cover image The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

Kathleen A. Cairns, . . Univ. of Nebraska, $25.95 (295pp) ISBN 978-0-8032-1141-4

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)