Author examines politics of executing women in the U.S.

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

At 11:31 a.m. on June 3, 1955, 31-year-old Barbara Elaine Ford Graham died a horrible, lingering, eight minute long death in San Quentin’s gas chamber for a murder she may not have committed.

Behind the title, “Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America,” are the ideas that truly conclusive evidence can be hard to find, and that studies have proven that many people have been wrongfully convicted, imprisoned, and executed. Barbara’s case is an example of this problem, and the sordid story of her short life leads to a larger consideration of related issues.

“Proof of Guilt” is written in two parts: Barbara’s life, trial, and death, and an analysis of capital punishment, particularly of women, in the U.S. in the latter twentieth century.

In part one, we learn that Barbara Ford grew up in California without a father and with a mother who did not want or care for her. Beginning in her early teens, she frequently got into trouble, and was in and out of foster care and juvenile facilities. As an adult, she led the life of a petty criminal, was in and out of jail, and on and off probation.  She married four times and bore three sons.

In early 1953, Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo learned that 65-year-old widow Mable Monahan of Burbank had in her house a concealed safe containing $100,000.

On March 9, Perkins, Santo, and Barbara forced their way into Monahan’s house and beat her to death.  They ransacked her house but could not find the safe, for it never existed. Because of conflicting confessions, evidence, and testimony, we will never know who actually killed Monahan.

The three were eventually captured, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

Because only two other women in California had been sentenced to death since 1900, and because of Barbara’s sordid past and her sexual appeal, her case caught the public’s attention.

In 1958, Walter Wanger made a widely popular movie of her life titled “I Want to Live!” and Edward S. Montgomery, a San Francisco Examiner reporter, wrote a best selling biography of the same title. 

In part two, Cairns examines the twentieth century history of capital punishment of men and women in the U.S., particularly since about 1950, when attitudes toward our system of justice began to change. She concentrates on women for they seem to receive special treatment and are a small fraction of the total. Since 1977, for instance, more than 1200 men have been executed nationally, and only 12 women.

Cairns raises a lot of questions which she tries to answer. For instance: Should women be exempt from the death penalty simply because they are women? Or, are the laws written to “favor,” for want of a better word, acts that men tend to perform? Why should so many fewer women have been executed? Do women actually commit fewer capital crimes?  Or, are fewer women executed for the same crimes? Why is it that fewer whites, both men and women, are executed on a per-capita basis than people of other colors? Why do states in the Old South, Texas, and California, have higher execution rates than northern states?

Because the poor and the people of color are more often affected by the death penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have often entered cases on their sides, arguing from the Constitutional principles of equal protection under the law and that the death penalty is a cruel and unusual punishment. Sometimes they have won, sometimes not, but the opponents of capital punishment are gradually getting the laws and their practices changed.

Political considerations also come into play. For instance, even though a legislator or governor may be personally against the penalty, he may not say so publicly because he might not be re-elected.

Cairns was against capital punishment in her younger days, but changed her point of view in favor of it; after studying the issue, she turned against it again.

Cairns argues that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.  Michigan, for instance, has not had it since 1846. Other states have abolished it since. In general, these states have had lower murder rates than the states where it was permitted. She cites numerous cases of women who were charged with capital offenses over the course of the twentieth century. They make interesting reading.

“Proof of Guilt” has ten interesting photos; the endnotes contain both citations and comments; and a selected bibliography. It has no index, which is frustrating.

Cairns teaches history at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident and an emeritus senior specialist in music at KSU.

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