How Barbara Graham, the Third Woman Executed by Gas in California, Died of Asphyxiation

Barbara Graham was a notorious criminal who was convicted of murder and executed by gas in 1955. She was involved in a robbery that led to the brutal killing of an elderly widow, Mabel Monohan. But what exactly caused her death? How did she suffocate in the gas chamber? And what was her role in the crime that sealed her fate? In this article, we will explore the facts and mysteries surrounding Barbara Graham’s cause of death.

The Crime that Led to the Death Penalty

Barbara Graham was born in 1923 in Oakland, California, to a young, unwed mother who was a prostitute. She had a troubled childhood and a turbulent life, marked by multiple marriages, divorces, and involvement in the sex trade. She also had a criminal record for vagrancy, perjury, and forgery. According to Wikipedia, she was nicknamed “Bloody Babs” by the press for her violent temper and alleged participation in several murders.

In 1953, Graham became acquainted with a gang of robbers, led by Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo. They planned to rob Mabel Monohan, a wealthy widow who lived in Burbank, California. They believed that Monohan had a safe in her house that contained jewels and cash from her late husband, who was a gambler. Graham was supposed to gain entry into the house by posing as a friend of Monohan’s daughter.

On March 9, 1953, Graham and four other men, Perkins, Santo, Baxter Shorter, and John True, drove to Monohan’s house. Graham knocked on the door and asked to see Monohan’s daughter. When Monohan opened the door, Graham pushed her inside and the other men followed. They ransacked the house, looking for the safe, but found nothing. They then proceeded to beat and torture Monohan, hoping to make her reveal the location of the valuables. According to Deranged LA Crimes, Perkins was the main assailant, while Graham screamed encouragement at him. Graham then placed a pillowcase over Monohan’s head and pulled it tight, suffocating her. The gang left the house empty-handed, leaving Monohan’s body on the floor.

The crime was discovered the next day by Monohan’s gardener. The police launched an investigation and soon arrested the suspects, based on the testimony of an informant and forensic evidence. Shorter, who was the driver of the getaway car, agreed to cooperate with the authorities and confessed to his role in the crime. He also implicated Graham as the killer, saying that she beat Monohan with a gun and suffocated her with the pillowcase. However, Shorter disappeared before the trial and was never seen again. Some speculated that he was killed by the gang or by the police to silence him.

The trial of Graham, Perkins, and Santo began in October 1953. True, who was a minor, was tried separately and sentenced to life imprisonment. The prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence, such as fingerprints, bloodstains, and hair samples, to link the defendants to the crime scene. They also presented witnesses who testified that Graham had confessed to the murder or had shown knowledge of the crime. The defense argued that the evidence was fabricated or unreliable, and that Graham was innocent. They claimed that she was only a bystander who was coerced by the men to join the robbery. They also challenged the credibility of Shorter’s statement, which was read in court, and suggested that he was the real killer.

The jury deliberated for four days and returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder for all three defendants. They also recommended the death penalty. The judge sentenced them to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. Graham, Perkins, and Santo appealed their convictions, but were denied by the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. They also sought clemency from the governor, but were rejected. Graham maintained her innocence until the end, and claimed that she was a victim of a miscarriage of justice.

The Execution by Gas

On June 3, 1955, Graham, Perkins, and Santo were executed by gas at San Quentin Prison. They were the first trio to die in the gas chamber on the same day. Graham was the third woman in California to be executed by gas, after Juanita Spinelli in 1941 and Louise Peete in 1947.

The gas chamber was a metal cylinder that measured six feet in diameter and ten feet in height. It had a steel door with a small window and a microphone. Inside, there was a metal chair with straps and electrodes. Under the chair, there was a container with sulfuric acid and water. A metal canister with sodium cyanide pellets was suspended above the container. When the executioner pulled a lever, the canister dropped into the container, creating a lethal gas of hydrogen cyanide.

The gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. [Photo courtesy Wikipedia]

The execution process was supposed to be quick and painless, but it was often not the case. The gas caused convulsions, vomiting, and suffocation. The condemned could take several minutes to die, depending on their physical condition and their resistance to the gas. Some witnesses described the executions as horrific and inhumane.

According to Wikipedia, Graham was the last of the three to enter the gas chamber. She was escorted by two guards and a priest. She wore a blue dress and a white scarf around her neck. She looked calm and composed, and smiled at the witnesses. She said to the priest, “Good people are always so sure they’re right.” She then sat on the chair and was strapped and wired. She asked the executioner, “How long does this take?” He replied, “A couple of minutes.” She said, “I see.” She then closed her eyes and waited for the gas.

The executioner pulled the lever at 11:48 a.m. The gas rose from the floor and enveloped Graham. She gasped and coughed, then became still. Her chest heaved and her face turned purple. She was pronounced dead at 11:51 a.m. She was 31 years old.

The Legacy of Barbara Graham

Barbara Graham’s life and death inspired a 1958 film, I Want to Live!, starring Susan Hayward as Graham. The film was based on newspaper articles by Ed Montgomery, who covered the trial and the execution. The film portrayed Graham as a sympathetic and misunderstood character, who was framed by the police and the media. The film also depicted the execution as a gruesome and barbaric spectacle, and criticized the death penalty as a cruel and unjust punishment. The film was a critical and commercial success, and won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Hayward.

The film, however, was highly fictionalized and inaccurate. It omitted or distorted many facts about Graham’s background, personality, and involvement in the crime. It also exaggerated the brutality of the execution and the innocence of Graham. Many people who knew Graham or witnessed the execution disputed the film’s version of events. They claimed that Graham was a cold-blooded and remorseless killer, who deserved to die for her crime. They also said that the execution was not as horrific as the film showed, and that Graham died quickly and quietly.

The film sparked a controversy and a debate over the guilt or innocence of Graham, and the morality or immorality of the death penalty. Some people believed that Graham was a scapegoat and a martyr, who was wrongfully convicted and executed. They argued that the evidence against her was weak and unreliable, and that she was a victim of sexism and sensationalism. They also opposed the death penalty as a barbaric and inhumane practice, that violated human rights and dignity. Others believed that Graham was a murderer and a menace, who was rightfully convicted and executed. They argued that the evidence against her was strong and conclusive, and that she was a danger to society. They also supported the death penalty as a deterrent and a retribution, that served justice and public safety.

The controversy and the debate over Barbara Graham’s cause of death continue to this day. She remains a controversial and fascinating figure, who has inspired books, documentaries, and songs. She also represents a larger issue, that of the death penalty and its implications for society. Whether one views her as a villain or a victim, a sinner or a saint, one thing is certain: she died of asphyxiation in the gas chamber.

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