The judge called it the most “coldblooded, brutal murder” he had ever tried. News articles described it as the most horrible kidnapping in decades, or as the St. Louis Dispatch wrote, a “tale of evil, stupidity and corruption.”

On September 28, 1953, Bonnie Brown Heady walked into Notre Dame de Sion, a Catholic school in Kansas City, Mo., and posed as the aunt of Bobby Greenlease, the 6-year-old son of one of the city’s richest men. She and her boyfriend, Carl Austin Hall, kidnapped the boy and demanded ransom from his parents. They picked up a duffel bag of $600,000, the largest ransom ever paid at that point, and promised to return the boy safely to his family.

But the boy was already dead. Hall had shot him soon after the kidnapping and buried him in Heady’s backyard. It became Missouri’s most famous crime of the 20th century.

Just 81 days after the grisly killing riveted the country, the two kidnappers were executed side by side in a Missouri gas chamber. The swift punishment marked the last time a woman died by federal execution.

Now, almost seven decades later, another woman has been executed for a federal crime: Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted in 2007 of strangling a 23-year-old Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, and cutting the baby from her abdomen. The infant survived and was raised by her father. A federal jury in Kansas City convicted Montgomery of kidnapping resulting in death and unanimously recommended a death sentence.

Her execution took place early Wednesday morning after the Supreme Court lifted one stay imposed by a divided federal appeals court and refused to grant another last-minute request for a delay from her attorneys. They had argued that she was too mentally incompetent to be put to death under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, citing “brain damage and severe mental illness that was exacerbated by the lifetime of sexual torture she suffered at the hands of caretakers.”

But the Trump administration asked the Supreme Court to move forward with the execution.

In the final months of the Trump presidency, the administration has overseen 11 federal executions, the most in a calendar year in the United States in decades, and more in a presidential transition period than any other in U.S. history, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Montgomery was one of only a few women in the nation’s history to face death by federal execution, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. While about 10 percent of people arrested for murder are women, only about 2 percent of death sentences are imposed on women, Dunham said.

There are a few reasons for that, Dunham said. Not only do men commit significantly more murders than women, but the nature of the murders are also different. Convicted murderers eligible for the death penalty typically have a history of other aggravated crimes.

“That kind of criminal history is almost exclusively male,” Dunham said. Most women who have been executed, and many of those currently on death row, were convicted of murdering a spouse, romantic partner or child, Dunham said, while men on death row typically committed the murder in the course of another felony, such as robbery or rape.

Still, in the past 100 years, more than 40 women have been executed in the United States, and as of October 2020 there were 51 women on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The women that do face capital punishment are often depicted in trial and in the media as violating gendered expectations of women, said Mary Atwell, an expert on gender and the death penalty, and professor emeritus of criminal justice at Radford University.

“They were considered to be bad mothers or unfaithful wives or promiscuous or in some cases, lesbians,” Atwell said. The crimes “were treated as if they were so much worse because this is a woman that failed to be the woman that she should have been,” she said.

News coverage in 1953 often described Heady as a prostitute and alcoholic. Articles depicted her as overweight, “plump,” and “frowzy-haired.”

Many of the women on death row, including Montgomery and Heady, have also been victims of abuse themselves. Montgomery’s lawyers said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from a tortured childhood of being sexually trafficked and severely abused by her mother and sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Heady reportedly suffered physical abuse at the hands of men she dated, including Hall.

“She was a victim of sorts, I think,” said John Heidenry, author of the book “Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, The Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease.” Heidenry acknowledged that Heady consented to playing a crucial role in the brutal kidnapping and murder. Still, he said, “she was a victim of drink, she was a victim of circumstances and bad men. … My sympathy in some strange way aligns with both of these women.”

Heady, the widow of a bank robber, had come from a relatively well-to-do family before she fell into alcoholism and met Hall at a bar she frequented in St. Joseph, Mo., said Heidenry.

Hall, too, was a severe alcoholic. He had torn through a $200,000 inheritance from his mother and served jail time for robbing cabs.

“It didn’t take long to size her up,” Heidenry said. “He pretended that he loved her and told her that he loved her. He also needed a place to stay, and her house was convenient.”

Hall soon told Heady about a plan — a plot to kidnap the child of a wealthy man: Robert C. Greenlease, a millionaire who was one of Kansas City’s earliest and most successful car dealers.

News of the kidnapping of Bobby Greenlease, and the half dozen ransom notes and 15 telephone calls to the Greenlease family that followed, “captivated the imagination of the United States” Heidenry said.

After Hall had killed the boy and buried his body, he and Heady took the ransom money and traveled to St. Louis. Hall abandoned Heady, drunk and fast asleep, in a rented apartment. He kept almost all of the ransom money, leaving her with only $2,000.

Hall was later arrested by St. Louis police lieutenant Louis Shoulders, who had connections with the mobster and cab company boss Joe Costello. More than half of the $600,000 ransom went missing, and became the subject of nationwide intrigue. Heidenry, the author, remembers as a teenage boy in the St. Louis area searching for the missing money. FBI records later disclosed that Shoulders and Costello stole the $300,000.

Both Hall and Heady pleaded guilty to the kidnapping and murder, but toward the end of the trial, Hall’s attorney said his client hoped to take the blame off Heady. “He did this. He planned it,” the attorney said, according to news reports. Heady, her lawyer said, was but “putty in the hands” of Hall.

Still, an all-male jury took just 67 minutes to decide the punishment of death for both Heady and Hall, according to a Washington Post story at the time.

Hall looked at the floor as the clerk read the recommendation of punishment aloud. “Heady turned and half-smiled at Hall, but he did not see her,” a Post news article said.

Their execution, “was the swiftest punishment ever meted out under the Lindbergh Law,” one news article said, referring to the federal kidnapping statute passed by Congress after the historic Lindbergh kidnapping.

In the hours before they were taken to the gas chamber, “the killers had kept their strange composure,” a Washington Post reporter wrote. “They ate a last meal together at a table pushed into the corridor against the bars of Hall's cell and there they consumed a fried chicken dinner, chatted and smiled for half an hour.”

Shortly before midnight, they were taken from their cell to cars in the courtyard of the Missouri State Penitentiary.

“It was bitterly cold,” the article stated. “Mrs. Heady was placed in the first car, Hall in the second, and they were driven to the death house.”

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