“Nothing interesting ever happens in Burbank,” my daughter laments.
“Come on!” I counter, “Opie Taylor and Edward Scizzorhands were born here!”
“I mean we’re never in the news unless there’s a mountain lion spotted in Griffith Park or when Huell Howser visited Tally Rand,” she jokes, “It’s so boring here.”
“What?! I used to work in a building held up by dwarves! Movies are made here! People in People Magazine buy groceries at Pavilions!”
Ahh, but I can’t convince either of my children that Burbank is noteworthy or that our neighborhood has secrets worth knowing. Until I recently stumbled upon a story at the Burbank Historical Association. No one I talked to had heard about it. I asked my neighbor who is 93 and has lived here for 60 years. “Did you know a lady was brutally murdered down the street?” I asked. She didn’t believe me!
I obsessively researched our local “Murder House.” I told any one who would listen what I’d learned. I’m not sure if it was disbelief or disinterest, but no one seemed to care as much as I did, but come on! At one time, this story not only gripped our city, but it enthralled the country when around the corner from my house there was a famous, ghastly murder.
The victim was a former vaudeville trouper. News reports at the time described her as elderly even though she was just 64-years-old. Mabel Monahan had a penchant for floral prints, in her dresses, her housecoats, her curtains. The widow spent most evenings curled up in her floral chair with a book and a cup of tea, her beloved lab Ziggy by her side.
Late in the evening of March 9th, 1953, Mabel heard a persistent knock at her door on that quiet corner of Orchard Street and Parkside Drive. Though Mabel was wary, a woman’s voice begged for help. If it were a movie, you’d be screaming at the screen, “Don’t do it Mabel!” But Mabel opened the door to find a diminutive red-head looking desperate on the stoop.
Barbara Graham explained that her car had broken-down. Might she borrow the phone to call for help? "No Mabel!" you'd scream! But seeing the young woman was alone on a chilly 50-degree night, Mabel welcomed Barbara into her home.
What she didn’t know was that Barbara wasn’t really alone. Of course she wasn’t. That’s how these scenes go. No sooner did Mabel open the door than ex-cons Emmett Perkins and Jack Santo along with their associate John True jumped out of the bushes and barged in. Baxter Shorter, the group’s safecracker, waited as a lookout. Shorter was the reluctant member of the group. He signed onto the scheme having heard that Mabel’s ex son-in-law, a notorious Vegas gambler, had hidden $100,000 at his former mother-in-law’s modest home. Shorter’s cut would be $20,000 - about $185,000 today – which made simply opening a safe seem worth it.
The burglars demanded Mabel direct them to the safe, but she refused. Someone pistol-whipped the widow, cracking her skull. They gagged her and ransacked the house, dragging Mabel from room to room and threatening further pain if she didn’t reveal where the money was hidden. They tore apart furniture, emptied drawers and closets but found nothing.
When it became clear that the robbery was a debacle, they alerted Shorter there was no safe to crack. As he entered the house, he saw Mabel on the floor, moaning in a pool of blood. Poor Mabel! Shorter rummaged through a drawer seeking a utility bill with the address on it. He didn’t want to be part of the bungled crime let alone a possible murder rap. He planned to call for help.
Santo dropped Shorter off at his Bunker Hill apartment and warned there’d be dire consequences if Shorter didn’t keep his mouth shut. Once Santo’s car was out of sight, Shorter walked to the nearest gas station, found a pay phone. "An old lady needs help at 1718 Parkside Drive," he said. The operator tried to send an ambulance, but the address didn’t exist in LA. Shorter hadn’t shared that the house was in Burbank.
Back in my neighborhood, Barbara Graham couldn’t bare seeing the old lady’s tear-streaked face, so she covered Mabel’s head with a pillowcase. Her colleagues stuffed Mabel in the entry hall closet where she died of asphyxiation.
Two days later, Mabel’s gardener found Ziggy whimpering by the back door. The gardener knocked by there was no answer. "We'll find your mama, Zig," he said and went around to the front door, but when he knocked, the door creaked open and he saw the normally immaculate home in shambles. The stench of death was undeniable. A blood trail led to Mabel’s body, mere feet from a handbag on a closet shelf that was filled with $15,000 in cash and jewels.
And the movie-like plot thickens. Five known associates of LA’s premiere gangster of the time, Mickey Cohen, were held for questioning. One of them was Baxter Shorter.
Learning that Mabel had died, Shorter realized that his best shot at avoiding the gas chamber was to turn state’s evidence before any of his actual accomplices got busted and turned on him. He told the cops he’d gone along on the Monahan job solely as a lookout. "I called for help for the old lady. Shouldn’t that be worth something?" he claimed in desperation.
Word spread quickly through the underworld that Shorter had squealed and he disappeared in the night. His body was never recovered.
When the police finally captured the rest of the gang, it was John True who talked in exchange for immunity. He insisted they were just there for the money. No one was supposed to get hurt, but it was Barbara Graham who hit the old lady in the face with a gun. The press nicknamed her “Bloody Babs” and devoured her story.
Barbara was born to a 15-year-old prostitute and partly raised by strangers. She’d had two children of her own as a teenager and by the time she was 22, she’d been married three times, lost custody of her kids and was getting by as a “seagull”, the name commonly given to prostitutes who “flock” in groups near naval bases. She served five-years in prison for perjury and at age 30 she married her forth husband, Henry Graham, and had another baby. It was Henry’s drug addiction that brought the criminals Jack Santo and Emmett Perkins into Barbara’s social sphere.
Barbara consistently maintained her innocence. "I never even heard of Mabel Monahan until I was charged with her murder," she said. She looked like a movie-starlet in court, wearing figure-flattering clothing and chain smoking at the defense table. The media went crazy over the sensational story of this beautiful young mother likely heading to death row.
While in jail, Barbara was connected with a “fixer.” She agreed to pay him $25,000 to be her alibi witness and say that he was her boyfriend. They were together the night of the murder. But the fixer turned out to be an undercover cop who testified that Barbara had admitted to being at Mabel’s house on the night in question.
He also suggested that Barbara had had an affair with a woman in prison. It was the 1950s and Barbara was doomed. Not only had “Bloody Babs” been involved in prostitution, drugs and murder, now it was implied she was also a lesbian. Barbara Graham, along with Santo and Perkins were all sentenced to death.
On June 3, 1955, after 3 stays of execution, Barbara was finally led from her cell to the gas chamber at San Quentin. She requested a blindfold so she wouldn’t have to look at the roomful of men there to observe her death. As she was strapped into the chair, the administrator advised her that taking a deep breath after the cyanide pellets were dropped would make the whole ordeal easier. She replied, “How the hell would you know?”
And her story actually did become a movie. Susan Hayward won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her portrayal of Barbara Graham in “I Want to Live!” Robert Wise, of Sound of
Music fame, was a witness to the execution and was nominated as Best Director.
You better believe, when I am out watching the kids trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, I will be on the lookout for the ghosts of Mabel Monahan and Barbara Graham. And so my children, don’t tell me nothing interesting has ever happened in Burbank!
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As told at Story Salon October 30, 2019.