March’s Women’s History Month honored pioneers like architect Julia Morgan and labor organizer Dolores Huerta, who blazed a path into male-dominated professions. But another female pioneer is rarely mentioned: Juanita “Duchess” Spinelli, the first woman to be executed in California.
Born in Kentucky in 1889, Juanita said that she was the daughter of a 14-year-old Indian princess who died in childbirth. She also claimed a background as a professional wrestler, a madam, and as an associate of Detroit’s Purple Gang. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction in her biography since Juanita’s relationship to the truth was as a distant cousin twice removed.
Juanita, and her children, Lorraine and Joseph, led a nomadic life as they hitchhiked from place to place. She worked as a waitress in Texas, operated a gambling booth in a Salt Lake City carnival, and raised sheep during a short-lived marriage in Idaho.
Juanita returned to Texas, deposited her children in an orphanage and traveled to Mexico with Anthony Spinelli, a Detroit bank robber who was killed during a smuggling operation. Juanita then returned to Texas with a new child and moved the family to Detroit. Lorraine ran away to San Francisco to escape her domineering mother.
A disagreement with Motor City mobsters forced Juanita to leave town. Juanita took her sons and her new partner, 31-year-old Mike Simeone, and joined Lorraine in San Francisco. Using Lorraine as a lure, Juanita attracted three dimwitted delinquents: Albert Ives, 23, Robert Sherrod, 18, and Gordon Hawkins, 21.
Juanita played the role of a modern-day Fagin as she conducted a crime school at her apartment at 1421 Golden Gate Ave., about two blocks away from San Francisco’s fabled Painted Ladies. Instead of teaching her charges how to pick pockets, she taught them how to roll drunks, steal cars and hold up gas stations.
A woman of many talents, Juanita could sew a blackjack together out of leather and lead and hit a poker chip with a knife at 15 feet. Her admiring acolytes called her “The Duchess.”
Her child-rearing practices were unusual, to say the least. She used her daughter as bait to attract mugging victims and kept her young sons informed about the gang’s shady activities. “I don’t believe in keeping anything from children,” she said. Of course, she did have her limits. “I don’t believe in too many cocktails for little chaps. One or two mild whiskeys are enough.”
Her crime strategy was to have her gang commit weekly, small-scale holdups and car thefts and to stay under the police radar. She would plan the crimes then collect the money and weapons after each caper.
This strategy came apart on April 8, 1940, when Albert Ives shot barbeque stand owner Leland S. Cash on Ocean Beach during a robbery. The killing shattered accomplice Robert Sherrod’s fragile psyche and he began to talk about the murder with people outside the gang.
Some in the gang wanted to silence his loose tongue with a bullet, but the kind-hearted Duchess had a gentler idea. “I kind of liked that boy and wanted it to be a mercy killing,” she later testified. She drugged him unconscious; Sherrod was then dressed in a bathing suit and thrown into the Sacramento River where he drowned. Fearing he would be the next victim, Ives fled and revealed the gang’s activities to police.
Police caught the gang quickly. All of them, except Juanita, confessed. The Duchess, with maternal instincts worthy of Livia Soprano, blamed Sherrod’s murder on her daughter Lorraine.
Juanita’s fate was sealed when the gun that killed Cash was found in her purse. Her partners, Simone and Hawkins, were also sentenced to death. Ives was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, and Lorraine was released. After several stays of execution, Spinelli went to San Quentin’s gas chamber on November 21, 1941.
Women’s history teaches us that pioneering women have to be better than their male competitors in order to succeed. The Duchess was a case in point. Clinton Duffy, the noted San Quentin Warden, described Juanita as “the coldest, hardest character, male or female, I have ever known.”