Last Steps and Last Words
on Death Row
March 28, 1990
SAN QUENTIN, Calif.
If Robert Alton Harris draws his final breath in the gas chamber here April 3, he will be number 502 on the dishonor roll of California's executed.
Some were coldhearted killers too terrified to walk at the end. Others accepted death calmly, like Farrington Graham Hill. A murderer of no particular note, Hill went peacefully to the gas chamber after enjoying his last request -- a Strauss waltz recorded by the hastily awakened San Quentin prison band.
On their last night alive, killers Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins talked about cars, ate fried chicken and a tomato-and-avocado salad, and watched the television show "You Bet Your Life." Wilson De la Roi joked that he needed a roll of Tums to fight off the gas, then listened to his favorite records: "I Want a Pardon for Daddy" and "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You."
Another condemned man polished off an elaborate kosher meal, then asked to try his first ham sandwich. "It's not bad," he said.
But for every killer who seemed to go easy, there was a Leanderess Riley whose death was a reminder that executions can be wrenching, emotional affairs for everyone involved, including the prison officials and witnesses forced to watch. A one-eyed, nearly deaf 33-year-old who weighed less than 100 pounds, Riley had shot and killed an innocent bystander after a Sacramento robbery.
When the guards came for Riley on a winter morning in 1953, "he gripped the bars with both hands and began a long shrieking cry," the Rev. Byron Eshelman wrote in his 1962 book, "Death Row Chaplain." Riley fought as he was taken to the gas chamber and fastened in the seat. He struggled free of the straps once, forcing guards to go back in and tie him down anew. He managed to free his hands again when the lethal gas began to rise. When the gas hit Riley, Eshelman wrote, "he put both hands over his face to hold it away. . . ."
Robert Pierce was another condemned murderer who vowed to go hard. The afternoon before an execution, the prisoners were taken from Death Row on the top floor to a holding cell on the ground floor, behind the gas chamber. "You'll get a real show when they take me downstairs," Pierce promised other Death Row inmates.
When a Roman Catholic priest came to the holding cell to accompany Pierce to the gas chamber, the convict grinned and revealed a gush of blood from his neck. Despite repeat searches, he had concealed a shard of mirror glass, and used it to cut his throat. Pierce scratched and bit trying to fend off the guards, but they pinned his arms and wrapped a prison shirt around his neck. Witnesses watched in horror as Pierce was dragged into the gas chamber, bleeding, weeping and cursing, and strapped into Chair B.
"Lord, I'm innocent," Pierce yelled. "Don't let me go like this, oh, God!" Smith E. Jordan was then brought into the chamber and strapped into Chair A, within arm's reach of his crime partner. They had killed an Oakland cabbie for $7. Jordan sat quiet and composed while Pierce cursed the spectators. Pierce managed to get his bloody right arm free and was working furiously on the left when the gas felled him.
The most famous inmate to die at San Quentin, Caryl Whittier Chessman, eluded the gas chamber through appeals for 12 years, a record until the recent hiatus in executions. He smuggled out four books that became bestsellers, and turned his pleas for mercy -- he was a robber and rapist but he never killed -- into an international cause. He also uttered one of the classic Death Row lines: "I don't mind dying. I just don't like being told when."
Leslie Gireth also left his mark on Death Row lore before dying in the gas chamber, but for another reason. "There never was a gentler, friendlier, more cultured or better-behaved prisoner on Death Row than Leslie Gireth," former Warden Clinton T. Duffy wrote in his 1962 book, 88 Men and 2 Women." Born in Hungary, Gireth became a successful jeweler and a director of the Chamber of Commerce in Glendale. In the summer of 1941 he hired Dorena Hammer, a young college student, to work in his jewelry store.
They began an affair that ended in a San Leandro motel room exactly one year after their first date. Depending on which account is believed, either Dorena told Gireth, a married man with two children, that the affair must end -- or they made a suicide pact. Either way, they ate hamburgers with Cokes and listened to a record of Debussy's "Clair de Lune." When Dorena went to sleep, Gireth shot her.
He drove south and made it to Fresno before calling police. He refused a lawyer, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to die. Gireth arrived at San Quentin, Warden Duffy wrote, with more valuables than most condemned men amass in a lifetime -- platinum and gold jewelry, records, a phonograph, neckties and handkerchiefs. Gireth was cooperative unless asked about Dorena, whom he refused to discuss. When newspapers began reporting that he was finally talking about Dorena, Gireth held a press conference in the warden's office and handed out beautiful, handprinted affidavits swearing he had spoken to no one.
On his last night, Gireth lay on his mattress in the death cell, smoked, and listened to "Clair de Lune." His last meal was a hamburger and Coke -- his and Dorena's favorite treats. The next morning Gireth walked strongly into the chamber, leaving behind a letter for Duffy: "There are times when one can say very little, but these few words I mean in all sincerity: Thank you so much for everything."
The ritual of death at San Quentin changed little over the years. Once brought to the holding cell, the condemned were watched all the time. They were given a last meal of their choosing, within reason.
In the last hour, the prisoner was dressed in blue jeans and a clean white shirt. They were taken barefoot to the gas chamber -- or before 1938, to the robin's-egg-blue double gallows on the top floor of a building that held the prison wood shop. Most of California's executions -- 307 of the 501 conducted since the state took the job from county sheriffs in 1893 -- have been by hanging at San Quentin or at Folsom Prison, east of Sacramento.
Just like in the movies, a phone line was kept open to the governor for any last-minute news of a reprieve. Joseph Francis Regan got four reprieves this way -- but the last, in 1933, didn't count. Duffy, then secretary to Warden James B. (Big Jim) Holohan, was on the open phone to the governor's office in Sacramento. At 10:02, the governor's clemency secretary shouted at the other end, "Clint! Stop the execution." Duffy yelled into a prison phone for the hangman to hold up -- then heard the thud of the gallows trap dropping.
Duffy wrote in 88 Men and 2 Women -- the title referred to the number of executions he oversaw -- that he and the clemency secretary agreed between themselves to tear up the reprieve and never mention what happened, even to the warden. Duffy wrote that it was never revealed until his book was published a decade after he completed 12 years as warden.
Barbara Graham, the most celebrated of the four women to be executed in California, found her brief reprieves upsetting. The subject of a Susan Hayward movie, "I Want to Live," and a later made-for-television movie starring Lindsay Wagner, she was 32 when her time came in 1955. Two stays were phoned in that morning -- including one just as she was walking into the gas chamber. "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at 10 o'clock," Graham complained, distraught. When she finally entered the chamber at 11:30, escorted by two Catholic priests, she wore a blindfold -- the only gas chamber victim who ever asked for one.
Joseph Ferretti, a retired San Quentin deathwatch guard now living in Petaluma, remembers Graham's reaction to the advice given most prisoners as they were strapped into the gas chamber: Take a deep breath when she smelled the gas and it would go easier. "She said, 'How the hell would you know?' What could I say? She was right," Ferretti, 86, said recently.
The first woman to be executed legally in California was Juanita Spinelli, the coldblooded "Duchess" of a Bay Area robbery gang. A grandmother and ex-wrestler, she had a reputation for being able to pin a poker chip with a thrown knife at 15 paces. She was convicted in the murder of a gang member she feared would inform on her. "The coldest, hardest character, male or female, I have ever known," Warden Duffy wrote, "a homely, scrawny, nearsighted, sharp-featured scarecrow. . . . The Duchess was a hag, evil as a witch, horrible to look at, impossible to like, but she was still a woman and I dreaded the thought of ordering her execution."
After being held at the woman's prison in Tehachapi, she was driven to San Quentin two days before her date with the gas chamber. About 30 prisoners signed a petition protesting the execution of a woman and offered to draw straws among themselves to select a replacement. The governor granted her two stays.
But the day after Thanksgiving in 1941, her time came. The Los Angeles Times reported that she wore a short-sleeved green dress and clutched a white handkerchief in her left hand. Photos of her children were tied over her heart. She was being walked into the chamber when the warden noticed that the 100 or so witnesses were not in place. The Duchess stood outside the gas chamber and chatted about the weather as the witnesses filed in. The Times story said her face, minus dentures, looked sunken as the gas began to rise. She coughed, her head dropped forward, then whipped back, streaming her long gray hair over the chair back. "The Duchess coughed again, then blew out her breath with a sound like that a horse sometimes makes with his lips," The Times reported. Five minutes later, a prison official barked: "That's all, boys."
Before the gas chamber, hangings posed a problem for some witnesses. "So many witnesses fainted that we had to station extra guards around to help carry them out," Duffy wrote. But hanging Fridays were big days in the hillside village outside San Quentin. In the 1920s, the village saloons -- Figaro's, LaCante's and the back room of Kinney's grocery -- filled up with spectators after the 10 a.m. executions.
In 1928, hundreds lined up at the prison gates hoping to see William Hickman die. He had kidnaped a 12-year-old Los Angeles girl, collected $15,000 ransom from the girl's father, then sent him the girl's dismembered body. Guards turned down offers as high as $50 from would-be witnesses, and a radio station stood by live to announce the moment of Hickman's death on the gallows.
The most difficult hanging was that of Gordon Stewart Northcott, who with his mother kidnaped and killed young boys after sexually assaulting them. On his last morning, Northcott began screaming and trembling. His hands shook fiercely as they were strapped together. "Will it hurt?" he asked softly. Told that no one had ever complained, he asked for a blindfold so he would not have to see the gallows. He was dragged into the gallows room, pleading with guards, "Please -- don't make me walk so fast." Most condemned climbed the 13 steps to the platform. Northcott had to be hauled up a step at a time, moaning louder at each step. Seconds before the trap was sprung, Northcott screamed, "A prayer -- please, say a prayer for me."
At every hanging he supervised, Warden Holohan was said to mutter angrily, "This has got to be changed." Holohan considered lethal gas more humane and less subject to mishap. For a hanging to work right, the rope had to be stretched for two years to take out its spring. On the day before, the condemned was carefully measured so the hangman could select the proper length of rope. Eaton Metal Products Co. of Colorado promised California officials the gas chamber would be clean and swift. "Our calculations show that this new chamber should snuff out life in about 15 seconds," designer Earl Liston boasted in the late 1930s. Holohan left San Quentin and was elected to the state Senate. In 1937, he sponsored the law that made California the seventh state to use gas.
In March, 1938, a pig from the prison farmyard was strapped into the new $5,000 chamber and sacrificed.
The gas chamber was first used for real on a December morning in 1938 to extinguish Robert Lee Cannon and Albert Kessell, who took part in a Folsom prison riot in which the warden and a guard were killed. Cannon and Kessell spent their last night playing records, singing and shouting to each other in the adjoining death cells behind the gas chamber. Ten minutes before the scheduled time, they smoked a cigar and took a shot of whiskey. Cannon, barefoot with his arms strapped to his sides, walked first into the chamber and was cinched into a seat. Kessell then was brought in by guards and strapped down in the second chair. "Quite a congregation here," Kessell said quietly.
Nearly 40 witnesses looked on. The 1930s was the busiest decade for executions in California, with 107 men put to death, so the execution spectacle was commonplace. But the gas chamber was a curiosity. Kessell avoided looking up at the observers. When the faintly visible plume of death gas began to rise, Cannon looked through the windows and mouthed the words, "Nothing to it." Another phrase was forming on his lips when his face contorted into a look neither smile nor grimace. His eyes rolled and his head dropped.
The law forbade using gas on anyone condemned to hang, so the gallows at San Quentin was used one last time in 1942. Major Raymond Lisemba, alias Rattlesnake James for the method he used to kill, had kept himself alive with appeals for several years. When his date came up, the gallows had to be spruced up and a new holding cell built. Afterward, Warden Duffy told reporters that hanging was thankfully now in the past.
"This was the most terrible experience of my life and I pray to God I shall never have to repeat it," Duffy said. A month later, guards found the old gallows demolished. Duffy knew which inmate was responsible but took no action.
Duffy felt the death penalty was wrong. He said it was applied unfairly to only a fraction of murderers, and said it did not deter many killers. For evidence he offered Alfred Wells.
While serving a burglary term at San Quentin, Wells helped install the new gas chamber. He explained its workings to the other inmates, vowing, "That's the closest I ever want to come to the gas chamber." After he was paroled, Wells got into trouble again. When his family objected to an affair he was having with his half-sister, Violet, he killed his half-brother, the brother's wife and another woman in San Bernardino. Short, deformed, slender and slowed by a limp, Wells took off and became in 1941 the target of the biggest manhunt in Southern California to that time. A posse of more than 1,000 men scoured the desert between San Bernardino and Las Vegas for the man headlines called the notorious "Hunchback Killer."
Wells eluded capture for a month before being apprehended in a hobo camp in Spokane, Wash. He was sent to Death Row, where he knew better than most what awaited. He tried to stab guards, flooded his cell, lit fires and made himself a nuisance by howling the nights away. "Officers and inmates alike hated him," Warden Duffy wrote.
One Mother's Day, the warden's wife, Gladys, gave an inspirational talk over the Gray Network, the prison radio system. She received a letter from Wells and they began a regular correspondence. Wells calmed down and began Bible classes. Just before his death in the gas chamber he installed, Wells wrote Mrs. Duffy a final time. "I have really enjoyed all your fine letters, but there is nothing more you can do for me."
©Los Angeles Times 1990
Not for publication without permission