On March 9, 1953, Barbara Graham, along with three other men robbed and murder elderly widow Mabel Monohan in her Burbank, California home. Graham was born Barbara Elaine Ford in Oakland, California on February 23, 1925. When Barbara was two, her mother, who was in her late teens, was sent to reform school. Barbara was raised by strangers and extended family, and, although intelligent, had a limited education.
As a teenager, she was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to serve time at Ventura State School for Girls, 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 Harry Kielhamer in 1940, and enrolled in a business college and soon had her first two children. The marriage was not a success, and by 1942 she was divorced. Harry Kielhamer was awarded custody of their two sons. Over the next several years, she was married twice more, but each of these attempts at a normal life failed.
After this string of failures, Barbara is said to have become a prostitute, working near the Oakland Army Base and Alameda Naval Air Station. At 22, with her good looks, red hair, and sex appeal, she worked for a time in San Francisco for brothel madam Sally Stanford. She soon became involved in drugs and gambling and had a number of friends who were ex-convicts and career criminals. She served five years for perjury as an alibi witness for two petty criminals. After her stint in state prison, Barbara moved to Nevada and worked in a hospital and as a waitress. Barbara soon became bored and got on a bus for Los Angeles, where she got a room on Hollywood Boulevard and returned to prostitution. In 1953, she married a bartender, Henry Graham, with whom she had a third child. Henry Graham was a hardened criminal and drug addict. Through him, Barbara met his criminal friends Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. She started an affair with Perkins, who told her about a 64-year-old widow, Mabel Monohan, who was alleged to keep a large amount of cash in her home in Burbank.
On March 9, 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.
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, he testified against Graham, who continually protested her innocence. The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs," reflecting the public disgust for her alleged actions. Graham damaged her own defense when she offered another inmate $25,000 to hire a friend in order to provide an alibi. The inmate, however, was working in league with an undercover policeman in order to reduce her own sentence. The officer offered to pose as the "boyfriend" Graham 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 confession 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, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Graham appealed her sentence but these actions failed, and she was transferred to the death row at San Quentin to await execution. On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 a.m., but that was stayed by California governor Goodwin J. Knight until 10:45 a.m. At 10:43 a.m., the execution was stayed by Knight 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." Graham was the third woman in California to be executed by gas. She was buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery, San Rafael, California. Actress Susan Hayward won the Best Actress 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.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: