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A Hollywood Murder, Part 2


Yesterday we introduced the case of Madalynne Obenchain and Arthur Burch and the evidence against them. The trials waged on today in 1922. Yet, the defense was still trying to push a motive that would convict the two, and all eyes turned to the seemingly heartbroken beauty.

Madalynne Obenchain was considered a great beauty and was even voted prettiest girl on campus at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. According to author Michael Parrish, “By all accounts, dark-eyed, 28-year-old Madalynne Obenchain had only to wink at a man to get her way. And these were not just momentary effects. Even the men she abandoned remained loyal to her….Los Angeles Times writer Harry ‘Doc’ Carr observed that she ‘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.’”

One of those men was Ralph Obenchain. Ralph had been married to Madalynne until 1920 when he reluctantly granted Madalynne divorce so she could be with John Belton Kennedy. When Madalynne was in trouble after Kennedy’s murder, however, the rich Chicago attorney was ready to rush to her aid. “I am waiting Madalynne’s call,” said Ralph, “If she wants me or it appears at any time there is anything I can do to help her, I will take the next train to Los Angeles. I still love her. I always will.”

Ralph’s devotion later earned him the name “the human doormat” by LA papers, but Ralph stayed near. Ralph became “steady Ralph, the man in a million,” to Madalynne. But, Ralph and Kennedy were not the only men in love with Madalynne, and her magnetism became the motive for murder in the case.

According to Parrish, “Arthur Burch, it turned out, had been in love with Madalynne Obenchain since he had met her when he was a track star at Northwestern. He, too, had proposed marriage. Investigators believed that Obenchain became enraged when Kennedy refused to marry her even after she had divorced her husband. She had gotten in touch with Burch, they surmised, who brought a shotgun out from Chicago to avenge this offense against a woman that he considered a ‘goddess.’ Burch, investigators said, had waited in ambush and used both barrels of the shotgun on Kennedy when he stooped to retrieve a lucky penny that Obenchain told him she had left under a rock.”

So was Madalynne a murderess and Burch a pawn in her plan for revenge against the man who had led her on? The case was never truly decided. Burch and Madalynne went through five hung juries over sixteen months before the case was finally dismissed and Madalynne and Burch were set free. The proposed motive and Madalynne’s reputation as a “woman scorned” were dismissed after Ralph turned over letters between Madalynne and Kennedy. The letters revealed that Madalynne had actually called off the engagement, not Kennedy. Kennedy begged for Madalynne to reconsider, but Madalynne replied that she intended to return to Ralph.

Though these letters were most responsible for setting her free, critics of the juries attributed the woman’s victory to her charm. They claimed that the juries could never reach a decision because all the men would fall in love with Madalynne before the end of the trial. The Times wrote, “Battle after battle was aged in the jury room to win votes to the young woman’s side…Threats were made. At one time the opposing camps nearly came to blows and were only prevented by the women on the jury.” Burch’s trials were undecided because the jury didn’t buy into the story that Burch committed the crime for reasons of “love-crazed insanity.”

In the end, this Hollywood case became exactly that. Plays and movies were based on the case, and Ralph Obenchain even starred in the movie version of the trial, titled A Man and a Million. Madalynne Connor Obenchain remained the major star, however, as actresses playing different murderesses modeled their character after this captivating North Dakota woman.

Written by Tessa Sandstrom


“Three College Classmates are chief figures in murder cases,” Fargo Forum. Aug. 8, 1921: 1.

“Mrs. Obenchain tells her story of shooting of Belton Kennedy,” Fargo Forum. Aug. 10, 1921: 1.

“Former Fessenden young lady being held as witness in connection with murder of rich San Francisco broker,” Wells County Free Press. Aug. 11, 1921: 2.

“Motive behind Kennedy murder is being sought by authorities,” Fargo Forum. Aug. 13, 1921: 2.

“Former Fessenden woman indicted for the killing of her purported sweetheart,” The Harvey Herald and Advertiser. Aug. 19, 1921: 1.

“Madelynn Obenchain and Burch indicted for murder. Hearing Postponed,” The Harvey Herald and Advertiser. Aug. 26, 1921: 1.

“Confession by Burch alleged by Los Angeles newspaper man,” Fargo Forum. Sept. 14, 1921: 1.

“Madalynne is first woman to take ‘Bridge of sighs’ to court,” Fargo Forum. Aug. 31, 1921.

Parrish, Michael. For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, 1850-2000. Santa Monica: 2001.