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A.K.A.: "The Duchess"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Gang - Convicted of killing a gang member to prevent him from squealing about a murder
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
Status: Executed in San Quentin's gas chamber on November 21, 1941

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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.


Juanita Spinelli

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 victims.

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 three children.


The Duchess

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 running out.

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 drop.”

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

Juanita Spinelli’s 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.

Spinelli’s teenage 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 Bridge.

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 chloral hydrate.

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 bridge.

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 chamber.

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.

Those subsequently 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



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