It was one of the most notorious,...
It was one of the most notorious, complex and mystifying murder cases of the Jazz Age.
For 16 months, Angelenos were drawn to newspaper accounts of five trials detailing the triangle of murder and love centered on a young, dark-eyed beauty and murder suspect, Madalynne Obenchain.
On the evening of Aug. 5, 1921, J. Belton Kennedy, an insurance broker, was found shot to death on the stairs of his cabin on Beverly Glen Boulevard, in a then-rustic neighborhood near the Los Angeles Country Club.
Obenchain, 28, Kennedy’s girlfriend, was charged with first-degree murder. So too was Arthur Courtney Burch, her old college sweetheart, accused of pulling the trigger.
But Madalynne’s ex-husband, Chicago attorney Ralph Obenchain, came to her rescue. After he spent thousands of dollars and hung juries cost taxpayers $38,000, his ex-wife and her alleged conspirator were freed.
The Times commented acidly that Madalynne Obenchain “puts men gently aside when she tires of them and they yield with a smile of pain. When she wants them again, they throw aside careers, freedom--everything, in answer to her nod.”
The object of all this attention was born Madalynne Donna Connor in 1893 in Superior, Wis. At Northwestern University, she met her future husband--the man prosecutors would later refer to as “the Human Doormat"--and Arthur Burch, a college track athlete with protruding ears and thick glasses.
Both men were madly in love with her and wanted to marry her. But her father saved her from having to choose by dying in 1914 and leaving her $50,000.
After a three-year travel and shopping spree, Madalynne came to her mother’s home in Los Angeles and met Kennedy, who worked at his wealthy father’s insurance company.
Kennedy’s relentlessly possessive mother did everything in her power to discourage their relationship. She even intercepted his mail and phone calls.
Kennedy proposed, but by 1919, after two years of waiting for Kennedy to marry her, Madalynne decided to take Obenchain up on his earlier offer of marriage.
But four days after they wed, she was seeing Kennedy again. Once more he made promises he would never keep. But this time, Madalynne really believed that Kennedy was altar-bound. Her extremely understanding husband allowed her to divorce him, gave her $80 a month in alimony and blank checks as needed.
When it turned out she had been deceived again by her mama’s boy, Madalynne apparently went into a rage and wired Burch in Chicago.
Burch hopped on the next train to Los Angeles to aid the woman he called his “goddess.”
According to accounts of the trial, Burch waited in the bushes outside Kennedy’s cabin. As Kennedy and Madalynne came up the stairs, Kennedy bent to retrieve a lucky penny Madalynne said she had left under a rock--and Burch blew off the back of his head with a shotgun. A witness testified that she heard a man yell, “I got him!” The gun stock was later found washed up on the beach.
After the Los Angeles Examiner paid him $4,500, Burch confessed to plotting the murder with Madalynne. But his attorney said the confession was false.
Madalynne’s first trial in 1922 created a sensation.
Her ex-husband came rushing to her defense, leaving his job. He even tried to remarry her in jail, but a judge refused to permit the ceremony.
At Christmas she received more than 100 gifts of flowers, perfume and a $1,000 bill, all delivered to her cell, all from admirers.
In what would surely have caused a mistrial had it come to light in time, a smitten juror at whom she winked in court sent her “food delicacies.”
But instead the trial ended in a hung jury.
Her ex-husband stayed by her side through the first trial and returned to Chicago only after he paid a lawyer to defend her at her second trial.
The high drama of her second trial turned on steamy love letters passed between her cell and that of Paul Roman, a convicted robber who had supposedly eyed her from afar.
She wrote, “Tonight I have a little pale pink rose near me--the rose will be your soft warm lips, dear Paul,” and, “Your nearness as I try to sleep seems like a caress.” He wrote, “What you need is lot of attention, and I’m the guy to give it to you.”
Madalynne made a loan to Roman and in exchange he promised to testify that he had heard two men on a street corner plotting to kill Kennedy.
But maybe it wasn’t fate that played a hand in introducing Madalynne to Roman.
Even Madalynne was stunned when a costume shop owner testified in the second trial that Roman and Kennedy had been customers who often rented women’s clothing.
A few weeks before Kennedy’s murder, the shop owner testified, she heard him say that his “friend” had threatened to beat him if he ever married. She identified the friend as Paul Roman.
All five trials--two for Madalynne and three for Burch--ended in hung juries. Legal experts interviewed at the time theorized that the male jurors who voted for acquittal in Madalynne’s trial were all in love with her. In addition, it was learned that one of jurors had spoken with the defendant’s ex-husband for more than an hour during the trial.
Afterward, Madalynne humbly told reporters that she planned to spend the rest of her days in a leper colony. But she chose a more comfortable existence--in Eagle Rock.
When the loyal Burch died in 1944, he willed his $1,500 estate to his “lifelong friend,” Madalynne Obenchain.