Final Thoughts on Barbara Graham

Mabel Monohan

Mabel Monohan

Until I began researching the Mabel Monohan case again for this series of posts, I was       convinced that Barbara Graham was guilty of beating the widow; but I’ve changed my mind.

This is how I think it went down.

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Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, Barbara Graham [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Perkins, a married guy, was clearly smitten with Graham. When Barbara left her husband Henry and her son Tommy she went to Emmett Perkins for a place to stay. Perkins wasn’t much to look at, and nobody ever claimed that he had a sparkling wit or a winning personality. He must have done a mental dance of joy when he found the attractive younger woman on his doorstep. In the courtroom photos he’s always seated next to her, and his expression and body language speaks volumes. If Graham had egged him on that night at Monohan’s, he would have beaten the poor woman mercilessly, and that’s exactly what I believe happened.

Baxter Shorter’s statement put the gun that beat Mabel Monohan in Perkin’s hands, which makes a lot more sense to me than John True’s assertion that it was Barbara who did the beating. The beating likely began as a way to get Mabel to give up the location of the safe that the gang believed to be in the house.

Barbara was there that night only to gain entry into the house, which would have fit the context of the time and the likely dynamic among the gang members.  No matter how twisted, she was playing a woman’s role. However with the adrenaline rush that must have accompanied her success at getting the men into the house, I can easily visualize her screaming encouragement at Perkins — but standing back and letting him deliver the blows.

Perkins may have been responsible for the beating, but I think that Barbara placed the pillowcase over Mabel’s head because she wanted to shut the woman up, and because she couldn’t stand to look at the blood. Head wounds bleed copiously. I was puzzled about which member of the gang pulled the pieces of cloth tight enough to asphyxiate Mabel, until I realized that it was probably Barbara.

Perkins and Santo were killers, they’d already murdered people in Northern California, so I don’t think they’d have hesitated to kill Monohan outright — pulling a pillowcase over her head doesn’t strike me as something either of them would have done. That leaves Shorter, True, or Graham. Shorter phoned for an ambulance for Mabel after they left the house, so I don’t make him for the killer. True was there to learn about safe cracking from Shorter, he would have stuck with him. I think that Emmett inflicted the beating, with Barbara at his side. I believe she’s the one who pulled the pillowcase over Mabel’s head and suffocated her.

That makes Graham not guilty of the beating but responsible for Monohan’s death, the cause of which was determined to have been asphyxiation.

Barbara Graham's hands. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara Graham’s hands. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Should Barbara Graham have been executed?

There’s so much about her case that would be handled differently now. It’s not clear that the false alibi idea initiated with Barbara. It appears that it was presented to her by Donna Prow and that she grabbed at it believing it to be a lifeline.  If the idea wasn’t hers, then I would call the false alibi scheme entrapment. It weighed heavily against her with the jury who saw it as proof of her guilt, not of her desperation as she had said.

It is my opinion that it was the combination of the false alibi and Graham’s jailhouse romance with Donna Prow that put her in the gas chamber.

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Busted!   [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The circumstantial evidence was, in my view, compelling enough to convict Perkins, Santo  and Graham of Mabel Monohan’s slaying; however, if there had never been a false alibi or if Barbara’s relationship with Donna hadn’t come to light, I think they would all have been sentenced to life.

I’m indulging in speculation, and without solid proof that’s all it can be. I know that there are people who will disagree with my conclusions; and there are those who believe Barbara Graham to have been completely innocent in the Monohan case. I respectfully disagree.

NEXT TIME: The story of the last Dead Woman Walking in California — Elizabeth Ann ‘Ma’ Duncan.

21 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Barbara Graham

    • Maribel – thanks. I’ve read through the coverage on the case before, and I even appeared on an episode of the ID Discovery Channel’s show, Deadly Women, to talk about the case; but this time it just made more sense to me that Barbara didn’t beat Monohan. It’s sometimes a challenge not to look at everything in contemporary terms — I tried to consider the evidence as if it was 1953, and I arrived at a different conclusion than I had previously. Thanks again for your feedback, it’s much appreciated.

  1. If Barbara did put the pillowcase over Mabel’s head, perhaps she did that because the damage was so horrific, not to suffocate her. I could see her egging Perkins on, but I don’t believe she hit Mable. The false alibi would never make it to court today, IMO. Maybe had they been tried seperately, Barbara may have gotten life. Loved this episode…..now I’m ready for the next one. Great job Joan! :-)

    • I agree. I’m not convinced that if Barbara placed the pillowcase over Mabel’s head that she intended to kill her. I feel like it was just rage, fear and adrenaline that pushed her over the edge. Thanks for your input, Sherry!

  2. I really enjoyed this series, thank you so much! I notice that you do not have any references to the book “Decathlon of Death” by Jack Leslie. This is the book that initially got me interested in Barbara Graham’s case. The book’s focus is mainly on the northern California part of the story. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

    Additionally, if you email me, I can send you a scan of a short piece in the June 1959 Fate magazine which tells of the deaths of six men connected to the case. Apparently Barbara was to have said “They’ll all die violently. All the liars. All the ones who want me dead.” in the hours before her death. One of those karma or coincidence things that’s a fitting post script either way!

    Deborah

    • Deborah — I’ve actually read the “Decathlon of Death” but I wanted the primary focus to be on Barbara and less so on Santo and Perkins and the Chester Massacre (and their Northern California crimes). There are so many elements to the case that it was tough to condense it into just a few posts. There’s nearly always something, particularly in the complex cases, that I have to leave out, although the Karmic coincidence may well be worthy of a postscript. Thank you so much for your comments, and thank you for your readership. I am most appreciative. Best –Joan

  3. I’ve been doing original research on this gang for nearly 10 years. Did Barbara beat Monahan? Dunno but she really had no history of violent behavior in her past. Here’s another question…was she with Perkins when Shorter was kidnapped and never seen again? She was part of the crime with killers of the worst sort (beat little children to death), and participated in the crime so, yes, she was guilty as charged, at least as an active accomplice.

    • I agree that Graham was guilty as charged. I used to think that she pistol whipped Mabel, but like you said she didn’t have a history of violence. On the other hand neither Perkins nor Santo would have had a problem doing it — they were monsters. Now I believe it was Perkins who did the deed. There seems to be a compelling amount of evidence that Barbara was along on Shorter’s death ride, of course she could just have been told the story. Are you writing a book about the case? Thanks for reading the blog. Best — Joan

  4. My wife is Emmett’s granddaughter. She and her family firmly hold to the testimony that Emmet was not at the scene that day, and instead was helping to plant a relatives tree. Yet they also agree that he had a sinister history and possible ties to Siegel and/or Cohen… That he was a patsy for their connection with the hit. I have yet to read information that corroborates that line of thought, but it could make sense after the kidnapping. Ordered decathlon of death. Hope it lends more insight.

    • Evan — I understand why your wife’s family would cling to the notion that Emmett wasn’t involved in the Monahan murder. Even if he wasn’t guilty of that crime, and I believe he was, he and Jack Santos were also convicted for the murder of a Chester grocer and three small kids. Murders for which they also received the death penalty. It’s just sadness all the way around.
      Best — Joan

  5. Great reading !
    Thanks for keeping me entertained for the last few hours :)
    I will be back.
    Kindest regards

    Pete

  6. I THINK YOU MAKE A LOT OF SENSE, THE GUYS WERE KNOWN KILLERS, BARBARA WAS NOT, SHE MIGHT HAD PLAYED A PART AS YOU SAID , COVERING UP HER HEAD (MAKES SENSE, SOMETHING A WOMAN WOULD DO) BUT SHE WAS NOT A MURDER, SHE WAS GUILTY BUT NOT LIABLE FOR THE DEATH PENALITY. TODAY SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN OUT IN PROBABLY LESS THAN 25 YEARS. BESIDES HER REPUTATION DID NOT HELP HER.

    • Madelyn, Yeah, Santo and Perkins were known killers but Graham was primarily a junkie/prostitute with wretched taste in men. If the case came up today she’d never get the death penalty.

  7. I believe Barbara did not want the victim looking at her – the same way she didn’t want people to look at her when she went to the gas chamber. I agree with others that don’t believe Barbara killed the woman directly. I believe she was involved but I also believe she began to feel remorse about her role during the attack and didn’t want to meet the victims eyes – proving perhaps that she was in front of the victim, not behind! All theory, of course.

    • Lisa, I’m inclined to agree with your theory. I don’t think she was the person who actually killed Mabel Monohan either. Thank you for your
      comments and thanks for reading the blog. Best, Joan

  8. Thank you so much for these interesting articles–I enjoyed reading them. I never knew about Santo & Perkins and the northern California murders and that lead to more interesting reading from Googling.

    I’m a true crime nut, so I’ll be back to read more.

  9. Thank you for the intriguing, informative and (to my untutored eye) thorough description of events and background. I was reading about after Simon Oakland\\\’s career and so came upon this sideways.
    What stands out to me besides the mighty unpleasant nature of events is very different ways in which the principles met their end. She was understandably short tempered, he cracked wise.

    • Billy,

      Simon Oakland played the part of a newspaperman in “I Want to Live” — right? It was a terrific film, and a powerful indictment of the death penalty–but it was short on many of the facts in the case. Even after decades the Barbara Graham case fascinates people; me included. I’m not convinced Graham was Monohan’s killer, but I firmly believe she delivered some of the blows and that she was present during the commission of the murder. As a criminal group the people who entered Mabel’s house that night were just a bunch of violent thugs. I agree with you, it is very interesting to lean of the different ways in which they met their ends. You may have taken the long way ’round to get to the blog, but I hope you’ll check in again for more historic Los Angeles crime.

      Best,

      Joan

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