Barbara Graham - California 1955.

Barbara Graham was born in 1923 in Oakland, California. She had a difficult and miserable childhood (sound a familiar story?). Her mother was sent to a reformatory when she was only two years old and thus Barbara was raised by neighbors and got little education.

As a teenager, she was promiscuous and in trouble with the law. She was sent to the reformatory where her mother had also been an inmate. She was released in 1939 and tried to make a new start for herself. She got 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. She was jailed for two months in San Diego for "lewd and disorderly conduct."  She married again but this marriage lasted only a few months. In 1944, she served a jail term for prostitution. Her friends were mainly criminals who were involved in prostitution and gambling.

Barbara liked nice things and also, perhaps surprisingly, was said to enjoy classical music but she also liked gambling and drugs. Life was steadily going down hill for her - she had a job as a waitress in a cocktail bar but soon went back to prostitution to earn a living. In another attempt to live a decent life, she worked for a while as a nurse in Nevada. She married for the third time in 1951 but this didn't last and in 1953 she met and married Henry Graham. She had a another child by Graham, her third, a boy called Tommy who was two years old at the time of his mother's execution.  Graham involved Barbara with his low life friends. She met Emmet Perkins and Jack Santo through her husband. They were involved in various nefarious activities.

She had an affair with Perkins and agreed to help him rob an elderly widow called Mrs. Mabel Monahan who was thought to keep large sums of money and jewelry in her house. Perkins, Santo, Barbara and a fourth gang member called John True went to the old lady's house and demanded she hand it over to them. She either wouldn't or couldn't. So according to True, Barbara lost patience and began to pistol whip the old lady and then suffocated her with a pillow.  Barbara, Perkins and Santo were soon arrested. True gave evidence against them in return for immunity from prosecution and they were all three convicted and sentenced to death.

There is much disagreement as to whether Barbara was innocent or guilty or partially guilty by virtue of being involved in the murder. She did herself no favors on remand in prison by trying to bribe a fellow "inmate" to give her an alibi. The inmate was a "plant" - a policewoman.  Barbara also tried to bribe another policeman to say she was with him on the night of the murder. This destroyed her credibility in court.  When questioned about this at the trial, she said "Oh, have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it means not to know what to do."

Inevitably, the jury found all three guilty and they were sentenced to death.

Barbara was sent to the California Institute for Women at Corona from where she would be driven to St. Quentin to spend her final hours. The California state gas chamber was housed within St. Quentin and was a steel capsule painted pale green and containing two perforated metal chairs for the condemned.

Her execution was originally scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on the 3rd of June, 1955. She prepared herself and dressed in a beige wool suit and brown pumps and had been allowed lipstick and earrings. Due to a last minute appeal her initial execution time was stayed until 10:45.  At 10:43, she was being prepared when a second stay was granted - this time until 11:30 a.m.  Barbara was very upset by these stays - she had prepared herself and could not understand "why do they torture me?  I was ready to go at 10:00"  At 11:34 a.m., the execution finally got under way. Barbara was led from the holding cell blindfolded and strapped into one of the two chairs in the gas chamber. She had requested the blindfold so she wouldn't have to see the witnesses. "In a situation like this you don't moan, you don't beg, you don't plead - you try to be a woman".  She was accompanied to the gas chamber by Father Edward Dingbuerg, San Quentin’s Catholic chaplain.  Joe Feretti was in charge of the execution and it was his job to strap her into the chair. Once she was secure, he said to her "Now take a deep breath and it won't bother you" to which Barbara retorted, "How in the hell would you know?". The cyanide pellets were dropped at 11.36 and she was pronounced dead at 11.42 a.m.  Barbara strained against the straps and threw her head back as far it would go, remaining in this position until she became unconscious and slumped forward.  She died relatively easily unlike some gas chamber victims. Some 30 official witnesses, including reporters, plus 20 guards were present in the viewing area.  One of the policemen who witnessed her execution, Detective Ed Cassidy, told reporters afterwards that her death had been much easier than Mabel Monahan’s. Barbara’s body was claimed by her husband, Henry Graham. 
Three hours later the two men were executed, side by side.

Barbara got lots of media attention and was dubbed "Bloody Babs" by them.  She never showed any remorse for the old lady's death and was hardly most peoples' idea of a "nice girl" but many still believe she was framed for a crime which she didn't commit.

Two films were made about her both called "I want to live."  One starred Susan Hayward (see picture) and the other starred Lindsey Wagner and both are very moving. Interestingly when Barbara was interviewed on death row she told the reporter, "If I have to spend the rest of my life in prison - if I have to serve more than seven years - I want it the way it is. I'll take the gas chamber. Maybe that will be better for my kids" (of which she had three).

Barbara described herself as "paying for a life of little sins."  Only one more woman was to go to California's gas chamber (Elizabeth Ann Duncan in 1962) and only one other woman was executed in America between 1955 and 1984. Barbara was the third woman to be executed in California this century and one of nine prisoners to go to the gas chamber there in 1955.

Barbara's case is yet another of those difficult cases of what in Britain was known as common purpose. A group of people go out to commit a crime (a serious crime in this case) and as a result their victim is brutally murdered.  All individually deny their guilt and blame the others but who is telling the truth? It may well be that Barbara did not pistol whip and suffocate Mrs. Mahon but one or more of the group did. Should we deem them all to be guilty and thus give them the same sentence, as they were all present and involved with the crime. The law in most countries has always argued that we should. Remember two of the men involved also went to the gas chamber on the same day as Barbara for their part in the crime. Common purpose has always made hard law but what is the answer? It is often impossible to say who struck the fatal blow - should the court, therefore, not convict any of them for murder or should it convict all of them?
Had Barbara not been an attractive woman and a young mother the case would have been soon forgotten, as she was, there was intense media and therefore public interest in her fate. Opinions tend to become polarized and to this day there are those who maintain her innocence.

Very few of the respondents to my survey feel that women should be treated more leniently in respect of the death penalty and it is difficult to see in the pursuit of justice any sensible reason why they should be, at least in theory. And yet there is a natural repugnance at the execution of (attractive) women. It is notable that there was huge interest in and protests over the execution of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas in 1998 who was attractive while hardly any interest in the execution of Judias Beunoano a month later who was 54 and unattractive. But that is the way of the world it seems.

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