I will never again complain about dead lines or crappy writing conditions. Caryl Chessman, for those of you out of the loop on your history was on California’s Death Row having been convicted as the Red Light Bandit when he penned this little bit of trivia. He reportedly finished his only novel (although he did write three non fiction books) while awaiting his execution in the gas chamber in 1953 but the manuscript was confiscated and locked in the wardens safe until 1960 when, as California’s longest serving death row inmate he was finally executed.
The book is actually not that good, but much like it’s author, it is brilliant in places, preachy in a lot more places, again, like it’s author is is ultimately undone by trying to get too cute; tries to justify anti social actions, takes off into a fantasy world, and has a morality that wouldn’t mesh with any non sociopaths ideology. Another important fact about the book, or really it’s author is that it was a major cause célèbre in the fight against the death penalty.
First a synopsis of the book, then we delve a bit into the man. The story is a boxing novel written when boxing novels were a major sub genre of the Noir or paperback era, AKA the second golden age of American Crime Fiction. It’s narrated by an old, wise sports writer, Charley Evans. Having been ordered by his editor to dig up, or for that matter manufacture some sporting news as there was a dead spot and people were starting do other thing besides read the sports page. Evans goes to the local gym where an old pal of his is training the next light heavy weight champ.
The contender is Angelo “The Angel” Marino, and he is a can’t miss, scientific boxer. In walks “The Kid”, a nobody off the street who picks a fight with The Angel and allows himself to be beaten to pulp, never even fighting back, but never going down either. All the time wearing a maniacal grin. Finally he dismantles The Angel. Not only does he embarrass him but he breaks him. Breaks his will to fight, breaks his ego and his image of himself. Then the kid disappears. Word gets out and from his hospital bed The Angel pretty much retires at the ripe old age of 23. Not that anyone would give him a title shot anyhow.
This first 25-30 % of the book is actually quite good. The Kid vanishes and nobody knows anything about him. He is painted almost like a Robert Johnson type character, in that he traded his soul for an unnatural fighting ability. Evans eventually consults a psychiatrist friend who has another theory. And this is where Chessman starts to preach, rationalize his own behavior. Caryl paints The Kid as a killer, a man who can’t refrain from maximal violence, and he explains that the forces of society have made him this way; in other words he has lost his ability and his willingness to control his destructive impulses when he is angry or when an opportunity to kill arises. If society makes us furious enough, or exposes us to enough cruelty, we may become killers. And justifiably so.
Evans, after consulting with his psychiatrist buddy first builds The Angel back up, convincing him that his utter dismantling at the hands of The Kid was a fluke. He then sets out to find the kid and to include him in a weird plot to convince the current champ, a really despicable “hairy beast” of a character to give The Angel a title shot. He finds the kid a few moths later and convinces him to tell ‘old Evans’ his story. The story is a doozey, The Kid is the product of a terrible home. His father was an ex boxer turned to booze and beating his wife and two children, The Kid and his younger sister. Finally his mother, a deeply religious woman has had enough and one night after a beating she shoots her husband with a borrowed gun. The Kid, fooled by the cops (as Chessman himself actually was a number of times) into inadvertently telling the truth gets his mother convicted of man slaughter. Of course, it is the systems fault, the laws fault for twisting the truth. His mother is sent to prison and The Kid and his sister to a home where his sister contracts TB and is on deaths bed for the next few years. In prison his mother also dies a tragic death. The Kid manages to escape, through his own ingenuity, the home and joins the Army and goes to Korea where his hate and killer ability is appreciated. He makes Rambo seem like a whimp as he almost single handily holds off the entire Chinese and North Korean armies as the allied forces retreat. He is captured and further helps the war effort by being able to take all his captures can dish out and generally being such a threat that it takes half the enemy army to keep him locked up. When the armistice is declared he is brought home and while he is in the hospital it is discovered that his homicidal tendencies and his sociopathic hate makes him a danger. Once again, through his genius he gets released. Society quickly reinforces his justification for becoming a natural born killer until the novel reaches the end and The Kid is shown to be not only justified but redeemed by his homicidal ways. There’s a lot of convoluted plot, and a lot of holes in that plot, involving reformatories, jail, bad cops, war, psychology, waterfront mobs, the dirty underside of boxing, religion and mom and apple pie.–much of it self serving. Even worse than the plot are Chessman’s “observations on the “human condition”.
As I said above, the book is filled with Chessman’s own attempt to justify himself. It’s not a well written book, but he hardly had access to an editor. It is very interesting if you know Chessman’s story as it gives great insight into an often brilliant, but scared sociopath.It really only differs in a few ways from his own life. Namely, by all accounts his father was a gentle, hard working man. Also, Chessman never killed anyone, nor was he ever accused or convicted of killing anybody and yet he went to the gas chamber.
Caryl Chessman’s mother, Hallie was an abandoned infant in 1900, raised by Charles and Abigail Cottle in Chicago and was by all accounts a model child raised by good people. In 1918 she graduated from high school and attended business college and soon was wed to Serl Whittier Chessman, Caryl’s father who was from St. Josephs, Michigan. Carol Whittier Chessman was born to the couple in 1921. Carol, who as a teenager changed his name to Caryl to escape the “girls name” teasing grew up uneventfully after the family moved to the Los Angles area. Serl found work as a carpenter in the fledgling movie business constructing sets. He worked for Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, Later came The Thief of Bagdad, another Fairbanks film and many more movies. In 1928, when Caryl was 7 years old he fell sick after playing near Devil’s Gate Reservoir in the Flintridge Hills. It was misdiagnosed as the flu, the doctor ignoring the fact he was covered from head to toe in mosquito bites. It was actually encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. Could this have caused his later sociopathic actions? Who knows. With the start of the Great Depression, Serl lost his work in the movie biz, as great sets were cost prohibitive. He eked out a living as a handyman, but the family eventually had to sell their home. Later he ran a couple successful small businesses. The second event in his young life came in 1931 when a girl friend of his mothers took Caryl and his mother to a new drive in restaurant and when their little Ford convertible was smashed into by a 16 cylinder Cadillac driven by a religious cult member that didn’t believe in insurance. The girl friend was killed, Caryl ended up with a severely broken nose and jaw and his mother was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Caryl’s father, now working at a service station 12 hours a day was of course strapped for cash and the family would suffer through the depression trying to afford doctors for Hallie. Soon after this Caryl started to get into trouble and his father tried to commit suicide twice.
He committed his first crimes in 1935 he attended Glendale High School, and was often dressed in thread bare clothes. He fell in with some other poor kids and they were soon committing thefts. When the lady of the house was in her backyard hanging out laundry, Caryl and his cohorts would dash in the unlocked, standing open front door and grab whatever wasn’t nailed down. A radio, pictures in silver frames, an alarm clock, a vase, what ever they could grab. A lot of the loot was really worthless, they stole for the thrill. Soon after this Caryl learned to hot wire cars and they were soon joy riding all over town. In 1937, after stealing a Cord Roadster Caryl got busted for the first time. He eventually ended up in a boys home where he learned to con the authorities and play the system. He was a bright boy and learned easily. His IQ was measured at 128 and he quickly learned most subjects from reading. Over the next few years he graduated to bigger and bigger thefts, often getting caught when he’d get to cute. During his incarcerations he was always a model prisoner and because of his brains often landed cushy prison jobs even working for the wardens. It was during one of these stays that he started writing. After being convicted as The Red Light Bandit he would publish four books, three about his life in prison and this one novel. In 1941 at the age of 20 he landed up in San Quinten, where he would eventually come back too live on death row. In 1943 Caryl was transferred to the new, experimental ""prison without walls" – Chino. Ten weeks after his arrival, at the age of 23 Caryl escaped, or walked away after perpetrating a ruse, again, being too cute about it. He had landed a job as an air plane spotter -America was at war and his job was to call a number in L.A. whenever he saw or heard a plane fly over the tower. He set up his escape by leaving a black shoe mark on the ladder leading up to the top of the tower and by cutting his finger and leaving blood at the scene. He then walked away and hitch hiked to L.A. where he soon was back to his old crimes of theft and burglary. He was busted three weeks later. At trial he tried to pretend that he had fallen while climbing the tower, the heel mark and blood was proof of that, and he had amnesia. It was pointed out to him that if he had amnesia he wouldn’t have remembered the heel mark and blood. Once again, Caryl Chessman was too cute for his own good. It was off to Folsom Prison for Caryl. Again a model prisoner he was paroled, for the last time in 1947.
Caryl Chessman walked out of Folsom Prison on December 8, 1947. The Red Light Bandit crimes began on January 13, 1948 — just one month and five days later.
If you want to read a detailed account of the individual crimes of The Red Light bandit follow this link. But a brief synopsis goes like this, the "Bandit" would follow people in their cars to secluded areas –Lovers Lanes - 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 them, usually of less than $20, and, in the case of two women, force them to give him oral sex. One of these women was a young 17 year old virgin who was scared for life and spent the rest of her life after the trial in mental facilities . She died in 2010 and never recovered from the trauma. Maybe this warranted the death penalty, but the law didn’t state the death penalty for rape.
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.
At trial and throughout his numerous appeals Chessman, against the judges and expert legal advice, represented himself. At various time he claimed that it was somebody else and he knew the real rapists identity but he wouldn’t “rat”. It was against his principles. He also claimed to have been framed in a larger conspiracy and he further made assertions that the confession was beaten out of him. In a number of ways Chessman was effective as his own council, but as always he got a little too cute. It is very likely that the confession was coerced – by trickery or physical threats, if not actual beatings. And, there were a couple of things that should have made the trial declared a mistrial and garnered him a retrial. Namely that the clerk, who used shorthand instead of a transcription machine, died before he could transcribe the trial record and that the eventual transcription was done by a man who admitted he couldn’t decipher the original short hand. Further, all descriptions of the Red Light Bandit were of a shorter, smaller man and the only time that the rape victims actually picked him out of a line up was at trial, where it was obvious who the defendant was. Regardless, although Chessman postponed his execution for 12 years, at that time a record in California he was eventually put to death. Shortly after the pellets fell and Chessman started foaming at the mouth, but was probably still alive, the phone rang in the death chamber. The caller was Judge Goodman’s secretary. In her nervous haste, she had first dialed a wrong number, then had to hang up and redial San Quentin. When she quickly told Nelson the purpose of her call – that the Judge had granted yet another stay, he said simply, "It’s too late. The execution has begun." There was no way to stop the fumes, and no way to open the door and rescue the condemned man without the deadly fumes killing others.
While behind bars Chessman penned not only The Kid Was A Killer, but a critically acclaimed non fiction book (and two others that never got much press) called Cell 2455 Death Row, published by Prentice-Hall, in 1954 and quickly was a rallying point for death penalty opponents around the world. Ronnie Hawkins even wrote a song called The Ballad of Caryl Chessman and President Eisenhower is even said to have granted a temporary stay of execution because of an official trip to South America where Chessman had many supporters and the Secret Service was afraid of violent demonstrations if the President travelled there shortly after Chessman’s execution.
Today, Chessman would never have received the death penalty for the crimes he was convicted and accused of committing . A number of his appeals were against the Little Lindberg Law being applied. After all, his victims were never forcibly moved more that 20-25 feet from the scene. He never killed anyone, and he didn’t have a history of sex offenses in his past. Was he even the Red Light Bandit. Probably so in at least some of the crimes although it is possible and even likely that there were more than one Red Light Bandit. Further, the mistakes at trial and in his interrogation would have any case thrown out today. Still, he was undoubtedly a sociopath and a career criminal. Was that caused by his bout of encephalitis? How about being scared for life in the car accident that crippled his mother, or growing up hard during the depression? Who knows. And are those mitigating circumstances? Many people grow up hard and don’t become criminals. many people suffer the loss of a parent or growing up poor. The evidence shows that he wasn’t beaten, but given a decent home the hardships of the Depression aside. Still, the suffering of Mary Alice Meza who spent her life in mental hospitals because of the trauma, maybe that justifies those pellets falling and that secretary misdialing the phone.
The Dirty Lowdown