Lizzie Borden: Fascinating Murder is Never Forgotten

In this blog post, I present a well-known crime that has piqued public interest for over 130 years. The 1892 slaying of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts, shocked Victorian sensibilities in that community. Even more shocking was the arrest and trial for parricide of Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie Borden. Although an all-male jury acquitted her, a cloud of suspicion hung over her for the rest of her life. The crime also inspired a popular, if inaccurate, schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks,
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Lizzie Borden and Her Family

Lizzie Andrew Borden was born in Fall River on July 19, 1860. Her mother died when Lizzie was three years old. Three years later, Andrew married Abby Durfee Gray. There were indications that Lizzie and her stepmother were not close. She later said she called Abby “Mrs. Borden” and shied away from saying whether or not they had a cordial relationship. Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid, reported that Lizzie rarely took meals with her father and stepmother.

Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)
Lizzie Borden in 1889 (Public Domain)

Andrew had grown up in modest circumstances and had little money as a young man, but by 1892, he had accumulated considerable wealth. He had interests in many local businesses and was president of one bank and a director of another. Despite his financial success, Andrew preferred a frugal lifestyle. For instance, the Borden house at 92 Second Street did not have electricity or indoor plumbing, despite this being common in homes of the well-to-do.

Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)
Andrew Jackson Borden and Abby Durfee Borden (Public Domain)

Lizzie and her older sister, Emma, had a religious upbringing. As a young woman, she devoted considerable time to church and charitable activities. She was 32 years old in 1892 and, given the standards and expectations of the time, would have been considered a spinster.

The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)
The Borden house at 92 Second Street, Fall River, MA, as it appeared in 1892 (Public Domain)

Tensions in the Borden Household

The summer of 1892 was not a pleasant time at the Borden residence. As mentioned, the Bordens lived well below their means. Lizzie, in particular, would have preferred a more elegant home on “The Hill,” the section where Fall River’s wealthiest citizens lived.

Another issue was the real estate Andrew gifted to several of Abby’s relatives. A visit from Emma and Lizzie’s maternal uncle, John Vinnicum Morse, raised suspicions that more property transfers were in the works.

Finally, for several days at the end of July and the beginning of August, members of the household had been violently ill. Some speculated that the cause was food poisoning. Abby feared someone might have been trying to poison Andrew, as he was not particularly popular in Fall River.

Bridget Sullivan, the Borden's live-in maid (Public Domain)
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden’s live-in maid (Public Domain)

Murder in the Borden House

August 4, 1892, was a hot Thursday in Fall River. John Morse, who had arrived the day before and spent the night, ate breakfast with Andrew, Abby, and Maggie (the family’s name for Bridget Sullivan). Afterward, he and Andrew retired to the sitting room, where they talked for over an hour before Morse left for some errands. He planned to return for lunch. Andrew also left after 9:00 for his morning walk.

Abby Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Abby Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Sometime between 9:00 and 10:30, Abby went upstairs to the guest room to make the bed. She was facing someone who struck her on the side of the head with a hatchet. The blow caused Abby to turn and fall face down. The attacker then delivered multiple blows—nineteen in all—with the hatchet, killing her.

When Andrew Borden returned to the house, his key wouldn’t open the lock. He knocked, and Bridget went to unlock the door. Finding it jammed, she swore. She later testified that immediately after, she heard Lizzie laughing from the top of the stairs. If true, that meant that Lizzie would have seen her stepmother’s body since Abby was already dead by this time. However, Lizzie denied being upstairs.

Andrew Borden's body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)
Andrew Borden’s body as discovered (Fall River Historical Society)

Bridget Sullivan was resting in her third-floor room after cleaning windows all morning. At 11:10, she heard Lizzie call from downstairs. Maggie, come quick! Father’s dead. Somebody came in and killed him.”

Andrew lay on a sofa in the sitting room where he had been napping. He had been struck, probably while asleep, ten times with a hatchet or hatchet-like weapon.

Lizzie Borden Suspected

Lizzie was naturally a suspect because she was the only person besides Bridget Sullivan in the house (Emma was in New Bedford visiting a friend). Her behavior following the discovery of the murders also invited suspicion. She changed her story several times, and some investigators found her unusually calm and poised. However, they did not check her for bloodstains, and the search of her room was cursory at best.

The following Sunday morning, Alice Russell, a friend of both sisters, went into the Borden kitchen and found Lizzie burning a dress in the kitchen stove. She said she had ruined it by brushing it against wet paint. No one ever determined if it was the dress she had worn the day before.

Lizzie Borden around the time of her trial (Fall River Historical Society)

The district attorney convened an inquest into the murders on August 8. Lizzie’s testimony was confused at some times and combative at others. Her family doctor prescribed regular doses of morphine to calm her nerves, and this likely affected her performance as a witness. In any event, the DA conducted the proceedings more like an interrogation than an impartial inquiry.

At the conclusion of the inquest on August 11, police served Lizzie with an arrest warrant.

Lizzie Borden on Trial

Lizzie’s trial began on Jun 5, 1893, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In a victory for the defense, Justin Dewey, the presiding Justice, refused to allow Lizzie’s inquest testimony in evidence.

A prominent piece of evidence was a handleless hatched head found in the Borden basement. However, the prosecution failed in its attempt to prove it was the murder weapon. Whether Lizzie was even in the house at the time of the murders was also in dispute.

The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)
The handleless hatchet that the prosecution tried—unsuccessfully—to brand as the murder weapon (Fall River Historical Society)

Observers viewed Justice Dewey’s summation to the jury as supportive of the defense. They deliberated for only 90 minutes before returning with a “not guilty” verdict.

Epilogue

Lizzie and Emma moved into a large, modern house on “The Hill,” complete with a staff of servants. Lizzie named it “Maplecroft.” Around this time, she began styling herself as Lizbeth A. Borden.

Maplecroft in 2008 (Author's Photo)
Maplecroft in 2008 (Author’s Photo)

Despite her acquittal, Fall River society ostracized Lizzie. She came into the public eye again in 1897 when she was accused of shoplifting in Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1905, the Borden sisters argued over a party Lizzie had given for actress Nance O’Neil, and Emma moved out. They never saw each other again.

Lizzie Borden died from pneumonia on June 1, 1927, in Fall River at age 66. Emma died from chronic nephritis nine days later. The sisters, neither of whom ever married, were reunited in death, buried side by side in the family plot in Fall River’s Oak Grove Cemetery.

The Borden house on Second Street in Fall River is now a museum and a Bed & Breakfast.

An immense number of books relate the story of the Borden murders and Lizzie’s trial. Some of the more recent are The Borden Murders by Sarah Miller, The Case Against Lizzie Borden and Lizzie Borden Uncut: A Casebook of Theories by William Spencer, One Hot Day in August by Victoria Strachan, and Forty Whacks: New Evidence in the Life and Legend of Lizzie Borden by David Kent.

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Ruth Judd: Trunk Murder Makes Big Headlines

The public seems to have a morbid fascination with so-called “trunk murders.” I’ve blogged about earlier this year, Melanie McGuire’s 2004 murder of her husband. In this week’s blog, I’ll take you back to 1931, the year Ruth Judd murdered two former friends.

Ruth Judd

Winnie Ruth McKinnell was born on January 9, 1905, to a Methodist minister and his wife in Oxford, Indiana. In 1924, she married Dr. William C. Judd, a World War I veteran more than twenty years her senior, and moved to Mexico with him. According to some, Dr. Judd had an addiction to morphine as a result of unspecified war injuries. Consequently, he had difficulty keeping a job, which forced the couple to move frequently. Ruth, as Dr. Judd called her, had health problems and wasn’t able to have children, which further strained the marriage.

Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)
Winnie Ruth Judd. Note bandaged left hand. (Arizona Historical Foundation)

By 1930, Ruth and William lived separately, although they maintained almost constant contact. Ruth moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked as a governess. She also met John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran. Halloran was a 44-year-old businessman and playboy. He and Ruth eventually had an affair, even though both of them were married at the time.

Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife's murder conviction (murderpedia.org)
Dr. William Craig Judd in a photo taken a few years after his wife’s murder conviction (murderpedia.org)

Shortly after meeting Halloran, Ruth secured a job as a medical secretary at the Grunow Medical Clinic in Phoenix. There, she met X-ray technician Agnes Anne LeRoi and her roommate, Hedvig Samuelson. The women moved to Phoenix from Alaska after Samuelson contracted tuberculosis, and both, it turned out, knew Happy Jack Halloran.

John J. "Happy Jack" Halloran (murderpedia.org)
John J. “Happy Jack” Halloran (murderpedia.org)

The three women became friends, with Ruth moving in with them in 1931. However, differences between the three soon caused Judd to move into her own apartment.

Ruth Judd Kills Her Friends

On the night of October 16, 1931, Ruth shot and killed LeRoi and Samuelson with a .25 caliber pistol. At her subsequent trial, the prosecution would claim the women fought over Halloran’s affections and that jealousy was the motive for murder.

Agnes Ann "Annie" LeRoi and Hedvig "Sammy" Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)
Agnes Ann “Annie” LeRoi and Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson (Los Angeles Herald Examiner photo collection)

Regardless, Ruth and (probably) an accomplice next dismembered Samuelson’s body, stuffing the head, torso, and lower legs into a black shipping trunk. The upper legs went into a beige valise and a hatbox. She (or they) placed LeRoi’s body intact into a second black shipping trunk.

Two days later, on October 18, Ruth boarded the Golden State Limited to Los Angeles at Phoenix’s Union Station. Sporting a bandaged left hand, she checked the trunks, valise, and hatbox as baggage. En route to the Southern Pacific’s Central Station in Los Angeles, baggage handler H. J. Mapes observed the foul odor emanating from Judd’s luggage and the fluids leaking from it. Mapes notified Arthur V. Anderson, the district baggage agent in Los Angeles. He suspected the baggage contained contraband deer meat. (Apparently, shipping deer meat to the West Coast by rail was not uncommon in the 1930s.)

Ruth Judd’s Crimes Discovered

Anderson tagged the trunks to be held until they could be opened and inspected. He asked Ruth for the key, but she claimed she didn’t have it.

Ruth’s brother, Burton McKinnell, picked her up at the station. Leaving her baggage with its incriminating evidence behind, she had Burton drop her off in Los Angeles, where she promptly disappeared.

The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)
The trunks and luggage used to transport the bodies (Arizona Historical Foundation)

Meanwhile, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, Anderson called the police to report the suspicious luggage. After picking the locks, officers opened the trunks and discovered the bodies. By that time, Ruth was “in the wind.” She surrendered at a funeral home the following Friday, October 23.

A case that included dismemberment and interstate flight soon became front-page news. The press, prone to making up sensational names for murderers and murder cases, called Judd the “Tiger Woman” and the “Blonde Butcher.” Eventually, the case became known in the media as the “Trunk Murders” and Judd as the “Trunk Murderess.”

Ruth Judd on Trial

Ruth’s trial began on January 19, 1932. The dismemberment of Samuelson’s body notably didn’t appear in the case. The state of Arizona only charged Ruth with killing LeRoi, whose body was intact. (She was never charged in Samuelson’s death.)

The state contended that the slaying was premeditated and that Ruth shot herself in the left hand to bolster her claim of self-defense. The defense argued she was innocent because she was insane. The jury found her guilty of the first-degree murder of LeRoi on February 8. After an unsuccessful appeal, Judge Howard C. Speakman sentenced her to hang on February 17, 1933. She was sent to the Arizona State Prison in Florence, Arizona.

Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)
Ruth Judd, during her trial (Wikipedia)

Four jurors presented Judge Speakman with affidavits claiming they only voted to recommend death after one of the jurors, former Mesa mayor Dan Kleinman, persuaded them that it was the best way to get Judd to give up any accomplices in the murder. They urged Speakman to commute the sentence to life imprisonment.

Judd’s attorneys also uncovered evidence that Kleinman had already made up his mind that he would vote to convict Judd and send her to the gallows if he got on the jury. They lodged two appeals on this basis, arguing that Kleinman’s behavior amounted to juror misconduct. However, neither appeal was successful.

In April 1933, the court overturned Ruth’s death sentence after a ten-day hearing found her mentally incompetent. She was then sent to Arizona State Asylum for the Insane on April 24, 1933.

Ruth Judd Later in Life

Ruth was committed to the Arizona State Asylum for the Insane (later renamed the Arizona State Hospital) in Phoenix, Arizona’s only mental institution. Judd escaped from the institution six times between 1933 and 1963. In one instance, she walked to Yuma, almost 200 miles, along the old Southern Pacific railroad tracks. She escaped for the last time on October 8, 1963, using a key to the hospital’s front door she somehow obtained from a friend. After six years, authorities discovered her California identity and sent her back to Arizona on August 18, 1969.

A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)
A nurse at the Arizona State Hospital holds the improvised rope Ruth Judd used in a 1952 escape (The Arizona Republic)

Ruth was paroled and released on December 22, 1971, after two years of legal wrangling. In 1983, the state of Arizona issued her an “absolute discharge,” meaning she was no longer a parolee. She returned to California to work for the family that had previously employed her. She later lived in Stockton, California, before moving back to Phoenix.

Epilogue

In the early 1990s, investigative journalist Jana Bommersbach re-examined Judd’s case for a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times. Her research included interviews with Ruth Judd herself. Bommersbach later published a book, The Trunk Murderess: Winnie Ruth Judd.

In her book, Bommersbach contends the dismemberment of Samuelson’s body showed surgical skills that Ruth didn’t possess. Furthermore, she believes Ruth couldn’t have physically lifted the bodies. The legal case also presented some difficulties, not the least of which was Kleinman’s interference.

Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)
Ruth Judd with reporter and author Jana Bommersbach (The Arizona Republic)

However, others who have studied the case question Bommersbach’s conclusions and her objectivity, given the personal relationship she formed with Ruth,

Winnie Ruth Judd died on October 23, 1998, at the age of 93, sixty-seven years to the day after her surrender to police in Los Angeles in 1931.

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William McKinley: Murder of a Popular President

Last week’s crime, the murder of four teenage girls in a Texas yogurt shop, was especially tragic. So, too, is this week’s case, the murder of an American president. In the fall of 1901, President William McKinley visited the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. An assassin shot him, and he died eight days later.

William McKinley

William McKinley was riding high in the late summer of 1901. He had started his second term as President of the United States earlier that year in March after a convincing win over William Jennings Bryan the previous November. Three years earlier, he was at the helm when the United States trounced Spain in the brief Spanish-American War and became a global imperial power.

President William McKinley photographed in 1900, the year before his assassination (McKinley Memorial Library)
William McKinley, Twenty-fifth President of the United States, photographed in 1900, the year before his assassination (McKinley Memorial Library)

McKinley, the last veteran of the American Civil War to serve as president, was popular with the American people, and he looked forward to a comfortable second term in office.

William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran elected President of the United States. During the Battle of Antietam, he served as sergeant for Company F of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Ohio History Connection)
William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran elected President of the United States. During the Battle of Antietam, he served as sergeant for Company F of the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Ohio History Connection)

William McKinley Goes to the Fair

The Pan-American Exposition Company was formed in 1897 to stage a world’s fair in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area. The Spanish-American war put the project on a brief hold, but planning resumed once the war ended.

The Pan-American Exposition opened on May 1, 1901, on 350 acres in the western part of Buffalo, New York. President McKinley planned to visit on June 13 as part of an extended tour of the United States. However, First Lady Ida McKinley fell ill in California, causing the president to modify his schedule and cancel several public appearances.

The Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition (Photo by C. D. Arnold, Public Domain)
The Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition (Photo by C. D. Arnold, Public Domain)

McKinley rescheduled his visit to the Exposition for early September 1901. On September 5, he delivered a speech from an open platform without incident. The following day, September 6, the president held a reception in the Temple of Music, shaking hands with well-wishers as they passed.

An Assassin Strikes

McKinley had been shaking hands for about ten minutes when Leon Czolgosz (pronounced CHOL-gosh), a laborer from Detroit and an avowed anarchist, reached the head of the line. A handkerchief covered his right hand like a bandage. As the president prepared to shake his left hand, Czolgosz fired two shots from an Iver Johnson .32 caliber revolver hidden underneath the handkerchief. The first shot ricocheted off a coat button, but the second wounded McKinley in the stomach. Czolgosz prepared to fire a third shot for the coup de grâce while the crowd looked on in horror. James Parker, an African-American man from Georgia next in line, slammed into the shooter, trying to take the gun away. Soon, Czolgosz disappeared underneath a pile of men punching and kicking him.

This portrait of Leon Czolgosz by the Wiendenthal Photo Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was found in the bag he took with him to Buffalo (Public Domain)
This portrait of Leon Czolgosz by the Wiendenthal Photo Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was found in the bag he took with him to Buffalo (Public Domain)

After the second bullet struck him, McKinley lurched forward a step before aids helped him into a chair. Seeing the pummeling Czolgosz was taking, he ordered it stopped. Then he told Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou, “My wife—be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful.”

Treating McKinley’s Wounds

Any student of presidential history will marvel at the poor quality of medical care our past chief executives have received. William McKinley was no exception. An electric ambulance took the wounded president to the Exposition hospital. Although the hospital did have an operating room, it did not have a surgeon on duty. The first physician on the scene was Herman Mynter, who injected McKinley with morphine and strychnine to ease pain. When a second doctor, Matthew B. Mann, arrived, it was decided to operate.

Inside the Temple of Music. The "X" is where President McKinley stood at the head of the receiving line (Photo by C. D. Arnold, Public Domain)
Inside the Temple of Music. The “X” is where President McKinley stood at the head of the receiving line (Photo by C. D. Arnold, Public Domain)

Although the exteriors of most of the Exposition buildings were covered with thousands of light bulbs, the hospital operating room had no electric lighting. Instead, the doctors relied on the rapidly fading sunlight reflected by a metal pan to illuminate McKinley’s wounds. Dr. Mann, a noted gynecologist without experience with abdominal wounds, repaired the entrance and exit wounds from the bullet that perforated the stomach. He then covered the area with a bandage but failed to provide for any drainage from the wound.

The operating room at the Exposition Hospital (Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection, Health Sciences Library, University at Buffalo SUNY)
The operating room at the Exposition Hospital (Robert L. Brown History of Medicine Collection, Health Sciences Library, University at Buffalo SUNY)

An electric ambulance took McKinley from the Exposition hospital to the home of James G. Milburn, the Exposition president.

The Death of William McKinley

At first, McKinley seemed to be on his way to recovering from the gunshot. Saturday, September 7, found him relaxed and conversational. Cabinet members and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who had hurried to Buffalo upon receiving word of the shooting, began to leave on September 9. Roosevelt took off for a vacation in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains.

A few days later, on September 13, McKinley suffered a collapse. His apparent recovery had been a mirage. Gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach and flooding his body with toxins. At 2:15 a.m. on September 14, 1901, President William McKinley died.

Epilogue

Justice for Leon Czolgosz was swift. On September 16, a grand jury indicted him with one count of first-degree murder. Although he chatted freely with his guards, he refused to have anything to do with Robert C. Titus and Loran L. Lewis, the judges-turned-lawyers assigned to defend him.

This photograph of Leon Czolgosz in jail first appeared in Leslie's Weekly, McKinley Edition, published September 9, 1901 (Public Domain)
This photograph of Leon Czolgosz in jail first appeared in Leslie’s Weekly, McKinley Edition, published September 9, 1901 (Public Domain)

Czolgosz’s trial began on September 23, 1901, nine days after McKinley died. Prosecution testimony took two days and consisted principally of the doctors who treated McKinley and various eyewitnesses to the shooting. Defense attorney Lewis called no witnesses but praised McKinley in his twenty-seven-minute closing argument to the jury. The jury deliberated less than half an hour before returning a guilty verdict.

Czolgosz died in the electric chair at New York’s Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901, forty-five days after President McKinley’s death. Unrepentant to the end, his last words were, “I shot the president because I thought it would help the working people and for the sake of the common people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am awfully sorry because I could not see my father.”

You can read more about President McKinley, Leon Czolgosz, and the assassination in The President and the Assassin by Scott Miller.

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Barbara Graham: Robbery Complete Fail Makes for Murder

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

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 Graham
Barbara Graham

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.

Mabel Monahan's home at 1718 Parkside Drive in Burbank looks much as it did in 1953 (lamag.com)
Mabel Monahan’s home at 1718 Parkside Drive in Burbank looks much as it did in 1953 (lamag.com)

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.

Mabel Monohan (lamag.com)
Mabel Monohan (lamag.com)

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.

Barbara Graham mugshot
Barbara Graham mugshot

Shorter made a complete confession. However, news of it leaked out, and when police released him, he was kidnapped and murdered.

Baxter Shorter mugshot
Baxter Shorter mugshot

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.

Jack Santo (L), Emmet Perkins (C), and Barbara Graham (R) (murderpedia.org)
Jack Santo (L), Emmet Perkins (C), and Barbara Graham (R) (murderpedia.org)

Besides Upshaw, John True agreed to testify for the prosecution in exchange for immunity. He testified against Barbara, who continually proclaimed her innocence.

Barbara Graham in court
Barbara Graham in court

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.

Epilogue

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.

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