Gang - Convicted
of killing a gang member to prevent him from squealing about a
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder:
April 14, 1940
Date of birth:
October 17, 1889
Victim profile: Robert Sherrard, 19 (member of her gang)
Method of murder: Drowning
Location: Sacramento, California, USA
in San Quentin's gas chamber on
November 21, 1941
Juanita Spinelli was the first woman to die
in San Quentin's gas chamber in 1941. Known as "The Duchess," she led
a San Francisco crime gang. Spinelli was convicted of killing a gang
member to prevent him from squealing about a murder.
First woman to die in the gas chamber at San
Quentin Federal Prison. She was convicted of First Degree Murder
(premeditated). Nicknamed “the Duchess” by her fellow gang members for
her haughty demeanor, she and her common-law husband, Michael Simeone,
along with two others, drugged and murdered another member of their
gang, 19-year-old Robert Sherrard.
Born October 17, 1889, as Eithel Leta Juanita
Spinelli, in Kentucky. It would be brought out at her trial that she
had once been a wrestler and had used her daughter, known to the gang
as “the Gypsy” as a sex lure to recruit other gang members and robbery
In January 1940, she came to San Francisco,
California, with her common-law husband, Michael Simeone, and their
three children. Soon they had recruited a gang, consisting of Gordon
Hawkins, Robert Sherrard, and Albert Ives. The five of them began by
robbing a San Francisco barbeque stand, in which the proprietor was
shot and killed.
A couple of days later, on April 14, 1940, the gang
met for a picnic on the banks of the Sacramento River in Sacramento,
to discuss plans for later robberies. When Sherrard decided to go
swimming in the river, the conversation soon turned to their concern
about Sherrard, who had been observed “talking too much” about the
robbery to his bar buddies in San Francisco. The four other gang
members decided to kill Sherrard, so that he would not be a liability
to the gang.
Later that evening, at their hotel in Sacramento,
Spinelli added chloral hydrate, commonly known as knockout drops, to a
bottle of whisky and poured a drink, which she offered to Sherrard.
When Sherrard became unconscious, Mike Simeone and Gordon Hawkins
carried him to their car, and Hawkins and Albert Ives drove him to the
Freeport Bridge in Sacramento, where they threw him into the river to
drown. His body was found the next day.
Spinelli had also concocted a plan to make the
murder look like a suicide, and directed that Sherrard was to be
clothed in his bathing suit, and his clothes neatly piled on the bank
of the Sacramento River near the point where he entered the river, so
that authorities would think he killed himself.
Unfortunately for the gang, the authorities were
not convinced, and the police soon tracked down the other gang
members. When arrested, Spinelli had the pistol that had been used to
murder the barbeque stand owner in her purse, with her fingerprints
all over it, although witnesses would state it was Sherrard who killed
the barbeque stand owner. Gang members Hawkins and Simeone were also
tried and given the death sentence, while Albert Ives was found
“innocent by reason of insanity” and was sentenced to an asylum for
the criminally insane. Mike Simeone was executed in San Quentin on
November 28, 1941, just a week after his wife.
After her death, San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy
said of her, “She was the coldest, hardest character, male or female,
that I had ever known, and was utterly lacking in feminine appeal. The
Duchess was a hag, as evil as a witch. Horrible to look at, impossible
to like, but she was still a woman, and I dreaded the thought of
ordering her execution.” There is no record as to what happened to her
When Juanita “the Duchess”
Spinelli became the first woman in nearly 100 years to be executed by
the State of California in 1941, she walked unaided to the gas chamber
with photographs of her three children pasted on her prison-issue
dress above her heart.
A self-proclaimed associate of
Detroit’s Purple Gang (other reports listed her as a member of “The
Red Cap Gang”), the Duchess ran a robbery and murder ring staffed with
Dead-End Kids in Northern California in the years before World War II.
She ended up on Death Row in San Quentin not for the murder of a
barbeque stand owner at the corner of Lincoln Way and La Playa in San
Francisco, but for eliminating one the gang who she feared couldn’t
keep his mouth shut about the crime.
Police got their big break in
the case when another member of the gang, 23-year-old Albert Ives, who
helped kill his fellow gangster, Robert Sherrod, feared he was next to
be bumped off.
Sherrod, 18, described as “a
former inmate of a home for the feeble minded,” who joined the
Duchess’s “crime school” after she fled from the clutches of Motor
City mobsters and came to San Francisco. She had ended up in Detroit
after a life of drifting around the country — former residences
included Corpus Christie, Salt Lake City (where she worked a gambling
wheel for a carnival), Kilgore, Idaho, Corpus Christi, and finally to
Detroit where she hooked up with Mike Simone, her common law husband.
Together, they came west in
January 1940, where on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco, the
Duchess put her wide variety of skills to work. Reportedly, she was an
expert with a knife, being able to “hit a half dollar at 15 paces,”
according to one account. She had also picked up nursing training
somewhere along the line, which she used to give her gang advice on
the best places to strike a victim with a sap. As for those saps, or
blackjacks, her skill as a seamstress allowed her to make her own
weapons. She sewed leather pouches and filled them with lead shot.
The Duchess, who everyone in the
gang acknowledged as the ringleader, kept a close watch on everyone in
the gang and took possession of all the weapons after each job.
“I never left the gang alone,”
Ives testified at the Duchess’s murder trial. “There’d always be
another guy with me.”
Ives, a one-eyed juvenile
delinquent who was adjudicated as insane and institutionalized after
the trial, was at first “treated like one of the family,” when he
first hooked up with the gang.
“There was a bunch of guys in
the Duchess’s house one time and they were talking about the Purple
Gang and ‘jobs’ and that stuff,” he testified. “They showed me two
blackjacks and a gun and said I’d be hung if I talked.
At her trial, however, a weeping
Spinelli disputed Ives’s claims, asserting that he threatened her
daughter, the former snake charmer known as Lorraine “Gypsy” Spinelli.
Ives, she said, threatened to send her daughter to “a resort in the
Chinese Quarter of the city” unless the Duchess helped out with the
making of weapons.
“I was afraid of what Al said
was going to happen to my daughter,” Spinelli tearfully claimed on the
stand. “He was going to put her in a Chinese hop joint so she would
rot in six months.”
Over the next few months, the
“Duchess Gang” committed a number of car thefts — Simeone was an
accomplished car thief — and at least one gas station hold-up that
netted the gang $22 (about $320 in 2006).
Her life of crime came to an end
when on April 8, 1940, Ives shot and killed Leland S. Cash, a
partially deaf barbeque stand owner who died apparently because the
55-year-old stand operator could not hear the robbers’ demands and
acted too slowly. Sherrod was profoundly affected by the killing,
other gang members said.
“Sherrod had seen me shoot Cash
and started talking about it all the time,” Ives told police. “I got
scared he would tell someone outside the gang, so I told the others we
ought to get rid of him.”
When Sherrod admitted telling
his brother’s fiancee about the crime, his fate was sealed.
“Well, that settles it,” the Duchess said. “Bobby is going to die, and
he is going to die right now.”
The gang discussed the best way
to handle the issue. At first, Ives wanted to kill him after the gang
fled east, but Spinelli wanted it done sooner. Simeone came up with
the idea of making it look like an accident, while Ives wanted it to
be handled in a more direct manner.
“We thought he was going to
squeal,” Ives testified. “So…we all went on a picnic along the river.
I wanted them to let me take Sherrod out for target practice. I’d
planned to let him have a slug to end it right.”
Among the methods suggested, it
was proposed to tie him to a railroad track, beat him to death, run
over him with a car, drown him, or shoot him.
But the Duchess had other ideas.
“I kind of liked that boy and
wanted it to be a mercy killing,” she testified. “I agreed and put the
drops in his whiskey.”
The drops she was referring to
was chloral hydrate powder with which, on the stand, she admitted
creating a “Mickey Finn.”
On April 13, 1940, Sherrod drank
the whiskey in the gang’s Modesto hideout, and after he was
unconscious, he was stripped and placed in his swim trunks.
“I poured these Mickey Finn —
this solution into the cup that was on the dresser,” the Duchess
testified. “And then Al and Bobby and Gordon came back in the room,
and Mike poured the whisky out, and he handed Bobby a cup of whiskey.”
At that point, “Bob started
stumbling around,” Ives confessed to police. “Mike started knocking
the hell out of him. The Duchess started hitting him in the back of
the neck. He was out.”
With Sherrod in the trunk of
their stolen car, the gang headed to Freeport Bridge over the
Sacramento River and tossed the unconscious youth over the edge.
At the bridge, Hawkins took him
by the shoulders, and “I took his legs and we threw him in. We wanted
to make it look like he had been swimming.”
For his part, Hawkins, 21,
admitted driving the car to the bridge, but denied throwing the boy
into the river.
From Sacramento, the gang headed
east toward Reno, but Ives got the impression that his time was
Near Truckee, California, Ives
said he heard a discussion by the other gang members that they wanted
him out of the way.
“They wre talking about some way
to get rid of me, afterwards when we were driving toward Reno,” he
told authorities. “They talked about a 700-foot cliff — that’s a nice
Ives had heard enough; he left
the gang there and surrendered to police, telling them everything.
The Duchess, with her two
pre-teen sons, Hawkins, and Simeone, were arrested shortly after in
Truckee and returned to Sacramento for trial.
Spinelli was convicted of
masterminding the killing and sentenced to die in the gas chamber.
After her conviction was upheld, she received a pair of reprieves
before going to the chamber on November 21.
Just days before she was
executed, she saw her 7-week-old grandson for the first and last time.
For the most part, she was
resolved to her fate, but the day before the execution, she cursed her
jailers and the governor who declined a third reprieve, saying she
hoped her “blood would burn holes” in those who condemned her.
Hawkins and Simeone followed her
to the death chamber a week later.
No other woman was executed in
California until Barbara Graham died in the gas chamber in 1953.
The Deadly Duchess
entire life was a lie, but she had the talent to influence the young
and dumb to do her bidding. We know that Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli
was born on October 17, 1889 in Kentucky, but after that the rest of
her pathetic life is speculation. Spinelli made so many claims about
her past that only the truly gullible would believe a word that she
said. Whether she gave herself her nickname, “The Duchess” or was
coined that by her alleged Purple Gang connections, nobody will ever
know or probably care.
What is known about
her is that she materialized in San Francisco sometime in the late
1930s, with three kids and a hood named Michael Simone in tow.
Spinelli was a haggard, toothless woman who looked twenty years older
than the fifty years that she claimed to be. She asserted that she was
an informer for Detroit’s ultra-violent Purple Gang and had to leave
the Motor City in a hurry. The Purple Gang was a Jewish organized
crime outfit that was basically wiped out by internal disputes by
1935, so Spinelli’s story is questionable. She was supposedly married
to bank robber Anthony Spinelli, who was killed while smuggling
contraband across the Mexican border. Information on Anthony Spinelli
and his crimes are as non-existent as the Duchess’s parenting skills.
The Duchess rounded
up a handful of malcontents with serious mental deficiencies.
Eighteen-year-old Robert Sherrod, twenty-one-year old car thief and
jailbird Gordon Hawkins and Albert Ives, a twenty-four-year old,
one-eyed half-wit. Together with the thirty-two-year old Simone, who
acted as a caseman as well as the Duchess’s lover, the gang knocked
off gas stations and rolled drunks.
daughter Lorraine was used as a sex lure by her criminally demented
mother. Lorraine, whose street name was Gypsy, would approach drunken
men with the promise of easy sex. Once alone, Spinelli’s thugs would
rob the man, sometimes taking his clothes.
Juanita thought of
herself as the brains of the outfit and when she wasn’t planning
small-time robberies, she was cooking and cleaning for her troupe of
young crooks. Acting as the teacher, Spinelli instructed the boys in
the fine arts of robbery, assault and car thieving. She taught them
that it was smarter to commit a steady stream of small crimes than one
big one like robbing a bank. She explained that the police would go
all out to find a bank robber, but would more than likely shrug at man
who woke up on the sidewalk with his wallet missing. Providing them
with the mother figure that they may not of ever had, Spinelli
delegated jobs for the gang and doled out their cut of the money as if
it were an allowance.
On a foggy night on
April 8, 1940, Ives shot barbeque stand owner Leland S. Cash while
attempting to rob him of the day’s receipts. The fifty-five year old
Cash was deaf and didn’t hear Ives when he demanded the money. Cash
reached into his pocket to turn up his hearing aid, but the dim-witted
Ives blasted the restaurateur before he had a chance to comply,
leaving him to die in the parking lot of his diner at Lincoln Way and
La Playa in San Francisco’s Sunset District.
The Duchess panicked,
packed up her gang and headed for Sacramento in a stolen car, robbing
a gas station on the way out of San Francisco. Settling at a cheap
hotel in the seedy side of town, the gang drank whiskey and planned to
make quick money by rolling drunks in Sacramento.
Much to the gang’s
dismay, the dim-witted Sherrod kept reliving the murder of Cash,
asking the Duchess and others if they thought that Cash had died right
away or if he had a lingering death. The hooligans sent Sherrod out on
an errand to discuss the situation.
They decided that
Sherrod must die before he talked too much. Ives suggested that they
shoot him in the head and make it look like an accident, but the
Duchess vetoed Ives’ idea. She didn’t want the boy to suffer. Knowing
that Sherrod was a weak swimmer, they decided to have a picnic along
the Sacramento River. After the cookout, they would go swimming in the
river, where they would push Sherrod into the middle of the swift
spring current and to his death.
The next day, the
inept gangsters piled into their stolen car and drove about ten miles
south of Sacramento near the Freeport Bridge with the intent to drown
the hapless teenager, but Sherrod was afraid of the fast-moving
current and refused to get into the water. The gang drove back to
Sacramento with Sherrod blabbing on about Cash’s murder.
Fearful that Sherrod
would go to the police, Simone and Spinelli decided on a better
half-baked plan. They put the plan into action the very next evening,
April 13, 1940.
After the two younger
children were put to bed, the Duchess had a get-together in her hotel
room. Sherrod was anxious for a drink and downed his first glass of
whiskey in one gulp. Asking for another drink, Spinelli poured him one
laced with chloral hydrate, popularly called knockout drops or a
Mickey Finn. Sherrod gulped down the drink and was soon groggy. After
he became unconscious, the gang beat the teenager before Hawkins and
Ives loaded him into the car and drove him back to the Freeport
As Hawkins drove,
Ives undressed Sherrod and put him in swimming trunks. At the bridge,
Ives dragged Sherrod out of the car and tossed him over the rail into
the ice-cold water. Ives placed Sherrod’s clothing nearby, so it would
look as if he went swimming. Little did Ives, Hawkins, Simone and
Spinelli know, but Sherrod was already dead by overdose from the
The next day, the
Duchess decided that the gang should drive to Reno. They needed to be
in a fresh town full of money and drunks. They planned on robbing
hitchhikers and motorists along the way. The real plan was to kill the
simple-minded yet violent Ives before he too started running off at
the mouth. Ives was getting full of himself, bragging about the two
murders that he committed. The plan was to kill him in the High Sierra
and dump his body off a tall cliff where he would never be found or
even looked for.
Sometime during the
ride, Ives saw Simone give Hawkins a knowing glance. At a gas station
near Grass Valley, he overheard the gang talking about a seven-hundred
foot cliff. Ives wasn’t as stupid as everyone thought, and he ran into
a nearby diner, through the kitchen, out the backdoor and into the
brush behind the diner. He waited until the gang drove away, when he
ran to a nearby California Highway Patrol post, where he told the
stunned officers his story with the crime gang.
The Duchess and her
crew were pulled over by the Highway Patrol in Truckee. Spinelli
pulled her innocent mother routine, but after the police found their
cache of weapons, the jig was up.
Brought to Sacramento
to face charges of Robert Sherrod’s murder, the gang quickly turned on
each other. Ives turned state’s evidence first and told the
authorities about every robbery, car theft and the two murders that
the gang committed.
Gypsy, who was
pregnant, claimed that she had been busy attending Continuation High
School in San Francisco and was too busy with school to know about the
criminal deeds that her mother was involved in. She was released from
custody. Eight-year-old Vincent and fifteen-year-old Joseph Spinelli
were placed in foster care.
The city of San
Francisco waived its right to the prisoners, and the gang was tried
for the Sacramento County murder of Robert Sherrod. Gordon Hawkins,
Michael Simone and Juanita Spinelli were sentenced to death in San
Quentin’s Gas Chamber.
After the usual
appeals and stunts, Ethel Leta Juanita Spinelli was led into the gas
chamber on November 21, 1941. Spinelli didn‘t mind when the warden
realized that the witnesses weren’t all assembled and made her wait a
few minutes while the spectators found their seats. Spinelli was the
first female put to death in California’s gas chamber.
One week later on
November 28, Simone and Hawkins were gassed simultaneously in San
Quentin’s double seat gas chamber. Ives was found Not Guilty By Reason
of Insanity and was sent to live out his life at the Napa State Asylum
for the Insane.
With her spectacles,
protruding ears and long nose ‘the Duchess’, as she became known,
might have looked like ‘a mouse wearing glasses’, as San Quentin
Warden Duffy described her, but she was tough and vicious. In the
1920-30s, when gang leaders were male, cold-blooded and ruthless,
Juanita was the terrifying exception. Although then in her late
thirties she dominated the gang of thugs which she and her partner
Michael Simeone had recruited; physically strong, she effortlessly
subdued any man who thought he could out-wrestle her. Nor was that
all, for one of her favourite weapons was the throwing knife, which
she used with uncanny accuracy. Ruled by fear and respect, her minions
obeyed her every order implicitly, robbing shops, hijacking lorries,
and mugging affluent looking residents.
But it was inevitable
that sooner or later someone was going to get killed, something that,
up to now, the Duchess and her gang had strenuously avoided. In one
raid on a café, the proprietor was shot dead and the gang had to flee.
Among those who finally holed up in an obscure hotel in Sacramento was
Robert Sherrard, a young man who had recently joined the gang and who
was strongly suspected by Juanita to be not as fully committed as the
others – that if arrested, might break under pressure and escape the
death penalty by telling everything he knew. Never one to take
chances, Juanita decided to dispense with his services, so after
rendering him unconscious by means of knock-out drops in his whisky,
the gang took him to the Sacramento River and dropped him over the
With no evidence of
violence, should the body have been washed ashore, the Duchess and
members of her court could have got away with it, had not another
member been arrested for a minor transgression and talked – and
talked! It spelt the end of Juanita’s reign of domination and terror.
Taken into custody she was charged with murder and sentenced to death.
Though defiant to the
end – when all appeals were rejected, she snarled, ‘My blood will burn
holes in their bodies!’ – a soft side of her nature was revealed when
she requested that when executed she might have photographs of her
three children and one grandchild pinned over her heart.
But few could beat her
when it came to sheer coolness under pressure. While imprisoned in San
Quentin Gaol the warden, Clinton Duffy, treated the inmates with
kindness and humanity, none more so than when, on 21 November 1941,
Juanita became the first woman in the USA to be executed by the gas
The warden and guards
escorted her there only to find an inexcusable hold-up – the large
number of officials and others necessary to witness the execution had
not arrived. Juanita stood by the open door of the chamber and studied
the two chairs therein, with the cyanide containers and the jars of
sulphuric acid placed in readiness for her. Refusing the offer to
return to her cell until the witnesses arrived, with incredible
insouciance she started to discuss the weather, for all the world as
if at home having a cup of tea. When eventually the audience arrived
and was seated facing the glass windows of the chamber, Warden Clinton
said, ‘It’s time – keep your chin up.’ The Duchess nodded. ‘OK,’ she
replied and, entering the chamber, coolly took her seat in one of the
chairs to await the end.
She was confirmed dead
ten and a half minutes after the cyanide eggs, dropping into the acid,
caused the deadly fumes to rise.
destined for the gas chamber in America usually wore minimal clothing
to reduce the amount of cyanide gas which could be absorbed into the
material and thereby pose a toxic risk to those entering the chamber
afterwards to remove the corpses. Problems arose when it was decided
that Bonnie Brown Heady and Carl Austin Hall, her accomplice in a
kidnapping and murder case, would be executed together, it taking too
long to gas one, then decontaminate the chamber before gassing the
other. This was solved by allowing both to wear the standard prison
uniforms. Further complications also arose regarding Bonnie’s hair;
being long and thick, the gas could accumulate in it, but reportedly
the risk was taken, with no dire results to anyone present – other
than to Bonnie herself.
Amazing True Stories
of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott