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 suffocation
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.
According to Kankakee, Ill. police, Daniel Edwards was as surprised as they were when he led them to where he had hidden his kidnapping victim, Stephen Small, only to find Small had died of asphyxiation.
On reflection, it’s tragic, but not unexpected to most people that Small would have suffocated after being buried under four feet of sand for several days.
“They forgot the law of physics,” one investigator said. “You can’t draw in air through a tube when you’re four feet under the ground.”
Edwards and his girlfriend, Nancy Rish, had apparently been planning the kidnapping for months, after Edwards, a known drug dealer, had done some work for Small on a house the newspaper publisher owned.
Figuring Smalls was very well-to-do because of his media holdings, Edwards and Rish came up with a plan to kidnap Smalls and hold him for $1 million ransom. They built a coffin-sized wooden box complete with air holes, a battery-powered light and a container for water and put it in a six-foot-deep hole they dug in a rural area of Illinois, about eight miles from the Indiana border.
Neighbors told police that Edwards made no secret of constructing the box and even borrowed their tools. Some who asked were told by Edwards that it was to contain firewood. Another neighbor told Edwards it looked like a lemonade stand for Rish’s 8-year-old son.
“You’re pretty perceptive,” Edwards replied. “That’s not a bad idea.”
After buring the box, Edwards and Rish set about capturing their victim.
Posing as a Kankakee police officer, Edwards phoned Small’s home in the early hours of September 2, 1987. He lured Small to a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that Small was having restored, claiming that someone had tried to break in.
At 3:30 a.m., Small’s wife, Nancy, was awakened by a telephone call.
“We have your husband,” the male voice. Nancy then heard her husband say that he had been handcuffed inside a box underground. Small told his wife to obtain $1 million in cash.
“Nancy, this is . . . I thought this was a joke or something, but it’s not,” Small said on the tape. “This is not some party or something…I’m-there’s somebody, and I’ve got handcuffs on, and I’m inside some, I guess a box.
“It looks like it’s . . . it’s under a couple of feet of sand or something like underground and, uhh . . . I want you to get a million dollars,” he went on. “God only knows how you’re going to do that, and I don’t know who you’re going to call.”
The kidnapper directed Nancy not to report the matter to the police. However, through relatives, she did contact police, who in turn notified the FBI. Wiretaps were placed on the Smalls’ telephone, but it was not until 14 hours later that the family was contacted with further instructions.
By that time, police later determined, Stephen Small was already dead, although neither Edwards or authorities searching for the victim knew it.
The investigation revealed that the air tube linking the box to the surface was not directly connected to the box nor would its diameter have allowed enough oxygen even it had been attached. The coroner later testified that Small had lived only a few hours before suffocating.
Despite their later denials that they didn’t intend to kill, the kidnappers’ intent was clear from a tape recording recovered by police.
“I ain’t gone this far for nothing. If she don’t pay the money, you’re dead,” Edwards told Stephen Small. “I want to get that through your head, and I ain’t coming back to dig you up.”
After the 5 p.m. contact, police managed to trace the telephone call to a telephone located at a Phillips 66 gas station in Aroma Park. Edwards was seen there at that time, in the company of a blonde-haired woman, believed to be Rish.
Jean Alice Small, Stephen Small’s aunt, telephoned the Small residence 40 minutes after the second call to tell them she had been contacted by the kidnappers. Jean said that the caller had told her that he knew that Nancy Small’s telephone was tapped. After telling Jean that the victim was buried, the caller threatened to kill Jean’s husband.
Nancy Small received another telephone call from the kidnapper at 11:28 p.m. September 7. This call originated from a telephone at a Sunoco station in Aroma Park, where an FBI agent saw a white male at a telephone, and a blonde-haired woman in a car that was later identified as belonging to Rish. The caller played a tape recording of Stephen Small’s voice. On the tape, Stephen provided instructions for delivering the ransom. After audio enhancement, a voice in the background could be heard threatening Small.
Unfortunately, the FBI agents observing the phone call lost the suspected kidnappers when they made an illegal U-turn. They did, however, get the license plate of the vehicle.
Fifteen minutes after the third call to Stephen and Nancy’s home, a final call was made from the kidnappers, telling Nancy that she had “fucked up” by involving police. The caller refused to make arrangements for the delivery of the ransom.
By this time, the home shared by Rish and Edwards was under surveillance. They received a warrant to search the home and executed it on the morning of September 3. After finding significant clues linking the duo to the crime, both were arrested and taken to the police station and interrogated.
Knowing the gig was up, Edwards led police to the place where Small was kept and the box was unearthed and open. Small was dead inside.
Edwards cried out in apparent surprise, witnesses said. A few days later, Edwards attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with a torn aluminum can.
He and Rish were put on trial for kidnapping and murder, and both were convicted. Edwards was sentenced to death, but later taken off death row when the Illinois governor issued a blanket pardon to condemned inmates. Rish received life in prison.
On his appeal, Edwards made the argument that his arrest was unconstitutional because police only had a search warrant, not an arrest warrant.
That argument held no sway with the appellate courts:
“There was no doubt that a crime had been committed and that the police were in possession of sufficient knowledge to believe that defendant had committed the crime,” the Illinois Supreme Court wrote. “Our review of the record therefore persuades us that the police had probable cause to arrest defendant at the time police entered his home with a search warrant.”