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.


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 5

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Barbara Graham surrounded by the press after receiving a death sentence. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The press surrounded Barbara Graham following the reading of the guilty verdict — she maintained her innocence saying that:

“I am innocent of this crime, I swear to God I am innocent. I hope my baby drops dead if I did it.

She hugged her 20 month year old son Tommy as he clutched a stuffed toy. Graham sobbed: “Tommy, Tommy, oh, my baby”.tommy toy

Graham was originally supposed to go to Death Row at San Quentin to await her execution, but budget cuts made it impossible to provide enough female officers to guard her. She ended up being transferred to the women’s prison in Corona.

Baxter Shorter’s mother, Cora, offered financial aid to Barbara’s three children if she would tell what had happened to Baxter. Barbara’s reply: “The man in the moon should know more about him than I do.”

Baxter Shorter has never been found. He was declared legally dead in 1960.


Baxter Shorter [Photo courtesy LAPL]

On June 2, 1955 Barbara Graham was removed from Corona and transferred to San Quentin for execution — her time was set for 10:00 a.m. Santo and Perkins were scheduled for a couple of hours later. It was going to be ladies first.

The car with Barbara handcuffed in the backseat arrived at San Quentin in the wee hours of the morning. She was taken to the cell from which she’d take her last walk.

Her last few hours were a choreographed dance of despair.

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Barbara’s last ride. [Photo courtesy LAPL]

Graham was in a holding cell praying with Father McAlister when he said to her, “It’s time”. As McAlister and Graham were heading out of the holding tank the phone rang for Warden Teets, it was Governor Knight. The execution had been delayed.

Barbara collapsed and almost had to be carried back to the cot in the holding cell.

About 20 minutes later the phone rang again, it was the Governor for Warden Teets. He told him to go ahead with the execution.

Barbara was brought to her feet and escorted to the entrance of the gas chamber. The phone rang a third time and she was drawn back from the brink. She said: “I can’t take this. Why didn’t they let me go at ten. I was ready to go at ten.”

This time the condemned woman was taken to a small office adjacent to the gas chamber.

Twenty minutes more passed. Barbara was sobbing: “Why do they torture me like this?’ The reason for the back and forth was that her attorney was desperately attempting to save her life, and the last minute legal wrangling made for a hellish couple of hours.

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San Quentin’s gas chamber. [Photo courtesy of LAPL]

The phone rang for a fourth and final time. Barbara couldn’t bear to look at the witnesses surrounding the gas chamber and she begged for a blindfold. One of the matrons had a sleep mask.

Barbara Graham was the only person ever to ask for a blindfold for the gas chamber.

Barbara’s last words were: “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”

Joe Feretti, one of the the men in charge of her execution, strapped Barbara into the gas chamber and gave her some advice. He told her to take a deep breath and it would go easier and quicker for her. Barbara responded: “How the hell would you know?”

About ten minutes later Barbara Graham was pronounced dead.

A couple of hours later Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins went to their deaths in the same gas chamber with very little fuss and no drama. It was reported that the two men chatted amiably as they were strapped in to their respective chairs, and when they were ready to go Perkins allegedly said to the assembled cops: “Now don’t you boys do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Barbara’s  trial had been standing room only, but her funeral was sparsely attended. Henry Graham drove up to Northern California for the funeral, but he left their son Tommy at home.

Barbara Graham is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery

NEXT: Some final thoughts the case.