Time and History 10:03 A.M.Caryl Chessman is Executed

About major and minor historical events around the clock such as the execution of Caryl Chessman after a record eight stays of execution at 10:03 in the morning.


10:03 in the Morning

May 2, 1960. Caryl Chessman entered the gas chamber at San Quentin prison. He had spent 11 years, 10 months, and 1 week on death row--after a record eight stays of execution.

In 1948, the 26-year-old Chessman had been arrested after an 80-mph car chase which ended in a shoot-out that almost took his life when a police bullet grazed his head. He was identified as "the Red Light Bandit" who had terrorized Los Angeles by attacking courting couples, then robbing the men and raping the women. In total Chessman was charged with 18 crimes, including robbery and the kidnapping and sexual assault of two young women (the "kidnapping" consisted of transferring them from their own car to his car for the purpose of rape).

During his trial he frequently complained that his confinement prevented him from collecting evidence that would prove his innocence. He was sentenced to two death penalties for kidnapping plus eight five-year sentences for the robberies. Over the next 11 years Chessman had access to the prison library and a typewriter, and employed what he described as "unparalleled legal black magic" to win eight stays of execution. When the end finally came, a last-minute stay of execution had been agreed upon, but a federal judge's secretary trying to reach San Quentin misdialed the telephone number on her first attempt. Whether those few seconds would have saved Chessman is debatable.

Just before he entered the death chamber, Chessman said, "I specifically state I was not the Red Light Bandit." Sixty witnesses watched the executioner drop the pellets of potassium cyanide into the container beneath the chair. Chessman smiled as he inhaled the hydrocyanic gas. Eight minutes and 15 seconds later, at 10:12 A.M., Chessman was pronounced dead.

The enormous international outrage at the execution was answered by ex-President Harry Truman, who declared that Chessman "ought to have been executed long ago," and that the excitement the case caused "was a lot of hooey stirred up to get your mind off what's happening." In a last written message Chessman said, "Now that the state has had its vengeance, I should like to ask the world to consider what has been gained."

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