Caryl Whittier Chessman

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Caryl Whittier Chessman

Birthdate: (38)
Birthplace: St. Joseph Charter Township, Berrien County, MI, USA
Death: May 2, 1960 (38)
San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, Marin County, California, United States (Execution; gas chamber)
Immediate Family:

Son of Whittier Serl Chessman and Hallie Lillian Chessman
Ex-husband of "Barbara Black"

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Caryl Whittier Chessman


Caryl Whittier Chessman (May 27, 1921 – May 2, 1960) was a convicted robber and rapist who gained fame as a death row inmate in California. Chessman's case attracted worldwide attention, and as a result he became a cause célèbre for the movement to ban capital punishment.

Crime and conviction

Born in St. Joseph, Michigan, Caryl Chessman was a criminal with a long record who spent most of his adult life behind bars. He had been paroled a short time from prison in California when he was arrested near Los Angeles and charged with being the notorious "Red Light Bandit." The "Bandit" would follow people in their cars to secluded areas and flash a red light that tricked them into thinking he was a police officer. When they opened their windows or exited the vehicle, he would rob and, in the case of several young women, rape them. In July 1948, Chessman was convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape, and was condemned to death.

Part of the controversy surrounding the Chessman case stems from how the death penalty was applied. At the time, under California's version of the "Little Lindbergh Law", any crime that involved kidnapping with bodily harm could be considered a capital offense. Two of the counts against Chessman alleged that he dragged a 17-year-old girl named Mary Alice Meza a short distance from her car demanding oral sex from her. Despite the short distance the woman was moved, the court considered it sufficient to qualify as kidnapping, thus making Chessman eligible for the death penalty.

On death row

Acting as his own attorney, Chessman vigorously asserted his innocence from the outset, arguing throughout the trial and the appeals process that he was alternately the victim of mistaken identity, or a much larger conspiracy seeking to frame him for a crime he did not commit. He claimed at other times to know who the real culprit was, but refused to name him. He further alleged that statements he made during his initial police interrogation implicating him in the Red Light Bandit crimes were coerced through torture.

Chessman argued his case to the public through letters, essays and books. His memoirs became bestsellers and ignited a worldwide movement to spare his life, while focusing attention on the politics of the death penalty in the United States at a time when most Western countries had already abandoned it, or were in the process of doing so. The office of California Governor Pat Brown was flooded with appeals for clemency from noted authors and intellectuals from around the world, including Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, and Robert Frost, and from such other public figures as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Christian evangelist Billy Graham.

Over the course of the 12 years he spent on death row, Chessman filed dozens of appeals and successfully avoided eight execution deadlines, often by a few hours. He appealed his conviction primarily on the grounds that the original trial was improperly conducted and that subsequent appeals were seriously hampered by incomplete and incorrect transcripts of the original trial proceedings. The appeals were successful and the U.S. Supreme Court finally ordered the State of California to either conduct a full review of the transcripts or release Chessman. The review concluded that the transcripts were substantially accurate and Chessman was scheduled to die in February 1960.

The Chessman affair put Govenor Brown, an opponent of the death penalty, in a difficult situation. Brown initially did not intervene in the case, but then issued a last-minute, 60-day stay of execution on February 19, 1960, just hours before Chessman's scheduled execution. Brown claimed he issued the stay out of concern that Chessman's execution could threaten the safety of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a planned visit to South America, where the Chessman case had inflamed anti-American sentiment.


Brown's stay of execution, along with Chessman's last appeals, ran out in April 1960 and Brown subsequently declined to grant Chessman executive clemency. Exhausting a last-minute attempt to file a writ of habeas corpus with the California Supreme Court, Chessman finally went to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2, 1960.

As the execution began and the chamber was filling with gas, the telephone rang. The caller was a judge's secretary informing the warden of a new stay of execution. The warden responded, "It's too late; the execution has begun," meaning there was no way to open the door and remove Chessman without the fumes killing others. The secretary had initially misdialed the telephone number and this may have made the difference between there being time to stop the execution and not. The alleged new evidence, which prompted the stay attempt, appears in very few accounts.

The celebrated author Dominique Lapierre visited Chessman several times during his incarceration. Lapierre was then a young reporter working for a French newspaper. His account of Chessman appears in the book A Thousand Suns.


While on death row, Chessman wrote four books: Cell 2455, Death Row' (1954), Trial by Ordeal (1955), The Face of Justice (1957) and The Kid Was A Killer (1960). He sold the rights to his autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row to Columbia Pictures, which was made into a film of the same name, directed by Fred F. Sears in 1955, with William Campbell as Chessman. Chessman's middle name, Whittier, was used as the surname of his alter ego protagonist in the film.

The manuscript of Chessman's novel The Kid Was a Killer was seized by San Quentin warden Harley O. Teets in 1954 on the grounds that it was “prison labor”. It was eventually returned to Chessman in late 1957 and published in 1960.

In popular culture

Phil Och's liner notes to his 1965 folk/protest album I Ain't Marchin Anymore (EKL-287) include these words concerning the victim of the Iron Lady, a metaphoric reference to the electric chair, and the title of an anti-capital punishment selection from this key '60's vinyl protest: "A century from now, intelligent men will read in amazment about the murder of Caryl Chessman and wonder what excuse for a society flourished in these times."

In 1977, Alan Alda starred in a CBS television movie about Chessman's life, Kill Me If You Can (sometimes shown subsequently as The Caryl Chessman Story).

The song, "The Ballad of Caryl Chessman", which includes the chorus "let him live, let him live, let him live", was a minor hit single for Ronnie Hawkins two months before Chessman's execution.[6]

Mexican professional wrestler Kevin Zamora uses the identity of "Chessman" after Caryl Chessman, wearing red facepaint that he claims represents the blood of Chessman's victims. One of his nicknames in the wrestling world is "El Asesino de la Luz Roja", Spanish for "The Red Light Killer".

In Brazil, Chessman inspired João Acácio Pereira da Costa, who became known as "O Bandido da Luz Vermelha" (Portuguese for "The Red Light Bandit"), due to the fact he used a flashlight with a red lens cover to commit his crimes, similarly to Chessman.

He is referenced in the Genesis song "Broadway Melody of 1974" from their 1974 album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The line goes "Caryl Chessman sniffs the air and leads the parade. He knows in a scent you can bottle all you made."

He is also referenced in the Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota unedited song "Un tal Bridgitte Barlot". He is mentioned in several lines of the song.

He is also referenced in the Nicolas Peyrac song "So far away from L.A.". The line goes "Monsieur Caryl Chessman est mort, mais le doute subsiste encore, avait-il raison ou bien tort?"

Chessman is named in Neil Diamond's 1970 song "Done Too Soon" from the album Tap Root Manuscript. Although not everyone mentioned in the song died early in their life, several did, and the song is known for its message on mortality.

In Shane Stevens' novel By Reason of Insanity the serial killer character, Thomas Bishop, believes he is the son of Caryl Chessman.

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Caryl Whittier Chessman's Timeline

May 27, 1921
St. Joseph Charter Township, Berrien County, MI, USA
May 2, 1960
Age 38
San Quentin, Marin County, California, United States