Barbara Graham was born on June 26, 1923 in Oakland, California. After being born, her mother (who was a teenager), was sent to reform school. As a result, Barbara was raised by strangers and never saw her mother.
As a teenager, Barbara was reportedly promiscuous and got arrested on numerous occasions. Eventually, she was sentenced to serve time at the same reform school that her mother had been to. After being released, she got married and started taking classes at a business school. Things seemed to be going well and she even had a child, but in 1941 her husband divorced her. Over the next several years, she was married two more times and had a second child, but each of these attempts at a normal life failed.
After this string of failures, Barbara became a prostitute, working for San Francisco's Sally Stanford. Barbara was soon involved in drugs and gambling and had a number of friends who were ex-convicts and career criminals. In 1953, she married a man named Henry Graham, with whom she had a third child named Tommy.
Henry Graham was not an upstanding citizen, but rather a hardened criminal. Through him, she met his criminal friends Jack Santo and Emmet Perkins. Barbara and Perkins started an affair and he told her about a woman named Mabel Monahan, who supposedly kept large quantities of jewels and cash in her home.
In March of 1953, Barbara joined Perkins and Santo, as well as John True and Baxter Shorter (two of their criminal friends), in robbing the Monahan home. Barbara reportedly asked the elderly widow if she could use the phone and, after the door was opened, the rest of the criminals burst in. After getting inside, the gang demanded the money and the jewels, but the old lady refused to give them anything.
At this point, Barbara reportedly pistol whipped the old woman, cracking her skull, and then suffocated her with a pillow. The robbery ended up being a bust since there were no jewels in the house and the gang left empty handed. Eventually, some of the gang members were arrested and John True agreed to become a state witness in exchange for immunity.
In court, True acted as a witness against Barbara, who continually protested her innocence. The press nicknamed her "Bloody Babs", reflecting the public's disdain for her actions. She reportedly had good chances of getting acquitted, but she slipped up by offering another inmate $25,000 to provide an alibi. The inmate, however, was an undercover policewoman who recorded the conversation. After the tapes were played in court, Barbara was easily convicted.
Barbara, Santo, and Perkins were all sentenced to death for the robbery and murder. Barbara appealed the sentence, while serving time at the California Institute for Women in the city of Corona. Her appeals all failed and she was transferred to San Quentin for death row and eventual execution. On June 3, 1955, she was scheduled to be executed at 10:00 AM, but was stayed until 10:45 AM. At 10:43 AM, it was stayed again until 11:30 AM and a weary Barbara protested, "Why do they torture me? I was ready to go at 10:00."
At 11:28 AM, she was led from her cell to be strapped in the gas chamber. There, she requested a blindfold so she wouldn't have to look at anyone observing. The execution was carried out and her last words were "Good people are always so sure they're right."
Barbara Graham's guilt has been debated and she was the subject of the 1958 film "I Want to Live!", starring Susan Hayward. However, most of the evidence points to her guilt and there has yet to be any conclusive evidence that says otherwise.