Barbara Graham (June 26, 1923 – June 3, 1955) was an American criminal and convicted murderess. She was executed in the gas chamber on the same day as two convicted accomplices, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. Nicknamed "Bloody Babs" by the press, Graham was the third woman in California to die by gas.
Graham was born Barbara Elaine Wood in Oakland, California. When Barbara was two, her mother, who was a teenager, was sent to reform school. Barbara was raised by strangers and extended family, and had a limited education. As a teenager, she was arrested for vagrancy and was sentenced to serve time at the same reform school where her mother had been.
Released from reform school in 1939, Barbara tried to make a new start for herself. She married and enrolled in a business college and soon had her first child. The marriage was not a success, and by 1941 she was divorced. Over the next several years, she was married twice more and had a second child, but each of these attempts at a normal life failed.
After this string of failures, Barbara is said to have become a prostitute, working for San Francisco's Sally Stanford. She was soon involved in drugs and gambling and had a number of friends who were ex-convicts and career criminals. In 1953, she married Henry Graham, with whom she had a third child, named Tommy.
Murder of Mabel Monohan
Henry Graham was a hardened criminal. Through him, Barbara met his criminal friends Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins. She started an affair with Perkins, who told her about a 64-year-old widow, Mabel Monohan, who was rumored to keep a large amount of cash in her home in Burbank.
In March 1953, Barbara joined Perkins and Santo, as well as John True and Baxter Shorter (two of their associates), in robbing Monohan's home in Burbank. Barbara reportedly gained entry by asking to use her phone. Once Monohan opened the door for Graham, the three men burst in. The gang demanded money and the jewels from Monohan, but she refused to give them anything. At this point, Barbara reportedly pistol-whipped Monohan, cracking her skull. They then suffocated her with a pillow.
The robbery attempt was a futile effort; the gang found nothing of value in the house and left empty-handed. They later learned that they had missed about $15,000 in jewels and valuables stashed in a purse in the closet near where they had murdered Monohan.
Arrest and conviction
Eventually, some of the gang members were arrested and John True agreed to become a state witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In court, True testified against Graham, who continually protested her innocence. The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs," reflecting the public disgust for her alleged actions. Graham apparently stood a good chance of being acquitted, but erred by offering another inmate $25,000 to hire a "friend" who would provide an alibi. That inmate, it turned out, was working in league with an undercover policeman in order to reduce her own vehicular manslaughter sentence. The officer offered to pose as the "boyfriend" she was with the night of the murder, if she admitted to him she was actually at the scene of the crime. The officer recorded the conversation. This attempt to suborn perjury as well as the confession she was at the scene, destroyed Graham's credibility in court. When questioned about her actions at the trial, she said, "Oh, have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it means not to know what to do?" Graham was ultimately convicted. The informant was immediately released from jail, her sentence commuted.
Appeals and execution
Graham, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Graham appealed her sentence while serving time at the California Institute for Women in the city of Corona. Her appeals failed, and she was transferred to the death row at San Quentin State Prison to await execution. On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 a.m., but that was stayed until 10:45 a.m. At 10:43 a.m., the execution was stayed again until 11:30 a.m., and a weary Graham protested, "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at ten o'clock." At 11:28 a.m., Graham was led from her cell to be strapped in the gas chamber. There, she requested a blindfold so she wouldn't have to look at the observers. Her last words were "Good people are always so sure they're right."
Barbara Graham is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, San Rafael, California.
Movies about Graham
Susan Hayward won an Academy Award for playing Graham in the movie I Want to Live! (1958), which strongly suggests Graham was innocent. However, much of the film is fictionalized—in particular, the presentation of the manner in which the police found and arrested Graham. Evidence clearly pointed to her guilt. Reporter Gene Blake, who covered Graham's murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, called the movie "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."Graham was also portrayed by Lindsay Wagner in a 1983 TV version of I Want to Live!.
Harnisch, Larry - Barbara Graham case revisited, November 28, 1958 - Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2008, Article originally published by Blake, Gene, as BARBARA GRAHAM - FILM AND FACT. Los Angeles Daily Mirror, November 28, 1958
Foster, Teree E. - "I Want to Live! Federal Judicial values in Death Penalty Cases: Preservation of Rights or Punctuality of Execution?" Oklahoma City University Law Review, Volume 22, Number 1 (1997) This Article explores the implications of the 1958 film I Want to Live, which deals with the life of Barbara Wood Graham, a woman executed for murder. Dean Foster analyzes the values elevated to primacy by the Burger and Rehnquist Courts' efficiency and expediency in our justice system, comparing those with the preservation of individual liberties that activated the Warren Court. The Article concludes that the federal judiciary must be diligent, especially in capital cases, in fulfillment of its role as an impartial, independent decision-making body.