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.

98 thoughts on “Dead Woman Walking: Barbara Graham, Part 5

  1. Her final hours are almost identical to the movie. I know she was a bad person, but what she went through at the end was terrible. How nerve wracking!

    • Sherry – The movie actually got that part right, and it was horrible. As bad as she was, I don’t think anyone deserves to be tortured like that. It was the result of her attorney trying desperately to save her life.

  2. Although I was a kid at the time, since my Old Man was a newspaperman, I followed the trial and thought she was guilty as hell. The fog of time has clouded my memory, but I remember the Old Man telling me that the skuttlebutt was that when the gang murdered Baxter Shorter out in the desert, they made him dig his own grave, tied him up and threw him into it, then, ever the bitch, Barbara jumped down and hit him in the face with the shovel before they finished him off. Also, weren’t the trio in bed together when the LAPD showed up to arrest them? Something that the movie somehow left out? Again, the fog of time . . .

    • Bill — I came to the same conclusion as you — she was guilty. I’ve heard the story about Shorter and the grave. Perkins and Santo were animals, and at the very least Barbara appeared to have been along for the ride. I’ve heard from reliable sources that the three were definitely busted in flagrante delicto — which is a mind picture I don’t want in my head even for even moment! Ugh. The movie was terrific as an indictment of the death penalty, but they sure painted a picture of Barbara that was far from the truth. I’m very familiar with the fog of time! Best – Joan

  3. Brilliant. I love this blog. Well done on bringing these true noir crimes to life. I just finished reading James Ellroys The Black Dahlia and My Dark Places.

    • Michelle – thank you so very much for the kind words! I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog. I’m currently working on a book of crime scene photos with the L.A. Police Museum and guess who is writing the text — yep, James Ellroy! I’ve known him for a long time and it is a thrill for me to be involved in the project. Again, thank you for your readership. I appreciate it. Best – Joan

        • Hi Linda — Are you asking about LAPD ’53? It’s the book of crime scene photos I worked on with Glynn Martin and James Ellroy. Anyway, it should be available on Amazon.
          Another book of photos is one I wrote as the companion to a photo exhibit I curated at the LA Public Library downtown. That book is titled “The First with the Latest: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City” — also available on Amazon. If those aren’t what you’re looking for just let me know.
          Best — Joan

          • Need another story look up November 1971 when my boyfriend was killed by my sister boyfriend & friend & I wondered why she never got convicted bcs it happened in her place her home in the projects Ramona Gardens, I was pregnant with my boyfriend baby so many different stories & after 46 yrs I’m hearing a nephew of mine was there which no one wanted to tell me & a brother & another sister covered a lot for her so she was never charged, this would make a great book!

          • I searched the LA Times for your story, but couldn’t find anything. Can you provide any additional info?



    • Pamela – no record that I’m aware of. One of Barbara’s ex-husbands had custody of the two older children, and during the trial Tommy was living with his paternal grandmother. I’m assuming that’s where he stayed. Barbara’s own mother was such a hateful person that there’s no way she would have been considered (nor do I think she’d have wanted) custody of Tommy. Thank you for your readership, I appreciate it! – Best Joan

      • That’s what brought me here, too — to find out what happened to Tommy. Just saw “I Want To Live!” on TV, and presumed by the on-screen info that the film was based on a book that the cleared and freed Barbara Graham wrote after she was let go. Oh boy was I wrong! The movie sure went in a different direction than I expected, especially given the jazzy, almost fun tone early on. It’s sort of stunning that Perkins is portrayed so sympathetically after reading more about the real man. The last half-hour was rough to watch. Never heard of her or her case before; loved reading about it here on your great blog!

        • Ted,

          The film, I WANT TO LIVE, is a powerful indictment of the death penalty, although it is not a historically accurate retelling of Graham’s case. However, I feel that the jailhouse snitch and the young LAPD officer who went undercover and posed as a possible alibi witness for Graham constituted entrapment. It would never fly today. It’s my opinion that Graham was legally and morally guilty of Mabel Monohan’s murder. But did she strike the fatal blow, or hold the pillow over her face? I just don’t know.

          While the last half hour of the film is, as you said, tough to watch, it’s fairly accurate. Although my recollection is that is makes it seem as if Graham was being deliberately tormented by the State. The truth is the delays were as a result of last minute attempts by her attorney to save her from the gas chamber.

          Thank you for writing and thanks for reading the blog!



  4. I was wondering something that has puzzled me for years, I had read that prisoners had to go to the gas chamber in stocking feet, did Hollywood take artistic license with Susan Hayward and Lindsey Wagner (who did not wear a blindfold) or did Barbra in fact go in her stocking feet? I had read the the gas was heavy and would (pool) in the shoes making them dangerous to the staff later on thank you …………………………………………..

    • Wow, Niale, good question! I know that staff who cleaned up following a gas chamber execution were told to ruffle the hair of the deceased to release any trapped fumes, so it’s likely that shoes were removed prior to execution, but I just don’t know for sure. Hollywood took many, many liberties with Barbara Graham’s story–allowing her to wear pumps to her death would be the least of them. But I’ll look into it because now you’ve got me wondering too! Thanks for your comment and thank you for reading Deranged L.A. Crimes. Best — Joan

      • thank you one of the reasons I was wondering was there was an episode on mission impossible many years ago and rolin hands was going to the gas chamber to try and get an informant to confess and when they came to get him they took off his canvas slippers and he went in stocking feet as did the informant, that was one of the reasons I asked the question,thank you so much for looking into this its most appreciated.

        • Niale – I’m have one heck of a time getting accurate information about gas chamber execution protocols. I won’t give up though!

    • This has been a debate for sometime,but I doubt that she wore her shoes to the chamber,or they were removed as she was strapped down. All clothing worn by the condemned is usually burnt, because it is saturated with cyanide gas,and the legs and feet are spayed with ammonia when the body of recovered to neutralized the gas. I saw another variation of the execution scene of “I Want to Live,”on TV, it must had been from an export version of the film and it showed Susan Hayward with her shoes off and her empty shoes beside her after the nurse told her to take them off. I have talked to several other people who also remember this difference in the film.
      Also,I am finishing up a manuscript which I have worked on for many years in which a woman is executed in the gas chamber. I did my research and yes they do not wear shoes to the gas chamber, too much gas can get trapped in them.

      • Thank you, Gary! I was having one heck of a time trying to locate credible information regarding execution in the gas chamber. Sound to me like you’ve done your due diligence on the topic. Best – Joan

        • Joan,
          In 1960 the Italians made a movie called Chiamate 22-22 Tenente Sheridan, which was set in California.It featured actress Livia Contardi as an innocent woman sentenced to the gas chamber, she is saved at the very last second. They copied the scene from I Want to Live almost to a t,even having her to take her shoes off.It was a great scene. Also,the movie Better Off Dead with Mare Winningham, Mare winningham takes her shoes off and walks barefoot to the gas chamber. Both of these scenes can be found on youtube.

          • Thank you, Gary. I recall seeing the Mare Winningham film, but I’m sure I’ve never see the Italian movie. I will have to check it out.

        • Joan,
          If you would like to know anymore about a gas chamber execution,feel free to ask. I did a lot of research for the novel I wrote (not yet published).


    • If you would like to have an idea how a prisoner would be dressed for the gas chamber,especially a female. Take a look at the end of the Damn Yankee’s High Enough video. Even though they don’t show an execution,the girl is being walked to one.If you look close she is in a simple dress,hair back in a ponytail,and she’s barefoot,you can make this out if you look close enough. The way she is dressed would be typical of a gas chamber execution.

  5. I also have another question, now I had read that Barbra Graham was the only person to ask for a blindfold, but I read an account of Bonnie Headley and it seems to me that she was blindfolded also so my question is was it a common practice to blindfold both males and females? or was it to help keep the females calm? thank you………………….

    • Niale, As far as I know Barbara Graham was the only condemned prisoner (gas chamber) in California to request a blindfold. She’s had a couple of last minute reprieves, as I’m sure you know, and when the time came for the actual execution she was extremely agitated. She said she didn’t want to see the witnesses to her execution and asked for a blindfold — there wasn’t one until one of the female guards realized that she had a sleep mask in her handbag. She gave it to Graham. Other states may have different rules/regulations and or requests. Best — Joan

    • Missouri and Oregon did have blindfolds for executions carried out in those states. North Carolina placed a hood over their heads, which was not a good idea because it actually blocked the gas from getting to the condemned rather than allowing it to flow freely. Also,North Carolina had the worse designed gas chamber of all,it was a converted freezer.

        • My novel is being edited now and I will son be seeking an agent. If you would like to know more about gas chamber executions feel free to ask.

          • Great question, Daniel. She was at Monohan’s home the night of the murder; she’s how the gang gained entry. I believe, based on testimony, she struck Monohan but I am not convinced she killed her. That said, I would not be shocked if she did. She had a lifetime of bottled-up rage and it may have exploded that night. Legally, she was culpable and I think she should have received a prison sentence. If tried today, it is unlikely she would be sentenced to death. The undercover sting was, in my opinion, entrapment. So, yes, there was enough evidence to convict her of murder, but I believe the death sentence was a step too far. It is a fascinating and tragic case.


    • Heady and Hall (
      Missouri) were blindfolded PRIOR to entry into the gas chamber in Jefferson City, the reason for this is that the pellet to gas delivery system in that Gas Chamber was different than the Eaton Gas Chamber models and they didnot want to risk the prisoner trying to dislodge the pellets from the delivery tray into the crock of acid/water below the chair.

      Typically in MOST Gas chamber executions,the inmate (male) wears pants shirt socks ect. The only exception being Raliegh NC who strips the inmate down to shorts.

      FEMALE inmates(as with heady) posed additional issues for trapped gas. Heady was initially to be executed in a bathing suit,but was later allowed to wear a dress to her death. The shoes are removed from all inmates prior to gassing due to trapped gas.

  6. I did have a couple of more questions about shoe protocol, Other than the reference made to Barbra Graham about having to go to her execution in stocking feet,(whether its true or not I’m sure you will find out) I remember they rolled out a rug, do you know if it is a common practice for prisoners male or female to have there shoes removed prior to execution by other lethal injection, electric chair, I remember hearing somewhere that prisoners had to be in stocking feet in the electric chair or they would ground out, and you seem to have quite a few answers lol sorry I threw a zinger at you about Barbra’s stocking feet lol, and my other question was about blindfolds do you know if they are a requirement or are the prisoners asked if they would like a blindfold I remember when I saw I want to live I always thought they wanted Barbra to go in stocking feet because it would have been hard to escort her with heels while blindfolded, but I was young and what did I know lol anyway thank you for your ongoing search I do appreciate it.

    • One reason they wanted her shoes off is that after the execution ammonia would be sprayed on the legs and feet to neutralize any gas that collected near the floor of the chamber. Cyanide gas will settle in low places near the feet.This is why I do not believe that she was wearing shoe sand had to remove them the rug is just to keep her comfortable.

  7. Typically prior to a gas chamber execution a prison is made to completely undress. At this time the heart monitoring devises being either a stethoscope or EKG,or both are attached. If the prisoner is male they are given a shirt and pants if female a dress ( I think that California still plans to do it this way if needed,less clothing to mess with after the execution.) They wear no shoes,socks or underwear,all done to keep gas from being trapped on the body. If they have long hair they have to put it in a pony tail,or put it upon their head if female. A carpeted rug is placed for them to walk on as they are led to the chamber. There was a nickname given to this stage of the ritual,it was called the “changing of the clothes.”

      • One of the problems faced with the officials at the Missouri State Prison in 1953 was what to have Bonnie Heady wear to the gas chamber and should they cut her hair(which they did not), so they contacted San Quentin since they had experience in executing women in the gas chamber. They had at first planned to executed her in her underwear, but gave her a green prison dress to wear instead.

        • Gary – I had to look up Bonnie Heady’s crime. She was a piece of work. Maybe they should have shaved her head and executed her in her underwear. It seems like she may have deserved the indignities. The murder of a child is monstrous.

          • There is a radio interview that is online of the Warden of the Missouri State Prion who over saw Bonnie Heady’s execution,you need to listen to it and hear what he says that she said when he and his wife were escorting her to the death house.

      • One detail forgot to mention concerning the clothing given to the prisoners is that the clothing have no pockets, pocket could allow gas to be trapped in them.

    • Hi gary thanks for the info I plan on doing a airbrushed picture of Barbra Graham in the chair and was wondering if she did in fact wear stockings I want it to be as accurate as possible I know they missed the mark completely with Lindsey Wagner as Barbra. shoes on and no blindfold but she was wearing stockings, I also read that Dorthy Headly was blindfolded,I believe that was her name, I was wondering if she wore socks this has always been a bit of a mystrey and I to can not wait for your book……………..thanks in advance.

      • Niale, I do believe the Barbara Graham did have nylons on,but no shoes,Bonnie Heady did not have socks on.It was reported that she was barefoot in one press release and another said she had the 1950’s version of flip flops on. I am convinced that she was barefoot as this was standard in Missouri as well as California. There is a screenshot for the Italian movie I mentioned earlier that may be of help to you, it is from Spain. This picture may be of some help to you.

        • I’ll let everyone in on part of my book. My character is female and she is framed for murdering her mother by her stepfather’s mistress.the mistress is aided by the county prosecutor( who is the local power baron) and a crooked police detective. When the innocent girl goes to the gas chamber she is made to completely disrobe and given a plain white dress to wear and she is barefoot. Soon after her execution evidence is found implicating the mistress who kills again to keep a man silent.

      • Niale,
        I just found an old newspaper article online covering Bonnie Heady’s execution in Missouri and there is an artist conception showing her in the chamber and she is clearly barefoot.If you wish I can send youthe link.

    • Once the prison enters the gas chamber they are quickly turned around, facing away from the witnesses( North Carolina and Nevada were the exceptions) and strapped into the specially designed chair,which is metal( North Carolina used a former electric chair made from wood, not a good choice). Straps are placed over their chest(the first one tightened), stomach, elbows,wrist,knees and ankles. A total of 10 straps in all. Once heart monitoring devises are attached, the guards exit the chamber and the door is closed and sealed.

      • The officials next make last second checks and wait for the appointed second,then a solution of one and a half gallons of distilled water and five pints of sulfuric acid is drained into a container underneath the condemn’s chair. With a signal from the warden, one pound of cyanide pellets(typically,later gas chambers had slightly different ways of releasing the cyanide) are dropped into the water/acid solution, causing the cyanide gas to for. For the first ten seconds the gas is weak and if the prisoner starts breathing it too early it is a slow poisoning process,but after ten seconds the gas is strong and very effective,which can cause quick unconsciousness. That is why they tell them to slowly count to ten and take deep breaths.

          • After the execution is complete and the witnesses are ushered out,the chamber is vented through the long pipe in the ceiling and the mixing container is flushed with fresh water. An exhaust fan helps lower the gas levels,a process which goes on for the next one to two hours until the gas levels have dropped enough for guards wearing protective gear to enter the chamber to start the process of removing the body.First they unstrap the legs and pull them out, then spray the legs and feet with ammonia from a garden sprayer to neutralize the gas(cyanide gas settles in low areas once it has completed its cycle. This is one reason most gas chambers are octagon in shape than square to keep the gas from settling on the corners.) The hair is fluffed to release any trapped gas and the body is unstrapped. The body is stripped naked either in the chamber or right after it is removed, all clothing is burnt due to gas being in the fabric.

          • Well,I have given you what a typical gas chamber execution would be like due to my research.Of course there were variations from state to state. Also,by the mid 1950’s other states had considered switching to gas, because it was considered more humane than electrocution.They were Ohio,Georgia,Florida ,Pennsylvania(all in 1955), Massachusetts(1938), and Virginia(1972), none of them proceeded with it,I would say mostly with the expense of buying a gas chamber and the training of personal to run it. In the late 1940’s Great Britain considered also adopting lethal gas,but backed off due to the gas used by the Nazi’s in the concentration camps(which was an entirely different process and had almost nothing in common with gas chambers used in the US). I am convinced that cyanide gas could have been the best and most human form of execution if properly developed. Temperature and humidity are the two crucial factors that must be controlled and clothing of the inmate. These baggy jumpsuits that some states use is a terrible choice to use. A simple shirt and pants or dress(if female) would be much better.

  8. It took me many years of pouring through books and magazine articles to find the information on gas chamber execution that I have found. Some of the best information was old Reader’s Digest issues and older books on capital punishment. Most of the best articles predated the mid 1980’s. The articles were written by someone who had witnessed an execution or someone who was involved with death row in some ways such as a retired guard. Even today with the internet, there is little information out there floating around. The long absence of the executions resulted with the loss of expertise in executions,especially gas chamber execution and the equipment was allowed to deteriorate, especially the seals. The exception was California. Eaton Metal Products,who built nearly all the gas chambers except North Carolina’s and Missouri’s,did not want to be associated with the construction of gas chambers,despite potential orders for new ones in the 1970’s,including the country of Taiwan. The last gas chamber was built in 1955, so new technology has not been incorporated into them such as newer materials and methods of construction that would make them more leak proof,and heating and moisture control systems.

  9. I will post part of my novel here,the preparation for the execution so you can see how I done it. I took what information I gathered over the years and added it together then threw in some drama.Please let me know what you think.This would be about 95 percent to what it would actually be like, with each state being slightly different.

    The door to the gas chamber opened making a loud, dull, creaking sound. Jennifer jerked, making a gasp as the sound of the door being opened broke the silence. A guard entered the gas chamber. He opened up the straps on the chair. Another guard also entered the gas chamber, carrying a small cheesecloth sack filled with cyanide pellets. He went behind the chair, then hooked the sack to a chain that was suspended over the mixing vat in which the sulfuric acid would be drained into. They then exited the chamber, closing the door behind them. Once again the unnerving silence returned.
    At the same time three women approached Claudia’s cell. Claudia could hear them coming, their footsteps became louder and louder as they approached her cell. The cell door then opened, allowing a nurse along with two female guards entered the cell. The door then closed, shutting the cell off from the rest of the prison.
    One of the guards carried with her a clipboard, underneath the clipboard was a new dress, never worn and neatly folded. The nurse carried a harness with a stethoscope attached along with a plastic box, which she opened. The other guard stood in front of Claudia and told her, “Just do as I tell you, let it be easy on yourself. Take off your shoes.”
    Claudia reached down and gently slipped her shoes off of her feet.
    “One pair of flat black slippers,” one of the guards ordered, “put these with her personal property.”
    The other guard notated the shoes on the pad that was on her clipboard.
    “Now stand up and take off your dress.”
    Claudia stood and unbuttoned her dress and slipped it off her shoulders, letting it fall to her feet.
    “Step out of the dress.” She then picked up the dress, handing it to the nurse, “This will go to the laundry; we have to return it to the women’s reformatory.
    Claudia stood with her hands clasped in front of her as she waited for the guard’s next order.
    “Take off your bra.”
    With no emotion Claudia removed her bra.
    “One bra; put that with her personal property.”
    The other guard made another notation.
    Take off your panties. List these with personal property also.”
    Claudia stood before them naked, but no longer did she feel the humiliation that she had once did when forced to remove her clothing in front of strangers. She felt calm, warm, she felt at peace.
    “Notate that the prisoner is now naked.”
    The nurse approached Claudia. She had a blood pressure cuff with her, which was put around Claudia’s arm. The nurse took Claudia’s blood pressure, checked her pulse and listened to her heart with a stethoscope. She made a note of Claudia’s vital signs. The nurse placed the harness on Claudia, securing it with small buckles behind Claudia’s back. She adjusted the stethoscope to be directly over Claudia’s heart. Next, the nurse placed electrodes for an EKG on Claudia’s breast. She then turned toward the guard and said, “I’m done.” She stepped aside.
    The guard then handed Claudia the new dress and said, “Put this on.”
    Claudia took the dress, gently placing it on her body. The tube for the stethoscope as well as the wires for the EKG, protruded between the buttons of the dress, just above Claudia’s naval.
    “Notate that the prisoner has been given a white dress to wear, and nothing else. Place the rest of her personal items in the box and seal it.” Claudia’s underwear, shoes, and bible were put into the box, then the lid was closed and the box taped shut.

  10. I recommend the book “88 men and 2 women” by Clinton Duffy. It is out of print if you can find a copy.It has some interesting details about the executions he witnessed at SQ.

    • Yes, I’ve read the book but not in a while. It is fascinating — more so when you realize that he wasn’t a proponent of the death penalty. He did what was required by the job.

  11. This is a great blog and a fascinating case. I too, would love to read Gary’s novel when it is published. (How about an excerpt of the execution?) But, the question I would like to ask is, besides the aforementioned films, where there any other depictions of a woman being executed in the gas chamber? Thanks, and again, great blog!

    • Jeff – thank you for your kind words and your readership. I’m looking forward to Gary’s novel too, he has done an astonishing amount of research. Perhaps he will be interested in providing Deranged readers with a preview of his novel when he’s ready. I’ll have to ask him. Best – Joan

    • Jeff I would be glad to post the execution part of my novel here if it is okay with Joan.I don’t want to take up anymore of her space than I have to. My novel is being professionally proof read now and as soon as the lady is done with it I will be submitting it to agents. Yes,there were other movies made where women went to the gas chamber, but they are hard to find. I was lucky to find a DVD of Chiamate 22-22 tenente Sheridan on ebay from Italy. I posted a link to the gas chamber scene here a few weeks ago from youtube. I am trying to find an episode of the old “Defenders” TV series from the 60’s for season 2 episode 1 called the “Voices Of Death,” in which actress Ruth Roman goes to the gas chamber. Also,the old series “The Name of the Game,” had an episode called, “The Ordeal,” in which Jessica Walter played a woman going to the gas chamber and she is saved at the last minuted after she is strapped in the chair.

      • Gary,
        Thanks for the information. I was just curious about the portrayals after reading about the case on this blog. You did some fantastic research on this subject. I hope to be able to read your novel when it is published. I hope you can give us an excerpt of the execution, if it is possible. .

  12. Here is the excerpt from my novel,”Sentence of Death,” by Gary N McCloud I am only posting a brief part of the novel,the actual scene is 8 pages long. (legal disclaimer,no part of the following excerpt can be reproduced without expressed permission of the author). This seems to be the part that is in the biggest demand.

    When the second hand of the death clock struck twelve the Warden Davis gave a nod to the guards standing near the cell. Two women and a man entered Claudia’s cell, nothing had to be said as she rose from the cot standing before them. Everyone then exited the cell with Claudia in front of the guards, who towered over her. With her hands grasped together in front of her, she took small steps on the carpeted rug beneath her feet. The walk to the gas chamber was only thirty feet from the cell; it took less than a minute to complete. She stopped at the edge of the carpet as a guard opened the door to the gas chamber, exposing the chair in which she would soon be strapped.
    Warden Davis, stood to Claudia’s left; He leaned toward her ear, then quietly ask her, “Do you have anything you would like to say?”
    In a quiet voice she replied a simple, “No.”
    “Then please step inside.”
    Claudia, took the next step, which placed her bare feet onto the metal floor of the gas chamber. The sensation of her feet touching the cold bare floor snapped her out of her spiritual trace, bring her back to face her pending fate. She stood still for a second, giving Jennifer a smile, before the guards waiting inside of the chamber quickly turned her around, seating her in the metal chair then secured her body with nylon straps. The first strap ran under her arms, fastening across her breast, almost completely immobilizing her. The next strap was placed across her stomach. Two straps were placed on each arm, one below each elbow and one above each wrist. Finally, straps were placed on her legs, one below each knee, and one above each ankle. They connected a long tube to the stethoscope so the doctor could listen to her heart. The leads for the EKG were attached, then the guards left the chamber. Claudia barely filled the chair, only her toes and the balls of her feet could touch the floor, her heels were slightly suspended.
    The door to the gas chamber was shut and sealed, leaving Claudia isolated from the rest of the world. She looked upwards, towards the bright light in the ceiling of the chamber. Her lips moved silently, most likely to a silent prayer. Claudia looked small and helpless as she sat in the metal and glass room. The temperature inside the chamber was over eighty-five degrees and the little air that was left was stale. Everything was very quiet as the witnesses fixed their eyes on the pretty twenty-two year old that would be dead in a few minutes.
    Jennifer, felt her lips starting to tremble as she looked directly at the back of Claudia’s head. She began to breath heavily, her whole body started to shake. Julie looked at her, then placed her hand on Jennifer’s. She then looked at Jennifer, giving her a smile as she clasp her hand.
    Warden Davis, took a quick look at his people. All of them were ready. Everyone communicated with a series of nods, then waited for further instructions. With a look at the death clock Warden Davis waited until the second hand again arrived at the twelve, then he gave the first in a series of nods. With a nod, a guard turned a valve releasing the sulfuric acid and water solution into the mixing crock that was below Claudia’s chair. The crock filled in less than five seconds. A second nod was given to another guard, who pulled a lever, releasing the cyanide pellets into the acid solution. There was now no turning back, even if the phone would ring with news of a last minute stay or the granting of clemency from the governor, nothing could be done to stop the execution.
    A small wisp of a grayish cloud appeared underneath Claudia’s chair, but soon dissipated. She closed her eyes, continuing with her silent prayer. She also began to count to ten like she had been told to do. Claudia clenched her hands then pulled her toes tightly together. When she reached ten, Claudia took a deep breath with all of the force that her lungs were capable of. Then another breath was made, then another, and finally a fourth. The witnesses stared silently at her as the last bit of oxygen was expelled from her lungs.
    Claudia’s breathing became very shallow, soon her head began to lean forward then fell forward with her chin coming to rest on her chest. Her body seemed to relax, her hands, her feet, every muscle in her body slowly relaxed. She was now completely unconscious as her body slumped forewords against the straps. Then a muscle spasm shook her body, causing her head to slightly bob. Saliva drooled from her mouth onto her breast. Her hands were now completely open. Most of the people watching the execution knew that the end was very close. All there was to do was to watch, to wait.
    Two minutes and forty seconds went by then Claudia’s heart stopped beating. The doctor affirmed that she was dead and signed her death certificate. Warden Davis, entered the observation room. “The execution of Claudia Elaine Burke has been carried out in accordance to the laws of this state. I would like to thank all of you,” he said, “for your cooperation. I will now have some of my people escort you out of this building, they will make sure that you are not bothered by the press or any protestors.”

  13. Please feel free to give comments on the 2 parts of my novel I have posted here,I would like to know what people think, but wait for the rest of the book once I get a publisher.

  14. Joan, I am curious about a couple of newspaper interviews I came across with Joe Ferretti. He was the death row guard who strapped Barbara to the chair. He claims in a 1984 interview that he gave Barbaraa pair of cloth slippers for her execution, against regulations.He also repeated that in a 1991 interview that “she padded out to the gas chamber in carpet slippers and a blindfold”. Do you know if that is the actual account of what she wore instead of shoes ? Again, thank you for all of the great blog postings. I read it every day.

  15. I seem to recall an old movie or show where a person was in the gas chamber and as the execution began the person broke free from the straps and the execution was halted, or it may have been a last second phone call. The fans were turned on and the person was saved. Something like that. Any idea what movie or show it might be?

    • That sounds familiar to me but I can’t think of the movie or show either. I’m hoping it will come to me. If you think of it, please let me know! Best– Joan

  16. Here is an interesting article I found about two early gas chamber executions and the first use of EKG during an execution.

    Two minutes from start to finish in the late 1930’s in Colorado is amazing and I have read accounts that Wyoming gas executions were between 2 to 5 minutes. I believe that it is all in the design of the chamber as well as preparation of the chamber and the prisoner.

  17. I have one more question about the Barbara Graham execution. I have read newspaper accounts from reporters that were witnesses to her execution. Most of the accounts said she dies “gasping and convulsing” and “straining against the straps” for almost seven minutes. Why did both Clark Howard and the film “I Want To Live” gloss over these accounts, especially if they were anti-capital punishmnet? Thanks again for all of the great postings. It is a fantastic blog!

    • Jeff — I’ve heard different versions of Graham’s death. I’ve read several differing versions of the execution, so I don’t have a definitive answer to your question. If I take the consensus of the accounts then she took in a deep breath and lost consciousness fairly quickly. She may have convulsed, it would not have been unusual during an execution by lethal gas. In one account she vomited on her clothes. It took her seven minutes to die and her bladder and bowels emptied. The film “I Want To Live” made a powerful enough anti-capital punishment statement simply by spinning the tale to make it look like Graham was basically a decent person led astray by bad company. I don’t buy that. During a trip to the California State Archives last year I looked through some of the material in Graham’s file and there was nothing there that made me think she’d been wrongly accused. That said, I’m pretty sure that if she went to trial today things would be different. It could be argued that she was entrapped when she made a statement to the undercover cop which would be sufficient to cut her loose. My best guess is that she’d be convicted, but not sentenced to death. There have been only 4 women put to death in California, and the last execution of a woman was in 1962, so the state has a history of being reluctant to execute women.

      Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I’m currently writing a true crime book about several old cases. It should be out this summer. Best — Joan

  18. After a long and careful though on the subject(s) we have talked about on this site, I have come to a few conclusions as concerns as to what Barbara Graham wore to her execution. First, after carefully studying the photos of her in court I observed that most of her blouses were not the button up type needed to allow the attaching of a stethoscope. The only button up blouse I saw a picture of her in was very thin. For the attaching of the harness for the stethoscope a woman’s bra would have to be removed and underwear was usually not worn by any inmate to the gas chamber. The this blouse mentioned above may have been to revealing had she worn it. This is most likely why she wore the jacket/shirt which was popular in the 50s. It provided decent coverage for her body as well as allowing the attachment of the stethoscope. I am convinced that her shoes were removed from her at least several minutes prior to her first walk to the gas chamber, but most likely she did wear nylons to the chamber.
    As far as her salivating, that is possible as people do that in their sleep. Concerning the loss of control of other body functions, that would have only been known to those who removed her body from the chamber and no one else.

    • Gary — Well done! You have offered a reasonable execution day scenario for Barbara Graham. I’m inclined to believe it happened as you describe.

      • Joan, I also believe that Barbara Graham was most likely out cold in just under a minute after the cyanide pellets were dropped into the water/acid solution. There may have been some twitching of her muscles, since cyanide can cause such involuntary actions at times, but they have already passed out by then. Her execution was used by people campaigning against the death penalty and details could have been written to be worse than they actually were.

  19. A question that has always interested me is how toxic is the body of a gassed person? The account mentions that Barbara had a funeral so I assume the body is surrendered to an undertaker. How dangerous is the corpse? Is the blood, which has to be removed in the embalming process, dangerous? What about the body cavities such as the lungs? How do they insure that the body will be safe to turn over to the undertaker?

    • Great question, Judy! I am hoping that someone here can help you since some of this information is a bit beyond my expertise. Meanwhile, I’ll see what I can come up with. Thank you for the question and thanks for reading Deranged L.A. Crimes. Best — Joan

    • Actually cyanide gas is one of the easiest gasses to handle. It dissipates rather quickly. Once the body is removed from the chamber it is (washed down) so to say. The legs and feet are sprayed with ammonia prior to the body being removed from the chamber to neutrialize the gas which settles near the floor. I am sure there are precautions taken by the undertaker concerning body fluids. Once properly cleaned and prepped it would be safe to handle. Missouri in the 1940s and 50s a guard would punch the body in the chest to release gas trapped in the lungs and the hair if ruffled to allow any gas trapped in it to escape as well.

      • Gary — many thanks, I knew that you’d have the answer! The depth and breadth of your knowledge never ceases to astound me!

  20. Also,Just some other strange facts. I was a member of and did a little research on Emmitt Perkins. As far as I can tell, Emmitt Perkins wife , widowed after the execution, married Emmitts brother and were married many yrs (Go figure?). My ancestry membership ran out awhile back or I would gather the exact names but its pretty easy to find with typing in his name and date of death (june 3rd 1955). You will quickly find clues to gather this info at I also ran across a picture of one of Barbara’s 4 kids, he was a truck driver living in Washington at the time of the picture, he was listed as deceased in (guess 2006 or so)

    • Kurt, I love Ancestry for research too. I rarely look up my own family — I’m always on the hunt for info about criminals I’m writing about. Creepy, but
      not unusual, for the widow to marry the brother of the deceased. Although you’d think she’d want to distance herself from that family! Thanks for the information and thank you for reading the blog! Best, Joan

    • That trucker was my dad William A Kielhamer, ‘Bill” he drove truck for the Seattle Opera for about 30 years, he passed Oct 2nd 2001 , heart attack in the cab of his semi truck. He was a great man, wonderful father, and took his childhood trauma to the grave, never speaking of it once with me anywhere in earshot.

  21. I feel that Barbara Graham was not quilty of the crime of Murder. I feel her male cohorts were the ones that did the actual killing.

    • William — it’s a tough one for me. I feel that she was legally builty, but I don’t believe that if this crime happened today she’d
      get the death penalty. Best, Joan

  22. Hi Joan,

    Thank you for publishing this site. The stories posted provide a very interesting window to a bygone era. What is your opinion of the book “Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the politics of Executing Women in America” by Kathleen A. Cairns? The author appears to take a more sympathetic view of Graham.

    • Hi Warren — Thank you for your kind words. I’m obviously obsessed with historic crime inn and general and L.A. in particular. It is
      endlessly fascinating to me. I haven’t read Cairns’ book on the Graham case, but I’ve read two of her other books, The Enigma Woman and Hard
      Time at Tehacahpi
      and they were excellent. I’ll have to read the Graham book. I am personally not a big supporter of the death penalty, primarily because
      the thought of executing an innocent person is intolerable to me. I think it likely Graham would not be executed if her case was tried today, and there
      was a pretty compelling argument for entrapment when she made a deal with an undercover cop to provide her with an alibi. I think many times, like the Nellie Madison (Enigma Woman) case women are tried on their lifestyle as much as on evidence. It happened decades ago and I believe it happens now. However, none of those things sway me from my belief that Graham was guilty under the law. My sympathy always goes to the victim first. Thanks again for reading the blog. Best, Joan

  23. There was a rumor going around Clayton, New Mexico years ago that her
    husband lived there, Had changed his name and had a business in town,
    Do you know anything about this. ?

    • Johnny,

      Great question! I don’t think I’ve ever heard that rumor. I’m not sure what happened to Barbara’s husband
      (the last one–she was married more than once). He was a petty criminal and a drug user so it’s hard to
      conceive of him as having a business anywhere–although I suppose it’s not out of the question. I’ll do
      a little digging and see if anything pops up. Thank you so much for reading the blog.


  24. . I am doing research to make a theatre performance for my drama exam and I needed a story about an execution – which I will be acting out and discussing within my performance. This was very helpful.

    • Alex — I’m intrigued by your proposed performance. Did you come up with the idea of an execution story?
      Very creative. Barbara Graham’s execution was definitely one of the most dramatic. Best of luck with your
      drama exam. I’m sure you will, um, kill it.



  25. Joan
    As a high school student, in 1956, I and the chess team played chess at San Quentin Prison. The assist. Warden took us to the gas chamber witness room area and we saw the two chairs.

    They backed up to the witness area so she did not need the mask other than the brief time she walked into the gas chamber where she could then see the witnesses.

    The assistant Warden told us that the convict passes out very fast and he said the convict would not be aware of being executed.

    The amusing thing was to get into San Quentin, they stamped the back of our hands with what seemed to be invisible ink. But to leave the prison, they used a special black light and mine said dead. That was creepy to say the least.

    There was so much publicity for each convict to be put to death, it was hard to miss when they executed them. Carl Chessman comes to mind.

    • Wow, Robert, that’s quite an experience. I’d be creeped out by the “dead” hand stamp too. Thanks for sharing your story.



  26. Does anyone know what became of Barbara Cates, the prison nurse who stayed with Barbara Graham during her last few days? Did she ever give an interview, write a book or give any information about their time together?

    • Diane — Great question. The last information I can find about Barbara Cates is an interview in a Long Beach newspaper in March 1960. She was asked if she heard Graham confess to Warden Teets, and she said no. I believe Teets stated that Graham had confessed to him. As far as I know Cates never wrote a book. She is mentioned in Kathleen Cairn’s book on the Graham case, “Proof of Guilt”. Best — Joan

      • Thank you Joan. That is the book I just finished and what got me thinking about Mrs. Cates. I’ve done a little searching, but there is nothing else to be found, sadly.

        • Diane, So many of the people involved in the old cases seem to vanish into the ether. I consider myself lucky when I can write about a case in which I can find out what happened to all the participants.

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