Major Raymond Lisenba, A.K.A. “Rattlesnake James.”

May 1, 1942, marked the end of an era in Californian crime. The execution of Major Raymond Lisenba was also the end of California’s gallows. Unused since 1938, the gallows had needed renovation before James’ execution. After four years using only the gas chamber, San Quentin’s former hangman had to remember how to prepare it. San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy had been worried that the hanging would go badly. When it did, Duffy was as disgusted afterward as he had been concerned beforehand. After Lisenba, California’s gallows would never be used again.

When he plunged through the trapdoors at 10 a.m. on Black Friday, Lisenba was also the first, last, and only felon to adopt a highly unusual weapon, Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes. Unfortunately for Lisenba, “Lethal and Lightning” (Crotalus Atrox to give them their proper name) rather let themselves down. Declining to deliver the lethal dose they so easily could have, their master resorted to more traditional means. Quickly noticed by the authorities, their bite-marks proved deadlier to him than to his last victim.

Using snake venom as a murder weapon is not as rare as it might seem. In Roman times, assassins used them to avoid attacking in person. The kris, a traditional Malay sword, had snake venoms and other toxins forged into the blade. Even minor wounds could be and usually were fatal. Their manufacture today is illegal except without the toxins. Snake venom is a toxin like any other. Unlike more popular toxins such as arsenic it has its own living, breaathing delivery system.

James was a man of many names, marriages, and suspected murders. Born in Hale County, Alabama, in 1895, he was certainly familiar with snakes. By the time he reached Southern California in 1935, Lisenba was only too familiar with being widowed as well. Two of his previous three wives had already died suspiciously. His fourth wife Mary was about to. Her own death finally ended her husband’s murder spree.

Lisenba’s wives, his uncle and nephew had also died suspiciously. Fortunately for Lisenba, they were all insured, mostly with “double indemnity” clauses doubling payouts for accidental death. Died they undoubtedly had; accidentally, probably not. Lisenba’s trail of suspicious deaths and insurance pay-outs marks him as a probable serial murderer for money.

With hindsight, Lisenba’s previous suspected murders seem amateurish and should have been spotted far earlier. First wife Maud Duncan had married hastily and divorced even more hastily, citing sadistic sexual practices and habitual cruelty. She may have saved her own life by doing so. When her ex-husband’s full history came to light, there could be little doubt she was probably an intended victim.

Before Lisenba’s first marriage, his uncle had died leaving him the beneficiary of a $4,000 insurance policy. To a poor Southerner who had started working the cotton fields before being sent to barber college $4000 was an enormous sum. Whether he murdered his uncle to get it or receiving the payment gave him the idea we will probably never know.

Once divorced, Lisenba moved to Kansas, married again, and was quickly divorced. His infidelity with the daughter of a local man was grounds enough. Her father running him out of town with a shotgun gave her grounds for desertion as well. Eventually, Lisenba’s taste for women far younger than himself would be the beginning of the end.

Rumors of another wife were never confirmed, but one has certainly been suggested. According to the San Bernadino County Sun of August 10, 1936, he had married Ruth Thomas in 1934. He had wanted to insure her, and she had immediately grown suspicious. Remarking that people he insured had a tendency to die quickly she left him, having the marriage annulled in New Orleans in 1934. Leaving her short-lived marriage almost certainly saved her life.

Moving again, Lisenba met third wife Winona in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1932.  He promptly took her out West where he had set up an expensive barbershop. This time, his hunting ground was La Canada in Flintridge, California, where he married and insured her with unseemly haste. Later that year, she died near Colorado Springs, though not at the first time of asking. When their car had plunged off Pike’s Peak Highway during their honeymoon, his wife suffered near-fatal head injuries. Strangely for so serious an accident, Lisenba was unhurt. Their honeymoon had got off to an unfortunate and suspicious start.

Lisenba had explained that when the car went out of control, he had thrown himself clear. He had not explained the blood-stained hammer in the car. Nor had investigators asked him about it. He could not have explained why Winona’s injuries were more consistent with hammer blows, a gunshot, or perhaps both instead of a car accident, either. He was probably relieved when investigators did not ask him to do so.

Shortly afterward, Winona (according to her now-widowed husband) had ignored medical advice and insisted on taking a bath and washing her hair. The hot water, he claimed, must have made her dizzy explaining her accidentally drowning in the bathtub. As an accidental death, the double indemnity clause doubled the insurance payout. The two $5,000 policies were worth $20,000 if the company settled in full.

That did not mean the insurance company did not have their suspicions, only that they could not prove murder. Instead, they settled out of court giving Lisenba $14,000 instead of $20,000. Lisenba knew better than to attract attention by demanding the full amount. He was also looking for another wife, murder for gain being more lucrative and less taxing than a legitimate living. Morality (or a total lack thereof) simply did not concern him.

Having collected $14,000 after Winona Wallace’s “accidental” death, Cornelius Wright was Lisenba’s nephew and his next alleged victim. Also heavily insured by Lisenba, Wright was also somewhat accident-prone. At least, the young sailor became accident-prone soon after his uncle signed the policy. Just as Lisenba’s uncle had died, leaving a large amount of cash, so too would his nephew.

When Wright visited while on leave, his uncle was only too happy to lend him his car. He was probably even happier when Wright promptly suffered a fatal car accident. The accident was put down to a defective steering wheel, costing the young man his heavily-insured life. Wright’s grieving uncle promptly collected another large insurance payout.

In California, he was known as “Robert James,” perhaps deciding his real name was too easily traced. It was not long before his latest (and last) victim came into his sights. One of his barbershop employees was a tall, pretty, twenty-six-year-old blonde named Mary Busch. Shortly afterward, Mary Busch became Mary James—heavily insured with a double indemnity clause, naturally.

From the day Lisenba signed the policy her days were numbered. So too, although he did not yet know it, were those of her homicidal husband. At first, both partners were insured and were each other’s beneficiary. Lisenba had clearly learned from the wife who divorced him for wanting to insure her alone. Now a veteran liar, seducer, and killer, his increased experience had made him much more plausible and far more dangerous. 

Though certainly a skilled insurance fraudster, possible bigamist, and practiced murderer, “Robert James” was not an expert on snakes. No doubt, he had met many in the South and Southern California, but he knew little about them except that they could kill people. Not being an expert, that made them good enough for his latest marriage and murder. In areas like Southern California, rattlesnakes are plentiful, bites are common, and deaths not unusual.

The Western Diamondback accounts for more snakebites per year than any other snake in the country. Native to Southern and Central California, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico, they are known for their distinctive rattle used to warn off other creatures, including humans. They strike quickly and can kill if their bite is untreated. Their rattle is one of the most distinctive and feared sounds in the animal kingdom.

Feared and loathed by many, the Western Diamondback is also the most notorious rattlesnake despite being far from the most aggressive or lethal. Untreated bites kill perhaps 10–20 percent of their victims, making a bite an awful but seldom fatal misfortune. The Timber Rattlesnake (found more in the Midwest, southern, and eastern states) is considerably more dangerous, but in Southern California, the Western Diamondback was more readily available. “Robert James” knew where he could get them.

An acquaintance named Charles Hope was able to obtain rattlesnakes, and by June 1935, Lisenba wanted them. He offered Hope $100 for three Western Diamondbacks. According to Hope’s later evidence, Lisenba had said he wanted them for a friend. The friend, Hope said, had wanted to murder his wife and make it look accidental.

An alcoholic whose appetite for whiskey outweighed any moral sense, Hope knew $100 could buy a lot to drink. A visit to a snake-handler duly procured them, yet “Robert James” was to be disappointed. They were placid creatures by snake standards, far from the aggressive terrors said to bite and kill on a whim.

As such, they were useless to Lisenba, and Hope obtained another pair in August. A visit to the Ocean Park Snake Pit’s snake-handler Joseph Houtenbrink provided the answer, or so Lisenba thought. Lethal and Lightning were two prime young rattlers that “Snake Joe” promised would be bad-tempered and prone to bite, only they were not.

As far as “Snake Joe” knew, they were bought to settle a bet. Would a rattler kill a stray dog or would the dog kill the rattler? Having believed (or chosen to believe) that Hope wanted them for this distasteful purpose, Houtenbrink had no problem selling them. Lisenba’s unwitting partners-in-crime proved deadlier to him than they were supposed to have been to his wife.

As a rule, rattlesnakes are not particularly aggressive, at least not compared to the Black Mamba, Cobra, Krait, or Taipan. Their venom is potentially lethal but less so than many venomous snakes. Their bites often deliver large doses, but that compensates for the venom being less lethal. Plenty of other snakes deliver far smaller doses with far deadlier effect.

Humans are not their natural prey, so they often save their venom, delivering a so-called “dry bite” to non-edible creatures. All told, they are rather misunderstood creatures—not an ideal way to murder by proxy. Not being an expert, James decided they would do the job perfectly well.

His next problem was delivery. Exactly how would he get Lethal and Lightning literally within striking distance? Rattlesnakes are very distinctive creatures, and once spotted, sensible people tend to keep their distance. Only experts can handle them safely, and even then, potentially lethal bites are perfectly possible.

Again, Lisenba found a crude but simple solution. His wife was pregnant and he was sure he could persuade her (probably not gently) to have an illegal termination. Once she was tied securely to the kitchen table, her eyes and mouth taped tightly shut, Lethal and Lightning would do the rest. Precisely how he persuaded her is unknown, but persuade (or force) her he did. He reckoned without Lethal and Lightning being uncooperative, Charles Hope’s switching sides to save himself, and that Prudential Insurance had heard his name (and aliases) once too often.

Lethal and Lightning had arrived on August 3, 1935. His plan now settled, Lisenba used them the very next day. He had spent some time trying to get Mary to consent to the termination. When Hope arrived with the snakes on the evening of August 4, Lisenba’s plan was already in motion. Mary lay bound on the table, her eyes and mouth firmly taped. So far, all had gone entirely to plan. Lisenba then brought in Lethal and Lightning. Between them, the two rattlers undid everything he had intended.

When Mary had her feet placed in the box, they did bite her but not fatally. She had bite marks on her foot and rattlesnake venom in her body, but not enough to kill. Lethal and Lightning might as well have been Slow and Lazy. They had only one job and decided they were not going to do it. Confronted by a pair of human feet, not edible prey, they more than likely casually bit her foot and then ignored her. Whatever their problem, Lisenba had a bigger one. Mary was still alive.

When Hope arrived to collect his $100, she was still stubbornly clinging to life.. He watched Lisenba put his bound and gagged wife’s feet in the box. He probably heard them rattle and perhaps bite. In fairness to Hope, there was little else he could have done. If he tried to stop Lisenba, Lisenba would surely have killed him. If he reached into the box to remove Mary’s feet, then Lethal and Lightning could easily have killed him. Under California law, Hope was as committed as Lisenba and as likely to hang if he was caught. Given the dreadful effects of rattlesnake venom, Hope’s inaction is understandable.

The venom of the Western Diamondback is particularly nasty. Western Diamondbacks average 250–350 milligrams in a single bite but can deliver up to 800 milligrams. Less than 400 milligrams can easily be fatal. Mostly composed of haemotoxins that attack and destroy the victim’s blood. With haemotoxins come cytotoxins and myotoxins that attack and destroy tissue including the heart.

Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, breathing difficulties, tissue necrosis, convulsions, and severe bleeding. Destroyed muscles and nerves start turning black, often causing permanent limb damage or even amputation, assuming the victim survives. The blood loss alone can be potentially lethal and the pain intense and agonising throughout.

That was what Lisenba had in mind for wife Mary. It certainly prevented Hope from trying to stop him. Once the two rattlers had (apparently) played their part, Lisenba and Hope left the house. After handing Lethal and Lightning back to “Snake Joe,” they returned to Lisenba’s home. Arriving at around 1.20 a.m. on August 4, they returned to a very serious, equally unexpected problem. 

Lisenba and Hope were both astonished and appalled, but what to do? They could hardly go back to Snake Joe in the early hours of the morning and reclaim their rattlers or ask him for a refund. As far as Joe knew, Lethal and Lightning had won their match with the stray dog. To return for any reason at all would only arouse suspicion.

Having overcomplicated everything, Lisenba returned to the simpler method he had very likely used on Winona Wallace. He simply put Mary in a full bathtub and drowned her, carried her out into the garden, and left her in the fishpond. Mary having “disappeared” meant he could conveniently find her body later, seemingly the victim of a tragic (and lucrative) accident. Lethal and Lightning not living up to their reputations had merely been a bump in the road. All that remained was to convince the insurers to pay out before disappearing and finding his next victim.

Hope’s role in the murder itself was small, merely providing the snakes and watching Lisenba use them. His knowledge of the murder was far more extensive and his position potentially very dangerous. Hope knew too much, and both he and Lisenba knew it. Fearing Lisenba and possibly San Quentin’s gallows, Hope traded information for leniency. Had the psychopathic Lisenba realized what a liability Hope would become, Hope’s life expectancy might have been greatly shortened.

His next step was to ensure Mary’s body was found in unsuspicious circumstances. Inviting Viola and Ray Pemberton over for dinner, Lisenba suddenly “noticed” Mary’s absence and asked the Pembertons to help him find her. When she was not discovered in the house, Lisenba helpfully suggested the garden. Discreetly steering them toward the fishpond, Mary’s body was duly found and a $10,000 insurance payout was duly made.

Lisenba would doubtless have continued to marry and murder had he not been arrested on April 19, 1936, for sleeping with his niece, which was a felony in California. His latest bereavement and insurance pay-out had also aroused suspicion. He later accused police of “third-degree” interrogation, something the courts noted but did not think sufficient to reverse his murder conviction.

While being investigated on the incest charge, Lisenba received far worse news. Police were also investigating Mary’s death. After what he later alleged was serial mistreatment while being held without a lawyer, Lisenba cracked on May 3. Hope had been arrested two days earlier and cracked almost immediately. Lisenba was then brought in to meet him and realized all was lost.

Major Raymond Lisenba, A.K.A. “Robert James,” was about to enter Californian history as “Rattlesnake James.” He would leave California itself via the hangman’s rope—the last in the state to do so. Hope drew life imprisonment and was quickly sent to San Quentin to serve his time.

Lisenba would soon join him at San Quentin, but not in its general population. July 25, 1936, saw the jury render their verdict.

“We find the defendant, Major Raymond Lisenba, guilty of murder in the first degree.”

Lisenba was duly condemned to hang and shipped under armed escort to San Quentin’s Hangman’s Hall. He would remain there for six years, filing appeal after appeal, taking his case right to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1937, California officially discarded its gallows. From then on, all condemned convicts would face the gas chamber apart from those already sentenced to hang.

Lisenba would avoid a visit to what convicts already called the “Big Sleep,” “Time Machine,” or “smokehouse,” but the gallows sat idle, except for the occasional crash of its trapdoor. The gallows were painted egg-blue. The chamber’s color had earned it another nickname—the “little green room.” Apple-green or egg-blue, the result was the same. Not caring whether he choked the rope or the gas, Lisenba fought the sentence every step of the way.

In his memoir, Duffy described Lisenba as:

“An odd character. Despite frequent confessions he managed to convince himself of his innocence and was trying to convince everyone else by the time he reached Death Row.”

A kind and fair warden, Duffy took an interest in all his prisoners, especially the condemned. That said, Duffy was no pushover. He was as tough as he was fair and had become warden having started out as a guard like his father had been. The abolitionist Duffy did not believe Lisenba for a second. He just did not want to kill him and saw no point in doing so.

Lisenba and his lawyers delayed his execution for years. They alleged police had tortured the confession out of him, violated his rights by denying him access to a lawyer, complained of the prosecutors bringing live rattlesnakes into the courtroom, and that evidence of Lisenba murdering Winona Wallace was inadmissible.

He even suggested Hope had drowned her and that drowning her had put undue suspicion on him after Winona Wallace’s untimely death. Lisenba’s last suggestion was also his weakest—that all three had been drinking heavily, making Mary’s death accidental. Seeing as Wallace’s death had not officially been ruled a murder, these might seem like solid grounds for appeal.

The courts thought differently. They were somewhat interested in his claims of police brutality, but not enough to reverse his conviction. They eventually dismissed his other claims as well. Almost six years to the day after his confession, May 1, 1942 would mark the end of California’s gallows and of “Rattlesnake James” himself. That day was fast approaching.

For Warden Clinton Duffy, this posed quite a problem. Since replacing Court Smith, Duffy had been in charge of gas chamber executions. Although he had witnessed a couple of hangings as associate warden, this was the first, last, and only time Duffy would actually run one. It was not a task Duffy relished, but it had to be done.

San Quentin’s previous hanging had been of murderer William Smith on September 8, 1939, before Duffy’s appointment as Warden. Six convicts had been gassed before Smith and another fourteen before Lisenba’s scheduled date, making twenty in total. They included Juanita Spinelli, the first woman ever to suffer the gas chamber. After so long without a hanging, San Quentin’s hagmen were sorely out of practice. Given the awful death inflicted on Lisenba, it was perhaps just as well they never hanged anyone again.

First the gallows had to be renovated and tested and a new holding cell built to hold Lisenba during his final hours. San Quentin’s condemned now lived in Condemned Row, the top floor of North Block, instead of Hangman’s Hall inside the Jute Mill, later destroyed by a fire in 1951. The Row was sited there for a simple reason, being the hardest floor to escape from.

Five locked doors and a locked elevator now stood between the condemned and the ground floor, the gas chamber, and two pre-execution cells (nicknamed the “Ready Room,” where they spent their last night). The elevator only went between the ground floor and Condemned Row and, assuming escapers got that far, they would still have more walls, fences and armed tower guards to evade. The chamber had two perforated steel chairs regularly used for what staff called a ‘double event.’ Double executions were cheaper and easier on the execution team.

Lisenba waited in his own holding cell near the scaffold. His attorney had visited him to break the bad news. There was nothing left for Mr. Parsons to do, and the governor was very unlikely to grant clemency. It was over, this was the end. He sent a final note to Warden Duffy before turning in:

“Dear Warden, just a line to thank you for your kindness to me since I have been here. I want you to know I have no hard feelings against anyone. I hope to meet you and the Governor in a better world.”

The gallows was ready and all hope was gone. After at least one confirmed murder and several likely ones, it was time for Lisenba to join his victims. His last night in the holding cell was a quiet one, without trouble from Lisenba or any chance of clemency. Lisenba probably had a less stressful night than Warden Duffy.

Since Lisenba’s sentencing, Duffy had done all he could to have the method changed from the gallows to the gas chamber. His executioner wanted it changed, skeptical about his ability to deliver a clean hanging after so long without one. Duffy loathed the death penalty generally and, after seeing many botched hangings, he hated the rope in particular. That he was now warden and responsible for any mishap made it even harder.

Several things might have gone wrong. The trapdoors might jam solid, leaving the prisoner literally teetering between life and death. The rope could break; if it did, the prisoner would have to wait while another was rigged. The drop had to be calculated exactly in feet and inches, too long and Lisenba could be instantly decapitated. Too short a drop would not be enough to break the prisoner’s neck. If that happened they would strangle slowly; some had been known to last over thirty minutes before finally dying.

Lisenba had been waiting to die for six years, firing every legal shot available to avoid the noose. It had made no difference. At 10 a.m. on May 1, 1942, he did so, and the results were revolting. Lisenba was taken from his cell and his restraints secured before climbing the scaffold’s thirteen steps—a short climb to the long drop. Both Duffy and his hangman feared a disaster after four years without a hanging. Their worst fears were quickly realized.

Out of practice, the hangman miscalculated the drop and positioned the noose incorrectly. Instead of beng knocked unconscious by the force of the drop his neck breaking cleanly and instantly, Lisenba choked for over ten minutes. His legs twitched, his face turned purple, blood dripped from wounds made by the rope, and he lost control of his bodily functions. The witnesses, prison staff, and Warden Duffy watched aghast as it took him almost fifteen minutes to die. A couple of spectators also fainted.

As horrific as it was, this was not unusual. American hangmen frequently lacked the skill and professionalism of their British brethren. They also had an unfortunate reputation for drunkenness. Nothing suggests San Quentin’s executioner was drunk, but he certainly botched his work. While a common sight, it was still utterly revolting. A disgusted Duffy later described the event to reporters and in his memoir 88 Men and Two Women (the total number of executions he supervised):

“I have nothing more to say except that this was the most terrible experience of my entire life and I pray to God I shall never have to repeat it.”

The state of California, Warden Duffy, and “Rattlesnake James” all had one thing in common. None would ever have to endure such a nightmare again. In any event, they could not have. Around a month after Rattlesnake James died the gallows were wrecked by an unnamed inmate. Duffy reportedly knew who was responsible, but took no action.

2 responses to “Major Raymond Lisenba, A.K.A. “Rattlesnake James.””

  1. William Mcbride Avatar
    William Mcbride

    This was a very strange hanging and the Warden Clinton Duffy was a honoured man same as fellow Warden Lewis Lawes at Sing Sing Prison. They were both honorable men with the same convictions which I admired very much. Both gone they will go down in history as very remarkable men


    1. Yet New York’s Department of Corrections Handbook lists many of the reforms Lawes instituted, but studiousy never mentions him by name.


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