Caryl Chessman - 3

By Christopher Zoukis 

Finally, on May 2, 1960, Chessman was strapped into the chair in the gas chamber at San Quentin.  As the straps were tightened, his attorney Rosalie Asher was in Sacramento, presenting a motion to Judge Goodman of the California Supreme Court.  Judge Goodman was intrigued by her presentation, but needed more time to study it.  Rosalie Asher told him there was no time. 

Judge Goodman issued a one-hour stay of execution so that he could study the motion.  He instructed his secretary to call the warden at San Quentin.  When told to halt the execution, the assistant warden, Reed Nelson replied that it was too late.  “The execution has begun.”

The pellets of cyanide had already been dropped into the sulfuric acid, which sat in a bucket beneath Chessman’s legs.  The deadly fumes, like the invisible fingers of death tendriled up to his mouth and nose.  It took him eight minutes to die.

Three hours later a black hearse from the Harry M. Williams Funeral Home in San Rafael arrived to pick up the blue-green, lifeless body of Caryl Chessman.

While in San Quentin, Caryl Chessman wrote four four books.  All of which became national and international bestsellers and made Chessman wealthy.

His most famous book, Cell 2455, Death Row, is a memoir.  In it, Chessman detailed his earlier life, his life on death row, and his previous crimes.  He admitted he was a criminal, but stated flatly that he was not the “Red Light Bandit,” that he was not guilty of the crimes for which he had been sentenced to death. 

Cell 2455, Death Row, and his other books, made Caryl Chessman the focal point of the scandal of the death penalty.  Chessman’s case and his pending death became a celebrated cause throughout the world.  His defenders included Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, Robert Frost, and Dominique Lapierre – to no avail.

All of this notoriety established artificial tensions which, in turn, resulted in overcompensation.  And in the end, Caryl Chessman wasn’t a person anymore, he became a political pawn.  When criminals become famous, write books, make hundreds of thousands of dollars from those books, and appear on the cover of Time Magazine – in other words, when they buck the system in which they are incarcerated – then the powers that be feel threatened.  They are afraid they will lose their power, their status, and their perks.  They will look foolish.  At that point, it becomes political – which is to say it’s time to make a point.  And the point is this:  we’re in charge, not some common thug. 

Caryl Chessman, in a sense, had to die.  Any other conclusion would have been unacceptable. 

Caryl Chessman is dead now and his name, for the most part, is forgotten.  His books collect dust on the shelves of libraries across America.  Was he guilty?  I doubt it.  Was he wrongly executed?  I believe so.  Should he have been in prison?  Yes.  And I believe this, too.  That he would agree with those three answers.

But that’s all moot now.  Because he’s dead.  My point is this:  the man could write.  His books should be read, if just for their literary merit.  The story of Caryl Chessman’s life is as clear and potent and moving as A Long Way Gone, or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

He should not be lost from memory.

Caryl Chessman was like Snow White.  He passed through death and re-birth eight times before the evil Queen – the powers that be – killed him.  Each time, on eight different occasions, Caryl came right to the brink of death’s yawning abyss.  And there he teetered.  Just like Snow White who teetered there three times. 

Snow White fell into a mysterious, mystical trance after eating the poisoned apple.  Then the seven dwarves put her in a glass coffin.  Whereas Caryl was put in chamber with windows – his glass coffin – and strapped to a chair.  Seated outside the chamber watching, were officials, witnesses and reporters.  Voyeurs of death. 

Then Caryl ate the red half of the apple.  They poisoned him unto death.  Only in Caryl’s story, unlike that of Snow White, there was no prince to save him.  There was no resuscitation.

Snow White married the Prince and lived happily ever after.  Caryl just died.