Dead Woman Walking

There have been five executions of women in California since 1851 and, in my opinion, only in this next case was the punishment undeserved.

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The first woman to suffer the ultimate penalty was named Juanita — her surname is lost to history.

Gold miners could be a rough and tumble lot, but most of them were decent men chasing a dream. Sadly, Juanita encountered one who meant to do her harm. Juanita was living on her own in a cabin in the small town of Downieville in the Mother Lode country. On the night of July 4,1851, Juanita was awakened by the sound of someone breaking into her home. She only had a few moments in which to decide what to do — so she grabbed a knife and held her breath. The intruder was a man, an Americano, and he intended to rape Juanita. As soon the man had come close enough for Juanita to feel his breath on her, and his hands reach for her, she plunged the knife as far as it would go into his chest. He died on the spot.

Justice was as swift as it was unfair. Juanita was a Mexican and it was illegal for her to raise her hand against an Americano, no matter what the circumstances.

A hastily assembled group of citizens made up the jury and they found Juanita guilty as charged. She was escorted by the jurors, a group of miners and a crowd of curious loafers to a bridge on the outskirts of town. It was determined that the murderess should be hanged from one of the top girders.

One of the crowd assumed the duties of hangman and placed a noose around the doomed woman’s neck. The girl stood on a cross beam at least six feet above the floor of the bridge. She had preserved her honor at the cost of her life. She stared defiantly at her judge and jury. A man stood next to her ready to shove her off the beam.

With unimaginable dignity Juanita turned to her executioner — then she faced the audience. She was smiling.

“Adios, senores” she said, and hurled herself into eternity.

NEXT TIME: Another dead woman walking.

Aggie and the City of Forgotten Women: Part 2

forgotten_women_headline_2

This is the second of a series on California’s unique women’s prison, which has bestirred national interest among sociologists and penologists. An International News Service staff correspondent was enable to obtain the first comprehensive “inside story” of the institution where Clara Phillips and other noted women offenders are now confined.

aggie_byline

Tehachapi, Cal., May 1, 1935 — Eight months in the “death house!”

Eight months in which to sit in one tiny room, forbidden to talk to anyone except matrons–Eight months in which to remember–what?nellie_madison_doom heard_headline_Page_1

Possibly the sound of six shots, ringing out in the still of night–six shots which ended the life of Eric B. Madison, movie studio cashier.

Eight months in which to hear over and over again, the voice of a judge saying “You are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead””

That is the fate of Nellie B. Madison, comely widow, who is the only woman in California now under sentence to die on the gallows.

Just eight months ago last March 12, Nellie B. Madison entered Tehachapi prison and was placed in the “death cell.”

nellie_madisonThis “cell” is merely a room in the prison hospital. Architects who designed the state institution for woman at Techachapi omitted “death cell.” That’s another way this prison is different.

So, in this room on the second floor of the administration building, Nellie Madison sits day after day. She seems a quite different person from the Nellie Madison who amazed Los Angeles court attaches during her trial with her cool calm demeanor.

Her nattily tailored clothes are of course discarded for the regulation prison costume–blue denim dresses with a white pin stripe.

Her jet black hair, now greying, has grown from the trim modern bob until it almost reaches her shoulders.

“In Los Angeles, I was thoroughly benumbed by all that had happened,” she said after the first glad welcome of seeing someone whom she had seen in the outside world.

Gallows at San Quentin used from 1893 to 1942. [The images were taken from the San Quentin 150th Anniversary Commemorative Book, ©Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, KY, 2002]

Gallows at San Quentin used from 1893 to 1942.
[The images were taken from the San Quentin 150th Anniversary Commemorative Book, ©Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, KY, 2002]

“I couldn’t realized just what had happened to me, but now that I have been here–let’s see is it only eight months or is it ten years–well, I’ve begun to get all the confidence in the world that the State Supreme court will reverse my conviction.”

This was Mrs. Madison’s only interview since she has entered the state institution.

“It seems to me that one’s conscience would be the greatest punishment in the world,” she said.

“My conscience doesn’t bother me one bit, but I do feel the disgrace that I have brought on myself and my family. One’s past good name and character seem to mean nothing when a person gets into trouble, but it apparently doesn’t mean a thing.”

Mrs. Madison’s recreation consists of short walks on the grounds each day–in company with a matron and the letters she receives from friends.

—-

NEXT TIME: In the third article of this series tomorrow, Miss Underwood tells of talks with other inmates, in this unique “City of Forgotten Women.”

NOTE: After this series wraps up I’ll delve into the cases of a few of the women mentioned by Aggie in her articles.