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
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
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
Rattlesnake James, killed his wife. James was tried and convicted in
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
Johnny Klann graciously shared his source materials
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
Johnny Klann showed me a copy of Duffy's
pertaining to Rattlesnake James.
Duffy had gotten to know Rattlesnake during the long
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
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
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."
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copyright October 14, 2000 Anita Brenner, Los Angeles Times