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Proof of Guilt: The Tragic Life and Public Death of Barbara Graham

With her hand on her chin, Barbara Graham listens in Judge Frick's courtroom in 1953. | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

She was a brunette bombshell, a diabolical dame, a femme fatale with a sordid past and unsavory ties to Los Angeles' criminal underworld. They called her "Bloody Babs."

"If any life could be squeezed into a one-dimensional archetype of the bad and beautiful female, it was that of Barbara Graham," Cal Poly history lecturer Kathleen A. Cairns writes in "Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America." "(Her) life story might have sprung from the imaginations of any of a number of hard-boiled fiction writers specializing in stories of ...voluptuous women who brandished their seductive charms as lethal weapons."

Charged along with two male friends in the murder of an elderly widow during a botched robbery attempt, Graham became the third woman to be executed by the state of California on June 3, 1955. Years later, her case - chronicled in a popular Hollywood movie - became a rallying cry for anti-death penalty activists.

"She could be used as a symbol for both sides. The people who were using her were sophisticated enough to understand that," Cairns said, whether they were abolitionists, prosecutors looking for a swift conviction, or members of the press seeking a sacrificial lamb.

In "Proof of Guilt," published in May by University of Nebraska Press, Cairns sets aside the question of Graham's guilt or innocence to explore how her case helped color attitudes about capital punishment. She also examines the ease with which police, prosecutors, reporters and others shape the public narrative.

Kathleen Cairns profiles the third woman executed by the state of California in "Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America." | University of Nebraska Press

A former journalist, Cairns has dedicated her career as a historian to documenting women who defy society's expectations. Her first book, 2003's "Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920-1950," looked at newspaperwomen who helped transform the face of journalism while reshaping public perceptions of women in the workplace.

Cairns tackled the topic of rehabilitating female inmates in 2009's "Hard Times in Tehachapi: California's First Women's Prison." And in "The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison," published in 2007," the author profiled the first woman on Death Row in California -- a former Palm Springs hotel manager who was "good with the pistols and the ponies."

Although convicted in 1934 of first-degree murder for shooting her husband, Madison avoided the hangman's noose by claiming to be the victim of emotional and physical abuse.

Like the attractive, oft-married Madison, Graham didn't fit the traditional mold of modest womanhood, Cairns said. "Her crime was flaunting society's rules as to have a women should act and dress and behave."

Born in Oakland in 1923 to an unwed teenager, young Barbara Ford bounced from foster home to convent school to orphanage before being sent, just after her 14th birthday, to the California School for Girls in Ventura -- the same brutal institution where her mother had been incarcerated. Shortly after her parole at age 16, she married for the first time, giving birth to the first of her three sons in 1940.

By the early 1950s, Barbara had worked in bars, brothels and gambling joints across California and racked up a rap sheet that included arrests for perjury, prostitution, narcotics possession and writing bad checks. She met her fourth husband, bartender Henry Graham, around the same time that she went to work for gambling parlor owner Emmett Perkins, a bit player in Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen's operation.

Although Graham associated with people with criminal pasts, including Perkins, John Santo and John True, "I'm not sure she was totally aware of how bad they really were," Cairns said.

Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins and Barbara Graham sitting in the courtroom of the Mable Monohan murder. | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

That changed on the night of March 9, 1953. According to True, Graham accompanied him, Perkins and Santo to the Burbank home of Mable Monahan -- rumored to contain a hidden safe holding $100,000 left behind by her former son-in-law, a Las Vegas gambler.

Once inside, True testified, Graham struck Monahan with a gun butt before the gang ransacked the house in search of loot. As they prepared to leave, True said, Graham slipped a pillowcase over Monahan's head while Perkins tied her hands together and Santo fastened a piece of cloth around her neck.

Roughly two months later, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested Graham, Perkins and Santo on suspicion of killing Monahan.

According to Cairns, the case against Graham was circumstantial. Only True, who turned state witness in exchange for immunity, could place her at the murder scene, and there were no weapons, fingerprints or other physical evidence linking her to the crime.

Nonetheless, Graham found herself on trial alongside Perkins and Santo in Los Angeles Superior Court in August 1953 -- in danger of becoming, in the words of one reporter, "the most beautiful victim the gas chamber has ever claimed." Her attorney, Jack W. Hardy, had never before represented a defendant in a capital murder case, while the judge, Charles Fricke, had sentenced dozens to death.

Although men could be executed in the mid-20th century for anything from kidnapping to rape and theft, few offenses were considered capital crimes for women, said Gordon Morris Bakken, who wrote the 2009 book "Women Who Kill Men: California Courts, Gender, and the Press" with Brenda Farrington. "Primarily, it was a first-degree murder or conspiracy to commit a first-degree murder ... (But) you could get away with it defending yourself, defending your children, defending your husband."

Doomed to die in the gas chamber, Barbara Graham is interviewed by writer Stuart Palmer, then special feature writer for the Los Angeles Herald-Express. | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Graham couldn't plead self-defense, but she could play on the sympathies of the jury, press and public by dressing modestly, emphasizing her status as a mother and behaving "submissive and deferential to authority."

"As a decidedly unconventional woman charged with bludgeoning a stranger ... Graham had a particularly strong incentive to heed these rules," Cairns writes. Instead, the author said, she appeared in court in tight clothing and high-heeled pumps "that showed off her trim ankles and shapely legs ... radiat(ing) anger and resentment as she sat, casually smoking, at the counsel table."

"My sense of her all through writing the book was that she was always her own worst enemy," Cairns said, pointing to one incident in particular.

Since nothing directly linked Graham to Monahan's murder, "police and prosecutors decided to trick her into admitting involvement," Cairns writes. Posing as a fixer who could provide her with a fake alibi, an undercover officer met with Graham and secretly recorded their conversations, including a forced confession.

"Frankly, by today's standards, with a decent attorney, Barbara Graham would have not been convicted," said Bakken, editor of the 2010 book "Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States." But back in September 1953, jurors found enough evidence to convict Graham and her friends of first-degree murder, an automatic death sentence.

Before the news and television cameras, Monohan murder figure Barbara Graham denied any part in the Chester massacre. Graham's attorney Jack Hardy sits to her right. | Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Graham's trial might have been over, but her story was far from complete. "In being drawn to her and interviewing her, (journalists) came to believe she was innocent," Cairns said. "She was pretty canny in that she let these people talk to her and got (them) to take her side of the story."

One of Graham's strongest allies was San Francisco Examiner reporter Edward S. Montgomery, who, by his own admission, usually sided with the prosecution. "Why would this story have grabbed him so much?" Cairns asked. "I couldn't figure out why. Was it because she was beautiful? Because she was interesting? Because he thought it was a travesty?"

Whatever the reason, Montgomery campaigned hard to exonerate Graham, even after her death. He contacted Hollywood producer Walter Wanger, who specialized in "socially significant message films that challenged power structures."

Wanger jumped at the chance to tell Graham's tragic story, bringing aboard director Robert Wise and screenwriters Don Mankiewicz and Nelson Gidding. Susan Hayward signed on to play Graham.

Unlike other crime dramas of the era, "I Want to Live!" was told from the accused woman''s perspective. Although the movie didn't shy away from depicting Graham as "risk-taking or anti-authoritarian," Cairns said, it did emphasize her vulnerability -- portraying her as "an innocent woman sent to her death by arrogant, uncaring men."

"I Want to Live!" opened in 1958 to uniformly positive reviews and strong box office receipts, earning Hayward an Academy Award and providing capital punishment critics with fresh ammunition. "The abolition movement ... used all this sympathy for Barbara Graham to promote abolition," Cairns said.

Kathleen Cairns, author of "Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America" | Chris Daly

Although Graham's story is largely forgotten today, Cairns said, she remains a powerful symbol of a woman marginalized by society, abused by the legal system and besmirched by the media.

"Whenever somebody wants to bring up a case of someone who might (have been) innocent (but was executed), they can bring up Barbara Graham," she said. "Stories like Barbara Graham's are really significant because they show you how the system works - or doesn't."

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Top Image: On trial for the murder of an elderly woman, Barbara Graham listens in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1953. Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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