The case of

Mabel Monohan

Victim

Mabel Monohan

Victim Race

Caucasian

Victim Date of Birth

1923-06-26

Victim Age
Date Reported
Date of Death

1953-03-09

Case Status
Incident Location

Burbank, California

Body Location

Burbank, California

Date of Conviction

1953-05-04

Body Discovered Date
Murderer

Barbara Graham

Who is Barbara Graham?

Barbara Elaine Ford was born on June 26th 1923 in Oakland, California to a young unwed woman, Hortense Ford from Santa Cruz. Her mother earned a living through prostitution, and on February 23rd 1925 gave birth to a second daughter called Claire Elizabeth. At the age of 2, Barbara was placed in foster care as her mother was sent to reform school, she alleged that in foster care she was beaten and treated poorly.

Upon release from reform school, Hortense refused to allow Barbara to stay with her and ultimately this led to her being raised by extended family and neighbours. Although she was intelligent, she had very little education. As a teenager she was arrested for vagrancy and served time at the same reform school as her mother.

After leaving reform school, she got married and had two children but, the marriage was not successful. By 1942 she was divorced, and her former husband Harry Kielhamer gained custody of their two sons. She was married two more times over the years but each marriage failed.

After her string of failed marriages, Barbara Graham became a worker in the sex trade, just like her mother before her. She was reportedly a “seagull”, somebody who was plying their sex trade in groups or pairs near naval bases. In 1942 she travelled to long beach, California and San Diego and was arrested on vice charges. She worked in a San Francisco brothel and soon became involved in gambling and illegal drug circles, becoming friends with a number of ex-convicts and known career criminals.

She served a five year sentence for perjury, as she provided a false alibi for two petty criminals. She served her five year sentence at the California Women’s State Prison. Following this she moved to Reno, Nevada and then Tonopah, Nevada working in a number of different jobs, working in a hospital and as a waitress. Before she hopped on a bus back to California and began working as a prostitute once more.

In 1953 she met Henry Graham, a bartender at one of her frequented establishments, with whom she had a third child called Tommy. Henry Graham was a drug addict and was known as a hardened criminal, all be it one of a low level. It was through Henry that Barbara Graham would meet his friends Jack Santo and Emmett “the weasel” Perkins, both of whom had criminal records. It was when she began an affair with Perkins that she learned of Mabel Monahan.

Who Was Mabel Monohan?

Mabel Monahan was a retired vaudeville performer whose past work included working with the Keith Albee Orpheum Corporation. Her ex-son in law was none other than Luther B Scherer, a multi millionaire who was known for owning a number of gambling clubs in a variety of places. It was also thought he had ties with a number of crime syndicates. Monohan’s daughter Iris divorced Scherer two years earlier, and was left the Burbank home in her divorce settlement. Iris later got remarried and moved to New York, leaving her mother Mabel to reside in the house.

Mabel and Scherer remained friends despite him and Iris no longer being a couple. This friendship caused numerous rumours and gossip, with one rumour widely circulated amongst criminals that Scherer trusted Mabel so much that he left $100,000 in a safe in the Burbank residence.

Murders

On March 8th, 1953, Barbara Graham had joined Emmitt Perkins, Baxter Shorter, Jack Santo, and John True for dinner in the San Fernando Valley. Shorter later confessed that he did not want Graham to participate in the robbery because she was a ‘dame’, but was convinced to allow her to join by Perkins. It was believed using Graham was the only way Monohan would open her front door for them to gain entry.

On March 9th, 1953, sometime in the evening, they gained entry into Monohan’s Burbank residence. Barbara Graham reportedly knocked on the front door and requested to use the phone as she was having car trouble. Upon opening the door, Perkins, Santo, and True came in behind Barbara Graham, with Shorter following a bit later. Shorter’s version of events claims that when he entered the house, Mabel Monohan was already gagged and bleeding.

The group searched the house, tearing it up in the process, looking for the rumored safe and money, but failed to find anything. According to Shorter and True’s testimony, Barbara Graham then handed a gun to Perkins and told him to knock her out. At this point Shorter claims he threw Perkins to the floor and got True to remove the gag because he had noticed that Mabel was having trouble breathing. True, however, does not mention these events in his testimony, and states that Barbara Graham began to beat Mabel violently. Some reports say that Barbara Graham pistol whipped Mabel before suffocating her with a pillow.

Reports are mixed and variable, it is unsure what or who exactly killed Mabel Monohan, but what is known is that in the chaos of ransacking the house and discovering that it was a bust, they simply did not care what happened to her.

Once the gang left, Santo assumed Monohan to be dead. However, once they had all gone their separate ways, Shorter reportedly called for help from a pay phone, although the address he gave was wrong. So, Monohan was only discovered two days later by her gardener.

Conviction

On March 26th, 1953, police made five arrests and questioned all 5 men in connection with the first-degree murder of Monohan. 3 of these men were known to be associates of, Mickey Cohen, a known LA gangster, as well as another man and Shorter. All were released due to a lack of evidence.

This arrest was enough to scare Shorter, at the mere thought of heading to the gas chamber for his involvement and he volunteered the details of the armed robbery and murder to the police. He was later kidnapped and murdered by Perkins and Santo after his statement was leaked publicly and he had been released from police custody.

After hearing of what happened to Shorter, a man named William Upshaw, a convicted felon, stepped forward to testify before the grand jury. Upshaw testified that he had been present in the car the night before the murder, while they were scoping the place out and coming up with their plan. Subsequently, John True became a witness for the state in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The press soon nicknamed Barbara Graham ‘bloody babs’. She was facing trial for first-degree murder. Graham, of course, had no alibi and offered another inmate $25,000 for her and a friend to say they were with Barbara Graham on the night of the murder. However, this inmate was an informant and the friend a police officer; they recorded the whole conversation in which she admitted she was there. The defendants all faced the death penalty for murder and robbery.

This attempt to illicit perjury plus her previous perjury conviction made Graham seem unreliable to the jury and was convicted of Mabel Monohan’s murder.

Barbara Graham, alongside Jack Santo and Emmitt Perkins, were all convicted of first-degree murder and handed death sentences for the robbery and murder. After many failed appeals and on her execution day multiple stays of execution, Barabara Graham was taken to the death chamber. She was executed in the San Quentin State Prison gas chamber on June 3rd, 1955. Her last words were, “Good people are always so sure they’re right.”

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Baxter shorter?

Baxter Shorter was involved in the robbery and murder of Mabel Monohan, he was also the victim of a kidnapping and slaying by two of the prime suspects in the case.

Was the movie I want to live based on a true story?

The 1958 movie was based on real events. Susan Hayward played Barbara Graham, and the movie features a fictionalized version of events based upon the letters Graham wrote to journalists proclaiming her innocence.

Who was the first woman executed in California?

Evelita Juanita Spinelli was the first woman executed in California in 1941. She was executed 14 years before Barbara Graham.

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