Robert S. James, the red-haired ?rattlesnake killer?, was a bad one.
He was executed by the State of California on May 1, 1942 (in what was
probably the last execution by hanging in California) for the murder
of his wife Mary, on August 4, 1935.
The crime was especially heinous. James tied his wife to a chair and
thrust her leg into a box containing two rattlesnakes, who promptly
bit her. When the snake venom failed to kill his wife, James drowned
her in the bathtub, then dragged her body to a fish pond, to make her
death appear accidental. The apparent motive for this was $20,000 in
life insurance coverage on Mary.
At the time of her death, authorities were uncertain as to whether
Mary was James? fifth, sixth or seventh wife.
The murder and its aftermath -- which was appealed all the way to the
U.S. Supreme Court -- was widely covered in the press. I?ve included
below excerpts from some of the key articles appearing in the Los
Angeles Times. Due to copyright restrictions, I cannot reproduce the
full text of the articles, but a librarian should be able to assist
you in obtaining full copies if you so desire.
If anything here is unclear -- or if you need additional information
-- please let me know before rating this answer. Just post a Request
for Clarification, and I?ll be happy to assist you further.
[All excerpts from the Los Angeles Times]
May 2, 1942
JAMES PAYS WITH LIFE IN WIFE KILLING
Former Barber Hanged at San Quentin for ?Rattlesnake Murder?
--Robert S James, 48-year-old ?rattlesnake killer?, mounted the 13
steps to the hangman?s noose and death on the San Quentin gallows
--With Charles Hope, ex-sailor, and hot-dog stand operator, as his
accomplice, he bound his bride of three months to a breakfast
table...taped shut her mouth and eyes...then he thrust her bare leg
into a box containing two ?hot? diamond-backed rattlesnakes.
--His conviction was upheld twice by the State Supreme Court and once
by the United States Supreme Court.
--James was born Major R. Lisenba in Birmingham, Ala. He served in
the Army during the first World War as a private, using the name of
--In the two years he spent on San Quentin?s condemned row, James
became very religious...the other convicts called him ?Holy Joe?.
--He willed his possessions...to his sister, Mrs Eva Murphy of
Birmingham, who claimed his body...
April 8, 1941
HIGHEST COURT REFUSES TO SAVE JAMES
Conviction Sustained in Rattlesnake and Drowning Murder Case
--Although the decision of the highest court in the land sustained the
verdicts of three California courts, counsel for James announced he
would open another chapter in the long fight to save the red-haired
barber...by filing a petition for a rehearing.
--Attorney Morris Lavine announced that he also would appeal for a
stay of execution...
--Lavine based his plans...on the ground that the Supreme Court voted
4 to 4 on the question of a fair trial for James.... [NOTE from
pafalafa-ga: The Court was missing a Justice due to the retirement
that year of Justice McReynolds]
--...the 4-to-4 decision...gave James a slim chance at the most to
gain a rehearing unless the ninth justice was appointed within about
--James faces the gallows for the death of his wife...because the
crime was committed before the passage in 1937 of the law decreeing
execution in California by gas instead of hanging.
--...his counsel charged that James had not been given a fair trial
because [of] ...a 48-hour questioning; that two rattlesnakes...had
been brought into the courtroom to ?frighten and prejudice the jury?
and that evidence regarding the death of a former wife...was
---two rattlesnakes nicknamed ?Lightning? and ?Lethal?.
July 25, 1936
JAMES CONVICTED AND FACES NOOSE IN SNAKE MURDER
Wife-Slaying Defendant Stoically Declares "I can Take It" as He Hears
--Robert James, the barber, received the hanging verdict last night
for the rattlesnake murder of his wife.
--?We find the defendant, Major Raymond Lisenba, also known as Robert
James, guilty of murder in the first degree?.
--Ten yards away at the side of Policewoman Marjorie Fairchik, Jame?s
niece, Lois Wright, arrested with him in a morals raid, was crying.
--James put his hand on Parson?s [NOTE: his lawyer] knee and said: ?I
want to thank you Russell, for all you?ve done?.
--?We?re not through yet?, said Parsons.
--Silverman [NOTE: James? other lawyer] said he will base his appeal
on two principal points -- that introduction of live rattlesnakes...
inflamed the ...jury; that testimony...that James murdered a previous
wife...by bathtub drowning, was inadmissable.
--...James stood to collect more than $21,000 on the death of Mary
Busch James...[when] he tried to kill her first by
rattlesnake...and...[then] drowned her in the bathtub of their La
I hope these excerpts provide you the information you need. As I
mentioned earlier, if you need additional information, just let me
search strategy: Searched newspaper archive databases for [ Robert James murder ]
Clarification of Answer by
29 Mar 2004 12:57 PST
Whoops...almost forgot to include this as well...a link to actual
Supreme Court case:
which includes a full accounting of the legal history of the case.
The text of Lisenba v California begins as follows:
The petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the
Superior Court of California for Los Angeles County. The Supreme Court
of California, affirmed the judgment March 21, 1939, two judges
dissenting. 1 A rehearing was granted, the case was reargued and,
October 5, 1939, the decision was reaffirmed and the former opinion
adopted and amplified, two justices dissenting. 2 No question arising
under the Constitution of the United States had been raised or
decided. In a second petition for rehearing the petitioner, for the
first time, asserted that his conviction violated the Fourteenth
Amendment. November 3, 1939, the Court ruled: 'The petition for a
rehearing herein is denied.'
The Chief Justice of the State allowed an appeal November 6, 1939, and
November 8, 1939, executed a certificate in which he enumerated the
constitutional questions presented by the second petition for
rehearing; stated that the court entertained the petition, and
explicitly overruled each of the contentions made therein; certified
[314 U.S. 219, 222] that the decision denying rehearing 'is to be
interpreted and considered as holding against the appellant's
contention that his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the
Constitution of the United States ... were violated'; and concluded:
'It ordered that this certificate be filed in this court and made part
of the record on appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.' On
the record so made this Court has jurisdiction to review the