Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Foothill Leader: Legend of Rattlesnake James, Part III

October 14, 2000 -- Foothill Leader

Legend of Rattlesnake James, Part III

Warden hears killer James' death rattle

By Anita Susan Brenner

I met with La Canada resident Johnny Klann to talk about Rattlesnake James, the last man hanged in California.

Klann is a 91-year-old retired bricklayer, race car driver and an ex-columnist for the Foothill Leader who lived in Glendale during the Rattlesnake James era.

According to Klann, by the time Rattlesnake James was tried, Glendale had abolished the weekly auto races put on by Glendale's American Legion Post No. 127.

The American Legion used to sponsor auto races as a fund-raiser. The money was donated to the Boy Scouts and veterans' organizations. Many great Eastern drivers raced here in the 1920s and 1930s -- Bill Cummings, Wilber Shaw, Maurie Rose and Fred Frame.

Klann told me that by the mid-1930s, auto racing was viewed as dangerous. With each new injury or death, the opposition began to mount. According to one article written by Klann, newspapers ran headlines like "See Death for a Dollar." Finally, in 1934, the Glendale American Legion chapter stopped its weekly races.

The very next year, La Canada resident Raymond Lisemba, aka Rattlesnake James, killed his wife. James was tried and convicted in 1936.

Rattlesnake James spent six years appealing his conviction. Most of that time, he was held at San Quentin. The warden was the legendary Clinton Duffy, viewed as the most humane warden of his time.

Johnny Klann graciously shared his source materials with me.

Clinton Duffy was born at San Quentin in 1898. He was the youngest of six children. His father was a guard.

During his tenure as warden, from 1942 to 1954, Duffy abolished the disciplinary "dungeon," created an inmate representative committee and tried to rehabilitate his prisoners. Duffy emphasized humane treatment and tried to abolish beatings. He also presided over many high-profile executions. Eventually, Duffy became a vocal opponent of the death penalty.

Johnny Klann showed me a copy of Duffy's out-of-print memoirs pertaining to Rattlesnake James.

Duffy had gotten to know Rattlesnake during the long appeal process. James "was an odd character. Despite frequent confessions, he managed to convince himself of his innocence and was trying to convince everyone else by the time he reached Death Row," Duffy wrote.

When the appeals ran out, Duffy had concerns. After Rattlesnake James had been sentenced to death by hanging in 1936, San Quentin had switched to the gas chamber.

"San Quentin hadn't had a hanging in nearly four years. What if the executioner, now used to gas-chamber procedures, had forgotten how to handle one? Estimating the exact length of rope to be used was a tricky business, requiring the hand and eye of an expert ..."

Duffy continued to worry about the method of execution. "Why did this man have to be hanged anyway? I tried to figure out some way that he could go to the gas chamber, but the law was quite specific. No one sentenced to the gallows could be executed any other way."

The gallows were renovated. A new holding cell was built. Duffy warned the executioner to cut the ropes the right length.

Shortly before his execution, Rattlesnake James wrote Duffy a letter. "Dear Warden, just a line to thank you for your kindness to me since I have been here ... I want you to know I have no hard feelings against anyone ... I hope to meet you and the Governor in a better world ..."

A reporter stopped the warden and asked, "How do you feel about this one? You've never had to officiate at a hanging before." Duffy replied, "I don't want to discuss it now."

The execution did not go as planned. It was not humane.

Afterward, in response to reporters' questions, Duffy gave a graphic description. The reporters gasped and said "We can't print that, warden."

"I know you can't," Duffy said. "But maybe it would help if you could. It would do the people good to know exactly how their mandate was carried out. Every juror who ever voted for the death penalty, every judge who ever pronounced sentence, every legislator who helped pass the law that made it necessary for us all to go through this ordeal would have been with me today.

"Ladies and gentlemen, those are my reactions. I have nothing more to say except that this was the most terrible experience of my life and I pray to God I shall never have to repeat it."

Legend of Rattlesnake James, Part III

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