Echoes of Caryl Chessman have been present at every death penalty and execution in the United States since he was delivered to the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on May 2, 1960. If his defiant loner’s death was not the very embodiment of arbitrary, cruel, and unusual punishment, then that claim can scarcely be made for any American subsequently exterminated in the name of the State’s justice.
Curtis Hanson’s very fine film L.A. Confidential covers part of the time period — the fifties — in which Chessman was on Death Row, but its the inmate’s interaction with society and the prison system in the 40s which keeps one from taking the L. A. Times review given (via the link) above without a grain of salt. Because he really grated the powers that be in L.A. — in a way that still lingers today in many quarters — and it’s difficult to find a fair treatment of him anywhere in that realm. Even today in a relatively decent book review… resentment lingers a bit, tweaking the impression one takes away.
I’ve read in depth about the lives and executions of others on Death Row — famous touching souls like Sacco and Vanzetti, Ethel Rosenberg and Troy Davis — but one would be hard put to cry “Injustice!” louder for anyone. He’s right up there... with the pages of well-documented history begging to be absorbed and acted on. So that the misleading tomes on him can be put into proper perspective.
This is not the place to delineate all of the relevant nuts and bolts related to his railroading. Rather, it’s only appropriate here to spotlight a few takeaways that stand to motivate activists along productive lines. And on that note, it’s worth citing the fact of what came down as President Eisenhower was gearing up for a trip South of the Border during Chessman’s incarceration.
In fact, Chessman’s case stirred up enough outrage beyond America’s borders that European and Latin American commentators regularly referred to it as “America’s Dreyfus Affair.” In February, 1960, Chessman received his eighth stay of execution , largely through the intercession of the State Department, which feared that his death would trigger riots in Uruguay and Brazil during a visit to those two countries by Commander in Chief Ike. Chessman was the forerunner of Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and George Jackson, the defendant who doesn’t play by the rules, but he outshone all of them on several scores… as someone who was capable of generating serious and explosive questions about his guilt, for one.
Nowadays, the mere mention of the 1960s seems to conjure up only images of its second half: the riots, Vietnam war protests, Black Panthers, Hippies, Yippies, pop festivals, gurus, British musical groups and psychedelia. That sort of generic stuff. But the cracks in the complacent “We Like Ike” era were already beginning to show in that very first year, one that would culminate in November with the election of the youngest man ever to serve as President of the United States, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Kennedy may have received his party’s nomination simply because the front runner, Governor Edmund Brown — father of the Golden State’s current top executive — was perceived as having suffered grievous political wounds respecting the Chessman case; he refused to intercede in time. Meaning, sans Chessman’s execution we might have never had Kennedy in the White House!
His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer, Episcopal James A. Pike) to the profane (Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine, Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando, among many others), from the cerebral (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane — correspondence and petitions of millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. Belgium’s Queen Mother, and Eleanor Roosevelt — who by 1960 was, effectively, America’s Queen Mother — made pleas to spare his life.
Following a spotlight on the cover of Time magazine, people went on hunger strikes, organized “auto caravans” and one rodeo veteran, calling himself a “minuteman,” rode his mount from San Francisco to Sacramento, getting signatures for his “Save Chessman” petition along the way.
From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to the man sitting in the “Sacred Seat of Sacramento” (James Baldwin’s phrase), the gubernatorial office, in March 1960, contained 2.6 million signatures!
Forty Brazilians — many of them women — offered to die in his place.
Richard Martin Oxman can be reached at email@example.com. He urges all concerned citizens circulating petitions to contact him to discuss what “supplement” can be used to fortify the impact generated by any collection of signatures in the activist realm. He does have practical advice to offer up. He also requests contact to discuss — in full — his experience in helping to collect over a million signatures to save the life of Troy Davis… who was executed on the author’s birthday.