Barbara Graham

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Barbara Graham
Barbara Graham (murderer).png
Barbara Elaine Ford

(1923-06-26)June 26, 1923
Oakland, California, U.S.
DiedJune 3, 1955(1955-06-03) (aged 31)
Cause of deathExecution by gas chamber
Other namesBloody Babs
Criminal statusDeceased (executed)
Criminal chargeMurder
PenaltyDeath penalty

Barbara Elaine Graham (née Ford; June 26, 1923 – June 3, 1955) was an American criminal convicted of murder. She was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on the same day as two convicted accomplices, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins, all of whom were involved in a robbery that led to the murder of an elderly widow. Nicknamed "Bloody Babs" by the press, Graham was the third woman in California to be executed by gas.[1]

Her story of adult criminal activity is told in the 1958 film I Want to Live!, in which she was portrayed by Susan Hayward, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Early life[edit]

Graham was born Barbara Elaine Ford in Oakland, California to young, unwed mother Hortense Ford, who earned her living through prostitution.[2] On February 23, 1925, Hortense, still unwed, gave birth to a second daughter, Claire Elizabeth. Hortense 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, a son, Joseph Robert Wood, born on March 27, 1930. By the time this son 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 Graham was two, her mother, who was still in her late teens, was sent to reform school. Graham 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, Graham 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 more traditional lifestyle failed.[3]

After this string of failures, Graham is said to have become a worker in the sex trade, as her mother had before her: reportedly, during World War II, she plied her trade as what was known in some circles as a "seagull", or a prostitute who "flocked" in pairs or groups near naval bases.[4] It is supposed that Graham began working near the Oakland Army Base, Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and Alameda Naval Air Station. In 1942, she and other "seagulls" traveled to Long Beach, California and San Diego. She was arrested on vice charges in these naval cities and in San Pedro, California. At 22, with her good looks, red hair, and sex appeal, she worked for a time in San Francisco for a brothel madam named Sally Stanford. She soon became involved in gambling and illegal drug circles, cultivating a number of friends who were ex-convicts and known career criminals. She served a five-year sentence for perjury as a false alibi witness for two petty criminals, and served her sentence at the California Women's State Prison at Tehachapi, California. After her stint in state prison, Graham moved to Reno, Nevada and then Tonopah, Nevada. She obtained work in a hospital and as a waitress, but soon got on a bus for Los Angeles. There, she got a room on Hollywood Boulevard and returned to prostitution. In 1953, she married Henry Graham, who worked as a bartender at one of her frequent haunts. With him she had a third child, named Tommy.

Murder of Mabel Monohan[edit]

Henry Graham was addicted to illegal drugs and known as a hardened criminal. 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,[5] who was alleged to keep a large amount of cash and jewelry in her home in Burbank, California.

On March 9, 1953, Barbara Graham joined Perkins and Santo as well as John True and Baxter Shorter (two of their associates), in robbing Monohan's home in Burbank. Graham reportedly gained entry by asking to use her phone. Once Monohan opened the door for Graham, Perkins, Santo and True burst in, followed later by Shorter. The gang demanded money and jewels from Monohan, but she refused to give them anything. At this point, according to the statement and testimony of John True, Graham began viciously pistol-whipping Monohan, cracking her skull and then suffocating her to death 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 (equivalent to $145,093 in 2020) stashed in a purse in the closet near where they had murdered Monohan.

While this account asserts that there was no doubt about Graham’s guilt, Edward Montgomery of the San Francisco Chronicle, a contemporaneous reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, believed otherwise. See also Kathleen A. Cairns’ book, “Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America” for a full discussion.

Arrest and conviction[edit]

Baxter Shorter was arrested on another charge and gave the police details of the Monohan murder and attempted robbery. However, his statement was leaked and he was kidnapped and murdered by Perkins and Santo.[6] Subsequently, 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.[7] The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs", reflecting the public disgust for her alleged actions.[8] Having no alibi, Graham doomed her own defense when she accepted another inmate's offer to pay $25,000 to the inmate and "a friend" who would provide a false alibi. The inmate, however, was working to reduce her own sentence, and the "friend", who offered to say he was with Graham the night of the murder, was a police officer. Meeting with Graham to plan the alibi story, he insisted that she admit to him that she had indeed been at the scene of the crime. The officer was recording the conversation. This attempt to suborn perjury, plus the recorded admission that she indeed had been at the scene of the widow Monohan's senselessly violent murder, abutted by her previous perjury conviction, completely 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?"[9] Graham was convicted, the informant was immediately released from jail, and her (informant's) 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 at the California Institution for Women in Chino, California. Her appeals failed, and on June 2, 1955 she was transferred to San Quentin State Prison. On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 am, but that was stayed by California governor Goodwin J. Knight until 10:45 am. At 10:43 am, Knight stayed the execution until 11:30 am; Graham protested, "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at ten o'clock."[10] At 11:28 am she was led from her cell and strapped in the gas chamber; she requested a blindfold so she would not have to look at the observers. Her last words were, "Good people are always so sure they're right."[11] Advised that taking a deep breath after the cyanide pellets were dropped would make her death easier, she replied "How the hell would you know, you silly rascal?"[12][13][14]

She was 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 that Graham was innocent. [15] 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."[15] 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 titled The Case of Barbara Graham. However, while the movie may have been fictionalized, there is still some doubt about Graham’s guilt and the manner in which it was ‘proved’.[16]

Graham was portrayed by actress Lindsay Wagner in a 1983 TV movie of I Want to Live!

The jazz/pop singer Nellie McKay had a touring production titled I Want To Live! that tells the story through standards, original tunes, and dramatic interludes.


  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. ^ Bovsun, Mara (May 8, 2010). "Mother from hell, Hortense Wood, led to rise of Barbara 'Bloody Babs' Graham". New York Daily News. Retrieved July 9, 2016.
  3. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (1973). Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present. M. Evans. p. 224. ISBN 0-87131-113-5.
  4. ^ Cairns 2013, p. 24.
  5. ^ California Death Index, Name: Mabel 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.
  6. ^ Renner, Joan (June 4, 2013). "They Did It for Money: The Mob-Style Murder of Burbank Widow Mabel Monahan". Los Angeles Magazine. Retrieved September 13, 2017.
  7. ^ Foster, Teree E. (1997). ""I Want to Live!": Federal Judicial values in Death Penalty Cases: Preservation of Rights or Punctuality of Execution?". Oklahoma City University Law Review. 22 (1). Archived from the original on 2007-02-13.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  8. ^ Cairns 2013, p. 106.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Stout, Martha (2006). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. Random House, Inc. pp. 97. ISBN 0-7679-1582-8.
  12. ^ Sifakis 2014, p. 88.
  13. ^ Los Angeles Times; March 28, 1990 COLUMN ONE : Last Steps, Last Words on the Row : California has put 501 men and women to death since the state took charge of executions. Not all of them went quietly.  (Retrieved January 3, 2016)
  14. ^ Murder in California: The Topography of Evil: Notorious California Murder Sites by Marques Vickers; page 146  Retrieved January 3, 2016
  15. ^ a b Harnisch, Larry (28 November 2008). "Barbara Graham case revisited, November 28, 1958". Los Angeles Times.
  16. ^ Cairns 2013.


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