“My blood will burn holes in their bodies!” – Juanita Spinelli on hearing that her final chance for a reprieve had been denied.
Evelita Juanita Spinelli occupies a singular place in criminal history. Like Martha Place in 1890’s New York, she was the first woman to suffer a new means of execution. Unlike Martha Place, she didn’t sit in an electric chair. Spinelli (known in the underworld as ‘The Duchess’) was fated to be the first woman to die in the gas chamber.
Born in Kentucky on October 17, 1889, her criminal career began in Detroit, home to the notorious ‘Purple Gang’ whom she claimed had driven her out of Michigan. Whether she ever had anything to do with Detroit’s most notorious mobsters or (as she later claimed) it was they who christened her ‘The Duchess’ will probably never be known. What we do know is that she turned up in San Francisco in the early 1930’s, bringing with her a common-law husband named Michael Simeone and three children.
Spinelli has been characterized as a classic psychopath. People didn’t hold any value so much as serve a purpose and, unless they served a purpose, they simply didn’t matter. They were expendable as though life itself was a chessboard and the people around her were merely pieces. She would go on to prove this before her underlings decided that she was no longer useful to them alive and was of vastly more use dead. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves and that’s for later.
Spinelli ran her home as though it were a boarding house for juvenile delinquents. A number of young petty crooks lived under her roof and she ably schooled them in crime. Her theory was simple. If she schooled her proteges in ‘nickel and diming,’ committing a steady stream of smaller crimes like muggings, small robberies, burglaries, rolling drunks and suchlike, then their activities would attract far less police attention than a series of high-profile armed robberies, kidnappings for ransom or major robberies. Her young thugs gave her all they made in return for her tutelage and their board and, in return, she graciously gave them a $10 dollar weekly allowance. Which meant that they took all the risk and she took almost none in return for a steady stream of income. It worked well, Spinelli’s daughter Lorraine (known as ‘Gypsy’) was also in on the action, acting as a lure when the male gang members went out rolling drunks.
But nothing lasts forever and there’s no such thing as the perfect crime, the prisons are crammed with people who previously thought there was. It went well enough until two of her proteges, Robert Sherrold and Albert Ives, decided to rob storekeeper Leland Cash on the night of April 8, 1940. Ives panicked and both delinquents fled, leaving Cash with both his takings and a bullet in his chest. He died and the two tearaways had broken their mentor’s cardinal rule: Only commit relatively minor crimes to avoid too much attention from law enforcement. Murder in 1940’s California was certainly not a minor matter as California’s death penalty was entering its ‘glory days’ with more executions in the 1940’s and 1950’s than at any other time in Californian history. Spinelli would discover this to her cost.
It was Robert Sherrold who was the problem. He was terrified of being caught and endlessly worried to both his fellow gang members and Spinelli about the consequences of being caught. While Sherrold was worrying about the consequences from law enforcement, Spinelli was far more concerned about the consequences to all of them if Sherrold was arrested and copped a lea to avoid San Quentin’s gas chamber. Ives was also concerned, especially as it had been his finger on the trigger when Cash was murdered. He pushed for Sherrold to be eliminated and Spinelli agreed. According to Ives she was was very clear about what needed to be done:
“Bobby is going to die, and he is going to die right now…”
He was, only he didn’t know it yet. As he continued worrying Spinelli prepared him a relaxing glass of whiskey. It was a very relaxing whiskey, containing as it did a large dose of chloral hydrate. It wasn’t until the drug was taking effect, an effect vastly enhanced by being in a glass of whiskey, that Sherrold finally realized that he was doomed. He promptly passed out and, at Spinelli’s direction, the other gang members set upon him and brutally beat him once he was unconscious. Whether it was the Mickey Finn or the mauling by his fellow crooks that killed him will forever remain unclear. It didn’t matter. Robert S. Herrold was already quite dead.
Now came the problem of disposal. At Spinelli’s direction, the gang stripped Sherrold naked and re-dressed him in a pair of swimming trunks. His body was then placed in the trunk of a car and driven to a bridge where he was dumped into an ice-cold river, the idea being that, by the time his body was found, he would be too badly decomposed for anybody to tell that he’d died from anything other than accidental drowning while swimming. The fact that people don’t usually go swimming in the dead of winter didn’t occur to the gang
Nor did it occur to them that he might be found far earlier than expected, which he was. Sherrold’s body had caught on the bridge pilings when he was dumped and so was found the next day in perfect condition. Well, not counting the vicious beating and the huge dose of chloral hydrate, both if which were spotted during the autopsy which, strangely for somebody who had supposedly drowned, also noticed that Sherrold’s lungs contained not a drop of water. Seeing as that indicated he was already dead and hadn’t been breathing when he was put in the river, detectives soon wanted to identify any likely suspects and, with his known links to Spinelli (who had a record a mile long) the call went out to apprehend the gang. Spinelli and her crew had fled soon after hearing that Sherrold’s body had been found, but they didn’t get far.
Spinelli’s ordering the murder of one of their own had raised a disturbing question in the minds of her young apprentices. Would anyone else have to go and, if so, who? Ives had no illusions about somebody else needing to be silenced, nor did he doubt who that somebody might be. Especially not after overhearing the rest of the gang in conversation at a truck stop, a conversation in which his name and a cliff with a 700-foot drop were mentioned.
Ives fled, panic-stricken. He fled straight into the arms of the local police and, at Truckee, Nevada, the car was stopped. Inside the car were found the murder weapon that had killed Leland Cash and a broad selection of stolen valuables. Of course, the most valuable of Spinelli’s possessions now in the hands of detectives was Ives who was telling them everything. It was only a matter of time before the ‘Duchess’ found that the rest of her royal court were only too willing to do the same.
At her trial her proteges couldn’t wait to spill the beans. One after another they named her as the ringleader both of her gang and of Robert Sherrold’s murder. With that in mind the jury had no doubts as to her guilt and the judge had no doubt as to her sentence. Evelita Jaunita Spinelli was convicted, condemned and transferred to the Tehachapi Women’s Prison. She would fight for her life in the courts but, the day before her scheduled execution, State Governor Olsen refused a final reprieve. She was promptly taken to San Quentin to spend her final night in the ‘Holding Cell’ or ‘Ready Room only a few steps from the gas chamber.
She wasn’t alone. Ives had been declared insane and detained at a psychiatric hospital. Common-law husband Michael Simeone and gang member Gordon Hawkins were already at San Quentin, a few floors above the ‘Ready Room on the top of North Block in ‘Condemned Row.’
On November 22, 1941 ‘The Duchess’ would walk her last mile. She would become California’s, America’s and the world’s first woman to die in the gas chamber, although taking a place in the annals of crime was no consolation to her at the time. It wouldn’t pass off without a hitch, either.
At 10am the time came. Warden Clinton Duffy went to the Ready Room and said simply:
“It’s time. Keep your chin up.”
She did. She walked her last mile firmly and then, while she was standing looking directly through the airtight, green-painted door of San Quentin’s notorious ‘coughing box,’ Duffy suddenly realized that the legally-mandated party of official witnesses and reporters simply weren’t there. Under California law no execution could take place without at least a dozen members of the public and press there to witness the event. And they simply weren’t where they should have been.
Spinelli, to give her credit, took this unscheduled and very temporary stay of execution with fortitude and courage. It took almost a quarter of an hour before the witnesses were fully assembled. Then Spinelli took her final few steps through the chamber door and sat down. Guards swiftly moved in to secure the restraining straps and connect the specially-designed stethoscope that led outside the sealed chamber. It would be worn by the prison doctor who would listen for her heart to top, signifying her death.
All was finally ready. Spinelli was seated, strapped and stethoscope. With San Quentin’s traditional goodbye, a guard gave her a pat on the shoulder, saying:
“When you hear the pellets drop, count ten, breathe deep and don’t fight the gas.”
She did. She died as quickly and with as little suffering as the merciless steel tomb allowed. A week later on November 28, 1941 Gordon Hawkins and Michael Simeone would did side-by-side in the two-seater ‘coughing box.”
Her epitaph, a distinctly unflattering though probably fair one, was provided by San Quentin’s legendary Warden Clinton Duffy. A long-time opponent of the death penalty, he described her bluntly and without sentiment:
“She was the coldest, hardest character, male or female, that I had ever known and was utterly lacking in feminine appeal. The ‘Duchess’ was a hag, as evil as a witch. Horrible to look at, impossible to like, but she was still a woman and I dreaded the thought of ordering her execution.”