The True Story of Caryl
Chessman's breakfast tray was brought to him at
7:00 A. M. Ham and eggs, toast, two small cartons
of milk. Chessman opened one of the milks and drank
it down completely in several large swallows. It
brought immediate relief to the discomfort of a
raging duodenal ulcer that he had been irritating
most of the night with cups of hot coffee to stay
awake. He'd had the ulcer for nearly ten years
-- almost as long as he had been on Death Row.
As soon as his stomach quieted down, he ate
the rest of his breakfast.
Finishing up a few last notes that he was writing longhand
on a yellow legal pad, he put them in addressed envelopes,
sealed them, and gave them to one of the two death watch
guards to be turned over, through the warden's office,
to Rosalie Asher for distribution.
In San Francisco, Rosalie and George Davis were at the
California Supreme Court where the seven justices arrived
at 8:00 A. M. to begin deliberations on a new writ
presented to them in Chessman's behalf. Nobody really
believed that the panel would grant it, but Chessman's
attorneys felt they had to keep trying. Besides, neither
one of them wanted to witness the execution, and this was
a good enough reason not to. By nine o'clock, the
petition was denied by a vote of 4-3. The two attorneys
hurried to the nearby offices of U. S. District Judge
Louis E. Goodman.
In the holding cell area, Chessman was visited once again
by Reverend Eshelman and Father Dingberg. He politely
declined their spiritual comfort, telling them for a final
time what he had been telling them for years: that he was
an agnostic. Several minutes later, Warden Dickson came
in. A small radio on the death watch guard's desk was
tuned to a San Francisco news station. Twice the
broadcaster reported that there was no indication that
the execution of the "notorious rapist-holdup man"
would not finally be carried out.
Associate warden Louis "Red" Nelson, who would one day
succeed Dickson as warden, presently came in to assist
with the execution. It was common knowledge that Nelson,
a straightforward career penologist, had never been
impressed with Chessman and did not like him. The
feeling, on Chessman's part, was mutual. But on this
morning the two men were heard to exchange a few quiet
"You ready to go today, Chessman?" Nelson asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be, Red," Chessman replied.
"How many guys have gone to the chamber since you got here
, anyway?" Nelson asked.
"Ninety-two," Chessman told him. "And one woman."
"That's a lot of people," Nelson commented.
"Lot of people," Chessman agreed.
Nelson walked on away. Chessman opened his second carton
of milk as he felt his stomach begin to churn again. Drink
ing, he looked up at the clock on the death watch wall.
It was 9:25.
In San Rafael, Berni Freeman was making coffee when one of
her daughters, Barbara, drove up to the big, old, roomy,
hillside house that Berni and her husband had recently
bought. Barbara had brought along Berni's granddaughter,
Deborah, who was ten, and one of Deborah's little friends
. Berni and Barbara drank coffee on a 40-foot sundeck
off the living room while the children played. Avoiding
the subject of Chessman, the two women reminisced about
the old days when Berni was struggling to raise her
four girls. Times, they both agreed, had certainly
In San Francisco, Rosalie Asher and George Davis pleaded
with Judge Goodman for time to prepare another federal
appeal. Goodman was disinclined to do so; what would be
the use? Every level of every state and federal court had
already ruled on the matter. As they were discussing it,
Goodman's secretary, Celeste Hickey, came in to advise
the judge that a radio bulletin had just announced that
in Washington, U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O.
Douglas, who had granted Chessman's last federal stay,
had just been interviewed and stated unequivocally that
he would not intervene this time. The news bolstered
Goodman's inclination to do likewise.
At 9:50, Chessman was given a new white shirt to wear, and
the door was opened between the holding cell and the short
hallway to the gas chamber door. When Chessman got his
shirt on, he put a cigarette between his lips and
Reverend Eshelman lighted it for him. The four-man
execution squad, headed by longtime corrections officer
Joe Ferretti, moved into place and the death watch cell
door was unlocked. Warden Dickson gestured for
Chessman to step out of the cell.
"You going to be all right?" Dickson asked him.
Chessman nodded. "Don't worry. I'll be able to hold up
and go through with it." He grinned briefly, nervously;
the fingers holding the cigarette shook. "There's no use
denying fear," he said. "It's how you handle it that
counts." Then he said to everyone present, "I know some
of you will be asked if there were any last-minute
confessions, so I just want to keep the record straight.
I am not the Red Light Bandit. I am not the man. I
won't belabor the point; just let it stand at that."
The doctor stepped up and unbuttoned Chessman's shirt enough
to tape one end of a stethoscope to Chessman's chest; then he
rebuttoned the shirt with several inches of the stethoscope
tubing sticking out. There was a moment then when no one
moved, no one spoke, as if they were all suspended in time.
In Judge Goodman's office, George Davis was pleading for at
least a short stay of execution to allow him and Rosalie
Asher to present the alleged new evidence uncovered by the
Argosy magazine writers who believed they
had learned who the "real" Red Light Bandit was.
"Please, Judge, just let us give you an overview of what
these men have uncovered," Davis begged. "It could save
an innocent man's life!"
"All right," Goodman finally capitulated. "I'll give you
one hour, that's all." He buzzed for Celeste Hickey
again. "Call Warden Dickson at San Quentin," he
instructed. "Tell him to delay the execution for one
hour on my order."
Celeste Hickey hurried out to her desk.
At 10:01, Warden Dickson nodded to Chessman. He
straightened, swallowed, put his shoulders back, and
walked purposefully, without any help from the execution
squad, with no shoes, only socks, along the short carpeted
hall, past associate warden Red Nelson, and stepped over
the threshold through the big riveted door into the gas
chamber. Joe Ferretti, inches behind him, directed him
to the chair on the right.
Chessman paused, looking at three members of the Los
Angeles police department, who were in the front row
beyond the center window as official witnesses. One was
Sgt. Colin Forbes, who had been in charge of the Red Light
Bandit case; another was Officer Don Grant, the man
Chessman accused in court of calling him a "rapist son
of a bitch," and beating him for thirty minutes at the
Hollywood Station where he was being held.
But it was the officer in the middle of the trio who
caught Chessman's attention; he seemed to be staring at
Chessman with a peculiar, cold intensity. Chessman had no
idea why; he had never seen the man before. He had no way
of knowing that it was Officer Andrew Brennan, who was
now the husband of Regina Johnson. Regina's much older
husband, Harry Johnson, had died of cancer two years
after Chessman's trial, and Regina had married Andy
Brennan a year later. The LAPD had decided that he
could represent both the department and his wife at the
Mary Alice Meza had no representative witness, and Mary
Alice herself was in Camarillo state mental hospital,
where she had been for eight years. She was considered to
be a hopeless schizophrenic. Here doctors said she often
had nightmares about the man who had kidnaped and
sexually assaulted her.
Finally the execution squad turned Chessman's back to the
trio of policemen, sat him in the death chair, quickly
strapped him in, and attached the stethoscope tube on his
chest to another, longer one that ran outside the wall of
the chamber. Through a side window, Chessman saw the two
women reporters he had invited, Eleanor Black and Mary
Crawford. To Eleanor he mouthed the words, "Tell Rosalie
I said goodbye. It's all right." Eleanor made a circle
with her thumb and forefinger to signal that she understood
. Chessman glanced around for Bill Linhart, but the
private investigator was not among the witnesses.
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. Outside the chamber, the emergency telephone rang. Associate warden Red Nelson answered it. The caller was Judge Goodman's secretary. In her
nervous haste, she had first dialed a wrong number,
then had to hang up and redial San Quentin. When
she quickly told Nelson the purpose of her call,
he said simply, "It's too late. The execution has
begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and
no way to open the door and rescue the condemned
man without the deadly fumes killing others.
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.
Over in San Francisco, in Judge Goodman's office, Rosalie
Asher was sobbing uncontrollably.