Famous American Crimes and Trials

Volume III: 1913–1959
Frankie Y. Bailey and Steven Chermak

The Barbara Graham Murder Case: The Murderess “Walked to Her Death as if Dressed for a Shopping Trip”

Sheila O’Hare

Barbara Graham (1923–1955) was found guilty of the murder of Mabel Monahan and was executed, along with two codefendants, on June 3, 1955. Graham achieved popular culture immortality via the later Hollywood film I Want to Live!(1958), featuring Susan Hayward’s Academy Award–winning performance. Based on San Francisco Examiner reporter Edward Montgomery’s coverage of the case, the film treats Graham’s case as an exemplar of partisan and sensational news coverage. The Montgomery character in the film initially characterizes Graham in a manner that summarizes the majority of actual news articles about the crime and trial: “It’s Mrs. Graham’s tough luck to be young, attractive, belligerent, immoral, and guilty as hell” (Wanger and Wise, 1958). Montgomery later underwent a change of opinion and came to believe Graham’s protestations of innocence. Graham’s guilt is still debated today along with the legal issues raised by her trial and execution.

The Death of Mabel Monahan

The crime occurred on the evening of March 9, 1953. The victim, Mabel Monahan, was a sixty-four-year-old widow who lived in Burbank, California. Monahan’s gardener arrived at the house on the morning of March 11. He notified the police when he noticed that the front door was ajar and that the house appeared to have been ransacked. Monahan’s body was found in a blood-spattered hallway, partly within a closet, hands bound behind her back. She had been struck repeatedly on the head and strangled with a strip of cloth. While Monahan’s purse containing $474 and items of jewelry had been left behind, the intruders had pulled up carpeting, emptied drawers, and thoroughly searched the house.

Click to see larger image

Barbara Graham in courtroom. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)

Monahan was a frail, partially disabled woman, which made the assault seem particularly vicious; newspapers described it as a “fiendish slaying,” linked to the gambling underworld via her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Luther B. (Tudor) Scherer (Walker, 1961). Her cause of death, according to the coroner’s office, was asphyxiation. Monahan’s daughter offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. This provided motivation for an informant who led Burbank police a week later to Baxter Shorter, an ex-convict with a record of property crimes.

Shorter made a statement to the police on March 31. The motive for the crime was robbery. Shorter’s crime partners had heard that Tudor Scherer had hidden several caches of $100,000 apiece in the Burbank house. Shorter was able to provide the first names of three of his partners (Emmett, John, and Jack) and a physical description of the fourth partner, a woman. Police quickly focused on John Santo (b. 1900) and Emmett Perkins (b. 1908), long-time felons whose known previous offenses included robbery, weapons violations, and kidnapping. Perkins and Santo were also responsible for a quadruple murder in 1952 in Plumas County, though they would be tried for the Monahan murder first.

Known associates of Santo and Perkins included deep-sea diver John True and Barbara Graham, who was then identified as Perkins’s girlfriend. True was arrested by police, questioned, and released; he claimed to have no knowledge of the crime or any of the alleged crime partners other than Santo. However, the April 13 edition of the San Francisco Examiner reported that a suspect was being held in the Monahan murder, and hinted that other suspects had been identified. The repercussions were immediate. In the first of many instances in which news coverage impacted the course of the case, Shorter was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home on April 14 and, presumably, murdered in retaliation for his confession.

Shorter’s kidnapping and disappearance gave True second thoughts, and when he was rearrested by police, he agreed to testify against Santo, Perkins, and Graham in return for an immunity agreement with the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. True had no criminal record, which made him preferable to the missing Shorter as a witness. His account of the crime was generally consistent with Shorter’s, but he placed the responsibility for Monahan’s injuries on Graham.

According to both True and Shorter, Graham was the first person to approach the Monahan house, using a ruse about car trouble to gain entry. Shorter’s account was as follows (Walker, 1961): True entered the house after Graham, Perkins, and Santo a few minutes later, and Shorter last of all. Shorter saw True holding Monahan’s head down on the rug; she had already been “beaten horribly.” The woman (Graham) said, “Go on and knock her out” (p. 25), and Perkins struck Monahan in the temple with a gun. Santo and Perkins tied up Monahan, dragged her to a hall closet, and joined with the others in searching the house for a safe or cache of valuables. They did not locate Scherer’s money or anything of value, and left empty-handed.

True’s statement (Walker, 1961) added significant and incriminating details. He stated that when he came into the house, he saw Graham striking Monahan on the face and head with a gun. True, shocked and frightened (by his own account), “grabbed her head in my lap” (p. 80). The others tied Monahan’s hands, put a pillowcase over her head, and dragged her body away. They then searched the house for fifteen or twenty minutes. True went into another room and heard someone strike Monahan again in his absence. When they left the house, Santo, Perkins, Graham, and True returned to their base at the La Bonita Motel in El Monte, where they cleaned up. True and Santo left for northern California that same night.

Police also interviewed William Upshaw, who had been approached by Santo about the robbery but had backed out of the venture before the evening of the crime. Upshaw would later testify at trial about his meetings with Santo, Perkins, Shorter, and Graham, and a drive they made past Monahan’s home in preparation for the robbery.

The district attorney’s office, doubtless wishing to avoid another Shorter incident, moved quickly. True told his story to the Los Angeles County grand jury, and it returned indictments against Perkins, Santo, and Graham. Knowing that they were being sought by police, Santo, Perkins, and Graham made several moves after April 10: first from their homes to the Ambassador Motel, then to Seal Beach, and finally to an apartment in a Lynwood machine shop building. (At trial, Graham explained these relocations by a complicated story involving a guano deal, but she also admitted that she was aware of news stories stating that True had identified his crime partners.) The three were arrested there on May 4, 1953, after an undercover police officer followed Graham to the building.

Graham became the center of media attention almost immediately. The San Francisco Chronicle identified the three as suspects in both the Monahan and the Plumas County murders, noting that Jack Santo was the “hottest suspect” and Perkins and Graham were believed to be accomplices. However, the reporter specifically noted “the puncture marks on [Graham’s] arms, apparently from using narcotics” and that the three suspects were found “in various stages of undress” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1953, May 5, p. 11). Other reports described Graham as naked, or as rising from a bed she was sharing with Santo (Walker, 1961). The Times and the Examiner featured banner headlines on the arrest, with accompanying photos of Graham.

Who Was Barbara Graham?

To a certain extent, Graham had always been a lightning rod for controversy. Born Barbara Elaine Wood on June 26, 1923 in Oakland, California, she had a troubled childhood. She was the eldest of three children of Hortense Wood, a teenaged mother who had spent time in a female reformatory, the Ventura School for Girls. Graham’s putative father, Joe Wood, was absent from her life at an early stage; Hortense is listed as the head of household in the 1930 U.S. census, her occupation indicated as “none.” Graham’s Alameda County Juvenile Court report from 1937 describes her mother’s conduct as “questionable,” tagging her as a poor moral influence on her daughter. In later life, Graham spoke of her mother with bitterness: “She’s never cared whether I lived or died so long as I didn’t bother her” (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962).

Graham ran away from home in December 1936. She was located by authorities and made a ward of the court on March 19, 1937, classified as a wayward girl on the grounds of immorality (she admitted to having multiple sex partners) and being a runaway. She was placed first at the Convent of the Good Shepherd, but she promptly escaped again. In July 1937, the court subsequently sent her to the Ventura School for Girls, where Hortense Wood had also been incarcerated some years before. Graham seemed unable even to feign conformity. Staff at Ventura noted that she attempted escape on several occasions, “smirks and struts around,” and was frequently “written up,” as much for her attitude as her conduct.

She remained at Ventura until April 1939, and was released from parole in January 1942, an officer noting that she was “impossible to supervise.” Graham constantly traveled up and down the state, working at various occupations. She later listed several of them: cocktail waitress, dice girl or gambling shill, hotel clerk, and manager of a “call house” (a brothel).

In the slang of the era, she led the life of a “sea gull,” a term for women and girls who hung around the navy yards of Oakland, Long Beach, and San Diego to meet sailors on shore leave; and of a “B-girl,” a term for bar women who illegally solicited drinks. On some occasions, Graham admitted to working as a prostitute (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962); on others, she flatly denied it (Execution file, B. Graham). In any case, her activities were morally questionable in the 1950s and implied promiscuity and criminality.

She was also, intermittently, a housewife. Graham married four times (in 1940 to Harry Kielhammer; 1944 to Aloyse Puechel; 1947 to Charles Newman; and 1950 to Harry Graham). She had three children. Sole custody of her two older sons was given to Kielhammer, their father; her third son, Tommy Graham (b. 1951), would feature prominently in media coverage of the trial and its aftermath.

In the same time period, Graham also accumulated a record of petty offenses. She was arrested for disorderly conduct in 1940 and 1942 (under the names Barbara Redcliffe and Barbara Kielhammer), and for vagrancy and suspicion of prostitution in 1941, 1943, and 1944. As Barbara Kielhammer, she was charged with perjury in 1947 for supplying a false alibi for Mark Monroe and Thomas Sittler, who had been charged with assault with intent to commit robbery. She spent one year in the San Francisco County Jail for that offense. In 1951, she was arrested on suspicion of a narcotics violation, but was released the next day for lack of evidence. She had no record of violent offenses. She did, however, frequently associate with men who had records of violent crime.

Media Coverage

Graham was an ideal subject for media coverage. In the 1950s, Los Angeles’ five daily newspapers—the morning Examiner and Times; and the evening Mirror, Herald-Express, and Daily News—were all fiercely competing for readers, and crime stories were always popular. As a woman accused of murder in the course of a robbery—a “man’s crime”—Graham’s case was particularly attention-getting. The Los Angeles Examiner and Los Angeles Herald-Express were both owned by William Randolph Hearst, who reportedly favored crime stories involving women, especially when embellished by slangy tags. “Bloody Babs,” a nickname reputedly derived from prosecutor Adolph Alexander’s opening statement at trial, was one example. Graham was also tagged as the “icy blonde,” with phrases like “icy-calm” and “stony” attached to descriptions of her courtroom demeanor. Santo and Perkins did not acquire popular nicknames.

Nichols (1990), in a detailed study of newspaper coverage of the Graham case, reviewed reportage in the five Los Angeles daily papers from Graham’s arrest through her execution. He noted that all five papers failed to cover the story objectively, and that all tended to disregard legally significant developments in favor of speculative or sensational articles. This was particularly evident in three areas: (1) the constant emphasis on Graham’s appearance, (2) the assumption that Graham was guilty, and (3) the focus on tangential, often lurid, aspects of Graham’s personal life.

Appearance and Character

Two of the evening dailies, the Los Angeles Mirror and the Los Angeles Herald-Express, were well known for their sensational stories, bold headlines, and large photos. Graham’s youth and attractiveness made her a better subject than the rather unprepossessing Santo and Perkins. This fact was to her disadvantage during the heated media coverage of the pretrial and trial phases.

In much of the trial’s media coverage, Graham was portrayed as a true-crime vamp: callous and emotionless, overly concerned about her appearance, unremorseful, and deceitfully seductive. In one example, Graham’s fall down a flight of stairs inspired a number of colorful articles. The Los Angeles Mirror used the headline “Bloody Babs’ Falls; Delay in Monahan Murder Trial” (1953, August 19, p. 4); it also described how Graham “yawned and stretched languorously” during a description of the brutal murder, and how she “studied her lacquered fingernails” in court. In a follow-up, the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, August 20) reported that she was “resting easily, wisecracking and flippant … after falling down a flight of stairs and delaying her death penalty trial” (p. 2). A reader could easily infer that Graham was unremorseful, vain, and hardened; further, both articles imply that Graham staged her fall to delay the trial.

Graham’s hair color was a topic of persistent interest, though it was alternately described as blonde, red, or brown. Graham was referred to as “golden-haired,” “reddish-blond,” a “bottle blonde,” a “redhead,” and, later, as a prim brunette. Reporters used her hair color, whether dark or light, to suggest Graham’s bad character; she was either flashy and dishonest or “prim” and insincere. Her clothing, pallor, shoes, and weight all received media scrutiny. A single article in the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, September 1) included references to Graham’s “strong hands,” “shapely thigh,” “bronzed [complexion],” and “tight-fitting summerweight suit,” along with a comment that a specific plainly dressed female juror would probably not approve of Graham’s clothing (pp. 1, 10).

Needless to say, the male co-defendants’ hair color and clothing were rarely, if ever, noted. At the very least, the cumulative effect of all the media interest in Graham’s physical appearance was to minimize reportage on Santo and Perkins. Further, it was a small step for the reader to assume that Graham was conducting herself with an inappropriate frivolousness, or attempting to use her good looks to sway the jury. The Los Angeles Mirror(1953, September 16) suggested exactly that in a headline that read “Babs Makes Goo-Goo Eyes at Jurors, D. A. Charges” (p. 2). The story actually referred to Deputy District Attorney Leavy’s caution to the jury that “Mrs. Graham believes she can turn your heads,” a statement that was rhetorical rather than literal.

Bias toward Guilt

Nichols (1990) notes that news stories tended to emphasize Graham’s role in the crime. One article referred to Graham as the “key defendant” in the case (The Los Angeles Herald-Express, 1953, August 19, pp. 1, 4), a characterization never used by the prosecution or police. Headlines used terminology like “Execution of Barbara Graham, 2 Men Set Tomorrow” and “Barbara, Pals in San Quentin Death Cells Still Hope for 11th Hour Stay” (two examples from The San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 3, pp. 1–2).

Preconviction news stories often displayed a bias toward guilt on Graham’s part, failing to qualify statements with “allegedly” or other terms designed to reflect the presumption of innocence. In other instances, Graham was described as having “ducked” questions, implying that she was evasive. Some articles included claims that were utterly unsupported by evidence, as when one article described Graham as “standing unconcernedly by” while Monahan was garroted by Santo and Perkins (Los Angeles Mirror, 1953, August 19, p. 4).

Graham’s Personal Life and “Sordid Past”

Los Angeles Times Reporter Gene Blake, interviewed in 1988 about the Graham case, discussed the constant pressure on reporters to find fresh angles for their stories, even if no new information was available (Nichols, 1990). While both Santo and Perkins had equally sordid pasts, as well as extensive and violent criminal records, Graham’s past and personal life received far more attention.

Her life story was used as a cautionary tale. According to a vivid front-page article in the Los Angeles Herald-Express(1953, August 28),

[I]n the wreckage of Barbara Graham’s past, littered with broken marriages, smashed hopes and three children … lay the story of how she faces the gas chamber today with icy composure…. [S]he easily slipped from truancy to highpowered crime. From various sources, including the reports of police and probation officers in San Francisco, where she has a considerable police record, the biography of a bawd who stumbled along the primrose path from being “very promiscuous sexually” to association with the “bigtime” crooks she so admired, can be developed in all its sorry detail. (p. 1)

Loaded terms like “highpowered crime,” “considerable police record,” “bawd,” and “bigtime crooks” were statements of opinion, but they served to paint Graham as a thoroughly bad character who was about to receive her just desserts.

Other reportage downplayed fact in favor of opinion. In its trial coverage, the Los Angeles Daily News(1955, September 4) described “unfaithful wife Barbara Graham” as she “looked to her husband for forgiveness but blank-faced Henry Graham avoided her eyes” (p. 3). The story focused on the reporter’s speculations about the Graham marriage and Barbara’s guilty conscience, rather than the substance of Henry Graham’s testimony. Graham’s visitors also received coverage. She was photographed during visits with her youngest son, Tommy—placing her in a more sympathetic light, but also pointing out how especially reprehensible her conduct was for a young mother. Visitors seen by Santo and Perkins, including Perkins’s son, were of no interest to reporters.

Did sensational newspaper coverage of the trial influence the jury? Graham raised the issue on appeal, as discussed below, without success.

Imprisonment and Trial

While awaiting trial in Los Angeles County Jail, Graham, who was bisexual, became involved in an intimate relationship with a fellow prisoner Donna Prow. Prow was serving a short sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Prow was approached by law enforcement with a deal to reduce her jail time in return for helping to obtain a confession from Graham. As instructed, she approached Graham with an offer of a false alibi, which would be provided by a friend of hers in exchange for $500. Graham, faced with True’s testimony, felt desperate enough to seize the opportunity. Prow’s supposed friend, actually an undercover police officer named Sam Sirianni, visited Graham in jail on three occasions to plan the alibi. Sirianni taped all of their conversations with a hidden recorder. They discussed the details of the alibi—that they had spent the night together in an Encino motel—to make it convincing. Graham made several incriminating statements during these conversations, including references to Shorter (“he’s been done away with”), her need for the alibi (“without you as an alibi, I’m doomed to the gas chamber”), the date and time of the murder (“early in the morning of March 10” rather than the evening of March 9), and, most damningly, an admission that she had been with True, Santo, and Perkins “when everything took place.” Prow’s sentence was reduced to time served, and she was released from prison.

Graham and her codefendants pled not guilty at their joint trial, which began on August 14, 1953, and lasted five weeks. Police acted on reports that the defendants were part of a “crime mob” by taking extraordinary precautions at her trial. Armed guards were stationed in the courtroom to avert gangland reprisals directed at True or Upshaw, and spectators were searched before entering the courtroom.

True was the prosecution’s star witness, but Sam Sirianni’s testimony proved to be the most explosive. Apparently Sirianni’s testimony as a prosecution witness was unexpected by Graham and her defense attorney Jack Hardy; Hardy moved to withdraw as Graham’s attorney, but the court denied the motion. Sirianni testified to his conversations with Graham, reading from a transcription, and the tape recording of one of their exchanges was played in court. The impact of the tape recording was enormous; as attorney Hardy certainly knew, the damage to Graham’s credibility was irreparable. In the closing argument, both Hardy and the attorney for Santo and Perkins, Ward Sullivan, denounced the “utterly ruthless” and “deceptive” manipulation of Graham.

Neither Santo nor Perkins took the stand during the trial. Graham, however, elected to testify. She admitted to knowing Santo and Perkins, but stated that she did not know Shorter or Upshaw. Moreover, she said that she had not been with any of them on March 9 and that she had gone along with Prow’s plan out of desperation. The prosecution introduced some of the amorous notes exchanged by Graham and Prow, something Graham found particularly distressing. She now testified that she had been home with her husband and son on the night in question. However, the testimony of Henry Graham, a heroin addict, was both vague and contradictory.

The jury deliberated for less than five hours and returned guilty verdicts against all three defendants.

Appeals and Execution

After Graham, Santo, and Perkins had been sentenced to death in the gas chamber, Graham met the press “with all the aplomb of a movie queen starring in a colossal production” (Los Angeles Times, 1953, September 25, p. 1). Her confidence would be badly shaken during her time leading up to her execution, and reporters began to refer frequently to her “frail” appearance. Graham also suffered from tooth and jaw pain, for which she was prescribed Demerol. Prison psychiatrists found Graham verbally facile, well oriented, of above-average intelligence, and thoroughly sane, though she was “not forthcoming” with them.

Graham was initially held at the State Institution for Women at Corona. She was moved from Corona to San Quentin on November 11, 1953, out of concern that attempts might be made on her life; a memorandum in her file also indicates that officials had received reports that someone might try to free her or even impregnate her via artificial insemination to delay her execution (Execution file, B. Graham). The expense of housing Graham at San Quentin and providing security for her became another hot topic for the media. Her cell was inaccurately described as “luxurious”; it was actually a small, improvised space in the prison hospital. She was returned to Corona on June 23, 1954, with the imminent threat deemed to have passed.

Santo, Perkins, and Graham appealed the trial court judgment and petitioned for a new trial on several grounds: that principal witness True’s testimony was insufficiently corroborated, that prejudicial news coverage denied them a fair trial, and that the armed guards and searching of spectators were grounds for a mistrial or change of venue. In its August 11, 1954, opinion in People v. Santo, 43 Cal. 2d 319, the California Supreme Court held that the defendants’ contentions were without merit. As to True’s account, the court found that the testimony of Upshaw and Sirianni, and the evidence of flight on the part of the defendants—the moves that ended in Lynwood—corroborated True.

Further, the court rejected defendants’ allegations regarding the effect of prejudicial news coverage. The court noted that (1) the parties had stipulated that no member of the district attorney’s office had any part in the adverse publicity, (2) there was no evidence that the adverse news was given to the jury, and (3) the jury, having been admonished to disregard news reports on the case, was presumed to have heeded the court’s directive. As to the other contentions, spectators were not searched in front of the jury, and the security precautions were within the trial judge’s discretion. Graham alone contended that she should have received a separate trial, particularly because testimony was introduced at trial that was admissible against Santo or Perkins but inadmissible against her. Again, the California Supreme Court held that the trial judge had acted appropriately in admitting the testimony along with an instruction to the jury. The California Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence of the defendants, and a petition for rehearing was denied on September 8, 1954.

Graham’s case made its way through the federal courts as well. The United States Supreme Court denied the defendants’ petition for certiorari(a writ of review) on March 7, 1955, without opinion. Her application for a writ of habeas corpus was denied on May 31, 1955, by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.

The legal maneuvering continued until the last hours of Graham’s life. On June 3, 1955, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in Graham v. Teets, 223 F. 2d 680. Graham’s appellate attorney, Al Matthews, argued that constitutional questions raised by the case had not been considered by the California Supreme Court, and thus the judicial remedies open to Graham had not been exhausted (a prerequisite to execution). However, the court noted that Matthews could have filed for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Supreme Court as early as March 7, 1955, the day the U.S. Supreme Court denied Graham’s petition for certiorari. Instead, he waited until May 31 to file his application for the writ in the U.S. district court, where it was promptly denied. He petitioned the Ninth Circuit Court for a stay only on the afternoon of June 2, the day before the executions were scheduled. The Ninth Circuit chided Matthews, stating that “[b]y this purposeful device there is thrown on such federal judges as the writer the strain of hasty consideration of the contentions presented…. This I regard a gross misuse of the functions of an officer of the court.” Nonetheless, the petition was denied.

Graham was returned to San Quentin on June 2, 1955, the day before her scheduled execution in the gas chamber. She was scheduled to die at 10 a.m. on June 3, but Governor Goodwin J. Knight’s office stayed her execution twice, first setting the time back to 10:45 and then to 11:30. In the end he found no basis for executive clemency. Graham was quoted as saying, “Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at 10 o’clock.” She wore a blindfold at her own request and thus did not make eye contact with spectators.

At least sixteen reporters were present at Graham’s execution, and they again depicted her physical appearance in detail. “The brashly attractive 32-year-old convicted murderess, her bleached blond hair turned to its natural brown … walked to her death as if dressed for a shopping trip” (Los Angeles Times, 1955, June 5, p. 1). Even the blindfold Graham requested was treated as a fashion accessory in some accounts: “Her face was an ivory cameo accented by the mask [blindfold] and her rouged crimson lips” (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 4, p. 1); “the mask hid her tired eyes and she looked pretty in her beige suit” (The San Francisco Chronicle, 1955, June 4, p. 1). Her hands trembled, and “her small pendant earrings quivered nervously” (The San Francisco Chronicle, 1955, June 4, p. 1), but she retained her composure.

The pellets dropped at 11:34 a.m. Gene Blake of the Los Angeles Times reported that “it seemed an interminable time before death came…. She gasped and drew her head up twice. Then came another gasp. Then her head tipped far back, her mouth agape. Again and again she gasped until her head pitched forward for the last time at 11:37. Her gasps came slowly and fainter. And finally stopped” (Los Angeles Times, 1955, June 5, p. 1). Al Martinez, another journalist present at the event, wrote that Graham “gasped and strained against the straps that bound her … [f]oam bubbled at her mouth” (Los Angeles Times, 1990, March 31, p. 2). She died at 11:42 a.m. Graham’s body was claimed by her husband Henry, and she was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery in San Rafael.

Perkins and Santo were executed at 2:30 p.m. on the same day. They slept soundly, ate heartily, and joked irreverently as they went to the gas chamber (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 4).

Consequences and Implications

Graham’s case raised several significant legal issues. Some newspapers described the reprieves and delays as uncivilized, products of a sadistic legal system that dangled last-minute hopes in front of the condemned woman, only to snatch them away. California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown, later governor, commented on what he called the “cat and mouse” game with Graham’s life in her final days. According to Brown, “[t]he way the death penalty has been administered in California in the last two years is a disgrace to the administration of justice. The way the Graham woman was executed was a sad commentary on legal killing in California” (San Francisco Examiner, 1955, June 5). Brown urged the abolition of the death penalty, or, barring that, a provision to reduce the time for disposition of appeals.

Graham’s trial occurred well before the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on criminal procedure that protected suspects from coercive police tactics; for example, Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, was not decided until 1966. Coerced confessions—including those elicited by abuse, manipulation, or in violation of the accused’s right to counsel—would be inadmissible by the mid-1960s. The use of the Sirianni testimony would probably have fallen into this category (Foster, 1997).

In March 1960, then-Governor Brown called the legislature into special session to consider a bill to suspend the death penalty. The next-to-last speaker was Deputy District Attorney J. Miller Leavy, who opposed the bill. In the course of his testimony, Leavy stated that he learned in 1959 that Barbara Graham had orally confessed to the murder of Mabel Monahan during a private conversation with San Quentin Warden Harley Teets. Leavy’s bombshell served its intended purpose; the bill failed to pass by one vote. But was the confession story credible?

California Senate subcommittee hearings in 1960 were held to determine whether Graham had been deprived of due process by the prosecution’s failure to turn over the transcript of True’s original interrogation to the defense. The transcript apparently revealed variations from True’s trial testimony, and could have been used to impeach him. Though it seemed hardly relevant, the hearings also included testimony related to the alleged Graham confession. According to Marin County District Attorney William Weissich, Teets (who died of a heart attack in 1957) made the statement as he and Weissich drove to San Quentin on August 30, 1957. Weissich did not reveal this information until 1959, when he was contacted by prosecutor Leavy in connection with a proposed book (later published as The Case of Barbara Graham in 1962). As the reporter’s transcript of the 1960 hearings reveals, much effort was expended on determining when Graham could have spoken to Teets privately. The hearing’s findings on this issue were inconclusive.

Was Graham, in fact, guilty? San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bernice Freeman Davis interviewed both Graham and True, and noted that “Barbara had been convicted largely on John True’s testimony, and from my own experience I knew that he was careless with the truth.” Davis believed that Graham was innocent of the attack on Monahan, but that she had been present during the crime. Graham was short, slender, and did not have a record of violent offenses; it seemed more likely that Santo or Perkins would have physically subdued Monahan (Davis and Hirschberg, 1962). Nonetheless, Graham was almost certainly a participant in planning and carrying out the robbery.

Edward Montgomery, reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later proponent of Graham’s innocence, first raised the argument that the left-handed Graham would not have pistol-whipped Monahan with her right hand, as described by True (Sub-committee hearing, 1960). On the same occasion, Montgomery recounted a conversation he had had with Emmett Perkins in prison. According to Montgomery, Perkins stated that Monahan was beaten with her own cane, rather than a gun. Moreover, he allegedly said that Santo had told him “we got to keep the girl out front,” presumably because a jury would have difficulty sentencing a young mother to death and her codefendants would benefit by association.

Legal and Popular Significance

As noted above, Graham’s trial and execution occurred at the beginning of an era of anti-death penalty activism. Both pro- and anti-capital punishment advocates used the case as an illustration, and its thirty-two-year-old female defendant continued to have media appeal.

Executions of women have tended to give rise to strong sentiments. The “chivalry thesis,” which attributes a protective motive and a disbelief in female violence to society in general, is one explanation for the cultural reluctance to execute women. However, a corollary to the thesis is that when women are condemned, they are portrayed as inherently pathological, cunning, and unwomanly—a process of “othering” that allows society to make an exception (Keitner, 2002). This “evil woman” theory places the female defendant outside the definition of appropriately feminine conduct (Shapiro, 2000). Thus, executed women tend to display dominant personalities, seen both in their active participation in the crime and other evidence of aggressive and willful character traits (Carroll, 1997). Graham initiated the violent attack on Monahan and pistol-whipped the victim. Further, she used a ruse to enter Monahan’s home and had a record of perjury. Graham’s conduct was not simply brutal, but also deceitful. She was attractive and feminine, even demure, but she was revealed to be promiscuous and bisexual. She had a record of perjury and had attempted to buy an alibi. All of these factors made her an aberration, a member of the “unholy trio” (according to the prosecution’s closing argument) and utterly unlike the rest of womankind.

Those who felt that Graham had been treated unfairly by the media and the criminal justice system found a vigorous advocate in reporter Edward Montgomery. He continued to be Graham’s champion after her execution and successfully lobbied producer Walter Wanger to make a film version of Graham’s case, resulting in the 1958 motion picture I Want to Live!

I Want to Live!, based on Montgomery’s reportage, presents Graham as a streetwise woman who was also a caring mother and loyal friend. Her refusal to “finger” Santo and Perkins as the Monahan killers, while consistent with her personal code of honor, makes her a dupe for the self-serving True, police, and press. Critical reaction to the film was generally positive, and reviewers were impressed by the film’s chilling depiction of the execution process and its indictment of capital punishment (New York Times, November 19 and 23, 1958). A paperback novelization of the film (Rawson, 1958) included stills from the movie and closely followed its script. It was advertised and promoted as the “true story” of the case.

The movie, in fact, fictionalized or omitted elements of Graham’s life in its first half. She was portrayed as a devoted mother to her son Tommy, but her two other sons were not even mentioned. Nor were her first three marriages and her own narcotics use. Her movie arrest took place at night, with Graham stepping alone into the police spotlights; while the depiction had some allegorical truth to it, Graham was actually arrested along with her codefendants at 4 p.m. Edward Montgomery is shown working on the case before Graham’s arrest, when he actually did not begin to report on it until the latter part of the trial. On the other hand, the second half of the movie, which concerns the time leading up to Graham’s execution, was substantially accurate. Producer Wanger, a death penalty opponent, deliberately set out to show the bleak horror of the death chamber, and also chose to portray Graham sympathetically for maximum effectiveness (Nichols, 1990).

Not surprisingly, some viewers saw the film as propaganda cloaked in a pseudo-documentary style. To Los Angeles Times reporter Gene Blake, the film was neither “true” nor “factual” nor a “documentary” (Los Angeles Times, 1958, November 28). Bill Walker, a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Express, also remained convinced of Graham’s guilt. In part as a rebuttal to the I Want to Live! movie and book, Walker collaborated with prosecutor J. Miller Leavy on The Case of Barbara Graham, a retelling that amasses the evidence against Graham. Leavy believed that there was no ambiguity in the case whatsoever. As he stated in 1990, “I didn’t prosecute to deter. I prosecuted to punish. Sending her [Graham] to the gas chamber didn’t bother me at all” (Los Angeles Times, 1990, March 31, p. 2). The Case of Barbara Graham provides an excellent chronology of events in the case and large portions of testimony, but it neglects any evidence that would cast doubt on the jury verdict. Since it was intended as a corrective to I Want to Live!, the authors are, unfortunately, equally partisan. Graham’s case still awaits an objective full-length treatment. Many of the key figures in the case have died, including defense attorney Matthews in 1986, reporter Montgomery in 1992, Burbank police chief Rex Andrews in 1993, and prosecutor Leavy in 1995. The Graham case was referenced in each of their obituaries.

Barbara Graham has remained an intriguing figure in popular culture, though on a more modest scale. In the 1960s and 1970s, her case was included in true crime anthologies, where she again made for colorful and politically incorrect copy. For example, Miriam De Ford wrote, “weak, malleable, self-indulgent, and foolish she always was, but by the ordinary criteria she was as sane as the next stupid little girl with bad heredity and worse upbringing.” A 1983 television movie, also called I Want to Live(sans exclamation point), retold her story sympathetically, but far less effectively than the original did. Death penalty studies continue to refer to her case and its procedural irregularities (e.g., Bedau and Radelet, 1987; Shipman, 2002). However, Graham’s story is, first and foremost, a case study in the influential role of mass media in the criminal justice setting. Newspapers and reporters created the streetwise, loyal, and innocent Graham and the cold-hearted, duplicitous murderess; they were her biggest supporters and harshest accusers. They also ensured that Graham’s case—and her elusive character—would retain a place in popular culture.


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California Legislature, Assembly Interim Committee on Criminal Procedure. (1960). Sub-committee hearing re alleged discrepancies and suppression of evidence re Barbara Graham confession: Reporter’s transcript of testimony and proceedings, March 21, 1960, Sacramento, California. Sacramento, CA: The Assembly.
Carroll, J. E. (1997, May). Images of women and capital sentencing among female offenders: Exploring the outer limits of the Eighth Amendment and articulated theories of justice. Texas Law Review, 75, 1413–1452.
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Nichols, R. C. (1990). Los Angeles newspaper coverage and dramatization of the Barbara Graham case. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California State University, Northridge.
Parrish, M. (2001). For the people: Inside the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, 1850–2000. Santa Monica, CA: Angel City Press.
Rawson, T. (1958). I want to live!: The analysis of a murder. New York: New American Library.
Shapiro, A. (2000). Unequal before the law: Men, women and the death penalty. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law, 8, 427–470.
Shipman, M. (2002). The penalty is death: U.S. newspaper coverage of women’s executions. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
Walker, B. (1961). The case of Barbara Graham. In collaboration with J. Miller Leavy. New York: Ballantine Books.
Wanger, W. (Producer), and Wise, R. (Director). (1958). I want to live![Motion picture]. United States: MGM.

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Famous American Crimes and Trials -- : Volume III: 1913–1959


"The Barbara Graham Murder Case: The Murderess “Walked to Her Death as if Dressed for a Shopping Trip”." Famous American Crimes and Trials : Volume III: 1913–1959. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 8 Oct 2015. <http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=C8336&chapterID=C8336-1243&path=books/greenwood>

Chicago Manual of Style

"The Barbara Graham Murder Case: The Murderess “Walked to Her Death as if Dressed for a Shopping Trip”." In Famous American Crimes and Trials : Volume III: 1913–1959, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc.aspx?fileID=C8336&chapterID=C8336-1243&path=books/greenwood. (accessed October 8, 2015).