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.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 4

State Demands Death [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

State Demands Death [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The charges against John True were dismissed so that he could testify against Graham, Perkins and Santo. In order to keep True safe he was moved to a secret hideaway and guarded 24/7.

If convicted on the murder conspiracy charge the remaining three defendants could be given the death penalty. A jury would first have to determine the degree of murder. Then, if they agreed it was first degree and declined to make a recommendation, the death penalty would be mandatory.

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Barbara Graham in an ambulance. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The indictment for murder apparently hit Barbara Graham pretty hard. She collapsed in her jail cell and banged her head on the floor. She seemed to have fallen with enough force to rob her of her ability to speak. The doctors had their doubts though because her hospital record stated that she either “could not or would not talk”.

The doctors’ suspicions may have been well founded. Later, while she on her way to court, Barbara tumbled down some stairs.  She’d been overheard saying: “When I really get into my act I’m going to make Sarah Bernhard look like a chump.”

Barbara’s injuries weren’t serious and she was soon well enough to become involved in a minor altercation with another prisoner.  The woman, Mary Kendall Curtis (serving a year for contributing to the delinquency of her own daughter) taunted Barbara about the likelihood of the gas chamber in her future. Barbara belted her. Curtis said that Graham had “a wallop like Joe Louis”.  Graham didn’t deny smacking her cellmate, she said she’d been offended by Curtis’ irreverent and profane remarks. Curtis was transferred to another cell.

The trial began with John True’s testimony. His story was somewhat different than the statement Baxter Shorter had given the cops prior to his kidnapping and disappearance. Shorter had said that it was Emmett Perkins who had beaten Mabel Monohan with a gun butt — True testified that it was Barbara. True’s testimony would result in the Herald dubbing her “Bloody Babs”.

“Mrs. Graham was striking Mrs. Monahan in the face with a gun.  She was standing up and Mrs. Graham had her by the shoulder or hair with her left hand and was striking her with the gun in her right hand.”

Later, people looking for a reason to believe that Graham was innocent of murder seized on his testimony, apparently she was believed by some to be left-handed — even though on a handwriting sample card she stated she was right-handed.

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Handwriting sample for Barbara Graham. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara had  made one friend while she was in jail — twenty year old Donna Prow. Prow, mother of two, was doing a year in the County Jail for manslaughter. She’d been involved in a head-on collision in which a woman was killed and three other people seriously injured. Prow willingly became involved in a plan to snare Barbara into making a fatal decision.prow pic headline

The plan was simple; Barbara would be given the opportunity to buy herself an alibi for the night of Monohan’s murder. Donna, with whom Barbara was having a sexual relationship, told her she knew a guy, a ‘fixer’ who, for $25,000, would testify that he and Graham were together on the night of the crime.  Barbara supplied a code phrase, which was a paraphrase from The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam: “I came like the water.  I go like the wind.”  When one of her visitors spoke the code phrase, she’d know he was the fixer.

Barbara met the fixer, and together they worked out an alibi for her. She wouldn’t see the man again until he walked into the courtroom, not as a witness in her defense, but rather to testify against her. The fixer turned out to be Sam Sirianni, a cop; and he’d recorded their jailhouse conversation.

Much of the recorded conversation was inaudible, which was a plus for the defense. Unfortunately for Graham there was one portion of the tape that was crystal clear — it was the part where Sirianni asked her if she had been with Perkins, Santo, True, and Shorter on the night of the crime and she answered: “I was with them”.

Barbara glares at Sam Sirianni.

Barbara glares at Sam Sirianni. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Just as damning was her response to Sirianni when he pressed her about Baxter Shorter, and if he’d come forward to testify at the trial. Barbara said there was nothing to worry about, Shorter wouldn’t turn up. Sirianni asked again about Shorter’s whereabouts and Graham said “use your imagination”.

Barbara had more bad news coming. Her husband, Henry Graham, was a witness for the prosecution. He testified that he and Barbara had argued violently and that he was staying with his mother on March 9th, that he couldn’t have been at home arguing with Barbara as she had finally claimed.

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Henry Graham mugshot. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Things went from bad to worse for Barbara when some of the notes that she had written to Donna Prow were read in open court. The notes were filled with terms of endearment and were sexually suggestive — the notes undoubtedly shocked many of the jurors.

It was during the reading of the notes and the exposure of the attempt to buy a false alibi that Barbara lost her composure and cried out: “Have you ever been desperate?  Do you know what it is?”

Barbara’s husband Henry switched his story and said he’d been with her the night of the murder — but it was too little, too late.

Harriet Henson [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Harriet Henson [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Barbara was the only defendant to take the stand. Perkins and Santo had planned to testify and Santo’s common-law wife, Harriet Henson, was going to provide them with a false alibi. Harriet was no genius and her statements to the cops  implicated her, along with Santo and Perkins, in the 1951 slaying of Ed Hanson a Nevada City miner during an attempted gold robbery.

Santo and Perkins were also implicated in the vicious murder of Guard Young and three small children in Chester, CA in 1952. They’d later be tried and sentenced to death for those crimes too. There was no way that Perkins and Santo were going to avoid the gas chamber.

The three defendants are found guilty of the charges against them in the Monohan case. The jury made no recommendation for life sentences.  They were  doomed.

The jury: three women and nine men.  [Photo courtesy LAPL]

The jury: three women and nine men. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Following the verdict Barbara Graham snapped: “As long as they found me guilty of something I didn’t do, I’d rather take the gas chamber than life imprisonment.”

NEXT TIME: The executions and some final thoughts.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 3

shorter_davis_picOn March 26, 1953, five men were arrested and held for questioning in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. The men were: Solly Davis (a one-time Mickey Cohen lieutenant); William Upshaw and John Wilds (both Mickey Cohen associates); Joe Allen; and Baxter Shorter.

All five men were career crminals — Upshaw had been frequently arrested on gambling charges, Davis had been incarcerated in two Federal pens, Leavenworth and Atlanta, and in the New York State Prison, Sing Sing. Baxter Shorter had a record that dated back to 1927.

The men were acquainted with Mabel Monohan through her former son-in-law, Las Vegas gambler Tutor Scherer. It was the lure of $100k of Scherer’s cash, allegedly hidden in a safe in Monohan’s home, that had brought a gang to her doorstep resulting in her brutal murder.

The cops had to kick the bad guys loose, they didn’t have enough to hold them; but the arrest was enough to convince Baxter Shorter that his best chance for staying clear of the gas chamber at San Quentin was to turn State’s evidence before any of the other members of the gang were busted and could beat him to it. There’s usually only one get out of jail free card available in a capital case, and Baxter grabbed it.

Baxter told the cops he’d gone along on the Monohan job as a look-out. Of course that was a lie, he was there to crack the safe supposedly hidden in the house. Shorter further stated that he’d seen Perkins slug Mrs. Monohan on the head with the butt of a gun. He also said that he’d been horrified to witness the murder. That may have been the truest statement he made. He was undoubtedly terrified to have become involved in a death penalty case.

Shorter probably would have walked on the Monohan murder, and lived to commit other crimes, if details of his statement hadn’t been leaked by someone close to the investigation. Once his duplicity became public Baxter Shorter’s days were numbered.

Only a few weeks after the Monohan slaying Baxter Shorter was kidnapped at gun point from his Bunker Hill apartment at 121 North Flower Street. Shorter’s wife, Olivia, identified the two kidnappers as Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

The building from where Baxter Shorter was kidnapped.

Shorter’s kidnapping left the Burbank cops with a huge problem. He was an eyewitness to the Monohan murder and had been willing to testify in court to save his own sorry ass. If he had really been kidnapped the chances of him being found alive were slim to none.

The car believed to have been used in the kidnapping was found abandoned near an apartment at 5124 Imperial Blvd; and that’s where Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham were busted.

The sedan was owned by one of Jack Santos’ girlfriends, Brenda Pearney of Grass Valley, California. It had recently been repainted and the mat in the rear trunk compartment was missing. Police Chemist Ray Pinker turned up some small pieces of wood and a little yellow flower in the car that he took to the Los Angeles County Museum for identification.

yellow flowerThe wood was ribbon wood, found only in Southern California and usually in the San Jacinto Mountains at an elevation of between 2500 and 3000 feet. The flower had no common name, but was identified as metzelia affnis and it too could be found at elevations of between 2500 and 3000 feet.

If Baxter Shorter’s remains were buried off a lonely mountain road at an elevation of 3000 feet then he was likely as close to heaven as he would ever get.

Emmett Perkins was arraigned on charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in Shorter’s kidnapping. Barbara Graham was charged with seven counts of forgery. She’d gone on a shopping spree in March and April and had passed $266 worth of rubber checks. Santo was released on the kidnapping beef and walked out of court into the waiting arms of Burbank cops who cuffed him and took him in for questioning on the Monohan slaying. They had to release him for lack of evidence, but he wasn’t free for long. He was soon rearrested and charged with forging a fictitious telegram to Baxter Shorter’s mother. The telegram read:

“Sorry to have been away. See Olive (Olivia) and tell her not to make the mistake ’cause I have to return one of these days. All my love. Baxter”

Circumstantial evidence was beginning to mount.

To add to the drama a new witness in the Monohan case came forward. The witness was an ex-con named William Upshaw. He’d voluntarily surrendered to police when he heard that he was wanted in connection with Shorter’s kidnapping.

Upshaw  was cleared of any involvement in the Shorter kidnapping, and he was the first witness called to testify before the grand jury in the slaying of Mabel Monohan. Cops were understandably edgy because of Shorter’s abrupt disappearance, and they weren’t about to lose another witness. Upshaw was heavily guarded around the clock. He testified that he’d been with the gang: Graham, Perkins, Santo,True and Shorter when they’d cased the Monohan home on the night before the crime. He knew all about the plan and had opted out. He decided that he wanted nothing to do with robbing Las Vegas bigwig Tutor Scherer. He remembered what had happened to Tony Trombino and Tony Brancato back in 1951.

The Two Tonys

The Two Tonys

Trombino and Brancato, known as the Two Tonys, were murdered in a car after cheating Las Vegas gambler Sam Lazes out of $3000 by posing as collectors for a local syndicate gambler. Upsahw had no desire to mess with Vegas and end up like the Two Tonys.indictments headline

On June 3, 1953 Perkins, Santo, True and Graham were indicted by the county grand jury on charges of conspiracy to commit burglary, robbery and murder in the death of Mrs. Mabel Monohan.

The cops and the D.A. lucked out when John True decided to turn State’s Evidence in exchange for his freedom. Apparently the indictment in a capital murder case scared John True straight — or as straight as he could be. Taking no chances with this witness, cops guarded John day and night against possible retaliation.

NEXT TIME: The trial and aftermath.

 

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 2

Purple Pony MurdersMabel Monohan had been spending a quiet evening reading a mystery novel, The Purple Pony Murders, when she was interrupted by a knock at her front door. Monohan was security conscious, but the young woman on her doorstep looked harmless enough and she said she needed help. Mabel overcame her fears and opened the door. Barbara followed Mabel into the house — and after her came John True, Jack Santo, and Emmett Perkins.

After a cursory search of the house, Jack Santo went out to get their safe cracker, Baxter Shorter to tell him that they couldn’t find a safe. When Shorter got into the house he saw Mabel on the floor of a hallway, she was bleeding profusely and moaning through a gag over her mouth. According to John True’s statement, Graham was holding a nickel-plated revolver. She allegedly handed it to Perkins and said “Knock her out!”

Emmett Perkins

Emmett Perkins [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Shorter supposedly grabbed Perkins and threw him to the floor and yelled at him: “What the hell are you doing? This isn’t the way it was supposed to be! This is no good!” When Shorter glanced down at Mabel she appeared to him to be choking on the gag. Shorter was a safe cracker, sure, but he wanted no part of cold-blooded murder. He managed to get John True to cut the gag off Mabel’s mouth, but she looked to be in bad shape.

True would tell the story a little differently later on — casting himself as the lone do-gooder. He’d also have more to say about Graham’s involvement in beating Monohan.

It was chaos in the house as the gang ransacked it, searching for a safe that didn’t exist. Furniture was torn apart, closets emptied, nobody really cared what happened to Monohan — the gang had other worries. It was beginning to dawn on the group that the caper was a fiasco; but they were so busy mourning the loss of their cash windfall that they couldn’t spare a moment for the woman who lay dying on the floor.

Baxter Shorter

Baxter Shorter [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

While his companions were getting ready to leave the scene of the bungled crime, Shorter rummaged through a drawer and found a utility bill with the address of the house on it. He was going to make an anonymous call to get help for the woman.

Let’s be clear about Baxter Shorter, he was a thug and an ex-con and he didn’t care about Mabel Monohan except what her death might mean for him. It was pragmatism and not a burning desire to do the right thing which compelled him. Shorter didn’t want to be in the middle of a murder rap. He could do time if he had to, but killing the old lady could mean the gas chamber.

Once it sunk in that they’d botched the whole plan, the gang split up into the two cars in which they’d arrived. True, Perkins and Graham rode in one car, Shorter and Santo in the other.

Baxter told Jack that he intended to try to get help for the woman back at the house. Jack said: “I don’t give a damn what you do. That woman stopped breathing before we left.”

Baxter dropped Jack off at the meeting place, and he was warned in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut or there would be dire consequences.

Shorter went to the nearest gas station and found a telephone booth. He dialed “O”, got an  operator and told her that a woman needed an ambulance at 1718 Parkside Drive. Before he could be asked any uncomfortable questions, he hung up the phone and sped off.

Photo credit: http://www.johngilmore.com/Books/preview_graham.html

The operator tried to dispatch an ambulance to the address she’d been given, but it didn’t exist — not in Los Angeles anyway. Shorter had been so shaken up that he’d forgotten to mention that the house was in Burbank.

Mabel Monohan’s body wasn’t found for two days. Her gardener, Mitchell Truesdale, had come to do some work and to collect his paycheck. When he went to the front door he noticed that it was ajar, and that was highly unusual. He gave the door a nudge and started in, he could see that the normally neat house had been turned upside down, and the smell of death was pervasive. He found Mabel’s body, and he saw blood spatter on the walls and floors. Monohan’s Labrador retriever, Ziggy, was whining at the back door.

Truesdale ran to a neighbor’s house and called the cops.

An inquest was held and the verdict was that Monohan’s death was a homicide caused by person or persons unknown.

Mabel’s daughter Iris had only recently returned to New York after spending some time with her mother. She offered a $5000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer(s).

The investigation into the slaying of the Burbank widow began.

NEXT TIME: A witness is kidnapped and the killers are busted.

Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 1

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Mabel Monohan

If Mabel Monohan’s former son-in-law Tutor Scherer hadn’t been a Las Vegas gambler, the sixty-four year old widow would never have been murdered.

Mabel Monohan’s daughter, Iris, had been married to Scherer and when they divorced she got to keep their house in Burbank. When Iris remarried and moved to New York, she gave the the place to Mabel. The house was, and still is, in a quiet residential neighborhood in Burbank, and it was ideal for Mabel and her pet Labrador retriever, Ziggy.

Mabel and Tutor had stayed friends, despite the fact that he and her daughter were no longer a couple. Their friendship was enough to cause speculation among L.A. and Vegas cons. The story that circulated was that Scherer trusted his former mother-in-law so much that she routinely kept $100 grand of his money hidden in a safe at home, just in case he needed it.

Monohan's house looks very much the same as it did in March 1953.

Monohan’s house looks very much the same as it did in March 1953.

Jailhouse gossip is a dangerous thing, especially if you’re greedy enough and dumb enough to believe it. Ex-cons Emmett Perkins and Jack Santos were just that gullible, and they were looking for an easy score. What could be easier than robbing a widow in sleepy Burbank?

Mabel and a friend of hers, Mrs. Merle Leslie, had been out together on the evening of March 8, 1953.  On that same night in a San Fernando Valley drive-in restaurant, Jack Santo, Emmett Perkins, John True, Baxter Shorter and Barbara Graham were having a quiet dinner meeting. The four thugs and the attractive redhead were planning to invade Monohan’s home the following night.

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Baxter Shorter, safe cracker.

Baxter Shorter, the gang’s safe cracker, wasn’t keen on having a dame along for the job. But Emmett Perkins explained to him that old lady Monohan was a little paranoid about security and she spooked easily — they needed a woman to gain entrance to the house.

With their plan in place the conspirators arranged to meet the following night at a Burbank eatery, the Smoke House Restaurant — less than two miles from their final destination.  They’d eat, wait until it was well after dark, then take two cars to the Monohan home.

Initially, everything went according to plan. The gang met for dinner then, when they felt it was dark enough, they drove over to Monohan’s home. The anticipation was high — $100,000 was one hell of a lot of cash for four ex-cons and a junkie prostitute.

Barbara cleaned up well, and she was going to be the gang’s ticket to the big money. She went up to Mabel’s front door and rang the bell. As predicted, Mabel didn’t immediately open up. A few tense moments ticked by as the porch light came on and the murmur of a muted conversation drifted over to the men who were waiting in the dark.

Barbara had to have been very convincing to persuade Mabel to open her door to a stranger; but she sold the old lady on the story of a broken down car, and how grateful she’d be if she could just use a telephone to call for help. Mabel was reluctant but the young woman was alone, and the widow knew first-hand how scary it could be for a woman on her own at night.

Finally, the men in the cars watched as Mabel opened her door to Barbara.

All hell was about to break loose.

NEXT TIME: Mabel Monohan’s murder.

I Want To Live!

I’m currently working on a series of posts about the murder of Mabel Monohan in Burbank in 1953. Ultimately three people: Emmett Perkins, Jack Santo, and Barbara Graham would be tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for slaying the 64 year old widow.

iwanttolive_sweThe film, I Want to Live! (1958), was adapted from letters written by Barbara Graham and newspaper articles written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Montgomery.

The film tells the story of the life and execution of Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward) a prostitute and convicted perjurer. Graham is the product of a broken home, and works luring men into fixed card games.

At one point, she attempts to go straight but marries the “wrong man,” and has a child. He is a drug addict and she ends their relationship.

When her life falls apart, she returns to her former professions and becomes involved with a man who had murdered a woman. The police arrest them, and her, and her companions accuse her of the murder to reduce their own chances of going to the gas chamber. She claims her innocence, but is convicted and executed.

A prologue and epilogue contributed to the film by Montgomery characterize the film’s content — which largely portrays Graham as innocent of the murder — as factual. But there was substantial evidence of Graham’s complicity in the crime.

Hollywood writer Robert Osborne, who later became the host of Turner Classic Movies, interviewed Susan Hayward and asked whether or not she believed Barbara Graham had been innocent. According to Osborne, the actress seemed hesitant to answer at first, but ultimately admitted that her research on the evidence and letters in the case led her to believe that the woman she played in the movie was probably guilty.

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The film is a powerful indictment of the death penalty, but is only partly factual, not entirely as Montgomery’s statements would lead you to believe.

While I’m busy writing the story of Mabel Monohan’s murder I encourage you to see the film, I Want to Live!, it is worth viewing — but it is absolutely not a documentary.

 

NOTE: I took most of the description of the film from Wikipedia.