Image: Bloody Babs Says Goodbye to Tommy April 21, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Barbara Graham was executed by the State of California, June 3 1955, in the gas chamber at St Quentin: she had been found guilty of the murder of one Mabel Monahan, an elderly lady. There are some questions about her guilt. Perhaps we can lay this to rest, immediately, by noting that whether BG actually killed Mabel or not she certainly shared moral responsibility for the murder, as she’d broken into the house with a gang of hardened criminals in search of the old woman’s savings. Graham had, in fact, spent much of her life with criminals of one stripe or another. She had been in reformatory as a teenager, had been a prostitute, had gone to prison for perjury and had that depressing knack for finding bad men, which ruin so many essentially good women. She then blew any chance of mercy after the murder by (i) refusing to plead guilty and then (ii) getting herself recorded in prison, awaiting trial, arranging a false alibi for the night of poor Mabel Monahan’s murder. However, there was something else about Graham that caught the imagination: she was intelligent in a sharp tongued way (this comes through in her letters) and had a gift for the bon mot. When she was told by a well meaning official, thinking of an easy death, to not breathe until the gas reached her and then to breathe in deeply she snapped: ‘How the hell you would know!’ When asked in what way she would face death she noted: ‘In a situation like this, you don’t moan, you don’t beg, you don’t plead; you try to be a woman.’ She claimed in prison that she was ‘paying for a life of little sins’ (a nice epithet for many crooks), and when asked for her last words she stated simply that ‘good people are always so sure that they are right’: something that judges might usefully meditate on before passing sentence. When Hollywood came to film her life in 1958 (I Want to Live) the film-makers wisely didn’t waste too much time protesting her innocence, but rather concentrated on the hard luck story of her childhood and her undeniable élan in the face of a sometimes hostile world. The full story of Bloody Bab’s crime can be found in detail on Wikipedia (a good if partisan page in the spring of 2014) and on that always excellent site Executed Today. This post is really, though, to show the extraordinary photograph of Barbara saying goodbye to her twenty month old son Tommy on the day of the execution (note some sources give two years). ‘I am innocent of this crime, I swear to God I am innocent. I hope my baby drops dead if I did it,’ she said. She then wept while Tommy was taken away: Tommy’s father, meanwhile, said that he would tell Tommy that his mother had moved to another state, what else can you tell a two year old? I don’t know of any more vivid image from the American experience of capital punishment. Note that this picture and some of the information given here was taken from Gillespie’s fine Executed Women (2009, the most sensitive books on the death penalty that Beach knows).