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Proof of Guilt

Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America

Kathleen A. Cairns

Publication Year: 2013

Barbara Graham might have been a diabolical dame in a hard-boiled detective story—beautiful, sexy, and deadly. Charged alongside two male friends in the murder of an elderly widow during a botched robbery attempt, “Bloody Babs” became the third woman executed in California—after a 1953 trial that played out before standing-room-only crowds captured the imaginations of journalists, filmmakers, and death penalty opponents. Why, Kathleen A. Cairns asks, of all the capital cases in the twentieth century, did Graham’s have such political resonance and staying power?

Leaving aside the question of guilt or innocence—debated to this day—Cairns examines how Graham’s case became a touchstone in the ongoing debate over capital punishment. While prosecutors positioned the accused woman as a femme fatale, the media came to offer a counternarrative for Graham’s life highlighting her abusive and lonely beginnings. Cairns shows how Graham’s case became crucial to the abolitionists of the time, who used instances of questionable guilt to raise awareness of the arbitrary and capricious nature of death penalty prosecutions. Critical in keeping capital punishment in the forefront of public consciousness until abolitionists homed in on a winning strategy, Graham's case illustrates the power of individual stories to shape wider perceptions and ultimately public policies.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5


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pp. v-7


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pp. vii-9

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Author's Note

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pp. ix-xi

Very few people profess neutrality when it comes to the death penalty, and I am no exception. During my working life I’ve been on both sides of the issue. As a young newspaper reporter in the post-Watergate era, I was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, believing it to be a barbaric relic of a medieval past...

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pp. xiii-xxi

Her given name was Barbara Elaine Ford, but her friends called her Bonnie right up to the end, when she walked into the gas chamber at San Quentin. It was 11:31 a.m. on June 3, 1955. By then the world knew her by another name: Barbara Graham. It knew that she was the third woman executed by the State of California...

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1. A Murder in Burbank

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pp. 1-16

Mable Monahan lived in a residential neighborhood of immaculately landscaped yards and spacious homes in Burbank, California, about a dozen miles north of Los Angeles. Her tidy white stucco house straddled the corner of West Parkside Avenue and Orchard Street. A sturdy row of decorative hedges hugged the house on...

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2. A Life on the Lam

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pp. 17-32

If any life could be squeezed into a one-dimensional archetype of the bad and beautiful female, it was that of Barbara Graham. She had been on the wrong side of the law since her early teens, using her good looks, shapely figure, and street smarts to survive. She spent nearly two years in a reform school...

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3. A Femme Fatale on Trial

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pp. 33-48

By the time San Francisco Chronicle readers scanned these words on September 20, 1953, jurors four hundred miles away in Los Angeles were only days from determining the fates of Barbara Graham, Emmett Perkins, and John Santo. Readers might have been excused if they failed to immediately recall Perkins...

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4. Crime Doesn’t Pay

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pp. 49-66

On November 16, 1953, author Stuart Palmer penned a letter to Richard McGee, director of the California Department of Corrections, asking for permission “to do, if possible a story or series of stories on the [Mable] Monahan murder case, concentrating on Barbara Graham. The aim of the articles is to emphasize...

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5. An Execution in California

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pp. 67-85

Edward S. Montgomery “covered everything from doll shows to executions” in his forty-year career as a newspaper reporter. He reveled in his job and in the power it gave him to shape public opinion and to hold public officials’ feet to the fire. Originally from Colorado, he began his career in Reno...

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6. Executing Women in America

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pp. 87-102

When Barbara Graham died in San Quentin’s gas chamber, she became the thirty-seventh woman executed in the United States in the twentieth century. Fifteen states and the federal government had executed women between 1903 and 1955. New York held the distinction of having sent the largest number...

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7. I Want to Live! [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 103-123

In the Fall of 1957 Hollywood producer Walter Wanger invited director Robert Wise to lunch at the famed Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles to discuss making a movie about Barbara Graham. The lunch capped off a year that began when Ed Montgomery wrote to Wanger, asking if he might be interested in the Graham story...

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8. Due Process

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pp. 125-142

On March 21, 1960, the California State Assembly’s criminal procedures subcommittee convened a virtually unprecedented hearing. The nine lawmakers on the panel had only one item on their agenda: potential prosecutorial malfeasance in the trial of Barbara Graham. Specifically, they aimed to study prosecution witness John True’s...

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9. Abolishing the Death Penalty

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pp. 143-159

In September 1962 Edmund G. Brown and Richard M. Nixon were in the midst of a hard-fought gubernatorial campaign in California. Nixon hoped to revive his political fortunes following a narrow loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and Brown was fighting for a second term. Polls showed the two men locked...

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10. The Ultimate Penalty

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pp. 161-172

Cynthia Coffman was living in Barstow, California, when she met James Marlow. It was May 1986, and her boyfriend was doing time for drug possession. Marlow, just released from the same jail, stopped by Coffman’s apartment to inform her that the boyfriend had been moved to another facility. Within days...


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pp. 173-197

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 199-204

E-ISBN-13: 9780803245693
E-ISBN-10: 0803245696
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803230095

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 10 illustrations
Publication Year: 2013