Fame has an sordid counterpart that few set out to achieve: notoriety. The adjective notorious is never positive, and very rarely can the chain which links it to a name be broken.
Small-town girl Madeline Webb was lured by the bright lights of New York City in search of fame and fortune. Instead all she achieved was fleeting notoriety followed by a life of loneliness behind prison walls.
It might have been worse. Had she been a man she would have ended up in Sing Sing’s electric chair like her two partners in crime.
Her sad tale begins in begins in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the early 1930s when the 20-year-old fresh-faced young woman with an education degree from Oklahoma State University left her small hometown with a dream to become a Powers model.
Her strict Baptist mother was dead-set against Madeline heading to Hollywood, but her father, who had always spoiled his only daughter and never knew how to say no, overruled her. For the first few years he helped subsidize her career while Madeline chased her dream.
Madeline was shooting for the top by looking for a chance with John Powers. The starmaker had help launch the careers of such immortals as Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and dozens of others (some other alumni include Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, and a bunch of people whose faces and bodies readers probably know, but whose names mean little to nothing).
She would not prove to be the exception to the rule that people who head to Hollywood in hopes of hitting it big almost always fail.
“In Hollywood pretty, small-town girls like Madeline Webb aren’t even a dime-a-dozen,” one reporter covering her trial wrote. “They’re a nickel a hundred.”
Eventually Madeline lost hope in the Hollywood dream and traded it for an equally unlikely one of making it on Broadway. In 1938 she scraped together enough money from her waitressing job and headed to the Great White Way. For a time she danced a little and did some minor pin-up modeling (There were rumors that she did some nudes and danced naked at “an undraped show” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but she denied the allegation and no photos ever surfaced).
Things got even tougher when her father died and Madeline’s mother took his entire estate and poured it into the family grocery store. The support dried up for good. But Madeline was determined to carry on.
But time and the stress of big city life began to erode her “nickel a hundred” looks and the always elusive jobs began to get fewer and further between. Her bright-eyed farm girl appearance began to be replaced by a care-worn and faded countenance that was now usually hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses thanks to her near-sightedness.
“I know I have given you a lot of trouble this year, and I am sadder about it than you will ever know,” she wrote her 60-year-old widowed mother. And with a bit of foreshadowing of her future, she added: “This town scares me to death. People will stop at nothing, including murder, for money. Oh! How I wish I were home.”
However, Madeline failed to make good on her wish and sometime during her stay in New York she met and fell in love with a ex-convict and wife deserter named Eli Shonbrun.
His story was similar in many ways to Madeline’s. He was a failed big band singer who had once had a gig in a Long Island cabaret using the name Teddy Sanborn. When the club folded thanks to the Depression, Shonbrun auditioned for bandleader Glenn Miller, but failed to get the job. So Eli turned to petty theft to keep a roof over his head. He specialized in jewel robbery with his partner John “Crooked Nose” Cullen. Shunbrun was already wanted by police for robbing a woman in Virginia and another in New York City.
At her murder trial Madeline denied knowing that the man she called Eddie was a thief.
“He never discussed his business with me and I never asked,” she said. “I had been pampered since childhood and I had the attitude that I would be taken care of and there was no need to ask how.”
Madeline did know, however, that Shonbrun was married and separated from his wife. Like so many gullible women, she bought the line that his marriage was over and that he was seeking a divorce. After they set up a household in a midtown hotel called The Sutton, Shonbrun presented Madeline with diamond engagement ring that later turned out to be stolen. Whenever they met one of Shonbrun’s shady friends he introduced her as his “bride.”
It was clear that Madeline loved him.
“He is adorable and sweet, intelligent and well-bred,” she told a reporter before her trial. “He is so wonderful and so sweet, so good to me.”
The end for Madeline came in the spring of 1942 when the telephone rang in the apartment of 52-year-old Susan Flora Reich. The fates were rarely kind to Susan. A Jew, Susan was deported from Austria to Poland after the Anschluss with Germany, but managed to escape to the United States prior to the establishment of the Polish ghettos with her husband, Marion Reich, and her 79-year-old aunt Eliza Klamman. Unlike other refugees, The Reichs managed to save some of their wealth during their exodus and Susan enjoyed wearing flashy jewelry.
On March 21, 1942, the phone rang in Susan’s apartment and was answered by Susan’s elderly Aunt Eliza. The woman’s voice on the other end of the line identified herself as “the actress” Madeline Webb, and claimed to have met Susan at a party where they struck up a casual friendship. Susan was not in at the time, so Aunt Eliza took a message. The caller said she had recently been married and wanted to invite Susan to lunch at her Sutton Hotel apartment to meet her husband.
Two days later Susan rang the bell outside the apartment shared by Shunbrun and Madeline. She entered the apartment and was never seen alive again.
When she failed to return home, her husband called the police who tracked her down the next day at the apartment. She was dead, having been strangled with a scarf. A $1,500 ring was missing from her finger. It was a bad haul for the thieves, but it was all she wore that day.
It was not hard for police to close the case. As far as criminal ploys go, the only way the killers could have done a worse job was to ask Susan to bring the neighborhood beat cop.
Soon after, Madeline, Shonbrun, and Cullen were in jail, facing first-degree murder charges. Ironically, her arrest probably was as close to greatness as Madeline would ever come. The lead detective on the case was Thomas Tunney, brother of heavyweight champ and one of boxing’s all-time greats, Gene Tunney.
The three-carat diamond was found separate from its settings in one of Madeline’s slips in the shoddy hotel in the Bronx where they were hiding out.
Once in custody, Madeline claimed no knowledge of the murder.
Shonbrun met Madeline the night of the murder on a street corner and told her they had been locked out the hotel because they could not pay the rent. She was not particularly surprised at that news.
“It had happened to us so often before,” she told the police. “We were always being put out of hotels, always have to leave our clothes behind. Once we spent the night in Penn Station.”
But even if her ignorance of the crime was true, eventually Shunbrun must have told her something.
“I have lived through the toughest week of my life,” she told Det. Tunney. “I have had to live like a rat, ducking in and out of dorrways, expecting to be arrested at any moment.”
One of the witnesses against the trio was Shunbrun’s uncle and fence who was the first one picked up by police. He quickly rolled on the rest of the gang after admitting knowledge of the planned crime. After turning state’s evidence to avoid the chair, he told authorities that it was Madeline who made the “come on” phone call.
Aunt Eliza swore that it was Madeline’s voice on the other end of the phone, but Madeline denied this. Bolstering her claim that she had no involvement, both Shunbrun and Cullen insisted she had no part in it. They confessed their own parts, and said the uncle was the mastermind and that he was skilled in imitating women’s voices.
The most the prosecution would concede was that Madeline was not at the scene of the crime during the robbery and murder. However, she was still a party to it, and equally culpable.
The trial was a perfunctory affair with the exception that Madeline was perhaps her own worst enemy. She repeatedly tossed epithets at assistant district attorney Jacob Grumet (“You filthy so-and-so. I don’t want your kind of justice!”) and constantly embracing Eli Shunbrun. The jury returned guilty verdicts with no recommendation of mercy for Shunbrun and Cullen and they were executed on April 29, 1943, two of 10 killers electrocuted that year.
The jury recommended mercy for Madeline and Judge Jonah Goldstein agreed, sentencing her to life without parole.
When the cell door closed at the Westfield Women’s Prison in Westchester County just north of the city, Madeline went to pieces, Warden Henrietta Additon reported. For two days she convulsed with sobs and beat her hands raw against the bars. Additon, one of the most-regarded female penologists in the U.S., was afraid that her new prisoner would end up in an asylum. But as the days passed Madeline adapted to the anonymity that a prison number brings and was soon a model inmate. Additon saw something useful in her charge.
Many of the women in the prison were poorly educated at best and as such could not hold a job. They were not interested in being taught by the screws, so time-and-time again the cell doors revolved around them. Additon wondered if they might be willing to learn from one of their own, particularly one who nothing to gain by helping them.
“I felt there was much more to this girl than appeared on the surface,” Additon said later.
Madeline accepted Additon’s proposal and finally began to put her OSU degree to use.
“Once we convinced her that there was a constructive job she could do in this institution she responded at once,” Additon said. “She had the most difficult of all the students to work with and she had to do a great deal of studying herself to handle her job. But she worked at it, and she got results.”
Later she began curating the prison library. She also returned to performing, directing plays but never taking a role onstage herself.
In 1963, a magazine reporter did a feature on Madeline, now 48, and reported that the once-selfish and pampered dancer had matured behind bars.
“She has a wonderful way with people and a very deep and sincere interest in helping the next one.” said the superintendent at the time, Warden Lillian Fish. “You can’t fake that in an institution like ours. You either have it or you don’t.”
Although she became eligible for parole thanks to a change in New York lifer laws, the parole board repeatedly passed over Madeline Webb without explanation. At the time the article was published (1963), the average lifer with a 20-to-life term served just 13 years. Madeline was 7 years over the mean.
She remained hopeful of release one day, thanks to the support of her jailers and even Judge Goldstein who sentenced her in 1942.
“I have made the most of my 20 years,” she told the reporter. “I feel I can still make a contribution to society — in a life outside of prison.”
Madeline would have to wait another 4 years before Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted the balance of her sentence. She was released in 1967 and returned to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where for the rest of her life she courted neither fame nor notoriety.
Tag Archive for Oklahoma
Fame has an sordid counterpart that few set out to achieve: notoriety. The adjective notorious is never positive, and very rarely can the chain which links it to a name be broken.
For those who have doubts about the fairness of the American justice system, the murder trial of Phil Kennamer in 1935 may provide a bit of assurance that sometimes, no matter who the defendant knows, justice can be served (that is if you do not mind a manslaughter conviction where murder may be appropriate).
Kennamer was the pampered son of a prominent federal judge from Tulsa, Okla., who was convicted of killing a friend, John Gorrell, shortly after Thanksgiving Day 1934 despite having a high-powered former state attorney general leading his defense and some of the country’s preeminent psychiatrists of the day testifying that he was insane at the time he shot Gorrell twice in the head.
Kennamer’s unusual dual defense of temporary insanity and self-defense failed to completely sway the jury of 12 of Oklahoma’s common folk who discarded the circumstantial evidence of murder in favor of a manslaughter charge. The judge still came down hard on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison. After the state appellate court denied Kennamer’s appeal his supporters pleaded for a commutation from the governor, but those fell on deaf ears and the wavy-haired erudite society boy with heavy eyelids and over-sized ears ended up serving a good part of his sentence before being given a chance to redeem himself (but we’ll get to that later).
Gorrell’s murder shined a light on an exclusive “club” within Tulsa’s well-heeled: The children of what we now call nouveau riche made wealthy by the nation’s ever-increasing hunger for oil. The Hy Hat Club, as the brats dubbed themselves, was a group of swells and younger post-debs who seemed to have it all and wanted more. By 21st century standards most of what the Hy Hatters did was tame, but for the early 1930s it was beyond scandalous.
Consider the club’s informal initiation ritual: Drink 10 glasses of beer, hop into a car, and drive around a corner at 60 mph. Once accepted, the Hy Hatter was invited to drink heavily, drive fast, and, according to a contemporary newspaper account, smoke “the stupefying marihuana weed and other things yet more sinister.”
One anonymous Hy Hatter explained the youthful ennui this way to an International News Service reporter:
The whole trouble in Tulsa society is this: Forty years ago these millionaires did not have a dime. They were workers in the oil fields and their wives were just ordinary girls — some of them waitresses and the like. Then comes the golden flood of oil and gold. They had millions all of a sudden. They showered money, money, money on their children. Too many expensive automobiles, too much time to do nothing.
In all fairness to the alarmist reporter, some of the Hy Hatters were involved in things more sinister (which also will be revealed later). The Register will defer to you about whether smoking the “stupefying marihuana weed” is sinister, but we can all stipulate that drinking and driving is perhaps not sinister, but is stupid and unacceptable behavior in any decade or among any group.
Young Kennamer was one of the more wild Hy Hatters and good friend of the group’s leader, Sidney Bora, who was described as “President of the Oil Town’s ‘Flaming Youth’ Organization.” Sidney would come to a tragic end of his own, but (you guessed it) we’ll get to that later.
Prior to coming to the attention of the Tulsa police for his involvement in Gorrell’s death, Kennamer wrecked three cars, emerging unscathed from two and with a gash to his forehead from the last, which he displayed with the pride of a German military school student sporting dueling scars. He had been trouble from the get-go, according to his family. The Oklahoma Court of Appeals summarized Kennamer’s resume thusly:
Judge Kennamer, father of the defendant, testified at length as to the conduct, actions, and declarations of his son Phil from the time of his birth up to the night of the tragedy. He stated that he had sent him to the New Mexico Military School in 1930; that he ran away from there the following spring; that in 1931 he sent him to the Southeastern Normal School, at Durant; the next year went to San Angelo, Tex.; that he disappeared from San Angelo; later he was located at New Orleans; that when he returned to Tulsa he entered high school, later quit high school, attended Cascia Hall three or four months; that he had a very emotional disposition and at times he was very unreasonable in his conversations and actions; that he had told him seriously that he wanted to join a revolution in some foreign country. He talked of joining the French Foreign Legion, saying it would be a good way to banish himself from decent society; that he secured various positions for his son, when he started out to make a living for himself, and he would work a few weeks and quit…
Kennamer, Gorrell, and probably Bora, were at the center of the things more sinister performed by the Hy Hatters, who, bored with drinking, getting high, and driving fast, began to turn to crime. At first the offenses were petty, like stealing and selling dope, but eventually the little imps began to tire of those. Most Hy Hatters were somewhere in that hazy area between high school and college and although they were children of privilege, pocket money was still hard to come by thanks to a mania for high-stakes gambling. The inner circle wanted money and they wanted to get it fast and as easily as possible — preferably without any outside work or heavy lifting. Their first thought was extortion. The Hy Hatters tried to get other rich but not-too-bright youths into compromising situations usually involving sex and then taking incriminating Kodaks, but while smoking pot and drinking bathtub gin was all right in Tulsa, old-time sexual mores still held sway in the flat lands of Oklahoma and there weren’t enough loose girls or boys to make that scheme profitable. Something else would have to be done.
The ’30s was the decade of the outlaw, and one of the more popular crimes for gangsters was kidnapping. Two high-profile snatches had been made right around the time things began to go bad for the Hy Hatters. The Barker-Karpis gang held Edward Bremer, son of a wealthy Minnesota Banker and brewery magnate, hostage until his family came up with $200,000 ransom, while closer to home, Machine Gun Kelly kidnapped oil wildcatter Charles Urschel from his home in Oklahoma City. Kelly’s crime ended up with him being captured and sent to Alcatraz, but for a while, it looked as if Creepy Karpis and Ma Barker had gotten away with theirs.
Allegedly Gorrell came up with the idea to kidnap one of Tulsa’s debutantes while he was in college in Kansas City. Unfortunately, the target he chose was the pretty young woman that Kennamer was infatuated with.
Brazen-headed Virginia Wilcox was the 19-year-old daughter of Tulsa oil magnate Homer F. Wilcox. Virginia was one of those women who is easy to hate for all the wrong reasons. She had it put together: Not only was she wealthy, but she was confident, smart and beautiful. Virginia was not part of the Hy Hat crowd but she dated Phil Kennamer four or five times. She would later testify that she did not know John Gorrell at all.
There was no romance between Virginia and Phil Kennamer; in fact she had expressed her dislike for the wild son of the federal judge. At his trial when the defense put forward the notion when Gorrell announced that the target of the kidnapping plot was Virginia Wilcox, something snapped in Phil’s besotted head. He began to see himself as Virginia’s protector who had to slay the man who sought to harm her. The prosecution countered with testimony that Kennamer’s infatuation had turned into a love-hate obsession that eliminated his motive of protection.
“He said that he was very fond of Miss Wilcox and thought a lot of her at one time, and she didn’t care for his attention, that she disliked them and spurned them,” testified Hy Hatter Otto Kramer. “He felt very bitter towards it all, not only to her but to her family, and he expressed himself as going to get even sometime, if it took him to his last days.”
Regardless, when Gorrell put forward his plan, Kennamer was unwilling to let it move forward. Clearly his reticence was not because he was afraid:
“Kennamer said he knew a place … where they sell beer and sandwiches,” one of Gorrell’s friends, Ted Bath, said from the stand. “He knew that on Monday mornings, probably early in the morning, one or two o’clock, there would be a sum of money there, probably three or four hundred dollars, and suggested hat he and I and John should hijack this place and get that money.”
When Bath declined, Kennamer suggested the unsuccessful blackmail scheme.
“He suggested then that he would defray all of my expenses if I would make an effort to ingratiate myself with Virginia Wilcox as to be able to get her into a compromising situation, so that some pictures could be taken of her,” Bath testified. “I said I wouldn’t be interested.”
Kennamer was still unhappy with the kidnapping plan and tried to convince Gorrell to settle for a different form of extortion, which Gorrell apparently accepted — at least for the time being. Kennamer took a page from the crime manual of early 20th century Italian immigrants: the Black Hand scheme.
In a Black Hand scheme a blackmailer alleges to be part of a powerful crime organization and threatens harm to the victim unless money is given to buy off the extortionist. The name comes from the mythical “Black Hand” gang that spread terror among the new Italian immigrants. There was never such an organization and should not be confused with the Mafia, but it did give rise to the term “blackmail.”
Gorrell and Kennamer wrote a note demanding $20,000 from Homer Wilcox or one of his two children would be harmed. Kennamer was supposed to mail the note.
Somewhere along the line Kennamer decided not to go through with the plot. His motivation remains unclear, but according to the defense he was either insane at the time or not insane and attempting to protect the woman he loved.
Kennamer made no secret of his new-found hatred for his former partner-in-crime. He flew to Kansas City where Gorrell was studying dentistry allegedly with the intention of killing him. His initial plot does indicate some unsoundness of mind. Floyd J. Huff, the prosecution’s star witness recounted a conversation he had with Kennamer:
Kennamer asked me if I knew why he came up to Kansas City, I told him I did not and asked him why, and he said, “I came up to kill Gorrell,” I looked at the boy and he said, “You do not believe me.” He told me his intention was to rent an aeroplane, that they were going to take a ride above the clouds and when they got up there he was going to hit Gorrell over the head and he was going to jump out in a parachute I guess, the only way he could have gone if he intended to live.
The plot failed when Kennamer and Gorrell — who was a licensed pilot — failed to rent a plane in Kansas City.
Things came to a head on Thanksgiving night 1934. Most of the Hy Hatters were hanging out at the Owl Tavern in Tulsa where 3.2 beer was legal. Kennamer came in around 9:30 p.m. or so and stupidly boasted to anyone in earshot that he was looking for Gorrell and wanted to kill him. He displayed his weapon of choice, a large hunting knife that was certainly able to do the job. His friends took him at his word and made an effort to stop him. Randall (Beebee) Morton recalled that Kennamer told him “It is eaither Gorrell’s life or my own.”
“I said, ‘Phil, maybe I had better take that knife, I may want to use it going hunting,’ and I just reached over and got it and put it in my overcoat pocket,” Morton testified. “He said, ‘Beebe, are you going to send me out with these bare hands to kill Gorrell.’ I said, ‘Yes, if that is the way you want to go, Phil,’ and he just walked out and left the tavern.”
Later that night Kennamer and Gorrell had it out. They were in Gorrell’s car arguing when Gorrell took out his revolver. Kennamer managed to take it away from him and shot his ex-friend twice in the head, killing him immediately.
Two days later, accompanied by his father the federal judge, Phil Kennamer surrendered to police and was charged with murder. His attorneys immediately pressed for psychiatric tests and some of the era’s great American psychiatrists examined him. In typical fashion the doctors hired by the defense found him insane, while those for the state disagreed.
Noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was the lead doctor for Kennamer’s side.
I think he was irrational. I think he did not fully understand the consequences of his own acts. I do not think he was able to distinguish between right and wrong because of his mental illness at the time, and that his mental illness was of such a nature that he was incapable of grasping the ordinarily accepted standards, but rather substitute his own. His egotism is so great and his belief in his own omnipotence, his own greatness and his own perfection seem to me to have been so great that he had rather his own moral code, which to him seemed the proper one rather than that which the rest of society, including ourselves, ordinarily accepts. This mental illness has been classified in the modern books and by the profession generally as psychopathic personality.
Since Kennamer never denied killing Gorrell the defense used the backup strategy that Kennamer shot Gorrell in self defense, fearing for his life.
The brief trial was the talk of Tulsa and exposed the Hy Hat club to the light of day. In the end the jury rejected the self-defense and insanity arguments and found Kennamer guilty of manslaughter, apparently coming to the decision since Gorrell displayed the gun but Kennamer put himself in harm’s way.
The judge lowered the boom on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison.
Kennamer disappeared into the prison system until 1938 when he was granted a six-month parole to spend time with his dying mother. Tongues wagged that the special treatment was the result of Kennamer’s pedigree, and they were probably right. However, when the appeals court upheld his conviction and the state Supreme Court decided not to take up the case, he was returned to jail.
Six years later Kennamer was given parole with the stipulation that he join the army to fight in World War II. He finally got the opportunity to jump out of airplanes, serving in Europe with the 13th Airborne, 460th Parachute Artillery Battalion. He died in France on Aug. 14, 1944.
As for Bora, the Hy Hat club president, he was found dead in his car shortly after Gorrell was killed (Kennamer was in jail at the time). The coroner ruled the case a suicide, but his family never accepted the decision. The club disbanded after the murder scandal.