Barbara Graham

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Barbara Graham
Born Barbara Elaine Ford
(1923-06-26)June 26, 1923
Oakland, California, USA
Died June 3, 1955(1955-06-03) (aged 31)
San Quentin Prison, San Quentin, California, USA
Criminal charge
Criminal penalty
Death by gas chamber
Criminal status
Deceased (executed)
Motive Robbery

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 be executed by gas.[1]

Early life[edit]

Graham was born Barbara Elaine Ford in Oakland, California to young unwed mother Hortense Ford. On February 23, 1925, Hortense Ford gave birth to a second daughter out of wedlock, Claire Elizabeth. Hortense Ford later married a man by the name of Joseph Wood, whose surname was then given to Barbara and Claire. Hortense had a child with Joseph Wood, a son, Joseph Robert Wood, born on March 27, 1930. By the time Joseph Robert was born, however, the father is said to have died. Hortense Ford Wood (1906-1989) was of Portuguese (Azorean) descent on her father's side, the original family name having been Furtado.

When Barbara was two, her mother, who still 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.[1]

Released from reform school in 1939, Barbara tried to make a new start for herself. She married Harry Kielhamer (1913-1993), a U.S. Coast Guardsman, 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.[2]

After this string of failures, Barbara is said to have become a prostitute: during World War II, she was a "seagull" – a prostitute that flocked near a naval base – working near the Oakland Army Base, Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and Alameda Naval Air Station. In 1942, she and some other "seagulls" flew down to Long Beach and San Diego. She was arrested on vice charges in these naval cities and in San Pedro. 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, and served her sentence at the California Women's State Prison at Tehachapi. After her stint in state prison, Barbara moved to Reno, Nevada and then Tonopah. She worked in a hospital and as a waitress. Barbara 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, named Tommy.

Murder of Mabel Monohan[edit]

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,[3] who was alleged 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[edit]

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 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 vehicular manslaughter 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 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?"[4] Graham was ultimately convicted while the informant was immediately released from jail and her sentence commuted to time served.

Appeals and execution[edit]

Graham, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Graham appealed her sentence while serving time at the California Institution for Women in Chino. 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 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."[5] 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."[6]

Barbara Graham is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, San Rafael, California.

In popular culture[edit]

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.[7] Reporter Gene Blake, who covered Graham's murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, dismissed the movie as "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."[7] Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Bill Walker also exposed the inaccuracies of the film in his article in the April 1959 issue of Cavalier, "Exposing Hollywood's 'I Want to Live' Hoax", and in a 1961 book, The Case of Barbara Graham.

Kathleen A. Cairns' 2013 account of Graham's life and murder conviction after 60-odd years, "Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America," through a meticulously footnoted and unembellished narrative of Graham's life and the "Bloody Babs" media-projected persona (author John Gilmore's true crime anthology, with its chapter on Graham, includes neither a bibliography nor even name/event index), via historical documents regarding her life, conviction, and execution, court records, letters and published articles, suggests 1958's "I Want to Live!" to be, with the exception of only three minor "Hollywoodisms," as scripted, acted, and directed, to be a virtually accurate docudrama of the Monahan murder and Graham's passive, horrified, panic-stricken witnessing of it (she was, after all, only involved to act as a female [read: "non-threatening"] "dupe" as a ruse for the male victimizers to gain entry to find the non-existent safe and (so Graham believed), only to restrain and rob the woman), effectively refuting the "hard-boiled" and "film noir"-ish articles and tomes by these authors; most notably, John Gilmore's singular chapter, entitled "Ice Blonde," in his 2005 true crime anthology, "L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times," which quotes 60-something-years-old conversations verbatim (as if the Gilmore himself had been present); describes Graham's vicious "pistol whipping" killing of Mrs. Monahan, via a series of recollections by accomplice John True in exchange for immunity (Monahan's autopsy, in the public domain, is documented by the coroner as confirming she died of strangulation caused by a strip of linen used to noose a pillowcase over the woman's head, not bloody, fatal head wounds from being "pistol-whipped"); and gratuitously describes officers, after being tailed by policewomen and, in particular, policewoman Kay Sheldon (not even named by Gilmore in his book, even though the trio's hideout is effectively discovered, via Sheldon's alerting police, renamed "Ethel", in the 1958 film), bursting into the hideaway to find Graham, clad only in panties, while Perkins lay on a cot nearby in his undershorts, performing fellatio on Santo and under the influence of an intravenous narcotic.[8]

Cairns, however, states that depending on what city newspaper reported the trio's capture and the sources responsible for the widely-disparate collective reportage, Graham was, in fact, changing clothes alone in a separate room at the time of the raid, though police suspected, due to puncture marks found on her arms, and Graham's perceived hazy demeanor at that moment, that Barbara was freshly under the influence of a drug administered through a syringe found in her purse.[9] In the 1986 true crime anthology, "Murderers Die", author Denis Brian does not give so much as a perfunctory description of the trio's capture.[10]

It appears that the plethora of newspaper-article and book-published assertions of Graham as the delinquent, criminally-prone, sexually-deviant, drug-addicted, former "seagull-turned-prostitute-turned-shill", malignantly psychotic "Bloody Babs", which have been given such graphic interpretations with increasing relish in books and criminal-anthologies such as those sold to the public, then and, most recently, on the pervasive, lucrative internet market today, written in unprecedented, sensationalized, unexpurgated force, mimicking the non-fiction and fictional style of successful, bestselling crime author James Ellroy, are responsible for the so-called "fictionalization(s)" of the "I Want to Live!" film(s) and current docudramatic television vignettes of the crime; Graham's supposed involvement in the murder of Monahan murder accomplice Baxter Shorter; and Graham's heroin use instigated by her hardcore-addict husband Henry Graham, and how the raid of the trio was handled on film in the Oscar-nominated/winning film, it is public domain knowledge that only Cairns' account could have possibly made it onto the screen in 1958, due to the firmly-enforced but rapidly failing restrictions of Hollywood film censorship. Most disturbingly, in his book, "Murderers Die", Denis Brian offers a brief but quoted remark by Santo stated to San Francisco Chronicle, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Ed Montgomery: "Christ, I didn't think they'd convict anyone as innocent as Barbara."[10]

Graham was portrayed by actress Lindsay Wagner in a 1983 [television movie/TV] version of "I Want to Live!".

Jazz/pop singer Nellie McKay has an hour-long touring production entitled I Want To Live! that tells the story through standards, original tunes, and dramatic interludes.


  • 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.
  • Walker, Bill - The Case of Barbara Graham, Ballantine Books, New York, 1961.
  • Cairns, Kathleen A. - Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America, University of Nebraska Press, 2013.


  1. ^ a b O'Shea, Kathleen A. (1999). Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900-1998. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 70. ISBN 0-275-95952-X. 
  2. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (M. Evans). Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present. 1973. p. 224. ISBN 0-87131-113-5. 
  3. ^ California Death Index, Name: Mable Monohan, Birth Date: 01-02-1889, Mother's Maiden: Duree, Sex: Female, Birth Place: Idaho, Death Place: Los Angeles (19), Death Date: 03-11-1953, Age: 64 yrs.
  4. ^ Gillespie, L. Kay (1997). Dancehall Ladies: The Crimes and Executions of America's Condemned Women. University Press of America. p. 77. ISBN 0-7618-0675-X. 
  5. ^ Gillespie, L. Kay (1997). Dancehall Ladies: The Crimes and Executions of America's Condemned Women. University Press of America. p. 78. ISBN 0-7618-0675-X. 
  6. ^ Stout, Martha (2006). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. Random House, Inc. p. 97. ISBN 0-7679-1582-8. 
  7. ^ a b Harnisch, Larry, 2008 - Blake, Gene 1958
  8. ^ Gilmore, John, L.A. Despair: A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times (2005), Amok Books, pp. 279–280. ISBN 1-878923-16-1.
  9. ^ Cairns, Kathleen A., Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America. (2013), University of Nebraska Press/Landon and London, p. 10, ISBN 978-0-8032-3009-5.
  10. ^ a b Brian, Denis, Murderers Die (1986), St. Martin's Press, p. 184. ISBN 0-312-90465-7.

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