A Face That Let Her Get Her Way

Madalynne Obenchain

With her soft eyes, smooth skin, and an innocent smile, Madalynne Obenchain’s beauty transcends the years. Her story, however, is anecdotal proof that we can’t judge a book by its cover — or, if you prefer, beauty is only skin deep.
 
In the early part of the 20th century Madalynne left a trail of men in her wake — some who were willing to kill for her and others who were willing to pay to get her out of the deepest trouble one can get into.
 
It’s not quite accurate to call Madalynne a black widow because she was only accused of one murder and most of the men who stumbled into her web emerged alive; instead, Madalynne was a vamp: a woman whose allure could drag a man to his doom.
 
And Madalynne did have allure. In addition to her beauty she was rich and smart: Madalynne was once called the most beautiful co-ed at Northwestern University, which even in the 1920s was an exclusive private college. She possibly had other qualities that made men flip over her, but her skills in the bedroom were never discussed at either of her two trials for the murder of one of the men who chased her.
 
Of course, Madalynne’s inclusion in the Register is not because she went through men the way some of us use tissues; what qualifies her for an entry here is because she was once the center of one of the 20th century’s many Trials of the Century. Between 1921 and 1923, Madalynne and her co-conspirator, Arthur C. Burch, were tried a total of five times for the murder of one of the few men Madalynne could not twist around her little finger.
 
She received the best defense money could buy thanks to her wealthy ex-husband, who those same reporters dubbed “The Human Doormat” or, more favorably, the “Man in a Million.” In the end Ralph Obenchain’s money helped secure her freedom despite a hillock of evidence that pointed to her guilt.
 
Burch, who loved the unattainable Madalynne until his dying day, also benefited from Obenchain’s largess and got away with murder.
 
Madalynne’s story begins in 1914 while she was a 21-year-old student at Northwestern University outside Chicago. Prior to that time Madalynne Connor had spent most of her life in exclusive boarding schools, thanks to the wealth of her father, who was apparently unable or unwilling to care for his daughter because his wife had left him.
 
While at Northwestern Madalynne met and was pursued by Ralph Obenchain, a lawyer-in-training. In 1915 the “well-knit president of the senior law school class” proposed to Madalynne, who accepted.
 
Ralph ObenchainObenchain would have been a good catch if that is all Madalynne wanted. He was handsome, came from money, and had a good future ahead of him. But at that time Madalynne wasn’t quite ready to settle down. A spat a few months after the banns were published ended the engagement for the time being.
 
After her father’s will left her independently wealthy, Madalynne bid goodbye to Obenchain as well as to a much more shy admirer: Arthur Burch. Although he too came from a good family (his father was a minister), Burch was never much more than a substitute for Obenchain when the aspiring lawyer was too busy to spend time with Madalynne.
 
Madalynne headed to Southern California where she reunited with her estranged mother. Around the same time she met the one man that apparently she could never tame: J. Belton Kennedy, an insurance broker from a wealthy Los Angeles family. For the first time in her life she was the pursuer rather than the pursued while Kennedy remained standoffish. Madalynne chased Kennedy with the same energy that her suitors expended on her.
 
The accepted reason for Kennedy’s reticence to become intimate with Madalynne is perhaps the oldest in the book: a domineering mother who felt that no woman was good enough for her baby. While Kennedy’s mother was heavy-handed and overbearing, whether that truly explain’s Kennedy’s reserved manner is debatable. His conduct does seem to indicate a great deal of confusion and reluctance to commit to an intimate relationship. In the Roaring 20s, a man with Kennedy’s family background and standing was not allowed to be gay, and no newspaper would ever hint that Madalynne was only one of millions of women who held no attraction for him. Of course, it is entirely possible that Kennedy just did not like her.
 
“Belton felt strong stirrings, but the experienced Madalynne had to tell this timid young man he was in love,” wrote one reporter in a wire service story after the case had been concluded. “Before this his dealings with women had been formal and cautious. His mother often warned him that all women were schemers. Consequently, Belton hadn’t met many girls.”
 
The girls he had met were nothing like Madalynne. Throughout the rest of her life she would claim that she was truly in love with Belton Kennedy, but a more likely explanation is that she viewed the young man as a challenge. After all, he was the first man whoever failed to fawn over her.
 
Their relationship went beyond cordiality. They exchanged poems and letters, but while she wrote that she wanted “to tell the world” about their love, he replied that he wanted to keep the relationship secret from his parents.
 
“If you won’t marry me, I’m going back to my friends in Evanston,” she wrote in 1916.
 
When Kennedy demurred, she made good on the threat, left California, and headed back east. There she found Obenchain working as an attorney for Aetna Insurance and still single. The pair picked up where they left off. In addition she reconnected with Burch, who was married with a child. It was clear that Burch still carried a torch for the beautiful woman.
 
kennedyburchMadalynne also corresponded with Kennedy who begged her to “have faith” that one day his parents would come around and allow him to marry. Over the next several years Madalynne and Kennedy set several dates for a wedding only to have Kennedy’s cold feet prompt him to cancel them. Madalynne was also keeping time with Obenchain and continuing to string along poor Burch.
 
The influenza epidemic of 1918 struck both Kennedy and Madalynne; the woman who nursed her back to health was paid for by Burch. Meanwhile, Obenchain also visited her during her convalescence and proposed marriage.
 
“I’ll never forget (Kennedy),” she responded. “I’m going to him as soon as I am able.”
 
She returned to the West Coast, this time followed by Obenchain, who quit his job for her. Obenchain had to be happy playing second fiddle to Kennedy, who was still hesitant to settle down with Madalynne. Just happy to be in the orchestra, Burch willingly accepted demotion to third chair.
 
Kennedy did welcome her back, however; but when he continued to balk at marriage, Madalynne went back to Obenchain, who renewed his proposal for marriage.
 
“In a fit of pique Madalynne married Obenchain on Jan. 1, 1919,” a journalist reported during one of her trials. “The next day she told him she ‘would always love Belton.'”
 
Apparently resigned to his fate as Madalynne’s second choice, Obenchain returned to Chicago while his bride stayed in Los Angeles. Madalynne’s strange bluff apparently worked on Kennedy. He berated her for her “silly act” and told her his parents had acquiesced to his marriage.
 
Madalynne returned to Chicago where Obenchain readily agreed to a divorce.
 
“I’ll give you anything you want,” Obenchain reportedly said. “I just want you to be happy.” Obenchain was a man of his word. The divorce was granted 18 days after the marriage and Madalynne returned to Los Angeles expecting to marry the one man she apparently loved. It was not to be.
 
Despite what he told her after learning that she had married Obenchain, Kennedy continued to act aloof toward Madalynne and sealed his fate. In the spring of 1921 Kennedy made plans to marry Madalynne in Banff, Alberta, Canada, in June but once again he backed out. Next he made a date for a nice weekend in San Francisco and stood her up.
 
By July Madalynne had endured enough. She sent a telegram to Burch, asking that he come to Los Angeles in two weeks.
 
“I need you and your friend I had last summer,” the telegraph read. It was signed, perhaps inviting hubris, “Goddess.”
 
Even more wrapped around Madalynne’s little finger than anyone else, Burch quickly left his wife and child and headed west. He checked into the Russell Hotel across the street from Kennedy’s office and awaited instructions from his crush. The “friend” Madalynne referred to was never identified, but it is assumed that it was the shotgun Burch brought with him.
 
From behind jail bars a few weeks later, Burch denied that Madalynne sent him any telegram.
 
“I am in jail and under indictment for his murder because I threw part of a torn telegraph blank in a waste paper basket in my room at the Russell Hotel,” Burch told United Press reporter Frank Bartholomew. “They charge that this telegram was from Madalynne Obenchain, telling me to come to Los Angeles from Illinois. That is absurd. It was a message from my business partner. I will prove it.”
 
While not as exact as determining a suspect’s location from cell tower pings, it was not difficult to establish through Western Union records that Burch was lying to Bartholomew. According to testimony at Burch’s trial(s), he and Madalynne saw each other several times in the days before Kennedy was murdered.
 
While he was in Los Angeles Burch rented a car from a garage owned by Dick Parsons. After reading of Kennedy’s slaying and Burch’s involvement, Parsons told police that Burch was frequently in the company of a woman when he rented the vehicle. The cops took Parsons to a line up where he identified Madalynne as that woman.
 
It was Aug. 5, 1921 when Kennedy and Madalynne were driving through the foothills above Los Angeles where Kennedy had a cabin in Beverly Glen — an area bordered by Mullholland Drive on the north and Sunset Boulevard on the south. Madalynne asked Kennedy to drive to his cabin where she had once — these are her words — buried a lucky penny beneath a rock. Kennedy agreed and headed up the hills toward his death.
 
No one except his killer expected Kennedy to show up at his cabin that night, which makes Madalynne’s description of what happened next seem unbelievable.
 
When the couple arrived at the cabin they began heading up a long staircase from the parking area to the cabin itself in search of Madalynne’s lucky penny. It was too dark to see without lights, so Kennedy turned back toward the car to get some matches.
 
“Just as he started down the stairs to the car for matches, I heard a man’s voice and then a shot,” Madalynne told the police. “I heard him say ‘good night, Madalynne.’ I screamed. Then there was a second shot and I ran down the steps to Belton.
 
“Two roughly dressed men stood in the underbrush near the stairs. Both wore caps. That’s all I could see of them before they ran away.”
 
Madalynne ran to Beverly Glen Boulevard where she met George Deering driving on his way to work. She convinced him to return to the cabin where he found Kennedy.
 
It was obvious that Kennedy was dead; he had been hit by a blast from a shotgun to the head. The blast tore a two-inch hole below his right ear. The second shot missed and splintered a tree nearby.
 
By the time the police arrived there were plenty of gawkers, some of whom had helpful information for investigators. Elizabeth Besanty, who, along with her husband, Louis, had taken Madalynne to the Beverly Glen police station, recalled that someone who didn’t belong in the area had visited Kennedy’s cabin in the days before the murder.
 
“There was a young fellow up here a few days ago,” Elizabeth said. “He asked which one was Kennedy’s cabin.”
 
The police found new tire tracks near a gravel pit that didn’t match any vehicles in the area — a pair of Lancaster cord back tires.
 
While detectives combed over the crime scene, Madalynne was being questioned down at the Beverly Hills police station. When she could not explain how anyone might have known the couple was going to be in Beverly Glen that night, police began to suspect her of something more sinister than looking for a lucky penny at an unlucky time. She was held at the police station as a material witness.
 
The murder hit the local newspapers and even more witnesses came out of the woodwork with clues for police. The one who can honestly claim to have broken the case open was Thomas Haley, manager of the Russell Hotel. He had an interesting story to tell.
 
“It was July 24, about 3 o’clock when this fellow telephoned me asking if I had a room overlooking South Broadway,” Haley told Los Angeles County Prosecutor Thomas E. Woolwine. “He gave his name as Arthur C. Burch and asked me where he could rent a car. A woman he said was his cousin called on him often.
 
“Yesterday (the day of the murder), this cousin called in the afternoon…I gave Burch the message when he got back. He went to his room and came right down with a package about a yard long, wrapped in newspaper. He left about 7:30 and returned around 11 without the package.”
 
At this time this was the only lead police had to follow and Woolwine confronted Madalynne with the information that the cops were on to Burch. She immediately lawyered up and stopped cooperating. It didn’t make much difference to Woolwine who felt he had enough to take to a grand jury.
 
The grand jury agreed and indicted both Madalynne and Burch for the murder of Belton Kennedy.
 
Justice moved fast in the 1920s and on Nov. 21, 1921, Burch stood trial. The prosecutor’s explanation to the jury was that Madalynne was a woman scorned who reached out to a former beau who was willing to do anything she asked to gain her approval.
 
Evidence presented at the trial included the testimony of a Pullman porter who told jurors that Burch carried a shotgun with him on the train from Evanston, Ill. to Los Angeles.
 
Haley, the hotel proprietor, and Parsons, who rented Burch a car, also testified and identified Burch as the man with whom they dealt. Prosecutors showed that the mileage for a round trip from Parsons’s garage to Beverly Glen and back was exactly 44 miles, which is what was reflected on the odometer when Burch returned the car.
 
Both Elizabeth and Louis Besanty identified Burch as the man who was scoping out Kennedy’s cabin before his murder. The medic in the county jail also testified that he removed a small thorn from Burch’s knee. Similar thorns were found at the murder scene.
 
Burch took the stand in his own defense, recanting the claim that he had come to LA to visit a business associate. This time he told the court that he came to visit his “platonic friend” Madelynne. The “friend” to whom she referred was the nurse who had cared for her when she was ill with the flu. The nurse backed up his story that he asked her to accompany him to LA.
 
He held up well under cross-exam: “Burch’s demeanor during the cross-examination was one of injured innocence,” was how one reporter described it.
 
It took the jury three days of deliberation to announce it was hopelessly deadlocked at 11-1 for conviction. A mistrial was declared and the prosecutors vowed to retry the case.
 
They then turned their attention to Madalynne, a much tougher case. Recalling the witnesses who could place her with Burch, the prosecution also bolstered its case by reading more than 50 letters between Madalynne and Kennedy, and produced a surprise witness who rocked the courtroom with his testimony.
 
Paul Romans, another inmate in the jail had apparently made Madalynne’s acquaintance while they were incarcerated. In addition to testifying that she had asked him to claim he had heard two blackmailers discussing the murder of Kennedy, he revealed a yet-unseen side of Madalynne.
 
His testimony may have been false, but the series of love letters Madalynne sent him were not and they were read for the jury.
 
“Tonight I have a little pale pink rose near me–the rose will be your soft warm lips, dear Paul; Your nearness as I try to sleep seems like a caress.”
 
What you need is lot of attention, and I’m the guy to give it to you,” he wrote back, sounding more like a con than a poet.
 
Madalynne’s trial lasted 30 days, but it took the jury just two days to determine that it also was deadlocked. This time it was 9-3 for conviction.
 
Over the next couple of years the County of Los Angeles tried without success to convict Burch and Madalynne, but after a total of five deadlocked juries the state tossed in the sponge.
 
Madalynne disappeared from the newspapers until 1925 when the Oakland Tribune reported that she was going to give a recital at the county jail.
 
Ralph Obenchain married again and reportedly never saw Madalynne after the trial concluded. He died at the age of 49 in 1939.
 
When Burch, who was divorced twice after the trial, died in 1944, he left Madalynne $1,500 in his will, saying she was his lifelong friend.
 
Madalynne never remarried.