In July 1948, Caryl Chessman, also known as "The Red Light Bandit," was sentenced to die in the California gas chamber after being convicted on 17 charges of robbery, kidnapping and rape. Chessman's residence on death row was somewhat anomalous in that his crimes did not involve the taking of a life. However, the fact that he was convicted of kidnapping with bodily harm enabled the state of California to charge him with the violation of the Federal Kidnapping Act (sometimes referred to as the Little Lindbergh Law), which was regarded as a capital offense.
Singer Merle Haggard, serving a 15 year sentence for armed robbery, was a fellow San Quentin resident at the time of Chessman's execution in 1960. After running afoul of prison authorities for his role in a home brewing operation, Haggard was sentenced to a week in solitary confinement and during his time in isolation, he managed to have several conversations with Chessman via an air vent. Haggard later recalled, "I finally grew up in those seven terrible days. I knew that if I didn't make some drastic changes in my life, I would end up where Chessman was - most likely without his recognition."
Sing Me Back Home, Haggard's moving 1967 tale of a convict's final request for some music before being put to death, was partially inspired by his acquaintance with Chessman.
During his time on death row, Chessman managed to author four books, the first of which, Cell 2455 Death Row , released in 1954, was the basis for the following year's film of the same name from director Fred F. Sears, (Rock Around The Clock, Don't Knock The Rock, Calypso Heat Wave, The Werewolf, The Giant Claw, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers).
Reporting on Chessman's execution for the (Los Angeles) Daily Mirror, Don Dwiggins described what he saw in graphic detail:
“At exactly 10:03:25, an unidentified guard tripped a lever that sent cyanide pellets dropping into an acid bucket beneath Chessman's seat. Chessman seemed to tense noticeably, held his breath, and then sucked strongly. For the next 8 and three-quarter minutes, Chessman died.
On inhaling the first breath of the deadly hydrocyanic fumes, Chessman stiffened. His eyes rose upward. He threw his head back and gasped. Then, Chessman focused his eyes on a single electric light bulb overhead and directly in front of him. It was 10:05 -- two minutes after the pellets dropped.
Veins in Chessman's throat swelled full and a thin film of perspiration glistened on his forehead. He gripped the arms of the steel chair with taut fingers. His body slid downward against the chest strap and his head rolled suddenly to the left. Again, Chessman threw his head back. A single tear glistened in the corner of his right eye and the lids slowly closed for the last time.
Chessman's mouth opened and a rasping cough began. Coming at approximately 30-second intervals, the death cough shook his body and left a spasmodic trembling through his shoulder and neck muscles. On the fourth gasp, Chessman's head dropped forward against his chest; the mouth still open. Slowly, Chessman's fingers relaxed their grip on the chair. For long minutes, there was no sound in the steel vault surrounding the lethal chamber, other than the monotonous drone of the exhaust fan sucking the deadly fumes from the chamber.”
As for the records above, they strike a surprisingly sympathetic note, with the first two advocating that Chessman's life be spared. The Ronnie Hawkins song, incidentally, was the flipside of another topical song, a retelling of the story of Floyd Collins, a cave explorer trapped underground in 1925, which was shared on Beware Of The Blog a couple of weeks ago and which can be heard here.
And Hoyle Miller's Twelve Years On Death Row is interesting in that it names Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine and Marlon Brando as some of the most public of Chessman's many supporters.