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Nellie Madison in jail
Alternative Title
Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection
Date Created and/or Issued
Contributing Institution
Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection
Rights Information
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Photograph was edited for publication purposes.
Nellie Madison was a rebel from the time she was a little girl. She was married for the first time in 1908 at age 13 to a man 11 years her senior. Her parents had the marriage annulled but that didn't slow her down. By 1934 she was on her fifth marriage. Spouse number five was Eric Madison, an abusive schemer. He proposed to Madison as soon as he discovered that she had inherited $1,000. He was unable to hold on to a job and he was unfaithful. Madison came home one day and found him in bed with a 16-year-old girl. Eric wasn't contrite, he mocked her and confessed that he had only married her for her money and then he beat her. His rage continued for nearly a week. Madison was so afraid for her life that she bought a gun. On March 24, 1934, the couple began arguing. It was about midnight and Eric was in bed and Nellie was standing at its foot. She pulled out her gun, but Eric continued to curse at her and from underneath the bed he pulled out a box of butcher knives. He threw a couple of them at Nellie. When he turned to reach for another one Nellie shot him five times in the back, and then she ran. She was found two days later and indicted for Eric's murder. District Attorney Buron Fitts vowed to seek the death penalty. Historically women who refuse to conform to the norms of society pay a price, and Nellie was a lifelong non-conformist. During the trial her multiple marriages, childlessness, and unconventional life style weighed heavily against her; perhaps even more than the evidence. The public and the jurors were confounded by the fact that she never dissolved into tears or begged for mercy. The newspapers called her "Sphinx Woman" and "Iron Woman." No one was surprised when she was sentenced to death by hanging, but her life was spared in 1935 by California's governor, Frank Merriam, after a long and very public sympathy campaign in which Aggie Underwood played a pivotal role. Underwood publicized the case and revealed that Nellie had suffered terrible abuse at Eric's hands. It was not until 1942 that Nellie's life sentence was commuted to a sentence of fifteen years, making her eligible for parole. Upon her release from Tehachapi she thanked Underwood profusely saying, "You did it! You did it! I owe it all to you!"
First photograph caption dated June 23, 1934 reads, "Mrs. Nellie Madison, who is condemned to die on the gallows for the murder of her husband, Eric Madison, is shown in the county jail today still keeping her icy calm int he face of death. Called the 'iron widow,' she still maintains that she did not slay her husband."; Second photograph caption dated March 30, 1935 reads, "'You are sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.' In a lonely 'death cell' in the women's prison at Tehachapi, Nellie Madison, 'sphinx woman,' from Los Angeles, sits and hears this phrase of doom echo through her mind. For eight months she has lived in her cell, allowed to see only prison officials and her attorney."; Third photograph caption dated September 4, 1935 reads, "Creating a crisis in the case of Nellie Madison, Los Angeles 'enigma woman' condemned to hang Oct. 4 for the murder of her husband, A. R. O'Brien, prison board member, today said he had 'lied like a gentleman' on a recent talk with her and told her that Governor Merriam would not let her hang."
1 photographic print :b&w ;36 x 29 cm.
Photographic prints
Herald Examiner Collection
HE box 5100
Female offenders--California--Los Angeles
Criminals--California--Los Angeles
Murderers--California--Los Angeles
Women--California--Los Angeles
Jails--California--Los Angeles
Downtown Los Angeles (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Los Angeles Evening Herald and Express photographs
Herald-Examiner Collection photographs

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