Sac History Happenings

News and developments in Sacramento and California history

August 31, 2012
State Library's Caryl Chessman materials now available

Largely forgotten now, Caryl Chessman's name was known worldwide when he went to the gas chamber on May 2, 1960 after twelve years on San Quentin's Death Row. He had been convicted in 1948 on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape after his arrest on suspicion of being the Los Angeles area's notorious "red light bandit," and the kidnapping counts became capital offenses under California's version of the "Little Lindbergh Law." Chessman spent his time on Death Row unsuccessfully fighting his conviction on the basis of improper trial procedure (becoming something of a legal expert in the process), and also wrote several books while in prison (some of the texts of which had to be smuggled out for publication). While admitting that he was no angel-having turned to a life of petty crime as a teenager-Chessman maintained his innocence to the end, and even if he was guilty of these particular charges the fact remained that he never killed anyone. All of these factors made him a lightning rod worldwide for the anti-capital punishment forces, and gained him the support of many prominent individuals. Chessman also caused political headaches for California Governor Pat Brown, and was executed despite Brown's personal opposition to the death penalty.

Chessman 1.jpg 

Sacramento attorney Rosalie S. Asher served as Chessman's legal counsel for almost his entire time on Death Row, along with George T. Davis and others for shorter periods (although Chessman basically represented himself in court). He named her executor of his estate, meaning that she kept not only all of the legal documents pertaining to his court battles, but also a great deal of his personal effects (including correspondence), all of his books translated into numerous languages, most if not all magazine articles that were written about him worldwide, general information on the death penalty, and many personal items of her own. Asher donated this voluminous amount of material to the State Library some years back, and after a lengthy arrangement and cataloging process it is now available to anyone who wishes to view it. A basic catalog record can be found in the library's website under the name "Chessman-Asher collection" (it is almost as much about her as it is him), and a more detailed finding aid is available in the California History Room on the second floor at 900 N Street.

Shown here are two items from the Chessman-Asher collection. One is the cover of Chessman's first book, Cell 2455, Death Row, translated into Italian and issued in paperback in 1974. The other is a photograph of Chessman as a child, riding on the shoulders of his father Serge. Chessman 2.jpg

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About Sac History Happenings

California and Sacramento have a long, rich, vibrant history. And our region is blessed with an abundance of historical resources maintained by museums, libraries, archives and societies. This blog aims to alert readers to the latest developments in local/state historical education and research.

Send tips concerning upcoming exhibits, tours, lectures and meetings, as well as new books, magazine articles and online collections to the blog's contributors.

The Contributors:

Michael Dolgushkin

Michael Dolgushkin is Manuscript Librarian at the California State Library History Section. He is co-author of San Francisco's California Street Cable Cars and is a frequent contributor to the California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Contact him at mdolgushkin@library.ca.gov.

Amanda Graham

Amanda Graham is a Certified Archivist working in the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento Public Library. She earned a BS in History from Southern Oregon University and a MS in Information Studies with an emphasis in archives from The University of Texas at Austin. Contact her at agraham@saclibrary.org.

Pete basofin

Pete Basofin is Director of Editorial Research at The Sacramento Bee. He previously worked at The St. Petersburg Times and Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. Contact him at pbasofin@sacbee.com.

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