The True Story of Caryl
by Clark Howard
On the morning of Monday, May 2, 1960, Reverend Byron
Eshelman, 45, a Congregational minister who was the Protestant chaplain at San
Quentin State Prison in California, said good-bye to his wife, Anne, and
left his residence, which was outside the walls of the prison
inside the gated complex of the extended prison compound. A
man of average height, with thick black hair and neatly trimmed
moustache, Eshelman always wore a black or navy blue suit, with
shirt and conservatively striped necktie. He had been a prison
for most of his 18-year religious career, having served at the
detention Center in New York, and then at Alcatraz, prior to
coming to San
Quentin. His father had been a small town Kansas preacher
On this particular morning, as Eshelman walked two blocks
down the pleasant, tree-lined street of the prison residential area, his normally
pleasant expression was more somber than most people had ever
Brow pinched in deep concentration, he felt like a man in a
unable to find a light switch. In less than two hours, a man
to be executed in the prison's gas chamber -- and Byron
him to be innocent. The situation was like an invisible
shroud of anxiety
and dread that cloaked his every thought.
At the end of the street, off to the left, was the prison's
through which visitors were admitted to a long drive flanked
on the left
side by a parking lot overlooking San Pablo Bay, and on the
right by a long
row of prison administration buildings, then terminating at
wall itself. Eshelman paused for several moments to study the
gathered just outside the gate. The road beyond the gate was
parked vehicles, teeming with protestors, crowded with reporter
photographers who had not been among the members of the press
for admission. Many of the demonstrators carried signs express
opposition to the execution:
This is justice?
He didn't kill anyone!
This is legal murder!
Stop the madness!
San Quentin's front gate
Eshelman observed that many of the protestors were very young, some appearing no older than their late teens. Near a lunch truck selling
coffee and doughnuts, he saw a group of reporters interviewing a man he
believed to be television entertainer Steve Allen, an ardent supporter of
the condemned man. A radio broadcast earlier that morning had reported
that Marlon Brando and Shirley MacLaine were also expected to join the
Waving to the gate officers, Eshelman crossed to a sidewalk and proceeded about fifty yards along the drive above the parking lot, went
past the San Quentin lighthouse, and turned left another dozen yards,
across from the officers snack bar and barber shop, to a solid steel door
bearing a sign that ordered: positively no smoking inside. Knocking,
Eshelman was admitted into a room with walls painted the medium green
color of Bermuda grass. It was the Witness Room, where officially designated spectators would be brought to observe the execution. Four
sides of the octagonal gas chamber formed the inner wall of the room, each
with a large, shatter-proof window, sealed air-tight, for clear viewing of
the two metal death chairs inside. The chamber had been manufactured
by Eaton Metal Products in Salt Lake City, Utah. A handrail curved around this side of the chamber, and a sign instructed: keep outside
railing at all times.
The room was empty at the moment, and Eshelman followed the railing to a second, inner steel door and knocked again. After being
identified through a peephole, he was admitted to the private side of the
chamber, the Preparation Room. It was in there that the deadly pound of
cyanide eggs were tied into a gauze bundle to be hung onto a lever under
one of the chairs, where it would eventually be lowered into a vat of
sulfuric acid. The resulting chemical reaction would create colorless
hydrocyanic gas which would rapidly fill the chamber. Inhaling that gas
would paralyze the heart and lungs of anyone who inhaled it.
Eshelman walked through the Preparation Room, past the open door of the gas chamber itself, and continued through a narrow hallway a dozen
feet long into the Holding Room. There, in one of two small cells, just
large enough for a twin mattress on the floor, a seatless toilet in the
corner, and a writing table that folded onto the wall, stood the condemned
man that Byron Eshelman had come to see.
His name was Caryl Chessman. He had been on Death Row for eleven years and ten months -- to the day -- which was longer, at the time,
than anyone in the history of capital punishment in America. He was now
facing death for the ninth time, after eight stays of execution.
Eshelman walked past two death watch officers and stepped up to the bars, where the Catholic chaplain, Father Edward Dingberg, already
was talking to Chessman.
"Good morning, Caryl," Eshelman said. "I guess it's still a good morning."
Chessman shrugged. "No good news, but no bad news." Then he grinned. "But it's a hell of a way to begin a week."
Caryl Chessman (Corbis)
Chessman was six feet tall and weighed 190. His thick black hair had
receded into a prominent widow's peak. With a nose that was hooked, an
upper lip that gave him a permanent sneer, and cold, direct eyes, there
was an aura of threat about him. He stood holding the cell bars like a
convict in a prison movie.
All three men knew that the California Supreme Court had gone into session at eight a.m. in Sacramento. The court was considering a petition
from Chessman for the sixteenth time; it had turned him down fifteen
"How do you feel about your chances?" Eshelman asked quietly.
"Like I'm going to go this time," Chessman replied candidly. "After
all, this is my ninth execution date. Even a cat only has nine lives."
Eshelman felt as if someone had punched him hard in the chest. All he could think was: This is the