Proof of Guilt


Proof of Guilt

Barbara Graham and the Politics of Executing Women in America

Kathleen A. Cairns

238 pages
10 illustrations


May 2013


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

April 2020


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

May 2013


$29.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

Barbara Graham might have been a diabolical dame in a hard-boiled detective story—beautiful, sexy, and deadly. Charged alongside two male friends in the murder of an elderly widow during a botched robbery attempt, “Bloody Babs” became the third woman executed in California—after a 1953 trial that played out before standing-room-only crowds captured the imaginations of journalists, filmmakers, and death penalty opponents. Why, Kathleen A. Cairns asks, of all the capital cases in the twentieth century, did Graham’s have such political resonance and staying power?

Leaving aside the question of guilt or innocence—debated to this day—Cairns examines how Graham’s case became a touchstone in the ongoing debate over capital punishment. While prosecutors positioned the accused woman as a femme fatale, the media came to offer a counternarrative for Graham’s life highlighting her abusive and lonely beginnings. Cairns shows how Graham’s case became crucial to the abolitionists of the time, who used instances of questionable guilt to raise awareness of the arbitrary and capricious nature of death penalty prosecutions. Critical in keeping capital punishment in the forefront of public consciousness until abolitionists homed in on a winning strategy, Graham's case illustrates the power of individual stories to shape wider perceptions and ultimately public policies.

Author Bio

Kathleen A. Cairns is a lecturer in the Department of History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is the author of The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison (Nebraska, 2007) and Hard Time at Tehachapi: California’s First Women’s Prison.


“At a time when states are closely reexamining capital punishment, particularly in light of the Innocence Project’s scathing findings that dozens have been wrongly sent to prison and to Death Row, Kathleen Cairns’s meticulous and moving reprise of the notorious 1950s case of Barbara Graham is a sobering, insightful, and welcome study of why the swift and awful justice of execution is neither swift, nor just, but merely awful.”—Dennis McDougal, author of Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynasty

Proof of Guilt is a fascinating book that details the case of Barbara Graham and also explores the issue of the execution of women. Although the Graham case occurred decades ago, Cairns brings Barbara Graham back to life in this compelling narrative. The book sheds new light on the issue of the death penalty and dispels many myths and misconceptions surrounding it.”—Gloria Killian, exonerée and coauthor of Full Circle: A True Story of Murder, Lies, and Vindication

"This outstanding book is a major contribution to the history of the criminal justice system and its limitations."—Gordon Morris Bakken, Montana, The Magazine of Western History

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations  

Author's Note    


1. A Murder in Burbank 

2. A Life on the Lam   

3. A Femme Fatale on Trial   

4. Crime Doesn't Pay   

5. An Execution in California

6. Executing Women in America

7. I Want to Live!     

8. Due Process   

9. Abolishing the Death Penalty    

10. The Ultimate Penalty     

Notes Selected Bibliography  

Also of Interest