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Caryl Chessman was what they used to call “a nasty piece of work.” Born in 1921, by the time he was 20 he had spent time in three reform schools and three prisons, including San Quentin, Chino and Folsom. He stole his first car at 16 and by the time he was caught, for the umpteenth time, in 1947, he had robbed liquor stores, burgled homes, stolen cars and, finally, led police on a bullet-riddled 10 mile high speed car chase through Los Angeles. When he was stopped, he ran from the car into the neighborhood, chased on foot by the cops until he was tripped up and handcuffed. 

Or, as Chessman himself put it, “I am not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow.”

He would have been just another petty criminal with a lifetime of serial prison terms but for a series of sensational crimes, which ended in that car chase and capture. 

In late 1947 and early 1948, there were a series of robberies in Los Angeles in which a man in a gray Ford coupe with a red police light would flag down drivers, point a gun in their face and rob them of what cash they had. He became known in the papers as the “Red Light Bandit.” A special police task force was created to track him down. 

On Jan. 19, the red light bandit stopped a car with a couple in it, robbed the man and then dragged the woman out of the car and forced her to perform fellatio on him. Three days later, he stopped a man and the man’s 17-year-old neighbor, robbed him and took the girl into his car, drove several miles, stopped and attempted to rape her. Failing in that, attempted anal rape, and failing in that, forced her to perform oral sex on him. He then drove her to her neighborhood and left her on the side of the road. 

The next day, police spotted the Ford coupe, implicated in the crimes, and gave chase, gunfire and all. And when they caught Chessman (and his accomplice, who was later convicted of several of the robberies he had pulled off with Chessman), the young rape victim identified Chessman as her assailant. Later, the first victim also identified him. Evidence was found in the coupe, including a red ribbon the young girl had lost in the attack. 

A three-day trial ended with Chessman convicted of 17 counts of robbery, rape, attempted rape and kidnapping. Chessman had chosen to act as his own attorney. The judge tried his best to dissuade him, but Chessman persisted, and defended himself incompetently. 

The problem that brought Chessman to national and international attention was that he was convicted, in part, under a 1933 California law, called a “baby Lindbergh law,” which offered the death penalty in cases where kidnapping was accompanied by another crime and led to “bodily harm.” Chessman’s crime ticked all the boxes. No one had been killed, though, and for many, including California’s governor Pat Brown, the death penalty in such cases was too extreme. Brown was a vocal opponent of the death penalty. 

Chessman, protesting his innocence and claiming to know who the “real” red light bandit was, filed appeal on appeal, getting nowhere. Various judges and judicial panels put stays on the execution order and Chessman was on the edge of his death eight times, always getting a last-minute stay of execution. This went on for nearly 12 years, becoming an international cause célèbre, and a rallying point for the anti-death-penalty movement. 

“A cat, I am told, has nine lives,” wrote Chessman. “If that is true, I know how a cat feels.”

He wrote three books while on death row. As he put it in one of them, The Face of Justice, “I won the dubious distinction of having existed longer under death sentence than any other condemned man in the nation’s then 179-year history. Day after day, I would go on breaking my own record.”

Chessman’s case was covered widely in the news, especially in the last year. He was featured on the covers of Time magazine and Germany’s Der Spiegel. Rallies were held worldwide. Folk singers wrote ballads. 

I was in seventh grade at the time, and remember quite well how much Chessman was in the news. It was the first time I was ever fully thoughtful about the death penalty. 

In the years Chessman waited for his date with the gas chamber, the baby Lindbergh law was repealed, although not retroactively. The anti-death penalty movement gained traction, and Gov. Brown found himself unable to commute Chessman’s sentence because California law required that the state supreme court concur to the commutation, which they refused to do. 

And so, on May 2, 1960, Chessman was led to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. 

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“I guess I’ll just have to practice holding my breath.”

— Caryl Chessman

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It is called “capital punishment,” because “capital” (“of the head,” derived via the Latin capitalis from caput, “head”) refers to execution by beheading, one of the older, and historically quite popular, forms of criminal execution. 

The gas chamber was originally considered an improvement on earlier methods, and thought less cruel than hanging, electrocution, beheading or being shot by a firing squad. Just how “painless” death by cyanide gas is is up for discussion. At best, it is not a pretty sight. 

The death of Caryl Chessman in San Quentin’s gas chamber on May 2, 1960, was described by several reporters. He was brought to the large metal capsule with two chairs, side by side. He was placed in one and straps attached to his arms, legs and torso. A doctor attaches a long stethoscope tube to the condemned’s chest. 

Chessman; San Quentin gas chamber; wax exhibit of Chessman at Mme. Tussaud’s

One reporter wrote, “The doctor of the prison walks up and utters the victim’s full name — you know, like “Richard Allen McVictim” — the full legal name you only hear when you are in trouble.”

“After they strap the soon-deceased into the metal chair, one of the guards, usually at 10:02 a.m. is wont to tell the victim something like, ‘Take a deep breath as soon as you smell the gas — it will make it easier for you (“how the fuck would you know” is what Barbara Graham is legended to have replied) [when she was executed in 1955].”

Continuing from another reporter, “The execution squad left the chamber and quickly closed and sealed the big airtight door. At 10:03 a.m., Warden Dickson nodded to Max Brice, the state executioner, a tall man in a dark business suit, who stood next to him. Brice moved a lever and a dozen egg-shaped Dupont cyanide pellets in a cheesecloth bag were lowered into a vat of sulphuric acid under the death chair. Almost instantly, deadly invisible fumes began to rise in the chamber. Chessman took a deep breath and held it, warding off unconsciousness for as long as possible. But the fumes must have reached him very quickly because witnesses saw his nose twitch, then he expelled the breath he was holding and breathed in. He looked over at Eleanor Black once again and smiled a sad, half-smile just before his head fell forward. Seconds later, foamy saliva began to drool from his open mouth.”

Further on, “In the chamber, Caryl Chessman’s body began to react to the death that was seizing it. He vomited up part of his breakfast; his bladder and bowels emptied inside his clothes. Then his heart stopped beating. At 10:12 the physician listening through the stethoscope advised Warden Dickson that Chessman was dead. Dickson turned to one of the execution squad officers. ‘Start the blowers.’ The officer threw a switch and a fan high above the chamber began to suck out the fumes and the stench.”

Public hanging; Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, 1929; Weegee photo of gas chamber execution

Finally, from another account, “Reporters one has interviewed who have witnessed executions say that there are screams, coughing, hacking, wild facial grimaces and drool. The murdered human loses control over his system, drooling…  The body slumps. After 8 to 10 minutes, the heart stops. The gas is sucked out of the chamber, the puke and defecation is hosed from the metal, the body is hauled away.”

Death by cyanide gas was first introduced in 1924 with the execution of Tong gang murderer Gee Jon in Carson City, Nev. The state supreme court ruled that gas was not “cruel and unusual punishment, but should be considered as “inflicting the death penalty in the most humane manner known to modern science.”

The desire to kill offenders humanely drove justice systems and penologists from the late 1700s onward. The most famous of “humane” methods was proposed by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin to the French National Assembly in 1789 in the form of decapitation “by means of a simple mechanism.” Although that mechanism had been around in various forms for centuries, it took on Guillotin’s name: a tall wooden frame holding a heavy angled blade that would drop from a height and sever head from body more cleanly and with less fuss than the older, more traditional sword or ax decapitations, which were sometimes rather gruesome and could take several whacks to get it right. 

Last public execution by guillotine in France, 1939

The guillotine — aka the “National Razor” — was last used in France for public execution in 1939, and last used at all in 1977 and outlawed in 1981. In use in the 20th century, the process could be quite efficient, as seen in a moment of Gilles Pontecorvo’s 1966 hyper-realistic film, The Battle of Algiers. A prisoner is marched to an inner courtyard of the prison where he is strapped to a vertical board which pivots down under the blade, which falls and severs the head — a process that took all of two or three seconds from start to finish. No ritual, no ceremony. If you are thinking of scenes of Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette on the scaffold making noble speeches, forget it. Pivot, slice, bounce. Quick as that. The headless body is then rolled over onto a gurney and with the head thrown in, wheeled away. 

Each new version of “humane” execution has been followed by another attempt as the previous became recognized as barbaric. And so, in the U.S., the gas chamber and electrocution, followed by lethal injection and most recently, by nitrogen asphyxiation. 

The barbarity of earlier methods is to modern moralities appalling.  Before the Age of Enlightenment and before jails and prisons became widespread in the 19th century, the primary punishments were public humiliation (such as the stocks), fines, torture, and death. These were pretty much the gamut. Death was meted out for even petty crimes. 

In Medieval England, you could be executed for: theft; cattle rustling; blasphemy; sodomy; incest; adultery; fraud; insult to the king; failure to pay taxes; extortion; kidnapping; being Roman Catholic (at one point); being Protestant (at another point) — and the list goes on. It is estimated that some 72,000 people were executed under the reign of Henry VIII alone. 

As late as 1820, in the British era of the so-called “Bloody Laws,” you could be executed for shoplifting, insurance fraud, or cutting down a cherry tree in an orchard. 

And we haven’t even mentioned the sin of being the wrong ethnicity. Millions upon millions have been murdered under official sanction for that, not only in Nazi Germany, but in the Ottoman Empire, in China, or Burma, or Rwanda. Genocide is a new word, but for an ancient practice. 

And historically, the methods could be grizzly. Torture on the wheel, for one, where you would be tied to a wheel, perhaps held up in the air, to die over a period of days from hunger and thirst, or from the broken bones and ruptured organs caused by the process. 

There was the gibbet, where the condemned was hung in a cage in public, again to die of hunger and thirst over days exposed to the elements.

One of the oldest methods was stoning, popular in the Old Testament and in modern fundamentalist Islam. It is a punishment still in use in some Islamic countries. 

 

As is beheading, the official execution method of Saudi Arabia. 

Other methods used in the past include: burning at the stake; boiling in oil or water; crushing by an elephant; fed to the lions or other animals; trampling by horses; being buried alive; crucifixion; disembowelment; dismemberment (as in being drawn and quartered); drowning; being pushed off a cliff; being flayed alive; garrotting; being walled up (immurement); being crushed under weights; impalement; having molten metal poured down the gullet; being tied in sack with wild animals and thrown into a river; poisoning; methodically slicing off body pieces until death; suffocation in ash. 

And there’s always tying the condemned to the mouth of a cannon and firing it, blowing the victim to pieces. And to prevent the spilling of blood, ancient Mongolians would execute prisoners by breaking their backs.  Then, there’s the Brazen Bull, a hollow bronze effigy of a bull wherein the condemned was encased and cooked inside as a fire was burned underneath. The Soviet method was to simply shoot the prisoner quickly in the back of the head, often without warning. And the Viking “Blood Eagle,” in which the condemned was put face down and his ribs cut from his backbone on both sides, spread open and the lungs pulled out and laid out as “wings.” 

The methods seemed to elicit the most sadistic tendencies of the human race. Death by torture was common. 

Western cultures have slowly weaned themselves of capital punishment over the past two centuries, albeit in fits and starts. It is uncommon in the developed world, but still practiced in much of the rest of the world. The U.S. remains largely squirmy at the idea, but, state-by-state, has either outlawed the death penalty or reveled in it (I’m looking at you, Texas). 

The arguments for and against continue to be made. Is it retribution; is it meant to discourage crime; or is it a hygienic process to eliminate unwanted criminal elements from society? With so many convictions being overturned by newer evidence, especially DNA evidence, can it still be justified? 

As Moses Maimonides said in the 12th century, “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”

San Quentin lethal injection room 

Currently, there are just under 2,500 inmates in the U.S. waiting execution. The average time between sentencing and execution is now 20 years, far exceeding Chessman’s 11 years and 10 months. Forty-two percent are White; 42 percent are Black; 14 percent are Hispanic. Just under 98 percent are male and more than two-thirds have not got even a high-school education. Since 1972, 1.6 percent have been formally exonerated and released. 

“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.”