He was born Carol Whittier Chessman in the town of St. Joseph, Michigan on May 27, 1921. He had no siblings. The next year the family relocated to Glendale, California, in those days a sleepy, semi-rural suburb of Los Angeles. The elder Chessmans were strictly observant Baptists; this may have contributed to their son’s rebellious nature, which manifested itself at an early age.
By the time he was a teenager he was a busy criminal. At the age of 16 he was arrested for automobile theft and sent to a reform school, where he spent nine months. Upon his release he returned to his chosen profession and was shortly locked up again for stealing another car. This time he became a member of a gang called The Boy Bandits. Before long he was the acknowledged leader of the gang. It was also around this time that he changed the spelling of his first name to Caryl, likely to escape confusion regarding his gender.
In April, 1941, he was arrested and convicted for a number of robberies and gun battles with the police. He spent time in San Quentin State Prison and Chino. In 1943 he escaped, was recaptured, convicted for another robbery, and returned to San Quentin. In 1947 he was released and returned to Glendale, where he resumed his life of crime.
By 1948 he allegedly added a new technique to his repertoire. He added a red spotlight to his Ford coupe. He would follow a prospective victim’s car and turn on the spotlight. The driver would pull over, thinking this was a traffic stop. Instead, Chessman would threaten the occupants of the stopped car with a .45 automatic and demand their cash. Depending on the gender of his victims, he would demand oral sex.
Eventually captured and identified by his victims, Chessman was questioned for 72 hours, finally confessing to the crimes. Known as the “Red Light Bandit,” he was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnap, and rape.
Under a California law in the era, “kidnapping with bodily harm” was considered a capital offense. Chessman had allegedly dragged one of his victims from her car before raping her. This was deemed bodily harm and Chessman was sentenced to execution in the gas chamber at San Quentin in May, 1948.
My research has not uncovered any record of Chessman’s academic career. However, he must have had an outstanding intellect. He conducted his own defense during his trial. Following his conviction he became an outstanding jailhouse lawyer, filing one appeal after another.
Ironically, the California legislature repealed the state’s “Little Lindbergh Law,” under which Chessman’s death sentence was applied, before he even came to trial. Whether through oversight or intention, the legislature did not make the repeal retroactive. Consequently, even though rape with bodily harm was no longer a capital offense by the time of Chessman’s trial, the older law was still applied.
Chessman’s appeals raised a number of issues: that his confession was beaten out of him, that he’d been promised immunity in exchange for his confession, and that the “Little Lindbergh Law” was itself unconstitutional. His execution was repeatedly scheduled, then stayed. This went on for twelve years.
During those years, when he wasn’t studying law books in the prison library at San Quentin, Chessman kept himself busy writing. His first book, published in 1954, was an autobiography titled Cell 2455, Death Row. He followed this with two more volumes, Trial by Ordeal (1955) and The Face of Justice (1957). Chessman’s final book was The Kid was a Killer. Initially seized by San Quentin’s warden on the allegation that it was the product of prison and consequently the property of the state, the manuscript was eventually published in 1960.
Chessman’s last appeal reached the desk of Governor Pat Brown in April, 1960. Execution was scheduled for May 2. Exact details of the event are subject to considerable debate. According to the most likely (or most lurid) version, Brown decided at the last possible moment to issue another stay of execution. He ordered his secretary to telephone the warden at San Quentin. The secretary dialed and got a wrong number. By the time the error was corrected and Brown’s office was connected with the prison, the cyanide pellets had been dropped into the bucket of acid beneath Chessman’s chair and the execution could not be halted.
By this time the Chessman affair had achieved international attention. Petitions in Chessman’s behalf had been filed by figures including Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Robert Frost, Eleanor Roosevelt and Billy Graham. Chessman’s image had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in a painting by the brilliant portrait artist Bernard Safran. The image shows Chessman against a chilling background of the infamous green gas chamber at San Quentin.
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What can I say about Caryl Chessman? I was a high school student at the time of his execution, already politically aware and concerned with the events of the day. Chessman’s face, already lined and marked by a lumpy nose, was published in the magazines and newspapers of the day. There is no question that he was a vicious criminal but his execution under the terms of a law that had already been repealed by the time of his trial is truly a mind-bending event.
As for The Kid was a Killer, there is no denying that it is a remarkable book. Not a great or even very good novel by conventional standards, but a powerful and memorable statement. Starting like a common memoir of a sportswriter, one is reminded of the works of Damon Runyon. But The Kid is no wisecracking yarn told by a Broadway wise guy.
When the kid of the title (we never do learn his real name; there is no question that there’s a lot of Caryl Chessman in him) he is an enigmatic boxer. The focus of the novel shifts from the original narrator and a “good boy” boxer named Angelo, to the kid. At first the kid is portrayed as a vicious sadist. We flash back to the kid’s childhood, and eventually Chessman’s thesis becomes clear.
How did the kid become as he is? Ah, it’s the old puzzle of heredity versus environment, nature versus nurture. Instead of a villain, the kid becomes a victim. Or is he? Is there any way he can achieve any state of grace?
I’m tempted to go on from here, but you will benefit far more from reading Caryl Chessman’s book than you would from reading my inconclusive ramblings. I can only say that this is a powerful, memorable book. To borrow a notion from another unusual writer, “This is the damnedest book you’ve ever read. Not the best and certainly not the worst, but the damnedest.”
If there’s any reality beyond the grave, beyond the crematory—for Caryl Chessman, beyond the green gas chamber—I hope he has found peace for what was clearly a tortured soul.
Richard A. Lupoff
Berkeley CA 2016