Another criminal curiosity beckons, this time the remarkable and, as far as I’m aware, singular case of one Major Raymond Lisemba, AKA ‘Robert S. James’, AKA ‘Rattlesnake James. His case is a singular one for two reasons, the first being that he was the last inmate to die by hanging in the State of California. The other (far more interesting) reason is that he’s the only murderer I’ve ever encountered who used rattlesnakes as his weapon of choice. Yes, rattlesnakes.
Now rattlesnakes aren’t exactly rare in California, as anyone living there will freely admit. They’re also greatly misunderstood creatures. Do they bite people? Yes. Are they lethal? Yes, if the bite is severe enough and the victim doesn’t get immediate medical attention. Are they as venomous as their murderous namesake? Probably not.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama on March 6, 1894 he, by his own admission just before being executed, led a bad life. He’d served time, been in and out of prison for various reasons, and there was a certain suspicion that Mary James might have been his fourth wife, but not his first victim. He’d had three wives already.
His first wife divorced him, alleging he was a sexual pervert into sadism. His second marriage had also ended in the divorce courts. His third wife, rather conveniently for her now extremely ex-husband, had ‘accidentally’ drowned in the bathtub. Her death was convenient for James as she happened to have an insurance policy, the payout on which was now rather healthier than she was.
James was never arrested or tried over her death but, as we’ll see shortly, it did a lot to increase suspicions when his fifth wife also happened to die, heavily insured and supposedly via drowning. This having come after his fourth wife had also left him. Apparently she was somewhat perturbed by his increasingly pushy efforts to make her sign a life insurance policy. She refused, saying that funny things happen to people who are heavily insured. She also left him when her refusals were ignored and he continued trying to push her into it. Possibly the death of his third (heavily-insured) wife might have served to concentrate her mind. After marrying Mary James she had the misfortune to die after letting him insure her life. This time in a duckpond. But we’ll be getting to that a little later.
On August 5, 1935 he made an emotional call to the emergency services. His wife had been found drowned in a bathtub and inquired if emergency services please come at once. They could and they did, too late to save Mary James, but just in time to begin her husband’s path to San Quentin’s gallows.
Mary James was, as her husband had told them, lying dead, face-down in the duckpond. But the responders noticed something more than a little odd about one of her legs. At some point, not long before she’d mysteriously drowned, they noted that she’d obviously been bitten by something which, at the time, they assumed was a severe reaction to an insect bite. Nasty insects aren’t unusual in California, either, and Robert James soon showed himself to be one of them.
Her cause of death was listed as drowning and several weeks after Robert James collected another insurance payout. It might have ended there, and ended well for him, if he hadn’t been so utterly witless as to make a deeply inappropriate, offensive and, for him, ultimately fatal pass at another woman while working at the barber shop he owned. The fact that he was only four weeks into being widowed caused disapproval from the lady concerned. It also caused immense suspicion among officers when she reported his behaviour to the police. His rattlesnakes were about to come back and bite him.
Now he might just have got away with murder. Rattlesnakes are resident in California. They’re not a common as in places like Texas or New Mexico but they do live there and they do sometimes bite people. Enter his accomplice, one Charles Hope. Hope was James’s helper at his barber shop, the same barber shop as where James had so offended the young lady who reported him to the Los Angeles police. He also had the unfortunate habit of getting drunk in bars and, like most people when they’ve taken a skinful, he tended to become rather chatty.
Word reached the LAPD and he was swiftly picked up for questioning. The possibility of the gallows must have sobered him up considerably and he soon became more chatty when sober than when sloshed. He told them everything. According to Hope, James had bought two rattlesnakes, the delightfully-named ‘Lethal’ and ‘Lightning’ from a local dealer. He then persuaded Hope to join in his scheme by posing as a doctor. With Hope on board as a fake doctor James then persuaded his wife to submit to a termination on the grounds that he thought her having the baby she was expecting would be unhealthy for her. As it turned out, the bedside manner of ‘Doctor’ Hope would distinctly more so.
According to Hope, James persuaded his wife to lie on a table, be tied down, blindfolded and gagged. Then he simply grabbed one of her legs and put it in a box where ‘Lethal’ and ‘Lightning’ coiled therein. The snakes, however, presumably following the old showbiz maxim that you should never work with children or animals, failed to deliver a lethal dose. At least one of them did bite her, leaving her delirious and very sick, but not dead.
James was somewhat frustrated by their non-cooperation. As they hadn’t proved willing accomplices. he insisted that Hope help him drag his wife to the pond where they laid her face-down in the water, waited until she was dead, and then reported the matter to the emergency services. With his wife safely dead and buried, James, according to Hope, simply collected the insurance and went about his daily business. With Hope’s confession and medical evidence confirming rattlesnake venom in her body, Robert ‘Rattlesnake’ James found himself without a chair. He was promptly arrested and charged with capital murder.
His trial was quite a sensation in California. Murder-by-rattlesnake had never been seen before or since, so reporters came from all over California and further afield. It began in 1937 amid a media frenzy, saw Charles Hope become the star of the show when he turned State’s evidence in an effort to cheat the hangman and saw James enter a singular and unwilling place in criminal history.
Hope’s efforts to avoid execution worked. He was handed down a life sentence for his part in the murder. James wasn’t so lucky. When the jury delivered a guilty verdict and James was identified as being the prime mover in the crime there was only one penalty available to the judge under California law. Guilty as charged without a recommendation to mercy meant only one thing: a death sentence.
James was escorted to California’s feared San Quentin Prison and lodged securely on Condemned Row to await the outcome of his appeals. They failed. His attorney even found State Governor Olsen aboard a train the day before James’s scheduled execution and still Governor Olsen wasn’t interested. Robert ‘Rattlesnake’ James would be the last inmate in California to keep a date with the hangman.
He’d be the last because, while he was on Condemned Row, California had changed its method of execution. In 1938 two men, Albert Kessel and Robert Cannon, took their own singular place in Californian crime by becoming the first in the State to die in the then newly-installed gas chamber. California had switched to lethal gas after too many hangings had been bungled. Inmates had been dropped too far and had their heads torn from their bodies, which at least was an instant although messy death. Worse, others hadn’t been dropped far enough, ensuring they took as long as fifteen minutes to slowly strangle to death. Robert James would be one of the latter. Having been condemned before the gas chamber replaced the gallows, James was still going to hang atop the robins-egg blue painted gallows at California’s most feared penitentiary.
At 10am on May 1, 1942 Major Raymond Lisemba, AKA ‘Robert S. James’, AKA ‘Rattlesnake’ James, kept his date with history and the hangman. It didn’t go well. Warden Clinton Duffy, a noted opponent of the death penalty, oversaw proceedings and many reporters were in attendance. James himself was dressed well for the occasion in a smart suit, though without a shirt collar or tie The hangman had something else to fit round his neck, after all. James climbed the traditional thirteen steps to the top of the scaffold, was strapped, noosed and hooded and all was ready. All present were hoping that, unlike so often in California’s hanging history, he would die quickly when Warden Duffy gave the signal. He didn’t.
Warden Duffy nodded to the hangman who quickly pushed the lever and dropped the trapdoors. James’ hooded, strapped body plunged vertically through the doors, only to spend the next twelve minutes jerking and struggling at the rope’s end. It was a slow, painful and gruesome way to die. That said, many people might think that a murderer like ‘Rattlesnake’ James didn’t deserve any better.