Today’s Snake-bitten Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
Major Raymond “Rattlesnake James” Lisenba (March 6, 1894 – May 1, 1942) also known as Robert S. James, was the last man to be hanged in California. He was charged with murdering his fourth wife, Mary Busch, to collect her life insurance and was also suspected of causing the deaths of his third wife, Winona Wallace, and nephew, Cornelius Wright, to collect their life insurances.
A native of Hale County, Alabama, Lisenba spent his childhood at barber school. In 1921, he married Maud Duncan, but she soon filed for divorce, accusing him of “kinky” and “sadistic” sex. Lisebna moved to Kansas and remarried, but she divorced him after the father of a pregnant young woman ran him out of town. He moved to North Dakota and changed his surname to “James.”
When his mother died and left her life insurance to him, James got the idea of committing fraud. In 1932, he opened a barber shop in La Cañada Flintridge, California and married his third wife, Winona Wallace, and set a pair of $5,000 insurance policies for both from Prudential Insurance.
On September 21, the couple was driving on Pikes Peak Highway near Glen Cove, Colorado, with Wallace at the wheel when the car left the road and fell down a mountainside. James told investigators he managed to jump free, but Wallace remained trapped in the vehicle until it stopped against a large boulder about 150 feet below the road. When rescuers got to the scene, they found Wallace alive with relatively minor injuries despite the intensity of the crash. She also smelled of liquor and had a massive wound behind her ear. They later found shreds of a bullet in her head during the autopsy. Winona was released from the hospital on October 8 and recovering at a cottage in Manitou Springs when about a week later, James and a grocer found her lying on her back in a half-filled tub. At the coroner’s inquest, medical examiner George B. Gilmore testified that James told him his wife had ignored physician’s orders to avoid washing her hair because of the head wound and drowned as a result.
Prudential eventually paid off on Wallace’s policy. Following the death of Busch, an autopsy was made on Wallace and the medical examiner testified that she suffered two skull fractures caused by a hard, moving object projected against in it.
James took out insurance on his nephew Cornelius Wright, a young sailor, invited him to visit while on leave, and let him use his car. Wright later died when the car drove off a cliff. The mechanic who towed the wreck back to James told him that something was wrong with the steering wheel.
in March 1935, Ray James met Mary Emma James, who would become his second wife. In June 1935, Ray asked Charles Hope, one of his loyal customers struggling financially, to help him kill Mary for her $5000 life insurance, offering $100 plus expenses for rattlesnakes, which he planned to use to poison Mary.
Hope brought the snakes to the James’ house on August 4 to find Mary Emma, who was pregnant at the time, strapped to the kitchen table with her eyes and mouth taped shut. James that he managed to get his wife on the table by telling her a doctor was coming to “perform some kind of operation on her for pregnancy.” Hope watched as Ray put Mary Emma’s foot in the box with the two snakes, which bit her, then left the house to return and pick up his wife.
Returning to the house at 1:30 a.m. Hope found that Mary was still alive. Drunk and outraged, Ray took her to the bathtub, drowned her, and put her body by the fish pond in their backyard in an attempt to make it look like an accident. Hope left, having refused James’s order to burn down the house.
Mary’s death was ruled a drowning until a drunken Hope bragged at a bar about his involvement in her murder. The bartender reported this to police and Hope was arrested. Under intense questioning, Hope explained the plot thoroughly and James was arrested in 1936. A snake bite on Mary’s toe overlooked during the autopsy confirms this. Both were found guilty of their crimes with James receiving the death penalty and Hope life in prison.
On May 1, 1942, Rattlesnake James was executed by hanging at San Quentin State Prison in California. The rope was the wrong length and it took over ten minutes for Rattlesnake James to die.
Culled from: Wikipedia
Generously suggested by: Eleanor
I found this most excellent account of James’ death at Capital Punishment UK:
Clinton Duffy who was the warden [at San Quentin] from 1942 to 1954 described the execution of Major Raymond Lisemba as follows: “The man hit bottom and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated, and droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible”. (This is not abnormal in death by slow hanging as the person slowly strangles). “I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up.”
It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die. When he was taken down and the cap removed, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” the side of his face where the noose had been, “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue was “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” His face had turned purple.
(Was it worth that money, Rattlesnake?)
The Shame of the South
One of the things that always irks me when I visit the South is the lack of acknowledgement of the culture of slavery that shaped it. This is especially noticeable when you visit plantations in which the lives of the plantation owners and their families are discussed, but there is little mention made of the suffering of the slaves that built the plantations, were entrapped there, and died there. Lisa sent me a very good article that examines this very topic. Highly recommended.