|Madalynne Obenchain, via Library of Congress|
A certain type of woman has a natural gift for enlisting the support of a certain type of man for doing the damndest things, including homicide. Amazingly, Clara Phillips was not the only notorious example of that breed causing bloody havoc in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. Before there was Clara and her hammer, there was Madalynne Obenchain and her revolver. In both those cases, a man was at the center of the case, and in both cases, these extremely lethal ladies found men willing to move heaven and earth to literally help them get away with murder.
Obenchain’s story opened in what was then a pleasingly rustic Los Angeles canyon named Beverly Glen, where a young man named John Belton Kennedy owned a cabin. On the night of August 5, 1921, a railroad man, George Deering, was driving past this cabin on his way to work, when a hysterically sobbing woman ran into the road, begging him to stop. When he pulled over, she begged him to help an injured friend. The “friend” he found lying on the steps of the cabin was far more than just injured. John Belton Kennedy was dead. The beautiful young damsel in distress, who was the soon-to-be-famous Madalynne Obenchain, begged him to get a doctor—something Deering immediately realized was pointless. As there were no telephones in the area, neighbors watched over the body while Deering and Madalynne drove to the police station.
|John Belton Kennedy, fatally uncertain suitor.|
The statement Madalynne made there was essentially the same story she consistently stuck to through the end. The dead man, she explained, was her fiancé. On their way to have dinner at the Brentwood Club, they stopped off at his cabin to search for a lucky penny she had once hidden there. She heard a stranger’s voice say something she couldn’t make out, and then there was a gunshot. Kennedy cried, “Goodnight, Madalynne,” as he was shot a second time. She saw two men run off into the brush. And then she fled in horror and flagged down Deering.
Such a simple, heart-tugging tale told with such sweet earnestness by a beautiful, grief-stricken young woman. The DA wasn’t buying any of it. Six days after Kennedy’s death, she and a man named Arthur Courtney Burch were indicted for first-degree murder. Kennedy’s death, it became clear, had its roots in the very beginning of Madalynne’s lengthy and exceedingly complicated love life.
It all began in 1914, when the twenty year old Madalynne Connor became engaged to Ralph Obenchain, a man who later, for good reason, was to become immortalized by the Los Angeles prosecutors as “The Human Doormat.” Before many weeks had passed, however, she broke the engagement and went off to study drama in New York and Europe for two years. In 1917, while visiting her mother in California, she met John Belton Kennedy, son of a wealthy insurance broker. She and Kennedy soon fell in love, but there was one major obstacle to their romance—namely, Kennedy’s mother. Mrs. Kennedy was, as an acquaintance called her, a “smothering” mother. She did not want her baby marrying anyone—or doing much of anything that might loosen the apron strings—and she was hell-bent on preventing her son from having any other woman in his life. This led him to maintain a maddening indecisiveness with his relations with Madalynne that would eventually have fatal consequences.
Throughout 1917 and 1918, Kennedy would sometimes vow that he loved Madalynne and was determined to marry her, and at other times, when his courage faltered and the thought of Mother made his blood run cold, he would back off and urge his sweetheart to be patient. It all was enough to get on the nerves of the most saintly girl—and Madalynne was anything but a saint. In the midst of all this, Ralph Obenchain suddenly swooped into town to offer her his devoted shoulder to cry on. The upshot was, as the lady later put it, she “was engaged to Belton Kennedy, but somehow she married Mr. Obenchain.”
|Ralph Obenchain, Human Doormat.|
Her marriage did not prevent Kennedy from pleading with her to take him back. Within four days of the wedding, the two of them were again romantically involved. Within three months of the wedding, Obenchain agreed, for his precious Madalynne’s sake, to go back to Chicago and allow her to divorce him. Every week, he sent her $80 in alimony, and, frequently, signed blank checks as well.
Madalynne relocated to Evanston, Indiana to await her divorce, not to mention Kennedy, who had promised to meet her in Chicago. While there, she became reacquainted with yet another old male admirer, Arthur Burch. He took her for car rides and did her grocery shopping. Madalynne got her divorce, but her man failed to materialize. After a few months, she again got fed up with this male tower of mush and wrote Kennedy a letter vowing to go back to Obenchain if he did not immediately come to Evanston. Kennedy stayed in Los Angeles, and Madalynne, again, swore that they were through forever. However, she did not follow through on her threat to give Obenchain another chance.
After several months, she got a letter—rather past its sell-by date—from Kennedy announcing he was coming to claim her. She sent a frantic reply, asking if he had lost his mind entirely, and declaring that “I wouldn’t marry you even if I were free to do so—ever!”
In January of 1921 she returned to Los Angeles. Shortly after that, Kennedy was begging to be allowed to call on her, and by April, these two
Madalynne consoled herself with some traveling through Canada, down to San Francisco. She was, she later said, on the point of going to Honolulu and forgetting about men altogether when…she was bombarded with letters from J. Belton Kennedy, begging her to come back to Los Angeles and his waiting arms. For reasons that escape me, she did return to L.A., but she held off on the waiting arms.
The two continued their same old dance routine. Belton begged her to marry him, but never worked up the courage to actually take steps in that direction. Madalynne held him off, but never completely severed contact with him, either. In the meantime, back in Chicago, Arthur Burch was also in regular contact with Madalynne, urging his “Goddess” to return and settle down with him. On August 3, 1921, she wrote in her diary, “I am so tired of trouble.”
The trouble, of course, was just beginning.
At the end of July, Burch took the train to Los Angeles. A Pullman porter later testified he was carrying a shotgun with him. Upon his arrival, he took a hotel room—one that was directly opposite the offices where Kennedy worked--and rented a car. The hotel manager was to say that on July 26th, a woman he identified as Madalynne visited Burch in his room. (A quaint touch of bygone days—city law insisted that the hotel room door be kept open during her visit, for the sake of public decency.) The proprietor testified that Burch and Madalynne spent their time gazing out the window in the direction of Kennedy’s office.
|Arthur Burch, grocery shopper turned alleged hit man.|
On the afternoon of August 5th, a woman phoned the hotel asking for Burch. As he was out, she left a message that his “cousin” had called. When Burch got the message, he left, returned after a while, and soon left again carrying an item wrapped in newspaper that the manager thought looked very like the shape of a shotgun. The next morning, Burch checked out, very unwisely leaving behind him newspaper stories discussing Kennedy’s mysterious murder, and a telegram from Evanston. Having noted from the newspapers that Madalynne Obenchain happened to be from that city, the hotel manager decided to have a chat with the DA. His story—along with the fact that tire marks found on the murder scene matched those of the car Burch had rented—was enough to land Burch and Madalynne under arrest. They were left to reflect on the odd turns romance can take until their trials began.
The prosecution essentially argued that J. Belton Kennedy’s behavior as a lover was enough to make any woman reach for a gun, and to be honest, it’s a hard assertion to argue. Madalynne, for her part, maintained that her memory simply went blank after she heard the first gunshot. Burch, she stated, was nothing but a dear, platonic friend who was highly supportive of her feelings for her "true love," J. Belton Kennedy
What one reporter described as Madalynne’s habitual “maimed look of a dying antelope,” had an irresistible force on some men. As soon as she was arrested, she wired an SOS to Ralph Obenchain, who immediately quit his job and rushed to Los Angeles vowing to save her. He topped it all off by obtaining a marriage license and asking to remarry her in the County Jail. An unsentimental judge vetoed the idea. Obenchain went on to make the most of his new fame by co-producing and starring in "A Man in a Million," a film dramatizing his life and romance with Madalynne. It was announced that he would make personal appearances whenever the film was shown and donate the profits to his ex-wife's defense fund, but, alas, most theater owners refused to show his project, huffing that they wanted pictures that were “suitable for public showing without resorting to sensationalism as a basis.”
Madalynne's dying antelope look must really have been something. From this distance in time, it’s hard to figure what anyone saw in this woman, but during her incarceration, she made many warm friends among men and women alike. (When Clara Phillips joined her in prison, the two became pals, and oh, what girl-talk they must have shared.) Even some of the jurors would later openly fall under her spell. When she spent her first Christmas in prison, she received over a hundred gifts, including a thousand-dollar bill. The newspapers wrote about her as if she had been Lillian Gish starring in her latest melodrama rather than a murderess awaiting trial. They even published her poetry:
“Oh darling boy of my yesterdays,It was fortunate for Madalynne that bad verse was not a criminal offense. If it had been, she could have scarcely avoided the electric chair.
If you but only knew
How even now my hopes and plans
Hold no one else but you.
I’m sorry I returned here
For my heart will surely break,
But you said if I couldn’t forget you
To come back, dear, for your sake.”
Madalynne and Burch were tried separately, with the gentleman going first. Various people testified to seeing Burch and his car in the vicinity of the murder scene, but the most startling moment of the legal proceedings came when Chandler Sprague, a reporter from the “Los Angeles Examiner” announced that—in exchange for $4500—Burch gave him an interview stating that Madalynne had enlisted him to murder J. Belton Kennedy, who was an "evil influence" over her. The lady certainly had a knack for attracting men who were both weak in the will and weak in the head. Burch, of course denied he had said any such thing, even after Sprague also revealed that he had cannily secretly made an audio recording of the defendant admitting that Sprague's initial story about him was true. Fortunately for Burch, it was ruled that his little moment of soul-baring could not be used as evidence.
Burch's defense was simple: He wasn’t there at the time; even if he had been, he didn’t shoot Kennedy; and none of this mattered anyway, because he was mentally incompetent. The trial ended with a hung jury. His second trial had the same inconclusive result. When a third effort to send Burch to jail ended with yet another deadlocked jury, the D.A. finally gave up and turned him loose.
Madalynne’s trials—yes, I used the plural—were enlivened by the revelation that she had spent her time in jail getting romantically involved with yet another man who saw those antelope eyes and found them a temptation not to be resisted. He was Paul Roman, a convicted felon who had made her acquaintance in the County Jail before he was packed off to Folsom. The two carried on an ardent correspondence where—in exchange for Madalynne regularly sending him money—they arranged that Roman should come forward claiming that he had overheard two men standing on a street corner plotting the murder of John Belton Kennedy. Instead, in the hope of getting a reduced sentence, Roman ratted, and Madalynne had the embarrassing experience of hearing her love letters to him read aloud in court. (“Tonight I have a little pale pink rose near me—the rose will be your soft warm lips, dear Paul.”) The court also learned the quaint detail that Roman composed his replies with the aid of a library book, which he used to copy samples of the standard love letter, adding poetic flourishes such as, “What you need is a lot of attention, and I’m the guy to give it to you.” All this, of course, made Roman the ideal Judas of the story—the newspapers noted with great approval that his fellow convicts were hanging him in effigy for his betrayal of the lovely Madalynne.
The most curious touch to the Paul Roman interlude is that testimony was given—testimony which was neither confirmed nor refuted—that Roman and Kennedy had been friends. This witness—the owner of a costume store where she said the two men often rented women’s clothing—said that Kennedy once remarked that Roman threatened to beat him up if he ever married. If that was true, it is unknown what all this may have meant in regard to his murder, but it certainly provides interesting food for thought.
Madalynne’s juries were no more decisive than Burch’s had been. Trial number one: Hung jury. Trial number two: Ditto. Five trials, five panels hopelessly unable to agree that these two spectacularly incompetent, stupidly crude, blatantly self-incriminating defendants were guilty. Rumor had it that enough of the male jurors became enamored of Madalynne to ensure hopeless deadlock.
Never underestimate the power of a dying antelope gaze.
After her release, Madalynne spoke dreamily of serving humanity in a leper colony in the South Seas. She instead settled for a bungalow in Eagle Rock, where she studied acting, hoping to use her undoubted thespian talents for a more reputable sort of fame. (Those hopes were, alas, unfulfilled.) A few years later, she was back in the news briefly when Paul Roman, who had been released from Folsom, made a nuisance of himself by hanging around her house and threatening to kill her. He was sent back to jail, and her life quieted down again.
Early in 1927 Burch had John Belton Kennedy’s father arrested on a charge of assault and battery. It seems that John D. Kennedy entered the building where Burch worked and did his best to choke him. The jurors of Los Angeles may have been uncertain about how John Belton met his death, but Kennedy senior was not. (An obviously sympathetic judge gave Kennedy a suspended sentence of thirty days and the advice that if he should encounter Burch again, he should simply "go to the other side of the street.")
Our heroine last made headlines when Arthur Burch died in 1944. His will left his entire estate to “my lifelong friend” Madelynne Obenchain. Madalynne tactfully rejected the bequest, and the court wound up dividing Burch’s money and property between his mother and his son.