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.

36 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Barbara Graham

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Billy,

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



      • Hi Joan, I’m a retired Philadelphia Police Officer. I’m interested in the Barbara Graham case. I really enjoy reading your posts. I just found this site. Keep posting!! Thanks Mary

        • Welcome, Mary —
          I’m glad you found Deranged and are enjoying the posts. The Barbara Graham case continues to fascinate people — me among them. I believe, without a doubt, that Barbara participated in the Monohan murder. I initially thought she may have killed Mabel Monohan, but over the years I’m inclined to think that she beat Mabel but Emmett Perkins finished the job. Barbara could not have been a less sympathetic defendant. Even so, I don’t think that legally the case rose to the standard for the death penalty. The whole alibi thing was, in my opinion, entrapment. I also don’t believe that if Graham had lived she’d have changed her ways. She had proved herself incapable of going straight. If she’d lived she may have eventually aged out of the system, but while she was young I think she would have been a repeat offender. Best — Joan

  10. Barbara got a raw deal. those “men” put everything on her. paybacks are a bitch they say. everyone involved in her murder, and it was a murder, was paid back in spades. from john true to goody knight.

    • Joe, I’m inclined to agree that she got a raw deal. I believe she was complicit in Monahan’s murder, even if it was
      only being there, but if she had been a more traditionally sympathetic female defendant it may have gone differently.
      It’s sad that a woman could (and still can) be tried for her lifestyle. The solicitation of the false alibi by the
      LAPD cop would never fly today. It was entrapment. However, Santo and Perkins got what they deserved. The murders
      in Northern California were vicious. Those two were beyond redemption.

    • Judge Charles Fricke, also known as \”San Quentin Fricke\” because he had sent so many people to death row in San Quentin (he sent more people to the gas chamber than any other judge in California ever did in the history of the entire state) didn\’t have long to live either. He was the judge in both the Barbara Graham / Jack Santo / Emmett Perkins trial, and also the Caryl Chessman trial. I went to a California State University campus to study Geography. I took a class on Capital Crimes And The Death Penalty. My term paper was a defense paper on why Chessman should not have been executed. After reading multiple books on him (his autobiography, but several books by others), I\’m convinced he wasn\’t the actual Red Light Bandit of 1948. A thief / robber, sure, but not a rapist / kidnapper. He wouldn\’t have even gotten the death penalty nowadays because the only crime punishable by death in the USA nowadays is first degree murder. I got an A on my defense paper, and I got an A in the class. I did better than a lot of people who were criminal justice majors. I hold a BA degree in Geography that I was awarded in 2000. I am now in my mid late 40s, and I have Classic Autism and ADHD. I was an assistant volunteer co-host at Preschooler Storytime at my library for 16 years. I enriched the lives of possibly tens of thousands of 3 to 5 year olds.

      In any case, Fricke passed away in 1958 from cancer, 2 years before Chessman was executed at age 38 after winning 8 stays of execution. So if Barbara Graham said everyone involved would die, we can add another one to the list – Fricke. Also, John True died on a diving expedition searching for gold or something, in the mid late 1950s. It mentions this in Bernice Freeman\’s book, \”The Damned And The Desperate\”. So he got his just reward too in the end. It is possible that True may have possibly killed Mabel Monohan. Barbara Graham was just someone who was amoral and hung around the wrong type of people, but that doesn\’t mean she killed anyone.

  11. I have always been interested in the Barbra Graham case. It seems to me that I read somewhere that she was a heroin addict. Is that correct?

    • Elaine,
      I’ve always found Barbara’s case fascinating too. California has only ever executed 4 women. The last execution was in 1962 — that’s one of the reasons Barbara’s case is so interesting to me. In answer to your question, although she always denied being an addict Barbara’s husband, Henry, used to give her skin pops of heroin and you can become addicted that way just as you can by mainlining the drug. So yes, I believe Barbara was addicted, although to a lesser degree than Henry. She and Henry were arrested together by the LAPD in the early 1950s for narcotics. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a skin-pop is simply a subcutaneous injection. Some addicts do it to try to avoid track marks. A major problem with it, apart from becoming addicted, is that the skin pop can result in a painful abscess.

      Thank you so much for reading Deranged, and if you have any other questions please feel free to ask.



  12. Are you familiar with the Crater Lake, Oregon murders on July 19, 1952? There\’s some evidence to suggest that Jack Santo and someone from his gang may have committed the murders. Barbara Graham was not involved.
    I have been researching Santo, Perkins, Graham, and other gang members for 25 years. The Crater Lake murders remain unsolved.
    Thank you.

    • Alice,
      I’ve heard of the Crater Lake murders. I believe that Santo and Perkins, if they hadn’t been executed for Mabel Monohan’s murder,
      would likely have gone to the gas chamber for the murders in Chester. It seems likely they were good for the Crater Lake murders
      as well. They were hardcore cons and stone cold killers.

  13. Joan, there is a new book out about the Chester murders. It is called “A Massacre of Innocents”. Of the other two perps, George Boles was given a life sentence for ratting the others out. Harriet Henson was also given life, but was paroled after 7 years. Interesting how Santo and Perkins, for all of their many crimes, had virtually nothing to show for it at the end.

    • Gary,
      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check out “A Massacre of Innocents.” Santo and Perkins would have died in the gas chamber no matter how the Burbank case
      turned out. They were monsters.

      • Oh definitely. Santo and Perkins were going to sit in the gas chamber and breathe that cyanide gas no matter what. They were terrible people. Even if they didn\’t kill Monohan, they would still have been executed. Those two were incorrigible and unredeemable. And that\’s coming from me, and I\’m someone who is a Republican who actually does not believe in the death penalty for several different reasons. Caryl Chessman was way more of a redeemable character (and likely Barbara Graham) than those two so called humans.

  14. I am in contact with Bonnie (her soul) through a psychic. She told me she did kill Mabel. I actually didn\’t think she did but she said she did. She feels really bad about it. She is not a bad person, she had a terrible childhood and never felt loved. I think she was a sex addict. Maybe that\’s how she felt loved? She\’s funny and I like her. To be honest I feel love for her. Most people won\’t believe me, but I don\’t care what anyone thinks.

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