Barbara Graham was born in 1923 in
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
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
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 on
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
Barbara's case is yet another of those difficult cases of what in
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.