Barbara Graham
Born Barbara Elaine Ford
(1923-06-26)June 26, 1923
Oakland, California, US
Died June 3, 1955(1955-06-03) (aged 31)
San Quentin Prison in San Quentin, California, US
Other names Bloody Babs
Criminal charge Murder
Criminal penalty Death by gas chamber
Criminal status Deceased (executed)
Children 3
Motive Robbery

Barbara Graham (June 26, 1923 – June 3, 1955) was an American criminal and convicted murderer. She was executed in the gas chamber on the same day as two convicted accomplices, Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. Nicknamed "Bloody Babs" by the press, Graham was the third woman in California to be executed by gas.[1]

Her life story was told in the 1958 film I Want to Live!, in which she was portrayed by Susan Hayward, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Graham.


Early lifeEdit

Graham was born Barbara Elaine Ford in Oakland, California, to young unwed mother Hortense Ford. On February 23, 1925, Hortense Ford gave birth to a second daughter out of wedlock, Claire Elizabeth. Hortense Ford later married a man by the name of Joseph Wood, whose surname was then given to Barbara and Claire. Hortense had a child with Joseph Wood, a son, Joseph Robert Wood, born on March 27, 1930. By the time Joseph Robert was born, however, the father is said to have died. Hortense Ford Wood (1906–1989) was of Portuguese (Azorean) descent on her father's side, the original family name having been Furtado.

When Barbara was two, her mother, who was still in her late teens, was sent to reform school. Barbara was raised by strangers and extended family, and, although intelligent, had a limited education. As a teenager, she was arrested for vagrancy and sentenced to serve time at Ventura State School for Girls, the same reform school where her mother had been.[1]

Released from reform school in 1939, Barbara tried to make a new start for herself. She married Harry Kielhamer (1913–1993), a U.S. Coast Guardsman, in 1940, and enrolled in a business college and soon had her first two children. The marriage was not a success, and by 1942, she was divorced. Harry Kielhamer was awarded custody of their two sons. Over the next several years, she was married twice more, but each of these attempts at a normal life failed.[2]

After this string of failures, Barbara is said to have become a prostitute: during World War II, she was a "seagull", or a prostitute who flocked near a naval base, working near the Oakland Army Base, Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and Alameda Naval Air Station. In 1942, she and other "seagulls" flew down to Long Beach and San Diego. She was arrested on vice charges in these naval cities and in San Pedro. At 22, with her good looks, red hair, and sex appeal, she worked for a time in San Francisco for brothel madam Sally Stanford. She soon became involved in drugs and gambling, and had a number of friends who were ex-convicts and career criminals. She served five years for perjury as an alibi witness for two petty criminals, and served her sentence at the California Women's State Prison at Tehachapi. After her stint in state prison, Barbara moved to Reno, and then Tonopah. She worked in a hospital and as a waitress. Barbara became bored and got on a bus for Los Angeles, where she got a room on Hollywood Boulevard and returned to prostitution. In 1953, she married a bartender, Henry Graham, with whom she had a third child, named Tommy.

Murder of Mabel MonohanEdit

Henry Graham was a hardened criminal and drug addict. Through him, Barbara met his criminal friends Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins. She started an affair with Perkins, who told her about a 64-year-old widow, Mabel Monohan,[3] who was alleged to keep a large amount of cash in her home in Burbank.

In March 1953, Barbara joined Perkins and Santo, as well as John True and Baxter Shorter (two of their associates), in robbing Monohan's home in Burbank. Barbara reportedly gained entry by asking to use her phone. Once Monohan opened the door for Graham, the three men burst in. The gang demanded money and the jewels from Monohan, but she refused to give them anything. At this point, Barbara reportedly pistol-whipped Monohan, cracking her skull. They then suffocated her with a pillow.

The robbery attempt was a futile effort; the gang found nothing of value in the house and left empty-handed. They later learned that they had missed about $15,000 in jewels and valuables stashed in a purse in the closet near where they had murdered Monohan.

Arrest and convictionEdit

Eventually, some of the gang members were arrested and John True agreed to become a state witness in exchange for immunity from prosecution. In court, True testified against Graham, who continually protested her innocence. The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs", reflecting the public disgust for her alleged actions. Graham damaged her own defense when she offered another inmate $25,000 to hire a friend to provide an alibi. The inmate, however, was working in league with an undercover policeman to reduce her own vehicular manslaughter sentence. The officer offered to pose as the "boyfriend" whom Graham was with the night of the murder, if she admitted to him that she was actually at the scene of the crime. The officer recorded the conversation. This attempt to suborn perjury, as well as the confession that she was at the scene, destroyed Graham's credibility in court. When questioned about her actions at the trial, she said, "Oh, have you ever been desperate? Do you know what it means not to know what to do?"[4] Graham was ultimately convicted, while the informant was immediately released from jail and her sentence commuted to time served.

Appeals and executionEdit

Graham, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Graham appealed her sentence while serving time at the California Institution for Women in Chino. Her appeals failed, and she was transferred to the death row at San Quentin State Prison to await execution. On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 am, but that was stayed by California governor Goodwin J. Knight until 10:45 am. At 10:43 am, the execution was stayed by Knight again until 11:30 am, and a weary Graham protested, "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at ten o'clock."[5] At 11:28 am, Graham was led from her cell to be strapped in the gas chamber. There, she requested a blindfold so she would not have to look at the observers. Her last words were, "Good people are always so sure they're right."[6]   On being advised that taking a deep breath after the cyanide pellets were dropped would make it easier, she replied "How the hell would you know?"[7][8][9]

Barbara Graham is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, San Rafael, California.

In popular cultureEdit

Actress Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Academy Award for playing Graham in the movie I Want to Live! (1958), which strongly suggests that Graham was innocent. However, much of the film is fictionalized; in particular, the presentation of the manner in which the police found and arrested Graham. Evidence clearly pointed to her guilt.[10] Reporter Gene Blake, who covered Graham's murder trial for the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, dismissed the movie as "a dramatic and eloquent piece of propaganda for the abolition of the death penalty."[10] Los Angeles Herald-Express reporter Bill Walker also exposed the inaccuracies of the film in his article in the April 1959 issue of Cavalier, "Exposing Hollywood's 'I Want to Live' Hoax", and in a 1961 book, The Case of Barbara Graham.

Kathleen A. Cairns' 2013 account of Graham's life and murder conviction, Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America, takes the viewpoint that Graham was the female dupe of the male victimizers of the murdered Monahan. It finds 1958’s I Want to Live to be a virtually accurate docudrama, with the exception of three minor fictionalizations. The book is highly critical of the many sensationalized popular media treatments of “Bloody Babs.”

Graham was portrayed by actress Lindsay Wagner in a 1983 TV version of I Want to Live!

Jazz/pop singer Nellie McKay had an hour-long touring production entitled I Want To Live! which tells the story through standards, original tunes, and dramatic interludes.


  • Harnisch, Larry – Barbara Graham case revisited, November 28, 1958 – Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2008, Article originally published by Blake, Gene, as BARBARA GRAHAM – FILM AND FACT. Los Angeles Daily Mirror, November 28, 1958
  • Foster, Teree E. – "I Want to Live! Federal Judicial values in Death Penalty Cases: Preservation of Rights or Punctuality of Execution?" Oklahoma City University Law Review, Volume 22, Number 1 (1997) This Article explores the implications of the 1958 film I Want to Live, which deals with the life of Barbara Wood Graham, a woman executed for murder. Dean Foster analyzes the values elevated to primacy by the Burger and Rehnquist Courts' efficiency and expediency in our justice system, comparing those with the preservation of individual liberties that activated the Warren Court. The Article concludes that the federal judiciary must be diligent, especially in capital cases, in fulfillment of its role as an impartial, independent decision-making body.
  • Walker, Bill – The Case of Barbara Graham, Ballantine Books, New York, 1961.
  • Cairns, Kathleen A. – Proof of Guilt: Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America, University of Nebraska Press, 2013.


  1. ^ a b O'Shea, Kathleen A. (1999). Women and the Death Penalty in the United States, 1900–1998. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 70. ISBN 0-275-95952-X. 
  2. ^ Nash, Jay Robert (1973). Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals From the Pilgrims to the Present. M. Evans. p. 224. ISBN 0-87131-113-5. 
  3. ^ California Death Index, Name: Mable Monohan, Birth Date: 01-02-1889, Mother's Maiden: Duree, Sex: Female, Birth Place: Idaho, Death Place: Los Angeles (19), Death Date: 03-11-1953, Age: 64 yrs.
  4. ^ Gillespie, L. Kay (1997). Dancehall Ladies: The Crimes and Executions of America's Condemned Women. University Press of America. p. 77. ISBN 0-7618-0675-X. 
  5. ^ Gillespie, L. Kay (1997). Dancehall Ladies: The Crimes and Executions of America's Condemned Women. University Press of America. p. 78. ISBN 0-7618-0675-X. 
  6. ^ Stout, Martha (2006). The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us. Random House, Inc. p. 97. ISBN 0-7679-1582-8. 
  7. ^ The Encyclopedia of American Prisons by Carl Sifakis page 288;  Retrieved January 3, 2016
  8. ^ Los Angeles Times; March 28, 1990 COLUMN ONE : Last Steps, Last Words on the Row : California has put 501 men and women to death since the state took charge of executions. Not all of them went quietly.  (Retrieved January 3, 2016)
  9. ^ Murder in California: The Topography of Evil: Notorious California Murder Sites by Marques Vickers; page 146  Retrieved January 3, 2016
  10. ^ a b Harnisch, Larry, 2008 – Blake, Gene 1958

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