It is 18 miles from Oakland to San Quentin, from where Barbara Graham was born to where she died. What a short, sad trip it was.
In 1923, Barbara was born to Hortense Wood, an unmarried 15-year-old prostitute who viewed her daughter as an annoying burden. When Barbara was 2, Wood was sent to the Ventura School for Girls, a reformatory school in Southern California. Barbara was shuttled around to an assortment of indifferent caretakers until her mother returned.
It was no surprise when Barbara starting acting out as a teenager and was sent to the Ventura School. Released in 1939, Barbara married a U.S. Coast Guardsman, went to business school and had her first two children. The marriage did not work out, and her husband took custody of their children. In 1942, Barbara was jailed in San Diego for “lewd and disorderly conduct” and for prostitution in 1944. She worked briefly for legendary madam Sally Stanford in 1945, but soon drifted into drug use and worked as a shill for gamblers. Barbara was convicted of perjury in 1948, when she gave alibi testimony for one of her criminal friends. In 1953, she married for the fourth time and had a child with Henry Graham, a drug-addicted bartender with shady friends.
Bad taste in men has been the downfall of many women, but rarely has anyone chosen as poorly as Barbara. Henry’s friends, Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins, were vicious killers without a shred of remorse or compassion. They once bludgeoned to death three young children and their father after a robbery.
“Let’s face it,” Santo said on death row, “I’ve been a real stinker.”
Barbara moved in with Perkins after leaving her husband and lured men into his gambling games. Through the prison grapevine, Perkins and Santo heard about Mrs. Mabel Monahan, a wealthy woman who had been the mother-in-law of a Las Vegas gambler. It was rumored that she kept $100,000 of his money in a safe in her house. The men planned to rob Monahan and brought Barbara along to trick Monahan into opening her front door. John True and Baxter Shorter, two experienced safe-crackers, were added to the team.
The robbery was a disaster. There was no safe in the house. The robbers brutally beat Monahan, taped a pillowcase over her head and put her in the closet.
Shorter, learning there was no safe, did not participate in the murder and tried to stop Perkins from beating Monahan. Although the thieves ransacked the house, they missed a purse containing jewelry and $400 in one of the closets and left empty handed. Monahan died of asphyxiation and was discovered two days later.
Shortly after, Shorter was questioned as part of the murder investigation. In order to escape a possible murder rap, Baxter told police of the crime and agreed to testify against the others. Unfortunately for Shorter, someone leaked his testimony to Santo and Perkins, who killed him and buried him somewhere in the San Jacinto Mountains.
Police located and arrested Santo, Perkins, Graham and True. True agreed to testify against his co-defendants in exchange for immunity.
Murder cases, like most everything else, are about storytelling. For jurors, the key story is usually the defendant’s. When it came to telling her story, Barbara Graham was her own worst enemy. She had completely internalized the criminal code. She could easily have gotten a reduced sentence if she had agreed to testify against Santo and Perkins, but it never occurred to her to inform on her companions.
Instead of dressing modestly, emphasizing her role as a mother and acting submissively, Barbara dressed in tight clothes and talked tough. She sat at the defense table smoking and glaring at the prosecution.
True’s testimony was the most damaging against Barbara. True testified that it was Barbara, not Perkins, who beat Monahan on the head with a pistol. The press started calling her “Bloody Babs” — and the name stuck.
Beneath Barbara’s tough exterior was a woman who was desperate for acceptance and easy to manipulate. In jail, while awaiting trial, she had an affair with Donna Prow, a young woman serving a year for manslaughter. Prow, in exchange for her release, put Barbara in touch with a “fixer,” a man who would give Barbara an alibi for $25,000. The ”fixer” was really an undercover policeman who later testified that Barbara had admitted being with Santo and Perkins on the night of the murder. When the jury learned of Barbara’s affair with Prow, her fate was sealed. She had already been involved in sex, drugs and murder: the unholy trinity of taboo in 1950s America. Now, on top of that, Barbara was a lesbian.
After deliberating for just five hours, the jury convicted all three of first-degree murder. Without a recommendation for clemency, the automatic sentence was death.
After Barbara’s conviction, Ed Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, wrote a series of articles questioning the verdict and led an effort to save her from the death penalty. The effort failed, and Barbara was executed on June 4, 1955.
Montgomery’s articles became the basis for “I Want To Live,” a somewhat fictionalized version of Barbara’s case, which won Susan Hayward an Oscar in 1958. The movie revitalized the fight against capital punishment, a campaign that continues to this day.
As she was led into the gas chamber, Barbara’s last words were, “Good people are always so sure they are right.”
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.