California · Executions · Female Killers

The Duchess: first woman executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber

November 21, 1941
San Quentin, California
Juanita “The Duchess” Spinelli becomes the first woman executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber

On April 14, 1940, Spinelli and the gang she ran had a picnic to discuss another member, Robert Sherrard, who was “talking too much” about recent robberies they had committed. To silence him, Sherrard was given knock-out drops, his unconscious body driven to a river, and he was thrown in to drown. To make the murder appear as a suicide, he was dressed in a bathing suit and his regular clothing folded neatly on the shore. The police didn’t buy the plot and quickly zeroed in on Sherrard’s gang. The rest testified against Spinelli and her common law husband, and both were sentenced to death.

The prison warden said of Spinelli after her death: “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.”

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