SAN QUENTIN, CA — On May 1, 1942, Major Raymond Lisenba – aka Robert “Rattlesnake” James — died in the gallows at San Quentin State Prison. It marked the last time (to date) that California officially executed a prisoner by hanging.
James’ nickname “Rattlesnake” was directly tied to how he ended up inside the noose.
On August 4, 1935, James attempted to kill Mary Busch, his pregnant fourth wife, by binding her to a table, blindfolding her, and placing her foot in a box that contained two live rattlesnakes. The snakes bit Mary repeatedly, but failed to do her in.
James then drowned the suffering woman in a bathtub, and threw her body in a backyard pond. He wanted to make it look like an accident … and he almost got away with it.
The fly in James’ (snake) ointment proved to be his accomplice, Charles Hope. As a professional barber, James regularly cut Hope’s hair in his local shop. There, amid the scissors and tonics, the two hatched a diabolical plot.
James wanted to knock off his knocked-up wife for her $5,000 life insurance policy. He offered Hope $100 in exchange for wrangling up a couple of poisonous snakes. Hope supplied a pair of diamondbacks named Lethal and Lightning. He then casually assisted James as he killed Mary Busch. Hope only drew the line at also burning down the house, which James suggested.At first, authorities ruled Mary’s death an accidental drowning. The insurance company paid out and Hope got his hundred bucks.
Several months thereafter, though, Hope got drunk and shot off his mouth in a bar. He boasted about how he and James had committed “the perfect crime.” Hope then got perfectly arrested.
Under a seemingly two-fisted interrogation, Hope broke and told the cops everything. After the ensuing trials, Hope got life in prison, while Rattlesnake James received California’s final judicially ordered date with the hangman.
Alas, in 1937, California switched to poison gas as its capital punishment method of choice. Still, because James killed Mary prior to that conversion, his condemnation to hang remained firm, even though it took seven years before he finally walked to the San Quentin death house.
As the execution team hadn’t hanged anyone in the previous half-decade, their knot-work skills proved rusty. Rattlesnake James dangled and choked in agony for a horrendous stretch before expiring. San Quentin warden Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty, described the hanging in savage detail:
“The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.”
However barbaric Rattlesnake James’ demise may have been, the world apparently did not lose any sort of humanitarian with his passing.
In fact, James’ torturous slaying of Mary Busch was actually just the last in a series of ice-hearted murders-for-profit in which he remains the only suspect.
In 1932, James took out a $14,000 insurance policy on Winona Wallace, his third wife. The couple then suffered a car wreck in which James emerged unscathed and Wallace barely survived.Medics pulled Wallace from the vehicle and described her as severely drunk, with a massive trauma wound gushing blood behind her left ear. Remarkably, investigators failed to connect the injury to a bloodstained hammer found on the vehicle’s backseat.
While recovering at home several weeks later, Wallace somehow drowned in her bathtub. A coroner later removed bullet fragments from her brain. Regardless, James pocketed his cool 14K.
The following year, James took out an insurance policy on his nephew, Cornelius Wright. When the young sailor came to visit, Wright allegedly borrowed his uncle’s car and managed to drive it off a cliff. Again, James collected on the policy. Later, records determined that James wired his sister to inform her of her son’s death before it actually happened.
These impossibly coincidental crimes came to light during an insurance investigation following Mary Busch’s snakebite ordeal. One agent connected James’ previous payouts to his most recent one and dug deep. Eventually, the insurance company even bugged James’ home and discovered he was having an incestuous affair with his niece.
The agent was piling up all this criminal evidence against Rattlesnake James when Charles Hope bragged about his role in the Mary Busch murder. From there, the law took over and ultimately led to James soiling himself as he gasped his last on the end of a rope. No insurance policy had been taken out that time.
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Main photos: Major Raymond Lisenba, aka Robert “Rattlesnake” James [California Department of Corrections]