Born Barbara Elaine Ford in Oakland, California on June 23, 1923, ‘Bloody Babs is now often forgotten. In early-1950’s California she was, unwillingly, front page news as either a cold-blooded femme fatale or a downtrodden victim who never had a chance to be anything better. The truth, as so often in such cases, is probably somewhere between the two.
She wasn’t what you’d call one of life’s more delicate flowers. Vagrancy, assault, prostitution, passing bad checks, perjury, drug addiction, and working as a shill luring wealthy punters into rigged card games don’t exactly make for an enticing individual. But, to be fair, she was juvenile delinquent raised as the daughter of a juvenile delinquent. The more judgmental type might regard her as a lowlife because she served time as a teenager in the Ventura reform school and her mother, Hortense Ford, was also a graduate of Ventura.
She was married three times and had three children, none of whom knew her long enough to have formed any great attachment to her, but all of whom bore the stigma of being related to one of California’s most notorious criminals, also only the second woman to take a seat in San Quentin’s gas chamber and, so far, one of only four women to be executed in California.
Having served her criminal apprenticeship at Ventura, Barbara did try to go straight one more than one occasion. Unfortunately for her she also failed as many times as she tried. Her first attempt at respectability came when she married John Kielhammer in 1940. Despite bearing her first two children the couple were soon apart, divorced by 1942.
She turned to prostitution during the war, working as a call girl for well-known California madam Sally Stanford. Not having broken what seems to have been the habit of a lifetime, she also kept constant company with many ex-convicts and professional criminals. A string of crooked acquaintances, however, wasn’t the only negative habit she developed. A fondness first for marijuana and later heroin didn’t improve her life’s trajectory, either.
It was her fondness for fast company that landed Barbara her first proper jail sentence. When two of her crooked chums asked her to provide them with a false alibi during their trial for a robbery, Barbara duly provided one. The prosecutor duly proved it a tissue of lies, had her indicted for perjury and sent to the California State Women’s Institution at Tehachapi to do hard time. Five years of it that, later in her criminals career and with a bitterly ironic twist that we’ll come to later, proved as instrumental as anything else in securing her a seat in the ‘coughing box’ at San Quentin. But we’ll be getting to that in a little while.
On her release from Tehachapi she showed her willingness to stay crooked rather than go straight. Almost immediately she violated her parole in several different ways. She moved to Reno, Nevada without telling her parole officer. She then returned to California, but not to give herself up. Instead, she headed straight for the bright lights in the big city of Los Angeles where, then as now, all the world’s vices are available to those with a desire or need to sample them. Barbara seems to have had both to a considerable degree.
Much good did they do her. In 1953 she met the man that would change her life forever (and whose criminal acquaintances would contribute greatly to ending it amid a blaze of banner headlines). She met one Henry Graham. Henry was a bartender. He was also a hardened criminal and a heroin addict and their marriage (which produced her third child Tommy) was a fractious, tempestuous affair. There were regular break-ups and make-ups and constant arguments, often about money (or their mutual lack thereof) but usually about drugs (and their mutual fondness for dancing with the white lady). Two junkies in the same home often, (you might say usually) leads to mutual recriminations, accusations of selfishness and junkie behaviour and, as is so often the case, both partners are usually right about their partner’s few virtues and many deficiencies. It was also through Henry that she met two of his crooked friends, Emmet ‘The Weasel’ Perkins and John ‘Jack’ Santo. It would be a fateful (and fatal) meeting for all of them except Henry.
The hostility between Barbara and Henry wasn’t improved by Barbara starting an affair with Perkins. It grew dramatically worse, hurtling downhill and picking up speed, when Santo and Perkins offered Barbara a job that, for once, didn’t involve her usual round of sleeping with wealthy married men and steering them to illegal, high-stakes card games run by Santo and Perkins. Crooked, illegal, high-stakes card games run by Santo and Perkins, to be more exact. Her unwitting dupes might have had their fun with her on their visits to sunny California, but Santo and Perkins robbed them blind at the card tables, ensuring that they paid through the nose for the privilege.
The job was a simple one. 64-year old widow Mabel Monahan lived in Burbank and, so the story went, was holding a six-figure sum in undeclared casino profits for her former son-in-law ‘Tutor’ Scherer. Scherer was a gambler and, like many people in his line of work, was rumoured to have a large amount of cash tucked away. According to the underworld grapevine, he had it stashed away at the home of Mabel Monahan. Santo and Perkins, no strangers to home invasions, robberies and extreme violence, had also enlisted the help of deep-sea diver John True. True was brought into the job because, as a salvage diver, they believed him to be an expert with explosives which could prove useful if the cash was stored in a safe. John True would prove a fatal choice of accomplice.
“Life is so short. Why does mine ave to be even shorter?” –
Barbara Graham in a letter mailed from San Quentin’s notorious ‘Condemned Row.’
Barbara’s part of the plan was simple. Mabel Monahan feared burglars and so was unlikely to open her door after dark to a couple of suspicious-looking men. A young, pretty, vivacious woman, on the other hand, might prove able to allay her suspicions for the few seconds required by Santo, Perkins and True to force their way into her home, subdue her, beat her into revealing the hidden cash stash and rob the place. Barbara, at least according to John True, did rather more than simply fool her into opening the door.
With their unsuspecting victim having, as expected, opened the door to a young lady whose car had apparently broken down, the three men promptly stormed into the house. According to True’s later testimony it was Barbara who brutally pistol-whipped the elderly widow in a failed attempt to to torture her into handing over the money. It was also Barbara, according to True, who suffocated their victim by putting a pillow case over her head and trying to choke her into co-operating before the gang, frustrated and empty-handed, fled the house leaving Mabel Monahan with a fractured skull, several other injuries and the pillow case still wrapped tightly around her head. She, not surprisingly, died of her injuries and what the California press dubbed the ‘Monahan Murder Mob’ became front-page news. The manhunt was well and truly on.
The first to be arrested was John True, trying to get across the border into Mexico. True, knowing that he faced a charge of capital murder and that in the early-1950’s California’s gas chamber saw regular use, promptly named Perkins, Santo and Graham, gave police the address of their hide-out and offered to turn State’s Evidence and testify for the prosecution. All three were promptly arrested. A reported conversation between Perkins and Santo before their arrest included the subject of informers and ran something like this:
Perkins: “Sniffing gas in that chamber is an awful way to go.”
Santo: “Don’t forget there’s two ways you can go. If they catch you, you die. If you talk, you die too…”
The ‘Monahan Murder Mob,’ part of which was the woman the press now dubbed ‘Bloody Babs’ or the ‘Tiger Woman,’ were held for trial and their prospects looked extraordinarily bleak.
For starters they had John True testifying against them for the prosecution. The prosecution was led by District Attorney J. Miller Leavy, a prosecutor with an immense fondness for requesting the death penalty whenever possible. To make matters worse their trial judge was Charles Fricke who in 1948 had sent ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman to San Quentin’s ‘Condemned Row’ and even today holds the record for passing more death sentences than any judge in Californian history. You wouldn’t have thought things could get any worse for this terrible trio. Barbara was about to ensure that they did.
While in the county jail awaiting trial Barbara made the acquaintance of fellow-inmate Else Prantile who was serving time for vehicular manslaughter. While discussing the bleakness of her case and her future (or probably the lack thereof), the twosome made a deal. Prantile agreed to fix up a meeting for Barbara with a friend of her who, for $25,000 was ready and willing to walk into court and provide a false alibi.
A false alibi for Barbara.
Not for Santo and Perkins.
If all went well then Barbara’s false alibi would demolish the prosecution case against her and she would be acquitted and probably released. Santo and Perkins would be left out in the cold and hung out to dry but, to Barbara, those were the breaks of a criminal lifestyle. Treachery was as commonplace in the underworld as anywhere else and, if it worked, then she’d be home free. If it worked.
Barbara seemed confident as the trial got underway, knowing that Sam Sirianni was her ace in the hole (or up her sleeve, depending on how you look at it). Even if Santo and Perkins went to ‘Condemned Row’ she’d still be home free. At least, she might have been until Sirianni was called to testify.
By the District Attorney.
‘Big Same’ Sirianni was, in fact, an undercover officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. Worse, he’d walked into their conversation wearing a tape recorder. Worse than that, he’d recorded Barbara agreeing $25,000 for her false alibi (thereby deserting her two co-defendants), admitting her presence when the crime was committed and also admitting her own prospects at trial without his help. Or, as Barbara’s voice stated in open court via the tape:
“Without you, I’m a cinch for cyanide.”
Having been lied to repeatedly by Barbara, her lawyer promptly requested that Judge Fricke allow him to quit the case, a request which Fricke, partly in the interest of the defendant and possibly because he wanted to leave her with the least possible grounds to appeal if he sent her to the gas chamber, refused.
Santo and Perkins, having only just become aware of her intention to leave them in the lurch (and the gas chamber) promptly started hating her with a vengeance. They would later sit side-by-side in the ‘little green room’ only hours after Barbara had been carried out of it, having refused to make any statement that might in any way help her avoid execution. Elsa Prantile later had her sentence reduced to time served, was released from jail and promptly did the smart thing, vanishing into obscurity.
True stood up well against the spirited cross-examination of defense counsel. They accused him of being a snitch (he was), of committing perjury by minimising his own role and shifting the blame onto others in return for leniency (which he might well have done) and of generally being a lowlife and, as such, an unreliable witness. Leavy countered by managing, with the false alibi in mind, to bring up an old crime directly concerning Barbara.
Once Leavy had exposed her attempt at a false alibi, her self-serving willingness to leave her co-defendants high and dry and that it wasn’t the first time she’d been willing to lie in court he’d successfully planted in the jury’s minds that Barbara was the kind of defendant who couldn’t lie straight in bed. The jury evidently agreed. They went out to deliberate and it wasn’t long before they rendered verdicts on all three defendants.
Guilty as charged of capital murder. With no recommendation for mercy.
Santo and Perkins were promptly shipped to San Quentin’s ‘Condemned Row’ under heavy guard. Barbara, being a woman, was shipped to the California Institution for Women at Corona where she’d already done some time. This time it was very different. She was placed in segregation away from other inmates to file her appeals and await the outcome. If her appeals failed then she would be shipped back to San Quentin the day before her execution and spend her final hours in one of the two cells within 15 feet of the gas chamber. These were officially designated the ‘Holding Cells.’ Unofficially these cells were nicknamed the ‘Ready Room.’
Barbara would be seeing the inside of the ‘Ready Room.’ After her execution on the morning of June 3, 1955 so would Perkins and Santo. Society and the rule of law would not be denied. Especially not if Judge Fricke and District Attorney Leavy had anything to do with it.
They had plenty to do with it. The three filed appeal after appeal, all of which were denied. On June 2, 1955 Barbara received unwelcome visitors, female guards and a car to take her to San Quentin on what would be her last ride anywhere apart from to the undertaker. Santo and Perkins, already ensconced on ‘Condemned Row’ (then a single floor of cells on the top floor of North Block) were also being prepared to meet their fate.
Barbara’s would be tortuous in the extreme. Having spent her final hours watching the clock, choosing her final outfit (a scarlet trouser suit) and having nothing to do but wait, she was told just before 10am that her time had come.
Only it hadn’t. While already on her last walk the telephone rang. California’s Governor Goodwin Knight had postponed the execution. Unfortunately for Barbara he’d only postponed it until 10:45, just long enough for her lawyers to file a last-minute appeal. At 10:42 the last mile had to be walked again.
And, at 10:43, the phone rang. Again.
It was Governor Knight. Again, while Barbara was slowly walking her last mile and staring through the airtight door of the apple green-painted gas chamber, Knight had granted another postponement, but only until 11:30 unless the courts responded favourably to yet another last-ditch appeal from her lawyers.
Barbara swooned, having to be helped back to the ‘Ready Room.’ In a daze she asked one question:
“Why do they torture me so? I was ready to go at ten O’clock…”
At 11:28 her question was answered. Warden Harley Teets arrived in the ‘Ready Room’ with news. Bad news.
Her final appeal had been denied. Now it really was time to walk her last mile. Barbara made one final request before pacing the 15 feet to her death. She asked for a blindfold which was hurriedly provided by one of the matrons in the form of a sleep mask that’s still held at San Quentin as an exhibit.
At 11:30 Barbara was escorted to the chamber, strapped securely into one of the two seats and the door was sealed. Barbara got the standard San Quentin goodbye, a pat on the shoulder accompanied by advice to:
“Count ten, breathe deep and don’t fight the gas. It’s easier that way.”
Barbara’s response to this unsolicited advice was both blunt and withering:
“How the hell would you know..?”
The chamber door was sealed, the cyanide eggs were dropped into the pot of dilute sulfuric acid beneath her chair. At 11:43 she was pronounced dead. After the witnesses had left Santo and Perkins were brought down to the ‘Ready Room’ and lodged in the two cells, one of which Barbara had only just vacated. They seemed resigned to their fate, waiting quietly while the execution team cleaned out the chamber and prepared it for a double execution. At 2:30 the gruesome twosome took their final walk. Once they were strapped securely into the twin chairs marked ‘A’ and ‘B’ Santo had some parting humor when asked if he had anything to say:
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Perkins, the smaller of the two, died quickly. Santo took minutes longer, but the end result was the same. Both were certified dead shortly after entering the chamber. Henry claimed Barbara’s body. She lies today in Mount Olivet Cemetery in nearby San Rafael on a hillside ironically overlooking San Quentin. The bodies of Perkins and Santo went unclaimed and were sent to a State hospital for cremation.
Thus ends a tragic and squalid tale.