Monohan robbery. A neighbor of the sister, Gladys Jones, remembered seeing the men plant the tree. Margaret Vertrees, a dental nurse for Dr. W. N. Winemann, produced an appointment book showing that Perkins had some work done at 9:30 the next day, which was the morning after the murder, and that his appearance and behavior were normal.

Only one witness testified for Jack Santo. She was Harriet Henson, who had lived in a common-law arrangement with Santo for five years in northern California. She admitted to knowing Emmett Perkins for about four of those years. Her testimony was designed to indirectly help all three defendants: she stated that Jack Santo and John True were at her house the night of the murder and until early in the morning on March 10, making it impossible for True himself to have been in the Monohan home, therefore nullifying his entire testimony.

On cross-examination, however, it was revealed that Harriet had told a man named James Ferneaux that Santo had dropped his car off in Modesto early in the morning after driving all night from southern California. Turned out that Ferneaux was an undercover agent for the California Department of Justice and had recorded the conversation. Not only had Harriet now just committed perjury, but also as she walked out of the courtroom, northern California authorities arrested her as the getaway car driver for a robbery that Santo and Perkins had committed in that part of the state.

When both sides rested their cases in the tedious trial, Jack Hardy did his level best in closing arguments to save Barbara's life. He heaped scorn on star witness John True and begged jurors not to give credence to a story told by a man saving his own life in exchange for giving the state three others. Undercover policewoman Shirley Parker and conspirator Donna Prow were depicted as "utterly ruthless" in their entrapment of Barbara. Lastly, he pleaded with them to understand Barbara's panic in trying to rig an alibi with Sam Sirianni.

Lawyers for Perkins and Santo likewise denounced and attempted to totally discredit John True's testimony. They suggested that the real pistol-whipping assailant of Mabel Monohan was True himself, not Barbara Graham. Every step of the way, they pointed the finger of blame at True; with Perkins and Santo for clients, that was all they could do.

J. Miller Leavy's summation was emotionally charged. Pointing a finger at the three outwardly impassive defendants, he stormed, "These people steal to live, and this time they killed to steal!" They did not, he believed, intend to leave any living witness even before they went into the house. And, he candidly told the jurors, he wished John True were sitting beside them where he should be.

"But we have to be practical, ladies and gentlemen," he reasoned. "Baxter Shorter is gone for good; we all know that. Should we permit all four of these vermin to escape, rather than let one go and get three' Isn't the answer common sense'"

There was not, he attested, a single mitigating circumstance for any one of the defendants. And the jury's verdict, he declared, must forfeit the lives of Perkins, Santo, and Graham.

The jury unanimously agreed. Jurors deliberated less than five hours before finding all three defendants guilty of murder in the first degree.

Barbara, who had been reading a bible at the defense table, broke down and sobbed violently. As two matrons -- also weeping, incidentally -- led her out of the packed courtroom, she became hysterical and screamed, "I'd rather get the gas chamber than rot away in prison for the rest of my life!"


Two weeks after the verdicts, Judge Fricke formally sentenced the three convicted murderers to "suffer the extreme penalty, to wit, the death penalty, and that said penalty be inflicted within the walls of the state penitentiary at San Quentin, California, in the manner prescribed by law, to wit, the administration of lethal gas, until said defendant is dead."

Perkins and Santo, heavily manacled together, were taken aboard a special train car by nine guards for their overnight journey to Death Row. Barbara had a much shorter journey, about 30 miles to the women's prison in Corona, where a special solitary confinement cell had been prepared for her.

The appeals process, automatic in California death sentences, took the case to the state supreme court, where the verdict and sentences were confirmed; then, new attorneys appointed by the court to handle federal appeals, took the matter all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, where relief was also denied. Justice moved much swifter in the 1950s than it does in the 1990s; it was unusual for a death row inmate to wait more than four or five years for the sentence to be carried out: "Red Light Bandit" Caryl Chessman set a major record when he managed to last more than ten years before he was gassed at San Quentin.

But for Perkins, Santo, and Barbara, things moved right along, mainly because there was very little upon which to base an appeal. By the time 18 months had passed, there were no courts left from which to ask a review of the case, and the trio was scheduled to die on June 3, 1955.

As so many condemned convicts do, Barbara turned to religion for comfort, and gradually resigned herself to the fact that she was going to be executed. Henry Graham finally returned to California to claim his and Barbara's little boy, Tommy, and to kick his drug habit and make an attempt to straighten out his life. Tommy was allowed to visit with his mother from time to time when Henry brought him there, and Barbara was able to watch him grow from a 15-month-old toddler into an active little three-year-old. A handsome, wide-eyed child, the last time Barbara saw him was just after his third birthday, when she gave him a little stuffed horse made by one of the lifers at the women's prison.

Barbara gave few interviews while awaiting death. Everyone who did interview her seemed to want her to confess and clear her conscience. Finally she put the matter to rest by saying, "If I were guilty, I would never admit it and let my children be branded with that stigma all their lives."

As it got closer and closer to June 3rd, a pragmatic Barbara merely shrugged and said, "If it is God's will that I die, then I'll die like a lady."

Unfortunately, she would not be allowed even that.


Execution Day - 10:00 am

When Warden Harley Teets, Father Daniel McAlister, and the execution team came for her, Barbara had changed from the red silk pajamas into a champagne wool suit with matching covered buttons, brown high-heel shoes, small, gold, drop earrings, and a crucifix around her neck. A wheelchair had been parked near the holding cell, in case the woman became hysterical or too weak to walk on her own. But it was not needed. Barbara was more than ready; she'd had all she wanted of life.

"It's time," Father McAlister said quietly.

"Thank God," Barbara replied. She took the priest's hand. "I feel good, Father. I don't feel any hatred. I feel only pity for everyone who will have to live with what they've done to me."

Just as she stepped out of the holding cell, the telephone rang for Warden Teets. He conversed tersely with someone for a moment, then hung up and said, "Governor Knight has instructed me to delay the proceedings."

"My God, why'" Father McAlister asked.

"I'm not sure," said Teets. "Some kind of legal technicality, they said"

Hearing that, Barbara collapsed and had to be helped back to the cot in the holding cell.

Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty.

Finally, at 10:25, the telephone rang again. This time Teets did little more than listen. After hanging up, he said, "The governor has said to go ahead with the execution."

It took several minutes for the priest, the doctor, and a matron to get the distraught woman back up and on her feet steadily enough again to once more start the short walk to the gas chamber. This time they made it to the chamber entrance, but just as Barbara was about to step through the chamber door, just as she glimpsed a sea of thirty-seven faces peering through the chamber's plate-glass windows to witness her die, the telephone rang a third time and her escorts quickly drew her back.

Harley Teets looked pale and ill when he hung up the phone this time. "Governor Knight has ordered another delay," he said miserably.

"I can't take this," Barbara said, choking on her words. "Why didn't they let me go at ten' I was ready to go at ten!"

Instead of taking Barbara all the way back to the holding cell, the death crew helped her into a small preparation office adjoining the gas chamber room. There she was helped to sit down on a secretarial chair; she nearly fell off when it suddenly swiveled and rolled. Shivering as if she had just been pulled out of icy water, yet beginning to sweat profusely, she was helped to keep her balance by Father McAlister and one of the matrons.

More minutes passed, with maddening slowness. Five. Ten. Twenty.

"Why do they torture me like this'" Barbara half screamed, half sobbed.

Everyone in the crowded little room probably wondered the same thing. By now, all of them were perspiring heavily. A matron produced a handkerchief and gently patted Barbara's forehead and cheeks. Finally, at 11:18, an hour and eighteen minutes after Barbara had initially started for the gas chamber, the telephone rang a fourth time.

"We're ordered to proceed again," Warden Teets said bleakly after taking the call.

Barbara was helped to her feet again. This time she had only a few last steps to go in order to enter the chamber. Suddenly she remembered the sea of faces she had seen through the witness windows. "I don't want to look at those faces!" she said in sudden, desperate panic.

"Is there anything we can use as a blindfold'" someone asked.

"I have a sleep mask," a matron said. She hurried back to the holding cell area where her purse was.

Father McAlister put his arm around Barbara and she leaned her head on his shoulder. Her lips began to move as if in prayer, but no one could hear her words except the priest. Presently, the matron returned with the sleep mask and it was put over Barbara's eyes. The death crew then started her for the chamber again.

It was 11:34 when Barbara was finally guided into the twin-chaired execution chamber and helped to sit in the chair on the right. In the blue-green light, the lower part of her face below the mask looked as white as ivory. Her natural chestnut hair, grown back from being bleached blond, looked soft and shiny. Four brown-uniformed officers quickly strapped her ankles, forearms, and chest to the chair. As they completed their assigned jobs, they left the chamber. The last one to leave patted Barbara on the shoulder and said, "Count to ten after you hear the cyanide tablets drop, and then take a deep breath. It's easier that way."

Turning toward the sound of his voice, Barbara grunted derisively. "How the hell would you know'" she said without rancor.

The big airtight door was swung shut and pressure locked. Witnesses saw Barbara swallow nervously. Several times she wet her lips. At some point, she moved her lips, perhaps praying. It was a full minute before she heard the plunger-like sound of a cheesecloth bag, containing two golf- ball-size cyanide pellets, being lowered into a concrete vat of sulphuric acid directly beneath her chair. The sound, though very faint, startled her and she tensed momentarily. Through a rubber tube attached to a stethoscope diaphragm taped to her chest, then extending through an air-tight portal to the exterior of the chamber, a doctor listened as her heartbeat increased to a frenzied rate. The death fumes were invisible, but their slight bitter almond odor reached Barbara's olfactory nerves and her nostrils flared once, briefly. Then she drew in a deep, deliberate, tortuous breath. Almost at once, he head nodded, lips twitching, then slumped forward, chin on chest. As the doctor listened, he heart slowed until it finally chugged and gushed to a final halt.

Barbara Graham was dead at 11:42 a.m.

Execution Day - 2:30 pm

Barbara's body was left strapped to the death chair for an hour and a half as an exhaust fan high above the gas chamber sucked the deadly fumes out. Her dead body drooled and regurgitated onto the front of her suit, and her bowels and bladder emptied inside her clothes. When it was finally safe enough to enter, she was sprayed with liquid ammonia to neutralize any fumes that might have collected in her clothing, hair, or bodily orifices. Afterward, the body was removed and the place of her execution was fumigated.

The gas chamber was then ready for Perkins and Santo.

They had spent the previous night in adjoining isolation cells just off death row. Warden Teets had ordered a television set put in front of the two cells, quite a treat for them because that was a time in penology before prisoners could have personal TVS in their cells. During the long night, they watched part of a western movie together, but mostly they reminisced about their long criminal partnership. None of the death watch officers heard either one of them mention Barbara Graham a single time.

The curious reticence of the two men to discuss Barbara had been ongoing since their mutual trial ended. At no time during their tenure on death row had either been known to speak of her in any context. Reverend Byron Eshelman, a Congregational minister who was the Protestant chaplain at San Quentin, had been friendly with both men since their arrival on death row, and in the scores of conversations he had with them, individually and together, her name was never uttered even to him. They neither implicated her in the crime, nor absolved her of it. If her name did come up in a group discussion, both men fell strangely silent. Reverend Eshelman sensed their resentment of her -- for leading police to their hideout, and for blowing the trial with her rigged alibi attempt -- but it was a resentment never voiced.

While on the Row, Perkins and Santo were generally liked by other condemned men. Perkins was kind of a good old boy, a hick who played dumb a lot, while Santo, comparably a man of the world, would beguile his peers with true stories of his days with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish-American War.

Both denied the Monohan murder, and some fellow inmates professed to believe them to be innocent -- usually in return for Perkins and Santo believing them to be innocent of their crimes. Mutual disbelief in guilt is a common necessity among the condemned, and its importance increases with the heinousness of the crime -- such as killing a helpless old lady.

To their dubious credit, Perkins and Santo died well. About three hours after Barbara's execution, they strolled together unassisted to the chamber, stared down several witnesses, sat in the companion death chairs, and chatted calmly while being strapped in. As the big door was being closed, Santo yelled out to the death crew, "Don't you fellows do nothing I wouldn't do!"

As they rested their heads back to die, Perkins, at 47, looked to be the older of the two because he had left his dentures in the holding cell. Santo, 54, was well groomed and as swarthy as ever. After the cyanide dropped, Perkins died in six minutes, Santo in seven.

Ed Cassidy, a Burbank detective who was one of the witnesses, commented, "They died too easy. They had it a lot easier than Mabel Monohan."

Just about the time they drew their last breaths, Barbara's body was being put into a hearse from the Frank Keaton Mortuary in nearby San Rafael.

A controversy was already brewing over the last-minute delays in the execution that had transformed Barbara from a comparably calm and self-controlled person ready to go to her death with dignity at 10:00 a.m. as scheduled, into a quivering, near-hysterical, tortured woman who had to be blindfolded and half-carried into the chamber and hour and thirty-four minutes later.

Opponents of the death penalty howled that it was "cruel and unusual punishment." Perhaps it was, but the blame lay not with the authorities but with Al Matthews, a Los Angeles attorney who handled Barbara's appeals and fought very hard to save her life. An emergency appeal he filed in the federal court caused the first delay when the clerk of that court notified the California governor's office to stop the execution process while the appeal was considered. When the appeal was denied a few minutes later and the execution ordered to proceed, Matthews quickly filed a second appeal he had prepared in advance, which resulted in the second delay.

U. S. Judge William Denman strongly rebuked the lawyer, saying that he was "making a carnival out of the entire process." California attorney general Edmund Brown, who later became governor, called it a "disgraceful episode." The Los Angeles Times termed it "a blot on the name of justice."

Yet the fact remains that Matthews was trying to save his client's life.

The Funeral

Barbara Graham's funeral was held at 9:15 in the morning on the second day after her execution, in a small, private slumber room at the Keaton Mortuary. Barbara was laid out in a dark gray casket, very plain, unadorned except for a spray of red roses, with a drape of pink snapdragons over it.

Father McAlister, the San Quentin chaplain, delivered a brief, more or less generic sermon that could have applied to anyone. Henry Graham, who had driven up from Los Angeles, broke down and sobbed pitifully throughout. Little Tommy was not there.

Sitting nearby, also crying, but quietly and more restrained, were three former Seagulls from the old days back in Oakland, who had known Barbara since she was 12 years old. "Bonnie -- that's what we always called her," one of them said, " -- was always so lonely and mixed up. No one really loved her. Her own mother never cared anything about her, and that always bothered her a lot -- she couldn't understand why her own mother couldn't even love her."

"I know she did a lot of things that were wrong and against the law," another said, "but I'll never believe she was guilty of this crime."

These young women still lived in the Oakland area. They had never made it very far up the social or economic ladders -- but they hadn't ended up on death row either. They probably counted their respective blessings on this day.

During the short funeral procession to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, just outside town, Henry Graham sadly pondered what he was going to tell Tommy. "I took him to visit her a lot when she was down at Corona," he said. "He always looked forward to those visits so much. Now I don't know what I'm going to tell him. Maybe I can just say that Mommy moved some place that's too far away to visit."

Father McAlister's graveside service was very brief, and then it was all over.

"Well, at last she's in peace," Henry Graham said as he left her grave.


Much controversy has grown over the argument of whether Barbara Graham was guilty or innocent, and not a little of it came about as the result of a film titled, I Want to Live! Its producer, Walter Wanger, had once been a highly successful maker of films such as Joan of Arc, Algiers, The Long Voyage Home, and numerous others over a two-decade period. Married to the glamorous actress, Joan Bennett, he suspected that she was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. In a fit of uncontrollable anger, he confronted Lang on a parking lot just before Christmas in 1951 and shot him in the groin. Lang recovered, but Wanger was so mortified by what he had done that he waived a trial and threw himself on the mercy of the court. Eventually he served four months at an honor farm. When he returned to the film industry as an ex-convict, he was not welcomed with open arms.

It took Wanger half a dozen years to win his way back into the good graces of the studios, and he did so with a script by two talented screenwriters, Don M. Mankiewicz (Trial, House of Numbers) and Nelson Gidding (The Helen Morgan Story), as well as interest by respected director Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me, Executive Suite). The story: Barbara Graham, an innocent woman with a shady past is wrongfully convicted of participating in a robbery-murder and sent to the gas chamber for it.

Wanger never considered anyone but Susan Hayward for the role of Barbara. He had worked with her on four earlier films (Canyon Passage, Smash-Up, The Lost Moment, and Tulsa), and she fit exactly his vision of an innocent Barbara. So determined was he to get Miss Hayward that he agreed to give her sole star billing and casting approval. Before Susan accepted, she insisted on reading all the source material that had gone into the writing of the screenplay: newspaper and magazine accounts, the trial transcript, letters written by Barbara, and a 60-page outline of Barbara's life written by reporter Ed Montgomery of the San Francisco Examiner, who first crucified Barbara in his columns, then did a complete about-face and fought to save her life.

The story, as "Hollywoodized," made an excellent movie, but it was far from objective, and grotesquely slanted in Barbara's favor. Three of her husbands were glossed over and two of her sons were left entirely out of her "story." Her heroin addiction was omitted -- although Henry Graham's was not only included but emphasized, apparently to make the movie Barbara more of a martyr. Her capture with Perkins and Santo was completely fictionalized: in the movie it was nighttime, police had an entire block surrounded, the chief of detectives called to the fugitives over a bullhorn while searchlights flashed all over the building, and Jack Santo, before surrendering, beat up Barbara for leading police to them (in 1957, of course, it couldn't be shown on American theater screens what Barbara and Jack were really doing when captured). The script, and the film that came out of it, were clearly meant to delude the movie-going public into believing that Barbara was innocent.

After Susan Hayward read all the material, she found herself "fascinated by the contradictory traits of personality in this strangely controversial woman who had an extraordinary effect on everyone she met." Hayward went on to say, "She was a juvenile, then an adult, delinquent, arrested on bad check charges, perjury, soliciting, and a flood of other crimes, but somewhere along the line she tried to be a good wife and mother too. She read poetry, liked jazz and classical music. None of what she ever was, squared with the picture drawn of her in the trial. I became so fascinated by the woman that I simply had to play her."

Susan Hayward's own opinion' She told her biographer, Beverly Linet, that she thought Barbara indeed had been at the murder scene -- but could not bring herself to believe that Barbara had pistol-whipped Mabel Monohan. And, of course, if Barbara hadn't got the front door open, nobody would have pistol-whipped her.

Even though the film would dishonestly represent Barbara as completely innocent, Susan Hayward took the role -- for 37% of the picture's profits. It was a good decision; it won her an Academy Award for best actress. The film was also nominated for best director, screenplay, cinematography, sound, and editing. There is no Academy Award for truth.

Because television eventually copies everything, I Want to Live! was remade 25 years later, in 1983, as an ABC-TV movie. Original co-scripter Don Mankiewicz wrote the teleplay. Lindsay Wagner, TV's "Bionic Woman," was cast as Barbara.

As if being "Hollywoodized" wasn't bad enough, Barbara's story now became "Televisionized." Barbara is shown being released from the reformatory and becoming a nanny to three little children. Their father naturally hits on her and she runs away from that bad situation. She marries a sailor, has his baby, and then leaves them both. Next she innocently rides to Tijuana with a boyfriend, only to find out that he is smuggling World War II ration books. Good ol' Babs takes the rap for him because he's really a nice guy; she goes to jail for a year. Later, she meets the same guy again, perjures herself for him, and does another year.

Eventually Barbara meets and marries Henry Graham, has little Tommy, but discovers that Henry has a heroin habit, and leaves him, taking the child to Henry's mother to keep. Adrift and desperately in need of money, she goes to Perkins and Santo for help, not knowing that they have just murdered Mabel Monohan. Too late, she is suddenly captured with them, put on trial, is wrongly convicted, and goes to the gas chamber, an innocent woman.

The publicist for this TV movie planted a number of press items to the effect that substantial "new evidence" had been uncovered by the producers of this movie which would definitely cast doubt on Barbara's guilt. Apparently they not only neglected to include that evidence, they also decided that the original film version was too long; they made the TV movie of Barbara's story 20 minutes shorter.

In addition to the two movies, numerous writers in numerous books and articles have introduced new information from a variety of sources over the past 45 years that proves conclusively that Barbara was really innocent or definitely guilty, however one wants to feel about her.

One popular theory is that she could not have pistol-whipped Mabel Monohan because the victim had to have been struck by a right-handed person and Barbara was left-handed. Well, maybe, say her detractors -- unless the victim was struck from behind or while bending to the side.

Another story is that Barbara not only knew how Baxter Shorter died, but actually participated in his murder. Jack Santo told a close friend while awaiting trial in county jail, "That broad got right in there and dug (Shorter's grave) as good as anybody. In fact, she stood flat-footed and hit him in the face with a shovel and said, 'You dirty son of a bitch, you'll never squeal again!'"

And if anyone wants to further confuse Baxter Shorter's kidnapping, Emmett Perkins, while awaiting trial, told his cop friend Dick Ruble that the reason he, Perkins, was so indignant about Olivia Shorter's identification of him, was because it was really Santo who took Shorter away at gunpoint, while Perkins and Barbara waited in the car. (Whoever snatched Baxter, did a good job of it; he was never seen or heard from again.)

Then there are Barbara's "confessions." Louis "Red" Nelson was associate warden under Harley Teets, and later succeeded him in that position. A year after Barbara's execution, Nelson had been on the Row interviewing one of the condemned men about a problem with his visitors list. When the interview was over, the prisoner suddenly broke down and spontaneously not only confessed to the crime for which he had been convicted (which he had never previously admitted), but also described in gory and disgusting detail how he had butchered his victim. Later that day, Nelson described the incident to Teets, complaining that he strongly disliked having to hear such stories. Teets replied, "I know exactly how you feel, Red. Barbara Graham told me how she pistol-whipped Mabel Monohan and split her head open. I've been carrying that load for a long time."

Although Teets did not say when Barbara had told him that, there had been any number of opportunities. Prior to being brought to San Quentin for her execution, Barbara had been housed for several months in a private section of the San Quentin hospital, after threats had been made on her life at the women's prison in Corona. Teets had visited her several times a week on inspection rounds and for private talks when she asked to see him.

Nelson made a note in his daybook of the conversation with Teets, which took place October 24, 1956. He had no reason not to believe it; Teets was not a man to lie, especially in light of the fact that he had a serious heart condition and frequently told people that he, like the men on the Row, was also "living on borrowed time." He died from heart failure less than a year later. Nelson never told anyone what Teets had said until several years later when he met J. Miller Leavy, Barbara's prosecutor, and repeated it to him.

The Teets story was verified, in a way, when Marin County district attorney

William O. Weissich confided to Leavy that the late warden had told him exactly the same thing. Two days before he died, Teets had attended a meeting at the state attorney general's office with Weissich, and the two men had then lunched together at Fisherman's Wharf. After lunch, Weissich had driven Teets back to San Quentin. Teets, whose health was noticeably failing, spoke of the many strains of the warden's office, especially dealing with death row inmates. He said it had been a terrible burden to him to carry around Barbara Graham's confession in secret as he had for two years. Weissich, who was personally opposed to capital punishment, expressed great surprise at the revelation and inquired why Teets had not revealed the confession after the execution. Teets explained that he felt very strongly that employees of the Department of Corrections should not concern themselves with guilt or innocence, but only carry out the orders of the court. And, he himself did not want to be responsible for Barbara's family and friends learning of her guilt, if they believed her innocent.

Teets requested that Weissich keep the matter confidential, and Weissich did, for two years following the death of Teets, until the day Leavy shared with him the story Red Nelson had told Leavy.

The other "confession" that has floated around almost since the day of the execution, was that while leaning her head on Father Daniel McAlister's shoulder, waiting for the matron to bring her a blindfold, Barbara had whispered a confession to the priest. It was a perfect time, a perfect opportunity, and Barbara's lips had been seen to move. But Father McAlister would never reveal what she said. "I refuse to say what Mrs. Graham may or may not have confessed," he stated whenever asked. "The confessional is not to be debased in this manner."

Does that mean that her words were confessional in nature' If they had not been, if Barbara had simply said, "I wish she'd hurry with the blindfold, Father," or something similarly innocuous, wouldn't the priest have felt free to repeat it' Does not the fact that Father McAlister never discussed what she said, in its own way arouse suspicion that she did confess' And might not the fact that Barbara was buried in hallowed Catholic ground support that position' There are no easy answers. In the end, it is left for everyone to decide individually.

One person who did get to know Barbara quite well while she was waiting to die was reporter Bernice Freeman. Berni had once been married to a San Quentin officer, and years later, as the single parent of four growing daughters, she supported her family as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Already well known at San Quentin because of having been a guard's wife, she was assigned to cover the legendary prison for nearly 20 years. Always stylishly dress, perfectly coifed, every inch a lady, she earned a unique reputation among staff and inmate alike by never violating the confidence of either.

Barbara greatly admired Berni Freeman, who later became Bernice Freeman Davis when she married respected admiralty attorney Mansfield Davis. Whenever she visited Barbara, Berni was always complimented on her appearance and wardrobe. Sometimes the praise was wistful, as if Barbara wished she too could have turned out like that.

Their long talks together were more "female gab-fests" than interviews. They talked about motherhood, men, female aches and pains, unwanted weight gain, cooking. When the subject of her crime came up, Barbara vehemently declared her innocence, and, about John True, snarled, "That bastard! He lied to save his own neck! He knows I had nothing to do with the Monohan caper!"

As to whether Perkins or Santo had ever been her lover, she casually replied, "Nope."

But when Berni got too close to what might be the truth, Barbara backed off. As when Berni asked about the police finding the three of them nude and Barbara intimate with Santo when they broke in, Barbara replied aloofly, "I honestly can't remember."

An astute judge of people, with a keenly perceptive mind, Bernice Freeman's final analysis of Barbara Graham was that while she was a "beautiful and strangely charming young woman," she was also "utterly amoral." She had "no conception of the difference between right and wrong. She did what she pleased, never taking time to think, never worrying about the consequences. She neither knew nor cared whether or not an act was criminal, indecent, or immoral. If she had never done it before, she wanted to try it, and if she found it interesting, she wanted to repeat it."

That would seem to pretty much sum up the real-life Barbara Graham. Except for one sad thing which needs to be added.

There was a time when she was a pretty little girl, and nobody loved her.



Anderson, Clinton H.  Beverly Hills is My Beat.  New York, 1962.  Popular Library.

Brian, Dennis.  Murderers Die.  New York, 1986.  St. Martin's Press.

Davis, Bernice Freeman.  Desperate and the Damned, The.  New York, 1961.  Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Eshelman, Byron E.  Death Row Chaplain.  Engelwood Cliff, NJ, 1962.  Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Gaute, J. H. H. and Odell, Robin.  The Murderers Who's Who.  Montreal, 1979.  Optimum Publishing, Ltd.

Lamott, Kenneth.  Chronicles of San Quentin.  New York, 1961.  David McKay Co.

Linet, Beverly.  Portrait of a Survivor -- Susan Hayward.  New York, 1980.  Antheneum.

Nash, Jay Robert.  Encyclopedia of World Crime, Volume 2.  Wilmette, Illinois.  Crimebooks, Inc.

Parish, James Robert.  Prison Pictures from Hollywood.  Jefferson, NC, 1991.  McFarland & Company.

Sifakis, Carl.  Encyclopedia of American Crime.  New York, 1961.  Ballantine Books.


I Want to Live!  United Artists, 1958.  Nelson Gidding & Don M. Mankiewicz, screenplay.

I Want to Live!  ABC-TV, 1983.  Don M. Mankiewicz, teleplay.

About the Author

Clark Howard

Clark Howard has been a full-time professional writer for more than thirty years.

His work ranges from 21 contemporary novels and true-crime books, to more than 200 short stories and articles in the mystery, western, and true crime genres.

He has won the Edgar Allan Poe award and four Ellery Queen Readers' awards for short story writing, and has a dozen nominations in the short story and true crime categories from the Mystery Writers of America, Western Writers of America, and Private Eye Writers of America.

He has also written a boxing column for The Ring magazine, and has had his work adapted for both film and television.

Writing for The Crime Library is his first venture into electronic publishing.



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