Did the legal system use him as a pawn, or was it the other way around?
Caryl Chessman and a detective named E.M. Goossen appear in the above photo made shortly after Chessman's arrest in January of 1948. Chessman had robbed several victims in the Los Angeles area, two of whom were women that he sexually assaulted. He forced one woman to perform oral sex on him, and did the same to the other in addition to anally raping her. Chessman was convicted under California's Little Lindbergh Law, named after Charles Lindbergh's infamously kidnapped and murdered son. The law specifically covered intrastate acts of abduction in which victims were physically harmed, two conditions that made the crime a potentially capital offense.
The law was intended to prevent deliberate acts of kidnapping and ransom, as had occurred in the Lindbergh case, but Chessman's prosecutors—demonstrating typical prosecutorial zeal—argued that Chessman had abducted one victim by dragging her approximately twenty-two feet, and had abducted the other woman when he placed her in his car, then drove in pursuit of the victim's boyfriend, who had fled the scene in his own vehicle. Chessman was indeed sentenced to death. The Little Lindbergh Law was revised while he was in prison so that it no longer applied to his crimes, but his execution was not stayed.
During his nearly twelve years on death row he authored four bestselling books—Trial by Ordeal, The Face of Justice, The Kid Was a Killer, and Cell 2455: Death Row, the latter of which was made into a 1955 movie. The books, many interviews, and a steady stream of articles fueled public debate about his looming execution. Among those who appealed for clemency were Aldous Huxley, the Rev. Billy Graham, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Frost. Their interest was not wholly about Chessman so much as it was about the issue of the cruelty of the death penalty, which had already been abandoned in other advanced nations.
In the end the campaigning was ineffective, and Chessman was finally gassed in San Quentin Prison. But even dying, he further catalyzed the death penalty debate. The question of whether a capital punishment is cruel and unusual hinges on whether it causes pain. Gas was held by its proponents to be painless. Chessman had been asked by reporters who would be observing his execution to nod his head if he was in pain. As he was gassed, he nodded his head vigorously and kept at it for several minutes. It took him nine minutes to die. That happened today in 1960.
I'll get mine, yours, and everyone else's I can lay my little hands on too.
Set initially at San Quentin Prison, then in the wider environs of Oakland, California, I'll Get Mine follows a do-gooder prison shrink down the rabbit hole of Latino gang culture, where he becomes involved in a murder mystery and takes on the role of potential savior to a beautiful druggie ensnared in Pachuco culture. It was originally published in 1951 as Cure It with Honey, which you see at right.
Thurston Scott was a pseudonym for the team of Jody Scott and George Thurston Leite, and what they put together was racy stuff for the time, with hetero sex achieved, gay sex alluded to, various flavors of drugs inhaled and injected, and some violence. The mix of elements worked well—the novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. The 1952 Popular Library edition at top was illustrated by A. Leslie Ross, and its resemblance to a cover we shared last month puts us in mind of assembling a collection of women leaning against lamp posts and street signs. Stay tuned.
Life and death in the cinema.
Police Lt. Hugh Crowley lies dead in the Fox Westwood Village Theater in Los Angeles after being shot today in 1932. Crowley had gone to the theater after closing time to retrieve box office receipts, but instead surprised two thieves. Crowley reached for his sidearm and fired, and one of the crooks gunned him down. Both men were captured and tried, and Joseph Francis Regan, who had fired the fatal shot and actually been hit in the abdomen by a bullet fired by Crowley, was sentenced to death. Jack Green, who had no prior criminal record, had not fired a shot, and had cooperated in the police investigation, nevertheless also was sentenced to death, probably because he had planned the crime. Regan was hanged at San Quentin State Prison in August 1933. Green came close to the gallows, but received numerous reprieves after public pleas for leniency from his parents, and rulings from higher courts. Eventually his sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Although Green was probably never aware of it, legal authorities often cited his case during the long battle over the constitutionality of the death penalty in California. The idea put forth by the pro-death penalty side around 1960 was that even though Green’s commuted sentence specified “without possibility of parole,” there was no actual reason in California jurisprudence or the state constitution that he could not be released. All that was required was for an appropriate state authority to decide to do it. They felt therefore that anti-death penalty campaigners’ assurances that criminals could be imprisoned for life if such punishment was deemed necessary meant nothing. No matter the language of the original life sentence, any criminal could later be released. Green doubtless would have found all this fascinating, but none of it ever came to affect him. As far as we can tell, he did in fact spend the rest of his life in San Quentin.
William Edward Hickman was one of the smoothest criminals of his time—at least until the end.
This May 1973 issue of the true crime magazine Master Detective delves back more than four decades to examine one of the most infamous murders committed in early twentieth century America. The victim was a 12-year old Los Angeles girl named Marion Parker, and on December 15, 1927, she was abducted from her school by a man who used to work for her father. The man—nineteen-year-old William Edward Hickman—came to the school and told the registrar that the girl’s father had been in an accident that morning and wished to see his daughter. It was not policy to release children to anyone other than their parents, but swayed by Hickman’s measured urgency and apparent sincerity, the registrar released Marion Parker into his custody.
Hickman was after money. Marion Parker’s father, a banker named Perry Parker, had it in abundance. For the next few days Hickman sweated Perry Parker, sending pleading notes written by Marion, as well as other notes demanding a ransom. Hickman signed the latter with various pseudonyms, but one in particular stuck with the press—“The Fox.” Eventually, Parker and Hickman agreed on a ransom of $1,500, to be paid in $20 gold certificates. The first attempt at an exchange failed when Hickman noticed a cop near the meeting place. It’s unclear whether the policeman was part of a trap, but Hickman was taking no chances. He bailed, and set up a second meeting for a few nights later.
When Parker reached the rendezvous point he saw Hickman sitting in a parked car. Parker approached the driver side window and saw that the kidnapper was aiming a gun, and he also saw his daughter in the passenger seat, bundled up to her neck in a blanket. She couldn’t move—that was clear. She didn’t speak. Hickman took the ransom and drove quickly away, stopping just long enough to push Marion Parker out of the car at the end of the block. When Parker reached his daughter and lifted her into his arms he screamed in anguish. Marion was dead, and had been for twelve hours. Hickman had cut off her arms and legs, flayed the skin from her back, disemboweled her, and stuffed her with rags. She had been bundled up to conceal the fact that she had no limbs. Her eyes had been wired open so that she would, upon cursory inspection, appear to be alive.
Hickman had escaped, but he had left behind a clue that would lead to his capture. Among the rags he had stuffed into Marion Parker’s empty abdomen was a shirt with a laundry mark that police were able to trace to an address in Los Angeles. Twenty cops descended on a residence that turned out to be occupied by a man named Donald Evans, who wascooperative but said he knew nothing about Hickman. In truth Evans was Hickman, but by the time police figured that out he had fled to the Pacific Northwest. But he hadn’t run far enough. Wanted posters reached every corner of the west coast within days, and just one week after Hickman’s disappearance two police officers in the town of Echo, Oregon recognized him and arrested him.
At trial, Hickman claimed to be guided by voices—one of the first times, if not the first, that this type of insanity defense was attempted in an American courtroom. But the jury wasn’t buying any of it and they convicted Hickman of murder and kidnapping. The judge sentenced him to be executed at San Quentin State Prison, and he climbed the stairs to the gallows on October 19, 1928. Hickman had once been smooth enough to talk a school official into sending Marion Parker to her doom, and had calmly lied about his identity to twenty cops who had burst into his house. In prison he had corresponded with and impressed author Ayn Rand so much that she decided to base a character on him because he embodied her mythical “Nietzschean Superman” ideal. But at the end, all of Hickman’s considerable aplomb deserted him. Just before the hangman sprang the trapdoor that would cast him into oblivion, he collapsed babbling in fear. His last words were, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1919—Zapata Is Killed
In Mexico, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata is shot dead by government forces in the state of Morelos, after a carefully planned ambush. Following the killing, Zapata's revolutionary movement and his Liberation Army of the South slowly fall apart, but his political influence lasts in Mexico to the present day.
1925—Great Gatsby Is Published
F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is published in New York City by Charles Scribner's Sons. Though Gatsby is Fitzgerald's best known book today, it was not a success upon publication, and at the time of his death in 1940, Fitzgerald was mostly forgotten as a writer and considered himself to be a failure.
1968—Martin Luther King Buried
American clergyman and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., is buried five days after being shot dead on a Memphis, Tennessee motel balcony. April 7th had been declared a national day of mourning by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and King's funeral on the 9th is attended by thousands of supporters, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
1953—Jomo Kenyatta Convicted
In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta is sentenced to seven years in prison by the nation's British rulers for being a member of the Mau Mau Society, an anti-colonial movement. Kenyatta would a decade later become independent Kenya's first prime minister, and still later its first president.
1974—Hank Aaron Becomes Home Run King
Major League Baseball player Hank Aaron hits his 715th career home run, surpassing Babe Ruth's 39-year-old record. The record-breaking homer is hit off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and with that swing Aaron puts an exclamation mark on a twenty-four year journey that had begun with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro League, and would end with his selection to Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame.
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