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Mystic Love

The Story of Madalynne Obenchain and Her Involvement in the Murder of Belton Kennedy


Shawn Nelsen


On Friday August 5th, 1921, J. Belton Kennedy took his last breath after Arthur C. Burch allegedly unloaded two charges of buck shot from a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun into Kennedy outside of his summer cottage in Beverly Glenn.  Kennedy, a prominent insurance broker from Los Angles, had not planned on going to his cottage that Friday night, but decided to go after his beautiful female companion, Mrs. Madalynne C. Obenchain, convinced him to help her retrieve “a good luck penny” that had been hidden under a rock on a previous trip.  When Kennedy and Obenchain arrived at the cottage they found that there was not enough light to look for the penny. As Kennedy returned to the car to retrieve some matches to light their search, authorities believed that Burch leaped out from behind some bushed and killed Kennedy in plain view of Mrs. Obenchain while she waited up at the cottage.  When the authorities asked Mrs. Obenchain, the sole witness to the crime, what had transpired that night, she claimed that she saw two men fleeing from the scene.  Further investigation, however, lead the authorities to suspect Burch who they arrested in Las Vegas while he was on his way to Salt Lake on Saturday August 6th.[1]

            As the Kennedy murder became common news in Los Angeles people began to learn many interesting facts about the case. Burch, it turned out, was a graduate from Northwestern College and a well-known individual in Chicago.  Furthermore, reporters identified Burch as the son of a Reverend.[2]  As for Madalynne Obenchain, reporters learned that she was an independently wealthy woman who had recently divorced her husband so that she might marry Belton Kennedy.[3]  Kennedy, though, did not marry Madalynne even though he had promised to do so.[4] Additionally Madalynne and Burch admitted that they shared a close relationship, although claimed that they were nothing more than old college friends.[5]

            Authorities found a good amount of evidence to lead to the belief that Burch killed Kennedy.  The car, for example, that had been present during Kenney’s shooting left a peculiar and unique tire tracks in the dirt outside Kennedy’s cottage.  When the authorities found the roadster that Burch drove the night of the killing, they discovered that the car left the exact same tracks.[6] Furthermore, witnesses claimed that Burch had left his hotel shortly before the killing with a package that looked suspiciously like it held a shotgun.[7]

Authorities did not take much time before they began to link Madalynne and Burch together in what they believed was a conspiracy to kill Belton Kennedy.  Reporters wrote that before Kennedy’s death Burch stayed in a hotel across the street from Kennedy’s office where, the District Attorney suspects, he partook in a deathwatch over Belton Kennedy.  Witnesses also claimed that Burch attempted to pay a bonus for the hotel room directly across from Kennedy’s office, but that a woman already occupied the room and would not move.[8]  Furthermore, while Burch stayed in the hotel Madalynne Obenchain visited him on several occasions.[9]  The combined details of the “death vigil” that Burch took part in, and that Madalynne apparently condoned, along with the fact that Madalynne and Burch were long time friends, was all that the authorities needed in order to claim that Madalynne and Burch conspired together. The motive that began to materialize was one of “mystic love.”[10]  The District Attorney believed that since Kennedy had failed to marry Madalynne, Madalynne had convinced Burch to come to California in order to kill Kennedy.  On August 11th, 1921 the county grand jury indicted Madalynne Obenchain and Arthur C. Burch jointly for the murder of J. Belton Kennedy.[11]

Although the journalists made it very clear that they suspected Madalynne of murder, reporters, from the very start of the case, described Madalynne as a very attractive woman.  The first article published in the Los Angeles Times on August 7th 1921 described Madalynne as “Mr. Kennedy’s attractive companion” and the medias flattery of Madalynne’s physical beauty never ceased.[12]  Throughout the whole ordeal one article right after another described Madalynne as a beautiful woman. In the same paper, though, reporters alleged that she helped cause Kennedy’s death.  Madalynne’s alleged crime did not take away from her beauty, but instead may have made her appear even more attractive.  Furthermore, Madalynne’s beauty as a given played a key role in the case and later proved very important in helping to explain how and why Madalynne was able to take part in the murder of Belton Kennedy.

As soon as Madalynne’s trouble became apparent Ralph Obenchain, Madalynne’s former husband, came to her rescue.  On August 11th Mr. Obenchain left Chicago in order to defend his former wife.  Mr. Obenchain told reporters “I am going not just because I promised… I am going because I believe she is innocent…”[13] Mr. Obenchain, who was a lawyer, later joined Madalynne’s defense team as Madalynne’s attorney of record.[14]

As the case progressed, journalists soon found that they had the makings of a sensational story and legal fiasco on their hands.  Soon after Ralph Obenchain came to the rescue of his former wife, Mrs. Obenchain decided that there should be a separation in her combined defense with Burch.  Paul W. Schenck, the lawyer that had been working with Mr. Obenchain on the joint defense of Madalynne and Burch returned to Arizona.[15]   Schenck later returned in order to continue to defend Burch.[16] Mrs. Obenchain soon hired another attorney named Charles Erbstein from Chicago to help defend her against the murder charges.  When District Attorney Woolwine, the prosecutor, leaned that Erbstein would attempt to defend Madalynne, Woolwine urged the bar not to allow Erbstein to practice law.  Woolwine claimed that Erbstein’s “reputation in Chicago is of the very worst, being that of a trickster, a jury fixer, and a suborner of perjury.”[17]   To Woolwine’s dismay, however, the Los Angeles bar not only decided to permit Erbstein to practice law in the Southern California courts, but took unsuccessful actions to remove District Attorney Woolwine from office.[18]

The drawn out legal battles continued for over a year. Madalynne’s lawyers fought early on in the case in order to have Mrs. Obenchain released on bail, but were unsuccessful.[19]  Madalynne and Burch both had to remain the duration of their trials in jail.  Madalynne, though, was not without legal victories in her trial.  Since prosecutors tried Burch and Madalynne separately Superior Judge Shenk held all evidence concerning the movements of Burch inadmissible in Madalynne’s trial.[20]

The prosecution fought on despite this harsh set back. On June 24th, 1922 a new character entered the case on the side of the authorities.  Paul Roman, a convicted felon and apparent friend of Mrs. Obenchain, claimed that Madalynne had written to him asking him to lie for her on the witness stand. Roman alleged that Madalynne asked him to tell the jury that Kennedy had shown Roman the rings that Kennedy planned to give Madalynne and that Roman had known the two men that Madalynne claimed had killed Kennedy.[21]  Madalynne’s lawyers scoffed at Romans testimony and achieved their goal of Madalynne’s defense.  At the end of her cases, Mrs. Obenchain’s juries were never able to come up with a definitive conclusion regarding her guilt. Eventually on December 5th, 1922 the authorities released Madalynne Obenchain from custody after they had failed to get a conviction.[22]

Burch, like Madalynne had a long legal ordeal.  On September 13th 1921 reporters wrote that Burch had confessed to the crime although Burch flatly denied ever shooting Kennedy or ever admitting to shooting Kennedy.[23]  As the trial progressed for Burch, his defense team decided to argue insanity on Burch’s behalf. They claimed that, among other things, failed business ventures worked against Burch’s mind.[24] Burch, though, did not appear to agree with the insanity plea.  Reporters claimed that when one of Burch’s lawyers read an affidavit supporting the claim that Burch was insane Burch slouched in his chair and appeared to have instantly aged several years.[25]  Furthermore, Paul Schenck did not show much faith in the idea that his client was in fact innocent.  “We do not know whether our client killed J. Belton Kennedy or not” Schenck told reporters. “We do not know whether he did or did not make a confession… we know that he was insane at the time and could not distinguish between right and wrong.”[26] The judge, though, did not buy the insanity plea and threw it out.[27] After a long and public trial Burch’s jury could not come to a decisive answer of whether or not Burch was guilty or innocent. On December 9th, 1922, after four trials, one for insanity and three for murder, the authorities finally gave Burch back his freedom.[28] 

Reporters paid little attention to the early legal battles compared to the many other intriguing facets of the story.  For example, Mrs. Madalynne Obenchain flaunted extraordinary beauty that bode well for photographers.  Additionally both Madalynne and Burch possessed large financial holdings that ranked them into the social elite.  Aside from beauty and money, there was also the love story between Mrs. Obenchain and Kennedy that added an emotional factor to the story.  Lastly, the entrance of Ralph Obenchain into the Kennedy murder case brought not only a since of caring and sympathy for the loving act of an ex-husband, but also brought an extra since of scandal to an already scandalous story.  The combination of all the interesting facets of the ordeal lead the Kennedy murder case to become more than just a murder trail, but a source for social commentary on love, the social value of marriage, and the roles of men and women.  

Kennedy’s murder became an examination of love on a couple different levels.  The case exemplified parental love and romantic love between a man and a woman. Although the complicated relationship between Madalynne Obenchain and Belton Kennedy, or the fascinating marriage of Mr. & Mrs. Obenchain may seem to be the obvious examples of love in the story, they are by no means the only examples.  Journalists also wrote about the love that Mrs. Obenchain’s mother showed for her daughter and the love the Kennedy’s parents showed for their son.  Furthermore, the case exemplified love used as a tool in the relationship shared between Madalynne and Burch.  Love essentially played an overall theme throughout the entire case.

Parental love played a prominent role in the story of the Kennedy murder trial. Mrs. Obenchain’s Mother, Mrs. Emma Smart, publicly championed her daughter with protestations of Madalynne’s innocence.  Arthur Burch’s father, Reverend William A. Burch also vehemently argued the innocence of his son.  Most tragically, though, Belton Kenney’s parents suffer a great loss at the death of their beloved son.    

Mrs. Smart’s diligent attempt to prove her daughter’s innocence played a fascinating role in the story of the Kennedy murder.   Mrs. Smart took care to let reporters know that Belton Kennedy loved Mrs. Obenchain.  She argued that on the day of her daughter’s wedding Belton Kennedy sent Madalynne a letter by special delivery that arrived right before the ceremony.  Although Mrs. Smart did not say what was on the letter, she did say that the letter “perturbed [her] daughter greatly.” [29] Mrs. Smart also argued that Kennedy’s father, John D. Kennedy, strongly disliked the relationship that his son and Mrs. Obenchain shared.  According to Mrs. Smart Mr. John D. Kennedy had threatened Madalynne Obenchain on several occasions as a ploy to help remove Madalynne from his son’s life.

Mrs. Smart further claimed that John D. Kennedy could have been to blame for his son’s death.  During one interview that she gave to reporters outside of the jail where authorities held Madalynne, Mrs. Smart asked the question “is there not the possibility that the gun-shot was intended for [Madalynne] instead of Belton Kennedy—in which case the gun was surly not held by Mr. Burch?”[30]  Through this accusation Mrs. Smart appears to be implying that John D. Kennedy, intending to shoot Madalynne Obenchain, had shot Belton Kennedy on accident.  The evidence regarding the shooting, though, strongly point to the conclusion that the shots were intended for Belton Kennedy.[31]  The questions that Mrs. Smart arose and the accusations that she made did not bring about serious doubt as to the intended victim of the shooting or the role that John D. Kennedy played in the death of his son.  Instead Mrs. Smart’s attempts to prove the innocence of her daughter highlight the fact that Mrs. Smart, as Madalynne’s mother, would do, or say what she thought she needed to in order to prove the innocence of her daughter.

Mrs. Smart was not the only parent who came to the rescue. Reverend William A. Burch also came to defend his son Arthur Burch.  Reverend Burch had traveled to Los Angeles from Evanston Illinois early on when he learned that authorities had accused his son of murder.  Shortly after authorities indicted both Arthur Burch and Madalynne Obenchain, however, Reverend Burch returned to Evanston presumably to gather evidence for the defense of is son.[32]  Reverend Burch soon returned to Los Angeles where he testified in court on behalf of his son. During the trails of Arthur Burch Reverend Burch often attended the court sessions.[33]  During one of the court sessions Reverend Burch found himself standing close to Chandler Sprague.  Sprague had earlier been the reporter that published and article claiming that Arthur Burch had confessed to killing Belton Kennedy.  As the Reverend stood in the court he started calling out “there’s the man that got the ‘confession.’” The Reverend then added, “I’m going to hit him when he comes by here.” Friends, though, escorted Reverend Burch out of the court before any attack took place. [34]

Arthur Burch’s father was not the only parent that resorted to the threat of physical violence as John D. Kennedy also took out his frustration through an attack. Long after authorities had freed both Arthur Burch and Madalynne John Kennedy attacked Arthur Burch.  On February 1st 1927 as Burch worked in his office, Kennedy came in and attempted to strangle Burch. When asked about the attack Kennedy told reporters that the attack had occurred when his emotions overcame him and that he had no regrets.  He further added that he “will gladly account for [his] actions at the right time and place.”[35]   Kennedy later had to go to court where authorities charged him with assault and battery.

The contrast of the different actions taken by the parents in the Kennedy murder trial brings about a fascinating contrast between men and women.  Both of the fathers in the case resorted to physical violence, or the threat of it, as a means to release their frustrations. Mrs. Smart, conversely, and Mrs. Kennedy, Belton Kennedy’s mother who also testified in the trails, stuck strictly to words as their means for emotional release. Essentially, the men acted violently while the women did not.  This observation works will with the theory that Madalynne had convinced Arthur Burch to kill Belton Kennedy.  While the man, Burch, acted violently, the woman, Madalynne, stood back and did not.

Romantic love, more so than the love of a parent, is perhaps the most obvious type of love that shows prominence in the Kennedy murder trial.  Since the prosecutors argued that “mystic love” was the strongest motive for the case, they had to prove that mystic love existed.  They asserted that this strong emotion played two key roles in the case.  Love drove Madalynne to plot Kennedy’s death and it enabled Mrs. Obenchain to hold an “occult influence” over several men in her life.[36]

The love that Madalynne had for Kennedy became quite apparent.  Reporters published many of the letters that Madalynne had written to Kennedy during their long affair.  Through these letters Madalynne shares her strong love for Kennedy as well as her frustrations.  Madalynne wrote that her husband had consented to granting her a divorce so that she would be able to marry Kennedy and that she was frustrated over the fact that Kennedy had not come for her.  In a fit of undoubtedly intense emotion Madalynne wrote to Kennedy “God knows, I never want to marry you unless you marry me for love’s sake alone. This is your last chance, Belton – with me.”[37]  Unfortunately for Kennedy he did not take the last chance that he had with Madalynne and, in the eyes of District Attorney Woolwine, Kennedy paid for that mistake with his life. 

Madalynne, for her part, argued that readers were only getting half of the story concerning the love letters.  Madalynne, although admitting that the letters that were read “were written out of the very joys and agonies of [her] soul,” claims that the readings did not include the letters that Kennedy had written to Madalynne.[38]  Mrs. Obenchain declared that readers would never know the other half of the story because she had sent all of the letters that Kennedy wrote to her back to Kennedy.  She continued, though, that if readers had been able to read the lost letters that they would have gained a new perspective and unraveled a completely different story.  Even though the letters that were published made the situation appear as though Madalynne Obenchain had been trying to convince Kennedy to marry her, Mrs. Obenchain clamed that Kennedy needed her and had begged her to marry him.[39]

Madalynne’s love letters also emphasize the love Mr. Obenchain had for his ex-wife. One reporter wrote that the letters contained Madalynne’s “innermost loves [and] passion for another man while she was still on a honeymoon with her husband…”[40]  As the prosecution read the love letters to the court, presenting the love letters as evidence against Burch during one of Burch’s trials, reports claimed the Mr. Obenchain could be heard grunting and moaning.[41]  Madalynne, trying to ease the situation of her ex-husband having to listen to the love letters, claimed that she had never intended to hurt Mr. Obenchain and that he knew of, and consented to, the letters. Madalynne further remarked that her “heart acted for Ralph when [she] heard that they were reading those letters.  It ached all the more because [she] knew that few, if any, would understand.”[42] Unfortunately Madalynne never clarified what it was that people would not understand.

Ralph Obenchain did not let his ex-wife’s love for Belton Kennedy impede on his love for Madalynne Obenchain.  Reporters claimed that even while Burch’s prosecutor read Madalynne’s love letters Mr. Obenchain waited patiently in court with a marriage license in his pocket so that he might re-marry his jailed wife.[43]  Although the county let Mr. Obenchain obtain a license for a remarriage to his former wife, the marriage ceremony never actually took place.  Reporters claimed that Mr. Obenchain had attempted to marry Madalynne while authorities still had her locked up in the county jail, but was unable to do so.  To Mr. Obenchain’s consternation, the sheriff blocked the wedding from taking place.  Furthermore, journalists also argued that Madalynne never showed very much interest in re-marrying Mr. Obenchain.[44] 

Arthur Burch also played a role in the romantic love that converged around Madalynne.  Although Madalynne had claimed that she and Burch were no more than old collage friends, reporters argued other wise.  When Mr. Obenchain worked to remarry his ex-wife, for instance, journalists reported that Burch had been witnessed down on one knee pleading with Madalynne presumably about Ralph Obenchain’s plans for remarriage. Journalist further reported that Mrs. Obenchain had told reporters that Burch had confided in her that he loved her “and that he would see that she went to San Quentin before he would see her return to Mr. Obenchain.”[45]  Further evidence that Burch did in fact love Madalynne can be found in the fact that when he died in 1944, over twenty years after the trials, Burch had left his entire estate to Madalynne Obenchain.[46] The actions of Burch essentially lead one to believe that he had a strong desire for Mrs. Madalynne Obenchain whether or not she had any desire for him.

The romantic love shared between the various characters in the Kennedy murder trial played well into Mr. Woolwine’s assertion of “mystic love.” Romantic love, under the prosecutions hypothesis played a dark and powerful role in the life’s of the people close to Madalynne Obenchain.  Madalynne’s love for Kennedy, for example, drove her to a point of intense jealousy in which she ended up desiring Kennedy’s death.  In the words of District Attorney Keyes, the prosecutor in Mrs. Obenchain’s trail, “love hath no fury like a woman scorned.”[47] One can see another example in Arthur Burch’s tragic role. Burch’s Love for Madalynne drove him to do virtually anything for the woman including killing Kennedy, whom she loved, because Kennedy would not marry Madalynne.  Lastly, Mr. Obenchain’s strong love for his wife drove him to grant her a divorce so that she might marry another man, then come back to her aid when the authorities accused Madalynne of killing the man that she was supposed to marry.  District Attorney Keyes put it best as he tried to blame the whole situation on Madalynne. Keyes argued “Oh, what a wreck Madalynne Obenchain has made!  She has made a fool out of the man that she swore she would love, cherish and honor. She has made a corpse of Belton Kennedy, the man she swore she loved.  She has made a murder out of Arthur Burch and a murderess out of herself.”[48] Love for all four of the main characters, in Keyes’s view, proved disastrous.

Authorities blamed much of the love problems that became apparent in the case on Madalynne’s uncanny ability to control men through the prospect of her love.  Love for Madalynne in effect became a tool for her to use men in order to obtain what she wanted. Burch, one could argue, fell victim to Madalynne’s love and found himself as a tool and the defendant in a murder trial.  Mr. Obenchain, another victim, found himself fighting for the honor of a woman that would never return the love that her felt for her.  Madalynne’s control over men through romantic love, however, did not always work in her favor.

Madalynne’s apparent prior successes with Mr. Obenchain and Arthur Burch left her over-confidant to a point that her confidence could have caused her to loose her case.  Madalynne, her prosecutors argue, thought that she had used her powers of “mystic love” on Paul Roman in order to convince him that he should lie in court in order to testify on her behalf.  Roman, though, only used Madalynne’s “mystic love” ploy against her.  Roman and Madalynne had developed a relationship through letters while both were in jail.  The letters started of rather platonic, but after District Attorney Woolwine visited Roman in Folsom the letters grew more fervid.  Roman wrote to Madalynne that he “would give all the world of gladness just to be able to grasp [her] in [his] arms and press [her] tightly to [his] pounding heart, and kiss [her] and hug [her] —and—and take [her] away from all this!”[49] Roman later wrote to Madalynne that she could trust him fully. After reading these drawn out testaments of love Madalynne confided in Roman that she would have liked him to testify for her. Unfortunately for Madalynne, however, Roman as a lover proved to be extremely untrustworthy. On June 23rd, 1922 Roman testified in court that Madalynne had asked him to lie on the witness stand.[50]  

Roman’s bedrail did not hinder Madalynne’s use of “mystic love.” Further evidence goes as far as to insinuate that Madalynne had won the heart of James M. Rhoads, one of the jurymen who judged Mrs. Obenchain’s guilt or innocence.  Judge Shenk fined Rhoads $200 after authorities convinced the judge that Rhoads had been seen smiling at Madalynne during court, fought too ferociously for her during the jury’s deliberation, and had been witnessed shaking the hands of some of Madalynne’s close friends while Madalynne was on trial.[51]  If Rhode did have some sort of romantic infatuation with Mrs. Obenchain then Madalynne not only used her romantic control over men to get her self into trouble, but also used her control to find a way out of it.

Madalynne’s uncanny ability to control men brought about some interesting commentary. Harry Carr, a commentator for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “Cleopatra was a piker compared with [Madalynne Obenchain].”  In Carr’s view, Madalynne had proven the ability to swoon and win over men beyond that of any other historical figure.  Carr used the example of Cleopatra because archeologists have argued that Cleopatra was not terribly beautiful, but that she had the ability to win over men that ran empires.  In Carr’s opinion, Madalynne Obenchain also lacked stunning beauty.  What Madalynne lacked in beauty, though, she made up with the sound of her voice and highbrow demeanor. After Carr told Madalynne about his thoughts that she surpassed all historical figures with her abilities, Madalynne appeared hurt.  Carr quotes Madalynne as saying, “[please] don’t talk that way to me.  I have tried to be simple and sincere all my life and I have never thought about attracting anyone.  I haven’t lived with those thoughts at all.”  Although throughout his commentary Mr. Carr claimed that he was not one of Mrs. Obenchain’s devotees, he did admit that this last comment had left him unsettled.[52]  Even Carr himself started to bend toward the power of Madalynne’s “mystic love.”        

Madalynne’s power over love also brought about a strong look at the role of marriage in society.  Madalynne found marriage insignificant enough that she was able to leave her husband for another man, but at the same time she found marriage important enough that she needed to convince Burch to kill over the lack off it.  This dichotomy in the value of marriage lead to much controversy and speculation about whether the value of marriage is found as a social institution or as a personal agreement between the husband and wife.

Many people appeared to find that the worth of marriage presented its self in marriage’s inherent ability to regulate the lives of men and women. For these people marriage is a social tool more then a personal agreement of love.  Using this ideology of a social pact one commentator attacked Ralph Obenchain as being partially to blame for the murder of Kennedy.  The commentator argued that Mr. Obenchain should have told Madalynne “that life is something besides kisses, billets doux and violets, that they had both assumed responsibilities toward society and that were not to be cast aside like last years gown.”[53] In this commentator’s views, Ralph Obenchain should have helped Madalynne to fight off the pursuits of Belton Kennedy instead of helping her to obtain a divorce in order to be with Kennedy.  Ralph further should have reminded Madalynne that “no honorable man will make love to another man’s wife.” In the commentator’s opinion, a “strong man would have fought to protect his own.”  Another writer claimed that the Ralph Obenchains of the world are rather productive of “foolish wives.”[54]  Had Ralph Obenchain been strong enough to insist that Madalynne honor her marriage vows then the whole tragedy of Kennedy’s murder would never have taken place.[55]

Not everyone thought of Ralph Obenchain as a weak man.  Reverend Gustav A. Briegleb, president of the Ministerial union, preached that in “all the terrible drama perhaps the character of the former husband stands forth as worthy of the greatest admiration.”[56]  Rev. Briegleb did however, agree with the Times commentator by arguing that it “is a pity that Obenchain did not feel the necessity of laying a heavy hand on the despoiler of his home.”[57] Ironically both the commentator and the reverend found it prudent to lay blame on the murdered Belton Kennedy who is arguably the most victimized character in the story. Reverend Briegleb also laid much of the blame on Madalynne whom he believed had sinned on various occasions without remorse. Briegleb preached that Madalynne had not only allowed her self to receive love letters from a former suitor on the day of her wedding, but had allowed her self to be taken by the man who sent the letters. Briegleb further argued that Madalynne had never once showed the public any sign of remorse for the hardships that she caused Ralph Obenchain. 

Mr. Obenchain’s forgiveness of his wife, though, showed the world a seldom seen act of male forgiveness. According to Reverend Briegleb one might expect a wife that found her self in the same position as Ralph Obenchain to forgive her husband and take him back, but for the husband to forgive the wife is unheard of.  Briegleb argued that the “male of the species is more deadly than the female when it comes to the question of forgiveness for moral turpitude.”[58]  To Reverend Briegleb, Mr. Obenchain’s act of forgiveness showed that one could step beyond the expected role of the husband and truly cherish his wife.

Briegleb’s assertion that one could expect forgiveness from the wife, however, is misplaced. While Mrs. Obenchain had the benefit of an ex-husband that came crawling back to help his beloved ex-wife, Arthur Burch had no such luck.  On September 1st, 1921 the District Court in Lawrence, Kansas granted Mrs. Allie Gale Burch, Arthur Burch’s wife, a divorce on the grounds of neglect of duty and abandonment for over a year.  The court also granted sole custody of the couple’s son to Mrs. Burch.[59]  For all intents and purposes, while the husband of one accused came crawling back and attempted to re-marry his divorced wife, the wife of the other accused went through with her divorce and fought to stay away from her jailed husband.  The roles that Briegleb argued should have been the norm in society had been reversed.

Marriage, in the story of the Kennedy murder, went beyond the socially structured roles of husbands and wives and became based on individualized relationships centered on love.  Both of the Obenchains found a strong value to marriage, but they found the value beyond a forced long-term commitment.  Mr. Obenchain let his wife divorce him and marry another man because that was what he felt was proper for his relationship with Madalynne.  He did not base his marriage on the reaction of society, but on the actions of his wife and the love that she felt for another man.  Ralph Obenchain did not want to fight for a long marriage with a woman that desired another man. His wife obviously did not love him.  As for Mrs. Madalynne Obenchain, she clearly desired a marriage based off of love.  In her letters to Kennedy, she explicitly stated that she would not marry Kennedy for any other reason than for love’s sake.[60]  Both of the Obenchains focused on love as the adhesive that keeps a marriage together.

Aside from the value in marriage, the role that Madalynne, and the men around her, played in society concerning their sex also deserves much commentary. One commentator, for instance, based his or her analysis of the Kennedy murder on whether or not Madalynne had good cooking and cleaning skills.  The answer that the commentator came up with was that Madalynne must not have those skills at all.  If Madalynne had been a good housekeeper, the commentator argued, “Ralph Obenchain would have grappled her to his hearth and home with bonds of steel and could never have risen to such heights of sacrificial negation.”  The commentator further suggested that even had Ralph Obenchain let Madalynne go, Arthur Kennedy’s family would have loved her and there would have been no problem with him marrying her. [61]  This commentator is essentially basing Madalynne’s worth on her abilities as a homemaker.  Had Madalynne kept a good home and not focused her energies on things out side the home then none of her problems would have existed.   

Madalynne, however, did not remain in her home.  She stepped out into the world and asserted her desires.  However much Madalynne Obenchain stressed her self as an independent woman, though, she still held on to the guise of dependency.  This dichotomy in the societal view of Madalynne, and women in general, left her with two roles.  Society saw Madalynne as both an independent woman and as a very dependant girl.

The image of Madalynne Obenchain as an independent woman encompassed much of societies understanding of her.  In the eyes of the ones that accused Mrs. Obenchain of Kennedy’s murder, Madalynne insisted on divorcing Ralph Obenchain, Madalynne pursued a relationship with Belton Kennedy, and Madalynne convinced Arthur Burch to kill Kennedy.  Throughout the whole ordeal, Madalynne Obenchain caused the situation to unravel and choose to be where she ended up.  Madalynne’s independence was the center of the prosecutions entire case.  Had Madalynne been docile, withdrawn, and dependant on the actions of men, she could never have convinced Burch to kill Kennedy.

Madalynne’s independence and individual strength so encompassed her role in the Kennedy murder that it, in many ways, left the men in the story looking docile and week.  Many often viewed Ralph Obenchain as a push-around who gave his wife everything that she wanted while she gave him nothing in return.  Trying to portray himself in a better light, Mr. Obenchain stared in a movie entitled “A Man in a Million.”[62]  Theater owners, however, never showed the movie claiming that there are enough “good, clean stories to be made into pictures suitable for public showing without resorting to sensationalism as a basis.”[63]  Mr. Obenchain’s efforts just left him viewed as an opportunist.[64]  Eventually Ralph gave up his attempts to win back his wife and headed back to Chicago, claiming that as far as he knew Madalynne still loved him, but that he may never return to Los Angeles.[65]  The independent Madalynne, though, never did return to Ralph Obenchain.  Ralph eventually did his best to move on and married a young COED from Northwestern University.[66]

The friends that Madalynne made while she stayed in prison further exemplified her role as a strong independent woman.  Reporters quickly learned that prison life had fostered a friendship between Clara Phillips and Madalynne Obenchain.[67] Mrs. Phillips, like Mrs. Obenchain, gained fame because of murder.  Authorities accused Clara Phillips of hammering to death a young woman whom she thought was sleeping with her husband.  According to reporters, Mrs. Phillips smashed the woman’s head in with a hammer, left the body beside a road where it fell, then told her husband all about the crime.[68]  Clara Phillips, just like Madalynne, proved her self to be a strong and independent woman.  The friendship that she shared with Madalynne most likely drew upon their common ability for assertive independent actions and the fame that they both endured due to the case.  Furthermore, both Madalynne and Phillips shined out in the public as likable people.  Mrs. Philips, for example, upon entering the women’s jail exclaimed that she was sure that she would be happy their “because everybody was so jolly and happy.”[69]

Likable murderesses, at the time of Obenchain and Phillips, began to be a common phenomenon. Men even offered many of the women, like Madalynne, their hand in marriage. Alma Whitaker, in a column that she wrote for the Los Angeles Times, argued that it “is a pretty poor homely sort of murderess who hasn’t some ardent admires.”[70] Whitaker further pointed out that men who had blood on their hands were not nearly as lucky as the murderesses.  In this light, Madalynne Obenchain defiantly drew men to her.  While authorities held Madalynne in jail during Christmas 1921, for example, she received over a hundred gifts from many different people.  The gifts ranged from a $1,000.00 bill the she received from one of her father’s relatives, to boxes of candy and flowers that she received from people that she knew by name only.  Madalynne told reporter, in “many ways this is the most wonderful Christmas that I ever had.” She continued, never “before, when in the university or at home, did I received so many delightful remembrances.”[71]  Madalynne’s incarceration and her being accused of murder essentially brought to her more gifts and a better Christmas than she had ever had.  People wanted to impress Madalynne, her alleged crime made her even more desirable. 

Many viewed Madalynne’s independence and desirability as a strong testament to the independence and strength of women in general.  If women, like Madalynne could virtually commit murder and still be desired, then women could undoubtedly successfully enter the public world.   One reporter emphasized the strength of women as jurors by pointing out that when Madalynne thought that the jury would be mostly men she came to court “shabbily dressed” as a way of gaining the men’s sympathy.  As soon as Madalynne learned that the jury consisted of mostly women, however, she “hurried back to her cell, got dressed up like a plush horse and swept into the courtroom, perfectly groomed and with a regal walk.”[72]  Madalynne, in the view of this reporter, knew that she could not gain an undeserved sympathy from a jury full of women. Not all, though, thought that women serving on the jury would make the case more difficult for Madalynne. Mr. Erbstein, who had defended more than twenty-two women charged with murder and got every one of them acquitted, had explicitly fought for women to occupy Mrs. Obenchain’s jury.[73] Women, to the reporter and Mr. Erbstein, disserved the chance to contribute independently to the public world.  

Not all involved in the Kennedy murder found the strength and independence of women jurors to be beneficial.  After one of Arthur Burch’s trials District Attorney Woolwine strongly criticized Mrs. Eva De Mott, one of the female jurors.  Woolwine wrote that after only two days from the time that authorities swore in Mrs. De Mott as a juror he knew that she “would in all probability vote for acquittal; no matter what the evidence might be.”[74]  Woolwine accused De Mott of exchanging “brazen” smile with both Ralph Obenchain and Arthur Burch.  He further argued that Mrs. De Mott constantly took good notes during the testimony in the defense of Burch, but took little interest while witnesses gave the evidence against Burch.  Woolwine believed the Mrs. De Mott deliberately worked her way on to the jury so that she could fight for Burch’s acquittal.   Woolwine’s accusations of Mrs. De Mott’s misdeeds imply that he believes that Mrs. De Mott was capable of independent misbehavior. Mrs. De Mott, then, was an independent woman, however the independence of women was of no benefit to society.

Madalynne, in her life of dichotomy, also played a significant role as a girl dependant on the help of society. If one assumes that Madalynne Obenchain did convince Burch to kill Kennedy, on the one hand, then her dependency becomes quite apparent.  Madalynne, although dependent enough to want to commit a crime, could not even muster up the independent courage to kill Kennedy with her own hands.  She had to lure a man into a conspiracy so that her crime could be committed.  If, on the other hand, one takes the stance that Madalynne did not commit the crime, as no jury ever convicted her, then there is still significant claim to Madalynne’s dependant status. Even while she resided in jail, many of the other inmates believed that the “well-known preima donna of the County Jail” had too much class to be treated as the other inmates.[75]  Reporters claimed that Madalynne had caused riots in the jails because some of the women thought she did not do her fair share of work.  During the riot, however, many of the other women in the jail stood up for Madalynne’s superior treatment.  Madalynne’s defenders believed that Mrs. Obenchain was “too dear for anything,“ or that “nothing [was] too good for her.”[76]  Mrs. Obenchain basically played the role of a sweat, dependant, young girl, that not only depended on the support of the men in her life, but on the support of the women around her as well.

After the sensation of the Kennedy murder had faded from the press, Madalynne moved away from the dynamic life that the public knew her for.  While in jail, the friends and family of Madalynne Obenchain described her as a traveling free spender.  She had been wandering around Europe, but after the war broke out, she fled back to the United States.  Shortly after Madalynne returned to the states her father died and left her a fortune of $50,000.00.  In about five years she had spent all but $4,000.00.  When asked about her spending habits Madalynne responded, what “difference does it make how a girl spends her own money?”[77] This free spending woman did not last. After the murder trials had ended, Madalynne quickly lost news interest. She did, though, return to jail, but only to play organ with a religious organization that he had been working with.[78]   Madalynne had apparently had enough of the public’s eye.

  Throughout the whole story, Madalynne Obenchain fundamentally sensationalized Belton Kennedy’s murder.  She proved her self to be enthralled in the love of at least three men, she generated questions and comments regarding the social and personal value of marriage, and she exposed the dichotomy of roles played by women of her time.  Although no one was able to completely convict Madalynne of murder, even after several trials, the majority of the jurors assigned to her case believed that she played a role in the death of Kennedy.[79]  The only price that she paid for the crime, though, was the time that she spent in jail during her trial and the scrutiny of the media as reporters exposed her life.  All in all, that is a small price to pay for murder.  The citizens of Los Angeles did not riot at the acquittals of Madalynne Obenchain and Arthur Burch, nor did the newspapers question the validity of the legal system.  Eventually, whether or not the evidence pointed to the fact that Madalynne and Burch had conspired to kill Kennedy, society as a whole found no need to further punish the two. Madalynne, for her part, was rich, beautiful, charismatic, and clever enough to get away with murder.  She certainly does, as the reporters believed, deserve a spot in history.



Los Angeles Times, “Son of Minister Arrested as Man Who Killed Kennedy," August 7, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Says Kennedy Given Beating,” August 8, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Hunt Kennedy Death Gun; Mystery Auto Is Found,"  August 9, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Grand Jury To Dig Into Kennedy Murder Case," August 10, 1921.

Los Angeles Times ,“Love Tragedy Letters Read," August 10, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Mrs. Obenchain Is Championed," August 10, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “She’s One Woman for Me," August 10, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Mrs. Obenchain and Burch are Indicted in Kennedy Murder Case,” August 12, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Obenchain On His Way Here," August 12, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Sentiment Versus Sense," August 18, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Husband’s Aid Sermon Topic," August 22, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Mystic Love Death Motive,”  August 23, 1921.

New York Times, “Mrs. Burch Gets Divorce," September 1, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Kennedy Death Defense Split," September 8, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “To Appeal No Bail Decision," September 17, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “See New Turn to Burch Case," September 19, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Seeks Women Jurors," October 17, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Woolwine Hurls Charges," October 25, 1921.

Carr, Harry.  “History’s Famous Charmers Outdone by Madalynne," Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Burch Suddenly Old Man,” November 2, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Woolwine Ouster Asked; Bar Rules For Erbstein," November 2, 1921.

New York Times, “Decides Burch Is Sane," November 8, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Obenchain’s Licensed To Wed; Plan Held Up," November 15, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “’Death Vigil’ of Burch and Madalynne Told," December 2, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Madalynne’s Hot Love Notes Jar Obenchain," December 7, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Real Love Story Hidden," December 9, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Elder Burch Threatens Newspaper Reporter," December 16, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Insanity Battle Opens In Kennedy Death Case,” December 22, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Gifts Showered on Madalynne," December 26, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “Father Fights for Burch," December 28, 1921.

Los Angeles Times, “The Lancer," January 1, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Madalynne Wrecker of Three Men, Keyes Says," January 10, 1922.

New York Times, “Woman is Assailed in Burch Mistrial," January 17, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Exhibitors To Consider Film Ban," February 17, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Theater Owners To Bar ‘Notorieties," February 18, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “The Lancer," March 12, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Cartoon," March 16, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Nine Jurors Believe Madalynne is Guilty," March 18, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Ralph Obenchain in Chicago," April 26, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Madalynne Is Court Victor," June 20, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Bare Madalynne Letters," June 24, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Roman’s Love Letters Read," June 27, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Jail Visitors Allowed if All Goes Smoothly," July 13, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Oil Man Says Jealous Wife Killed Widow With Hammer," July 14, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Clara Pal of Madalynne," July 19, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Fists Fly for Madalynne," August 9, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Madalynne Is Given Freedom," December 5, 1922.

New York Times, “Burch Gains Freedom After His Four Trials," December 10, 1922.

Los Angeles Times, “Murder Juror Is Fined $200," December 29, 1922.

Whitaker, Alma. “The Last Word," Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1923.

Los Angeles Times, “Back to Prison on Mercy Bent," June 13, 1924.

Los Angeles Times, “Obenchain Married to Young Coed," December 28, 1924.

Los Angeles Times, “The Lancer," December 31, 1924.

Los Angeles Times, “Elder Kennedy Attacks Burch," February 2, 1927.

Los Angeles Times, “Burch's Will Gives Estate to Mrs. Obenchain," August 1, 1944.



[1] “Son of Minister Arrested as Man Who Killed Kennedy,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1921.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “She’s One Woman for Me,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[4] “Love Tragedy Letters Read,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[5] “Says Kennedy Given Beating,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 1921.

[6] “Hunt Kennedy Death Gun; Mystery Auto Is Found,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1921.

[7] “Son of Minister Arrested as Man Who Killed Kennedy,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1921.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “’Death Vigil’ of Burch and Madalynne Told,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1921.

[10] “Mystic Love Death Motive,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1921.

[11] “Mrs. Obenchain and Burch are Indicted in Kennedy Murder Case,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1921.

[12] “Son of Minister Arrested as Man Who Killed Kennedy,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1921.

[13] “Obenchain On His Way Here,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1921.

[14] “Mrs. Obenchain Is Championed,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[15] “Kennedy Death Defense Split,” Los Angeles Times, September 8, 1921.

[16] “Decides Burch Is Sane,” New York Times, November 08, 1921.

[17] “Woolwine Hurls Charges,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1921.

[18] “Woolwine Ouster Asked; Bar Rules For Erbstein,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1921.

[19] “To Appeal No Bail Decision,” Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1921.

[20] “Madalynne Is Court Victor,” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1922.

[21] “Bare Madalynne Letters,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1922.

[22] “Madalynne Is Given Freedom,” Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1922.

[23] “Burch Confession, Asserts Reporter,” New York Times, September 14, 1921.

[24] “Insanity Battle Opens In Kennedy Death Case,” Los Angeles Times, December 22, 1921.

[25] “Burch Suddenly Old Man,” Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1922.

[26] “Decides Burch Is Sane,” New York Times, November 08, 1921.

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Burch Gains Freedom After His Four Trials,” New York Time, December 10, 1922.

[29] “Mrs. Obenchain Is Championed,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Grand Jury To Dig Into Kennedy Murder Case,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[32] “See New Turn to Burch Case,” Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1921.

[33] “Father Fights for Burch,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1921.

[34] “Elder Burch Threatens Newspaper Reporter,” Los Angeles Times, December 16, 1921.

[35] “Elder Kennedy Attacks Burch,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1927.

[36] “Mystic Love Death Motive,” Los Angeles Times, August 23, 1921.

[37] “Love Tragedy Letters Read,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[38] “Real Love Story Hidden,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1921.

[39] Ibid.

[40] “Madalynne’s Hot Love Notes Jar Obenchain,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1921.

[41] Ibid.

[42] “Real Love Story Hidden,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1921.

[43] “Madalynne’s Hot Love Notes Jar Obenchain,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 1921.

[44] “Obenchain’s Licensed To Wed; Plan Held Up,” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1921.

[45] Ibid.

[46] “Burch's Will Gives Estate to Mrs. Obenchain,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1944.

[47] “Madalynne Wrecker of Three Men, Keyes Says,” Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1922.

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Roman’s Love Letters Read,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 1922.

[50] “Bare Madalynne Letters,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1922.

[51] “Murder Juror Is Fined $200,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1922.

[52] Harry Carr, “History’s Famous Charmers Outdone by Madalynne,” Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1921.

[53] “Sentiment Versus Sense,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.

[54] “The Lancer,” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1922.

[55] “Sentiment Versus Sense,” Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1921.

[56] “Husband’s Aid Sermon Topic,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1921.

[57] Ibid.

[58] “Husband’s Aid Sermon Topic,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 1921.

[59] “Mrs. Burch Gets Divorce,” New York Times, September 1, 1921.

[60] “Love Tragedy Letters Read,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[61] “The Lancer,” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1922.

[62] “Exhibitors To Consider Film Ban,” Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1922

[63] “Theater Owners To Bar ‘Notorieties,’” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1922

[64] “Cartoon,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1922

[65] “Ralph Obenchain in Chicago,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1922.

[66] “Obenchain Married to Young Coed,” Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1924.

[67] “Clara Pal of Madalynne,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1922.

[68] “Oil Man Says Jealous Wife Killed Widow With Hammer,” Los Angeles Times, July 14, 1922.

[69] “Clara Pal of Madalynne,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1922.

[70] Alma Whitaker, “The Last Word,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1923. 

[71] “Gifts Showered on Madalynne,” Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1921.

[72] “The Lancer,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1924.

[73] “Seeks Women Jurors,” Los Angeles Times, October 17, 1921.

[74]  “Woman is Assailed in Burch Mistrial,” New York Times, January 17, 1922.

[75] “Fists Fly for Madalynne,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1922.

[76] “Jail Visitors Allowed if All Goes Smoothly,” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1922.

[77] “She’s One Woman for Me,” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1921.

[78] “Back to Prison on Mercy Bent,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1924.

[79] “Nine Jurors Believe Madalynne is Guilty,” Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1922.



© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.