The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

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“Crack shot.” “Enigma woman.” “Good with ponies and pistols.” “A much-married woman.”

What if such an unconventional woman—and the press unanimously agreed that Nellie May Madison was indeed unconventional—were to get away with murder? Shortly after her husband’s bullet-riddled body was found in the couple’s Burbank apartment, police issued an all-points bulletin for the “beautiful, dark-haired widow.” The ensuing drama unfolded with all the twists and turns of a noir crime novel.  
In this intriguing cultural history, Kathleen A. Cairns tells the tale of Nellie May Madison, the first woman on Death Row in California. Her story offers a glimpse into law and disorder in 1930s Los Angeles while bringing to life a remarkable character whose plight reflects on the status of women, the workings of the media and the judiciary system, and the stratification of society in her time. Cairns’s re-creation of the case from murder to trial to aftermath also casts an eye forward to our own love-hate affair with celebrity crimes and our abiding ambivalence about domestic violence as a defense for murder.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Nellie Madison might have been the first woman executed in California: in 1934, though she claimed innocence, she was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her husband, Eric Madison, and sentenced to hang. After hiring a new lawyer for her appeal, though, Madison confessed to the crime, describing a marriage filled with emotional and physical abuse and an attempt by Eric to blackmail her after she found him in bed with a much younger woman. Her claim of abuse was supported by similar testimony by one of Eric's ex-wives. Eventually, her sentence was commuted and she was paroled after nine years in prison. Cairns (Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920–1950) wants not to exonerate Madison but to explore the complexity of a woman who she says was reduced to a caricature by the media of the time. Madison did not fit the traditional role of homemaker and mother. Having eloped at the age of 13, she had married several times, was familiar with guns and refused to speak publicly about the crime. Nellie was pegged by the media as a femme fatale, a character out of a noir tale. The author has done considerable research in this well-written true crime chronicle, but what happened in Nellie's bedroom in 1934 still remains an enigma. 15 photos. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Historic Crime Blog CLEWS

“A new book out this month finally tells us the entire tale of Nellie Madison for the first time, and it is so terrifically researched, so well put together, you might forget the story took place in 1934. . . . It’s a physically lovely, beautifully produced book. . . . The Enigma Woman is top-shelf stuff for votaries of high quality historic crime stories. Professor Cairns will keep you mesmerized in contemplation of a most curious murder case, one in which our recalcitrant heroine could not speak until she was within the shadows of the gallows, one in which the victim may well have had it coming in spades and by golly got it.”—Laura James, CLEWS, The Historic Crime Blog
San Francisco Chronicle

“By charting Madison’s experiences from the 1910s to the 1940s, Cairns offers critical insight on the deeds and misdeeds of one remarkable woman, who in many regards was a victim herself. By framing events the way she does, Cairns gives Madison’s story the context it needs and deserves.”—Christina Eng, San Francisco Chronicle
The Atlantic Monthly

“Cairns tells her story with considerable sociological and psychological acuity. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tale is how the cut-and-dried, seemingly heartless justice system of the 1930s ultimately produced a punishment that was just and enlightened and would generally satisfy today’s more liberal attitudes toward spousal abuse and homicide.”—The Atlantic Monthly
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication - Barbara G. Friedman

"[The Enigma Woman] is a well-written account that will appeal to readers in history, women’s studies, journalism, and law."—Barbara G. Friedman, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Western Historical Quarterly - Gordon Morris Bakken

“This is an outstanding biography of a woman who challenged societal norms. . . . In this splendidly crafted narrative of Nellie’s life, Cairns explores the West as geography and a place of reinvention, the rise of mass popular culture and its impact upon the individual, Los Angeles as myth and reality, criminal prosecution as a force in social control, the media’s ability to elevate or destroy individuals, and intimate abuse as a legal defense to murder. . . . This book is a major contribution to our knowledge of women in the American West.”—Gordon Morris Bakken, Western Historical Quarterly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803224506
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Series: Women in the West Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathleen A. Cairns is a lecturer in the Department of History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is the author of Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920–1950 (Nebraska 2003).
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue 1

1 A Girl from Montana 11

2 Midnight Alibi 31

3 Outlaw Woman 45

4 Enigma Woman 59

5 The Ultimate Penalty 77

6 The People v. Nellie Madison 95

7 The Defense 115

8 Lady Macbeth 133

9 The Verdict 145

10 A Condemned Woman 159

11 An Abused Woman 179

12 The Reprieve 199

13 Life in Prison 219

14 A Traditional Woman 241

Notes 249

Bibliographic Essay 269

Index 289

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