9 May 1942 – Rattlesnake James

Raymond Lisenba aka Rattlesnake James has the dubious honour of being the last man to go to the gallows in California.

And it was a good job he was the last. In yet another bungled execution, the wrong length of rope was used so it took a full 10 minutes for the man to die.

Snake, rattle and hole

A barber by trade, Lisenba had been found guilty of murder. After taking out a life insurance policy on his fifth wife, he tried to bump her off so he could pocket the payout. According to one source, he liked her but he needed the money more!

Full marks went to Lisenba for ingenuity. He bought a couple of rattlesnakes, which he hoped would do the job for him, hence he was dubbed ‘Rattlesnake’. Although they bit her, Lethal and Lightening (the snakes!) failed to give her the fatal strike.

As they hadn’t come up trumps, so he had to resort to drowning instead. He submerged her in the bath then carried her lifeless body down to the nearby pond.

Turns out he’d been married before and the same fate had befallen a previous wife – his third spouse, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to fathom that something dodgy was afoot. He’d dug himself a real hole and it was to prove impossible for him to climb out.

A ropey execution

The noose was tightening around old Rattlesnake’s neck and when a jury heard the fate of his previous wife, that was the clincher. They found in favour of the prosecution and he was sentenced to die by hanging.

Rattlesnake James’s execution took place at San Quentin jail and there were concerns that the jail maybe out of practice – they hadn’t had a hanging there for four years. Indeed, San Quentin had even moved to the gas chamber as an official means of execution. But according to the law, if you were sentenced to die by hanging then that was the only means available.

But the wardens were right to feel worried. The length of rope meant that death was slow and it took 10 minutes for Rattlesnake to finally give up the ghost.

Of the execution, Warden Clinton Duffy stated simply, ‘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. … 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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