A free chapter from my latest book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Southern California.’
“Why waste good food on me? Give it to someone who can enjoy it.” – Barbara Graham on her last meal.
The controversy around Barbara Graham’s case has long outlived Graham herself. Executed on June 3 1955 and California’s third woman to face the gas chamber, Graham’s case would barely raise a mention today had she not been female and a mother. Crime partners Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins (executed hours later) would simply be names on dusty old case files, court transcripts, newspaper articles and execution lists. Ironic considering their other crimes were at least as severe has Graham’s.
Nor was she really a victim as much as some apologists might suggest otherwise. The facts of the case spoke for themselves. The murder of disabled, elderly widow Mabel Monahan at her Burbank home on March 11 1953 was for the purpose of robbery. It was a prolonged, brutal, savage assault on a victim unable to defend herself. Given Monahan’s inability to resist it was also entirely unnecessary. Mabel Monahan did not have to die and nor did she deserve to. The courts and Governor ultimately agreed, deciding Graham, Santo and Perkins certainly did.
Graham was involved, there to help the rest of the gang by persuading Monahan to open her door. A young, attractive, friendly woman was far more likely to manage that than several rough-looking men with no obvious reason for being there. Once the door was open and the gang were inside Mabel Monahan was beaten, pistol-whipped, choked and a wire twisted round her neck before being left to die.
At least that was what happened according to gang member John True who turned State’s evidence to save his own skin. Also according to True’s testimony Graham was involved in both the entry and the beating. By the laws of the time whether she took part in the beating made no difference. She participated in a failed robbery that became first-degree murder and that was enough.
Graham had led an unsavoury past and admittedly had a very poor start in life. Born Barbara Wood in Oakland on June 26 1923 her father was absent and died in 1930. Mother Hortense was a delinquent and, according to Graham herself, Hortense never cared about her in the slightest.
The Devil makes work for idle hands and it was no surprise that Barbara followed in Hortense’s footsteps, acquiring a juvenile criminal record including a stint at Ventura School for Girls, the same reform school Hortense served time in. Barbara’s criminal career lasted throughout her short life and ended in San Quentin’s gas chamber.
Between 1940 and her final arrest in 1953 she was married four times, marriages punctuated by jail terms, court appearances, divorces and brief attempts at honest living. She had three children by her four husbands and lost custody of all of them. Husbands Harry Kielhammer, Aloyse Puechel and Charles Newman had all been and gone before she met and married Henry Graham in 1950.
Her criminal friends saw her serve her first serious prison time. When two of them needed a false alibi after a robbery Graham provided one, going into court and perjuring herself in the process. For that she found herself serving a year in California’s women’s prison in Tehachapi. On her release she headed to Reno and then Tonopah, Nevada violating her parole in the process. She was supposed to stay in California and away from known felons but did neither.
Returning to Los Angeles she returned to her old habits and scratched a living as a prostitute and small-time con-artist. Conning clients and random strangers into cashing checks made out to her added a little extra money. Drug use soon ate into what little she was making. One such encounter proved fateful and eventually fatal. When a barman warned her that a potential client was actually a detective Graham got talking and liked the look of him. The barman was one Henry Graham who became her fourth and final husband in 1950.
Henry Graham was also a drug user and hardened crook with a lengthy record. As much as anybody steered her toward Condemned Row albeit unwittingly. Graham’s criminal acquaintances included Emmett Perkins, a career criminal with protruding ears and an oily grin. He was known to the Los Angeles underworld as ‘The Weasel.’ Weasel by name, weasel by nature.
Perkins employed her as a shill luring gamblers to illegal card and dice games. The cards were marked, the dice loaded and the gamblers mercilessly fleeced. As gambling was illegal in California they could hardly call the police. Even if they had the Los Angeles Police Department’s corruption problem would have made the cases go away. Players themselves, on the other hand, could have been convicted of illegal gambling.
Before meeting Perkins she had also worked as a ‘seagull,’ a prostitute servicing sailors and workers around San Diego naval base. Her criminal contacts had only broadened and she had gone from being a call girl herself to managing a brothel run by legendary LA madam Sally Stanford. She might have been better off staying in Stanford’s employ avoiding the likes of Perkins and especially Perkins’ friend John Santo. Marrying Henry Graham was probably one of the worst decisions she ever made.
John Santo usually called himself ‘Jack’ and was a mysterious, shady character at best. At various times he claimed to be a diver, gambler, prospector and mining engineer and had fought as a mercenary for the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Whatever else he was or may have been Jack Santo was a career criminal with a vicious reputation.
Hot-tempered and quick to use force, Santo’s career included numerous robberies and assaults, at least six murders and possibly seven even before meeting Graham. After meeting her Santo and Perkins added at least two more murders including Mabel Monahan. He was a very nasty individual indeed. Of the murders Santo had already committed and later would, most of them involved Emmett Perkins. Of the two Santo was the more vicious and cunning, very much the dominant partner although Perkins himself was barely any better. Larcenous, lawless and violent, they made a natural duo.
Unsurprisingly they and John True had a plan for a lucrative robbery of an easy target. Luther ‘Tutor’ Scherer was a wealthy man heavily involved in Nevada’s burgeoning gambling industry. His former mother-in-law Mabel Monahan lived in Burbank and was said to keep over $100,000 of Scherer’s money safely hidden from the Internal Revenue Service. Santo and Perkins wanted it and, Monahan being an easy target, were determined to get it.
Their problem was how to get her to open her front door. She was a nervous soul by nature and, if the cash was hidden there, would have been especially wary of opening her door to several rough-looking strangers. If, on the other hand, an attractive young woman rang the bell and asked to use her phone, she probably would. Barbara Graham, a veteran shill well used to fooling people, fit the bill perfectly.
Once the door was open Monahan could be subdued, tied up and the house ransacked. The result could be as much as $20,000 or more each split five ways between Santo, Perkins, True, Graham and Baxter Shorter, a known safe-cracker. Small-time thief Willie Upshaw had been approached but, disliking Santo and Perkins’ demeanor and knowing their violent reputations, had wisely declined. Upshaw later proved crucial in catching the rest of the gang. As somebody who knew about the crime but had not participated he could provide corroboration if any defendant turned State’s evidence. The robbery itself was set for 11 March 1953.
It was a dismal failure. Mabel Monahan was left dying on the floor of her Burbank home. There was no stash of gambling profits and the gang bungled even further when they left her handbag in the house. It contained jewelry worth around $15,000 then and almost $150,000 today. Not that it made any difference to Mabel Monahan. She was already dead.
She had been brutally beaten, pistol-whipped and choked in a failed attempt to steal a non-existent fortune. Scherer did not have a six-figure sum hidden in her home and the gang had killed her for nothing. When torturing her gained them nothing the gang had wrapped her head in a pillowcase, twisted picture wire around her neck and left her to die. An anonymous phone call to an emergency operator might have saved her life had the ambulance not been wrongly directed. It went to the wrong address and Mabel Monahan died. What Californian newspapers press christened the ‘Monahan murder mob’ then scattered.
Public and police response was swift. Californians were outraged at so vicious a crime especially when it had come to nothing. The police in turn wanted the killers under lock and key and received great pressure to make quick arrests. They made it clear to California’s underworld that they would show no mercy to anyone convicted of the Monahan murder. It was a time-honored tactic; Pressure the entire underworld and eventually somebody would squeal.
It took little time before a small-time crook protected himself by talking and Willie Upshaw had plenty to offer the LAPD. He lost no time naming Santo, Perkins, Shorter and John True. With them had been one of Perkins’ girlfriends, an attractive former call girl with reddish-blonde hair named Barbara Graham.
Before long True was in custody. Arrested in Nevada County, former diver True had fled to Tijuana before returning to California. It was a bad move to put himself back in the LAPD’s jurisdiction. Grilled thoroughly by detectives anxious to close the case quickly, True at first held out. The abduction and disappearance of Baxter Shorter abruptly changed his mind. Santo and Perkins began to think Shorter would crack and was too soft not to cut a deal if arrested. Shorter, therefore, had to go.
One of the two kidnapers who dragged Shorter from his hotel never to be seen again was identified by Shorter’s wife as Emmet Perkins. The other masked man strongly resembled Jack Santo. Shorter’s disappearance quickly changed True’s mind. He knew co-operation risked a visit from Santo and Perkins and joining Shorter wherever they had buried him.
True also knew not co-operating risked a visit from the LAPD and very likely a visit to San Quentin’s notorious ‘little green room.’ In the 1950’s California’s executioner was doing brisk business and crooks and honest citizens alike knew it. With True willing to talk after Shorter’s disappearance the outlook was bleak for his partners-in-crime. Santo, Perkins and Graham began growing even more nervous. As California’s most wanted they could trust nobody.
When Willie Upshaw talked their situation worsened further. Upshaw could give police details of the robbery but had not taken part. The day after the robbery Shorter had given him all those details, including Shorter’s making the emergency phone call. He could corroborate True’s version of events in court. Between them, even without the missing Shorter’s testimony, they could send Santo, Perkins and Graham to Condemned Row. For that trio the outlook was already bleak. When they were arrested at their Lynwood hideout it looked even bleaker. Ironically considering the severity of their crimes they were traced by some of Graham’s dud checks.
Graham was about to make a bad situation impossible. While awaiting trial she struck up a friendship of sorts with fellow convict Donna Prow, serving time for manslaughter. Prow in turn offered her help, a friend named ‘Sam’ who Prow claimed would provide everything needed for a false alibi while Santo and Perkins had none. ‘Sam,’ said Prow, could see her safely back on the street while her confederates could either sink or swim, but he wanted $25,000 to do it.
Graham took the bait and ‘Sam’ duly visited. He offered to set up an alibi with a hotel receipt and even a hotel clerk willing to testify that the pair stayed at his hotel on the night of the robbery. He also gleaned some fascinating information on the robbery and Shorter’s disappearance.
Graham admitted she had been with the others when Mabel Monahan was robbed and tortured. She also reassured him that Shorter would never appear in court. According to Graham’s own words ‘Sam’ could use his imagination regarding Shorter’s disappearance. Agreeing the $25,000 fee she even offered extra for the hotel clerk’s perjury.
Worse was to follow. When Santo, Perkins and Graham went for trial they were faced with the death penalty’s Dream Team. Veteran Adolph Alexander led the prosecution. Alexander’s assistant was J. Miller Leavy, a highly-skilled lawyer never afraid to press for death sentences. By his retirement in 1973 Leavy had secured death sentences on twelve men and one woman. Presiding Judge Charles Fricke took an even harder line. He still holds the record for condemning more convicts than any other Californian judge, his list including Caryl Chessman among many others. Just as Leavy had no problem asking for the death penalty, Fricke had no problem inflicting it.
When their trial began Santo was poker-faced and Perkins looked nervous, but reasonably confident. Graham looked unconcerned as though the outcome was always going to be favourable. Unlike her co-defendants she had an ace in the hole, her expensively-purchased and carefully-crafted false alibi would see her safely out of court. As far as she was concerned the other two could live or die provided she survived.
Initially things went as well as could be expected. Fricke was stern, running things with a firm hand as always. There could be no doubt who was in charge. Prosecutors Alexander and Leavy displayed their usual dedication, mixing eloquent argument with appeals to the jury’s sense of duty. Society demanded justice, they said, and there was no doubt what kind of justice these defendants deserved. Jack Hardy (for Graham) and S. Ward Sullivan (for Santo and Perkins) did their best with what they had. Starting with precious little to work with, Hardy would soon have even less.
True’s testimony was as damaging as could be expected. He detailed the crime itself, emphasized Graham’s active participation and downplayed his own part as much as he could. True claimed it was he who cut away some of the pillowcase and loosened the wire helping Mabel Monahan breathe more easily. He also claimed he told Baxter Shorter to call the ambulance, hard to disprove in Shorter’s absence.
True was attacked for testifying in return for immunity but he and the prosecutors held firm. There was little Hardy and Sullivan could do other than point out his deal and his potential reason to perjure himself. Despite being a shady character unlikely to testify out of civic virtue, True proved unexpectedly solid under questioning. Another piece of evidence literally spoke for itself. It was defendant Barbara Graham.
The shock came when prosecutors called a familiar name, familiar to Barbara Graham at any rate. When Sam Sirianni was called by the prosecution Graham looked first mystified and then appalled. Why would the State call her witness? He was testifying for her, not them. What was going on?
It was actually very simple. Graham had unwittingly unlocked the gas chamber door for herself, Santo and Perkins. True’s testimony was based on an offer of immunity. Hardy could and did attack it as perjury based on self-interest. Whether True perjured himself will likely never be established, but Graham certainly was and the world was about to know it.
‘Sam’ was actually Lieutenant Sam Sirianni of the LAPD Intelligence Department. For an early release Donna Prow had set her up. Worse still Sirianni had worn a wire. Graham’s entire fake alibi was on tape and would be replayed in open court. Her goose was well and truly cooked.
As Sirianni’s testimony began Santo and Perkins knew immediately what Graham had done. Their faces conveyed disgust, fury and outright hatred. Defense lawyer Jack Hardy had also been lied to. A disgusted Hardy asked Judge Fricke to remove him from the case. Fricke refused because the trial had already begun. Hardy knew most about the case and was the best lawyer to present it. Not that it would make the slightest difference by then. Graham could have hired Clarence Darrow or F. Lee Bailey and still been convicted.
Graham was mentally shattered by Sirianni’s evidence. She would have been physically shattered if Santo and Perkins had been allowed near her. As if ‘Sam’ betraying her wasn’t bad enough even worse was to follow. Her credibility was already destroyed when Leavy played his other trump card. He pointed out one of her many previous convictions, the sentence in Tehachapi for perjury.
The additional perjury conviction was not lost on the jury. In mere minutes Leavy had utterly destroyed her credibility as a witness. Her false alibi had cost far more than a mere $25,000. She had effectively cost herself, Santo and Perkins their lives. By that point even a law student could have prosecuted and won. If they had defended they could hardly have made things any worse.
By then the result was a formality. Standing in for the cancer-stricken Judge Fricke, Judge Clement Nye received the verdicts on September 22 1953. He condemned all three on September 25. Santo and Perkins went straight to San Quentin’s Condemned Row and Graham to the California Institution for Women at Corona. Nearly a month of evidence had come down to the jury deliberating only five hours and twenty minutes. Graham, Santo and Perkins had less than two years to live.
The trial had been a media sensation especially for Graham’s lurid past. Graham, christened ‘Bloody Babs’ by reporters, was its star attraction. Opinion was divided over her guilt or innocence and whether she should be California’s third woman to be gassed. Some blamed her predicament entirely on her bad childhood, choices and taste in men as though she bore little or personal responsibility. Others felt she was the worst of the three defendants facing execution. Neither extreme was or is really credible, most believing the truth lay somewhere between the two.
Santo and Perkins were side-men in the Bloody Babs drama. They stayed largely silent, refusing to confirm or deny her guilt or innocence. They had their reasons. If the State backed down on executing her it would be more difficult to execute them. Graham had after all been blamed for much of the torture inflicted on Mabel Monahan. The State, on the other hand, would have to execute her if it wanted to execute them. It was to their advantage to keep her as the primary figure in the case even while hating her for trying to save her own life by sacrificing theirs. Graham, meanwhile, sat in her cell at Corona waiting for lawyer’s visits and appeals.
She was to be disappointed. The courts were uninterested in her appeals. They were not impressed by her claims that press coverage had prejudiced the trial. They were prepared to believe True’s evidence and saw nothing wrong in the prosecution’s use of it. They also ruled that Upshaw and Sirianni’s testimony corroborated True’s and that the three defendants having fled supported their evidence.
Appeal after appeal was filed by lawyer Al Matthews and they were denied with increasing speed and brevity. A press campaign did little good either. All sympathetic lawyers and reporters could buy her was time and little of it. Some hostile press probably harmed her case as well. Graham was moved to San Quentin after reports of an underworld plot to free her from Corona or kill her.
She was returned to Corona when the threat (real or imagined) was eventually dismissed. While there reporters called her cell luxurious (it was actually a converted room inside the prison hospital). They bemoaned the additional cost of keeping her at San Quentin and seemed anxious to file stories on something new, preferably her execution. Execution stories always sold well when the prisoner was already notorious and the Monahan case could be rehashed for anyone not already bored by it. ‘Bloody Babs’ was good for circulation as long as the case (and Graham herself) lasted. That would not be for much longer.
For Santo and Perkins it would make no difference. Tried again on unrelated charges they received life sentences in January 1954 and additional death sentences in May. Whatever happened to Graham, Santo and Perkins were still dead men walking. Even if she won a legal miracle and walked free they would still die. If they had wanted they could have exonerated her (honestly or otherwise) but did not. They still nursed grudges over her betrayal at the Monahan trial. If they were to die they wanted Graham dead as well.
Graham still held increasingly-faint hope of that miracle or at least a commutation. They proved as weak as her false alibi. The State of California was determined that all three would pay for Mabel Monahan’s brutal murder. A car arrived at Corona the day before she was scheduled to die. Graham was headed for San Quentin on the last ride she would ever take.
Arriving at 4pm, she was immediately taken to the pre-execution ‘ready room’ cells. These were far from luxurious, just walls of bars and a door, a matron watching her every movement and a record player. On a nearby table bubbled a coffee pot. Near her cell was the ominous steel door barring her twelve steps to the gas chamber.
Offered a sedative for toothache she prepared herself for the end. She would die first at 10am. Santo and Perkins would follow her that afternoon. Her lawyers worked right up to and beyond the appointed time. Frantic though they were the lawyers only made things worse. Instead of winning her more time they only increased her suffering when the time finally came.
At 9:20am Governor Goodwin Knight, a death penalty opponent, had ordered a delay. He called again at 10:27 ordering Warden Harley Teets to go ahead. A 10:40 another appeal was filed. At 10:44 she was mere steps from the chamber door when the phone rang with another delay. At 11:10 that too was revoked. After years of hope, despair, appeals and denials Graham would die at 11:30.
She did die at 11:30, remarking bitterly that;
“Good people are always so sure they’re right.”
Walked to the chamber wearing an eye-mask (her last request) she was strapped down and the stethoscope connected. Guards gave her the traditional farewell of “Count ten, breathe deep and don’t fight the gas. It’s easier that way.” Her response was scornful.
“How the hell would you know?”
At 11:34 the executioner, probably veteran Max Brice, pulled his lever. With the gas now swirling round he there was no turning back. Despite initially holding her breath Graham ‘died easily’ at 11:42 according to the prison doctor. As journalist Seymour Ettmann scornfully remarked “Not one of us newspapermen would have described her death as ‘easy,’ but then that had to be the official verdict.”
Santo and Perkins followed her that afternoon, Santo dying slowly while Perkins succumbed within minutes. As defiant and cocky as Graham had been, Santo grinned just before the lever was pulled remarking
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
There had been very little Santo and Perkins had not already done.
With all three now dead the Monahan case was over, but not Graham’s legacy. She continues to generate controversy and debate even now. Her guilt is undeniable. Whether she deserved to die will always be more debatable. John True died in a shipping accident in 1958, his testimony was never proved or disproved. He was one of many involved in her case who died shortly afterward.
Defense lawyer Jack Hardy died of a heart attack one month after her execution. ‘Tutor’ Scherer died of apoplexy in 1958. Another heart attack claimed Warden Teets the same year. John True was killed in a work-related accident in 1958 and a few days later Judge Fricke died of cancer. Only weeks after Fricke’s death Willie Upshaw suffered a fatal car accident. Last to be officially pronounced dead was Baxter Shorter. After the legally-required seven years since his kidnaping Shorter was declared dead in 1960. His body has never been found.
Rules governing the use of informants and entrapment have since been changed but they are still used against defendants. Defendants can still be executed for being present when a murder is committed but, with Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment the gas chamber and lethal injection facility have been dismantled.
Even when the moratorium expires at the end of Governor Newsom’s tenure San Quentin’s ‘smokehouse’ will never be used again. Ruled unconstitutional by Federal Judge Marilyn Hall Patel in 1994, it has become a grim relic of California’s penal past.
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