In my blog post last week, Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald murdered his wife and two daughters. The case generated tremendous public interest. This week’s blog details the murder for which Barbara Graham, dubbed “Bloody Babs” by the press, went to the California gas chamber.
Barbara Graham, born Barbara Elaine Ford in 1923 in Oakland, California, didn’t have much chance in life. Her mother, Hortense, was an unmarried teenager who supported herself through prostitution. When Barbara was two, her mother, still in her teens, was sent to reform school, and Barbara went into foster care. Hortense was able to leave Ventura State School for Girls when she turned 21, but she refused to let Barbara live with her.
Extended family and strangers raised Barbara. Although intelligent, she had little formal education. Arrested for vagrancy, she ended up in the same institution where her mother had been.
After reform school, Barbara tried marriage and a traditional lifestyle, but it was not to be. Married and divorced three times, she became a sex worker like her mother. During World War II, She ran with a crowd that included gamblers, drug addicts, ex-convicts, and career criminals.
Barbara eventually served a five-year prison term for perjury at the California Women’s State Prison at Tehachapi. She had given false alibis to a pair of petty criminals.
After prison, she moved briefly to Nevada before returning to Los Angeles and prostitution. She married Henry Graham, a bartender at one of her hangouts. But Graham was a drug addict and a hardened but low-level criminal. Through him, she met the people that ultimately caused her conviction and execution.
Barbara Graham and the Mabel Monohan Murder
Mabel Monohan was 64, a widow, and a retired vaudeville performer. Her former son-in-law, Luther Scherer, was a mover and shaker in Los Vegas gambling circles and suspected of having mob ties. Even though Mabel’s daughter had divorced Scherer and married another man, he and Mabel remained close. Somehow, this led to a rumor that Scherer kept $100,000 ($1,142,730 in 2023) of Scherer’s money in a safe in Mabel’s home.
Henry Graham’s friends, Jack Santo and Emmett “The Weasel” Perkins, both career criminals, heard the rumors. Together with Barbara, John True, and Baxter Shorter, a safecracker, they planned to steal the stash of cash from Mabel’s home.
On the evening of March 9, 1953, Barbara Graham knocked on the Monohan door. She asked to use the phone, saying she had car trouble. When Mabel admitted her, Perkins, Santo, and True pushed in after her. In his subsequent confession, Shorter claimed he entered the home later and saw Mabel moaning and bleeding on the floor. After the five left and Shorter was alone, he claimed he dialed “O” and requested an ambulance (there was no 911 in 1953). However, he neglected to tell the operator that the Monohan house was in Burbank instead of Los Angeles. It was two days before Mabel’s gardener found her body.
The robbery was a complete bust. Mabel had no safe and no $100,000. The “robbers” found little of value.
Barbara Graham Tried and Convicted
On March 26, 1953, police arrested and questioned five men. Three were known associates of L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen, and one was Baxter Shorter. Although police released the five for lack of evidence, Shorter decided to confess and get a deal rather than face the gas chamber.
Shorter made a complete confession. However, news of it leaked out, and when police released him, he was kidnapped and murdered.
Enter William Upshaw. Upshaw testified before the grand jury, claiming to have been in the car with Graham, Perkins, Santo, True, and Shorter the night before the murder. The six were casing Mabel’s home. He said he dropped out of the robbery, fearing retribution from Luther Scherer.
Besides Upshaw, John True agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for immunity. He testified against Barbara, who continually proclaimed her innocence.
Barbara had no alibi. She doomed her case by offering to pay $25,000 ($285,683 in 2023) to another inmate and a “friend” to provide a false alibi. However, the inmate was out to reduce her own sentence, and the “friend” was a police officer. The “friend” recorded the conversation between the three and got Graham to admit she’d been at the murder scene. This attempt to suborn perjury and her previous perjury conviction torpedoed Barbara’s credibility in court.
Graham was convicted, while the informant had her sentence reduced to time served and was released.
Barbara Graham died in the California gas chamber on June 3, 1955. Joe Feretti, one of the men assisting in the execution, told her to take a deep breath, and it would go quicker and easier for her. Barbara responded, “How the hell would you know?”
In 1958, a sympathetic and highly fictionalized version of Barbara’s story, I Want to Live!, earned Susan Hayward an Academy Award for Best Actress. Lindsay Wagner portrayed Graham in a 1983 television movie of the same name.
Over the years, anti-death penalty advocates have used Barbara Graham’s case to promote their agenda. Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America by Kathleen A. Cairns examines this phenomenon.
Don’t Miss Out! Subscribe to the Newsletter
Subscribe to True Crime in the News, a monthly email newsletter that looks at recent news stories that will interest any true crime fan. There is also a summary of the previous month’s blog posts. You won’t want to miss this. Sign up for the newsletter today.