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Fraternity of Death


Even the women took it like men

     Barbara Graham, the third woman of the four who have been gassed in California, was executed on June 3, 1955. Convicted, along with Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo, of murdering a Los Angeles woman in her home in 1953, she denied her guilt until the very end. It was her execution that most got under the skin of Joe Ferretti.

     "God, she was a beautiful woman," Ferretti remembers. "I was with her all night. We told jokes. What made it real bad was she got two stays right there, that morning. She was just walking into the chamber the first time when the phone rang, and she had to wait some more. Then it happened again. When she finally started in for the third time, she asked for a blindfold. She was the only one who ever did. I don't think she wanted to see anyone in the witness room."

     Ferretti strapped Graham in, patted her knee and said, as he had to the 100 before her, "Now take a deep breath and it won't bother you." "How in the hell would you know?" she retorted. Ferretti backed quickly out of the chamber, pushed the great steel door closed and spun the heavy wheel with its bright red handles, sealing the chamber tight.

     Three hours later, after the chamber had been aired out, Perkins and Santo followed Graham to their deaths. "After I got home, I just felt real down," Ferretti remembers. "Even my wife asked me what the matter was."

     For Byron Eshelman, chaplain at San Quentin for two decades, it is the last execution, seventeen years ago, that is most haunting. The chaplain came to know Aaron Mitchell well, visiting the prisoner many times in his death row cell, where he had been placed in 1963 for shooting a Sacramento police officer. Eshelman came to regard Mitchell as "quiet, intelligent and composed."

     The warden at the time was Lawrence Wilson, an administrator who has never believed in the death penalty. "You never get used to seeing it,' he says. "You get a sort of sinking, sick feeling. After all, there's a guy in front of you, and he struggles to stay alive but his life support system fails him. He expires before your eyes."

     There was much to be done in the week before Mitchell's gassing. The chamber had not been used in four years, and new gaskets needed to be installed. The exhaust fan also had to be replaced since it was hitting against the housing, causing a terrible racket. “That banging sound would have done nothing to provide decorum at the execution," Wilson says.

     Like chaplain Eshelman, Wilson also remembers Aaron Mitchell. "I had become acquainted with him on my twice monthly visits to the row," he said. "He wasn't a demanding guy, just a normal individual." Normal until April 11, 1967, the day before the execution. "After Aaron saw his mother for the last time," Wilson recalls, "he went berserk in the yard; he acted like a crazy man would act." He was dragged. screaming, back to his cell, and the warden was called.

     "I went up and found him lying there, yelling that he was Jesus Christ and knocking his head on the concrete floor and flailing his arms," the fornfer warden remembers sadly. "I had seen him so normal just a short time before, but the scene was very believable."

     The chief psychiatrist, Dr. David Schmidt, was summoned. He arrived to find that Mitchell's condition had not changed. It was then about three in the afternoon, just an hour before Ferretti was to come up the elevator to take the 38-year-old man to the gas chamber's holding cell. Schmidt called Wilson a few minutes later to say be did not think that Mitchell was insane. The law in California forbids the execution of an individual who is insane, because that person must be aware of what is happening to him, and why.

     “When the time came for Mitchell to be taken downstairs, he did not walk the length of the row--which the condemned usually do to say goodbye to the only companions they have had, often for years. Nor did he protest when his body was searched for weapons before he was given a change of clothes. He remained passive even as his wrists were bound with leather straps and he was taken downstairs in the tiny elevator.

     When Eshelman saw him that evening in the holding cell, "he was a stranger I had never met. He stood there naked, his arms outstretched, like a man in a trance." Despite the precautions, Mitchell had cut his left arm with a piece of glass, and it oozed fresh blood. To Eshelman's growing horror, Mitchell wiped the blood with the palm of his right hand and said, "This is the blood of Jesus Christ.”

     Early the next morning; Dr. Schmidt called warden Wilson to reiterate that Mitchell was not crazy, Wilson felt as though he could not overrule his medical staff. The execution could proceed.

      Eshelman arrived at eight to find the condemned man just as he had left him the night before, standing naked in the center of the cell. Mitchell had to be wrestled to the floor so that the harness with the stethescope attached could be fastened around his chest. And then, Eshelman remembers, just two minutes belore Wilson gave the silent signal to begin, Mitchell suddenly "let out a sustained, blood-curdling shriek and fell back convulsively on the mattress."

     In the witness room just beyond the gas chamber, 58 people stood talking quietly among themselves. Nearest to one of the chamber's seven windows was Howard Brodie, an artist/journalist. Like the others, he heard the scream, and it chilled him.


      Brodie couldn't see the two death watch officers drag the barefoot Mitchell across the green rug that was rolled out from the death cell to the chamber. He could not hear Mitchell moaning as he passed warden Wilson, who stood looking at the clock. He could not see chaplain Eshelman trailing helplessly behind. What he did see was the death watch officers strap Mitchell into Chair B, the one on the left as you enter the chamber, the one closest to where Brodie was standing. He saw Ferretti attach the thin rubher tubing to the stethescope so that Dr. McNamara, the chief medical officer, could listen to the condemned's heartbeat from outside the chamber. He watched as Mitchell was left alone in the chamber, and he heard the huge steel door clang shut. Suddenly, Mitchell cried out, "I am Jesus Christ."

     Max Brice performed his duties quickly now. He signaled the chemical operator to open the valves into the chamber. The wells under both chairs filled with a gurgle through openings in the bottom. As soon as the outside vats were empty and sealed, they were filled with water to prevent the acid from backing up into them. Brice then carried out the final test, checking his gauges to make sure the chamber was airtight.


     The executioner took a cotter pin from the bright red handle of the green lever, making sure to restrain it with one hand. If he let go of it, the lever would lurch forward from the weight of the rocker arms, slam against the steel wall of the chamber, and startle the man inside and the witnesses beyond. So he released it slowly, submerging the two cheese-cloth bags of cyanide Into the acid.


     Brice looked down through the slats in the venetian blinds that keep the witnesses and the condemned from seeing the executioners. He saw the faint wisp of smoke rising up through the perforated metal seat of the chair in which Aaron Mitchell was strapped.


     Howard Brodie was on the opposite side of the chamber. He describes what he saw: "As the gas hit him his bead immediately fell to his chest. Then his head came up and be looked directly into the window I was standing next to. For nearly seven minutes, he sat up that way, with his chest heaving, saliva bubbling between his lips. He tucked his thumbs into his fist, and, finally, his head fell again."

     Warden Wilson recalls feeling sick. "It seemed to take ten years. He kept gasping for air."


      It took twelve minutes by the clock for Aaron Mitchell's heart to stop for good. McNamara signaled to Wilson that it was all over. A guard told the witnesses that they could leave.

     Outside, it was a beautiful, warm spring day. Five hundred people had gathered at the prison gates, some to protest, some to approve. Ex-governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown said he was there "to protest this barbarity. It's a terrible thing to snuff out a human life as you would a dog's." Perhaps he recalled a letter he had received from the man whose corpse now sagged against the straps in Chair B while the blowers evacuated the cyanide from the chamber. ''There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us," Mitchell had written. Curiously, as governor, Brown had refused to commute Mitchell's death sentence, leaving the decision to his successor, Governor Ronald Reagan, who in turn delegated the responsibility to his counsel, Edwin Meese.


     George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, was also there to lend his voice. It was Mitchell's color that had drawn Rockwell to San Quentin that morning. His placard read, "GAS - THE ONLY CURE FOR BLACK CRIME.".

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