SAN QUENTIN, CA — On May 2, 1960, Caryl Chessman, the man convicted for rape, kidnapping, and robbery as Los Angeles’ notorious “Red Light Bandit,” breathed his last in the San Quentin gas chamber.
On eight occasions — eight — over the previous 12 years, Chessman had taken his “dead man’s walk” to the execution room, only to receive a last minute stay and then be escorted back up to his cell.
Even this time, just as Chessman was strapped to the chair, a judge ordered yet another stay. Unfortunately for him, the secretary ordered to call the chamber phone dialed the wrong number.As a result, the cyanide pellet dropped on schedule at 10 A.M. Chessman died choking, drooling, and repeatedly nodding his head – the last gesture being a prearranged signal to journalists on hand that he could feel pain on his way out.
With that, California enacted capital punishment for crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death except, eventually, the man found guilty of them.
Speculation and controversy surrounding the case of Caryl Chessman suggest that this execution is one that the state may have gotten (dead) wrong. Caryl Chessman remains deceased, regardless.
In 1948, Los Angeles police nabbed Chessman, then 28-years-old, for a series of thefts and sexual assaults attributed to “The Red Light Bandit.”
Over the previous year, someone had been preying on couples parked in “Lovers Lane” areas by flashing a red light such as those used by police cars. He reportedly robbed and beat multiple victims, and sexually assaulted at least two women who personally identified Chessman as their attacker.
In all, Chessman went down for 17 incidents associated with “The Red Light Bandit,” despite credible theories that the crimes could have been the work of numerous assailants operating independently of one another.
More severe still, because Chessman forcibly moved some of his targets from one location to another in their cars, he faced kidnapping charges under California’s “Little Lindbergh” law.
This statute, enacted after the 1932 abduction of Charles Lindbergh, Jr., put capital punishment on the table for any case in which a kidnap victim suffered any physical harm whatsoever. The law was repealed in the 1950s, but that could not be applied retroactively, meaning Chessman still faced death row regardless.
Chessman’s trial proved to be, put mildly, problematic. First off, Chessman — who once described himself as “not generally regarded as a pleasant or socially minded fellow” — acted as his own attorney. Then, shortly into the proceedings, the court stenographer died and was replaced by a chronically drunken relative of the prosecutor who made a mess of the records.
The court proceedings ended, seemingly inevitably, with Chessman condemned to die.
For the next 12 years, however, Caryl Chessman wrote prolifically and with great power. In addition to filing appeals and composing declarations of his innocence, Chessman also generated novels, stories, nonfiction books, and multiple articles on both his own circumstances and a variety of other topics.
Four Chessman titles even became best-sellers. Columbia Pictures adapted his first memoir, Cell 2455, Death Row, into a movie of the same name starring William Campbell.
Given his high profile, Chessman’s fight to avoid the gas chamber made him a lightning rod for the debate over capital punishment.
California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown opposed state executions, but he was countered by what Chessman biographer Theodore Hamm describes as “a backlash by the New Right.” However, the split did not strictly adhere to political ideologies. Conservative figurehead William F. Buckley and high-profile Christian minister Billy Graham both came out in favor of Chessman receiving clemency. Regardless, Chessman met his end that May morning.
As he had in the final dozen years of his life, though, Caryl Chessman’s demise continued to spark discussions and inspire creative endeavors.
Numerous books have been written about the case. Ronnie Hawkins scored a 1960 hit with “The Ballad of Caryl Chessman.” The condemned prisoner also turns up in songs by Neil Diamond, Genesis, “Country” Johnny Mathis, and Merle Haggard. In the last case, Haggard credits Chessman’s ordeal with partly inspiring him to change his ways as a young prisoner.
In 1977, Alan Alda portrayed Chessman in the TV movie Kill Me If You Can.
Guilty or not guilty, rightly or wrongly convicted, Caryl Chessman’s spirit and indomitable determination continue to live on, no matter what happened back in that gas chamber.
Main photo: Caryl Chessman [California Department of Corrections]