September 28, 2022

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The Passionate of Travel

Jazz Age love gone murderously bad

In the summer of 1921, Madalynne Obenchain became known to the world by many different titles, like the “prettiest girl on campus,” the “beautiful divorcee,” and “the goddess.”

Her charms, newspapers said, were so powerful that with just one wink, she could make men do whatever she wanted, even murder.

(Daily New York Daily News Archive)

That August, Obenchain, 28, was accused of luring one of her suitors, Arthur C. Burch, 26, to shoot another, John Belton Kennedy, a handsome young insurance broker.

The fourth player in this bizarre Jazz Age quartet was Madalynne’s ex-husband, Ralph Obenchain, 31, a Chicago lawyer.

Ralph Obenchain became known as the “one in a million man” because he stood by his ex, even though she ditched him a day after the wedding to chase Kennedy.

Prosecutors later gave the discarded but endlessly faithful former spouse a different nickname — the “Human Doormat.”

In 1914, Madalynne, Ralph, and Burch, a track star, were students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

In early 1915, Ralph, president of his senior class, worked up the courage to ask the buxom beauty to marry him. Their engagement was on-again, off-again until 1916, when Madalynne’s father died, leaving her $50,000 (more than $800,000 today).

She left college, waved goodbye to her admirers, and set out to see the world. Her journeys brought her to her mother’s Los Angeles home, where she met Kennedy. It was love at first sight.

Kennedy felt the same about her, or so he said. He would have immediately slipped a ring on her finger, except for one barrier — his mother. She was very protective of her son and intensely disliked the new girl in town.

That did not stop Madalynne. She went in hot pursuit of the sheltered young man, in person, on the phone, and in letters and telegrams that told of her desires.

Several times, Kennedy came close to proposing for about two years but never quite got the words out.

Finally, Madalynne gave him an ultimatum: Marry me, or I’m going back to the boys in Illinois.

She returned to Chicago in late 1918, just in time for the great influenza pandemic. Madalynne caught the virus, and Burch hired a private nurse for her.

When she recovered, Ralph Obenchain again begged for her hand. She refused, saying that Kennedy was the only man for her. As soon as she could, she hightailed it back to Los Angeles. Obenchain followed.

Kennedy was attentive as ever, but there was still no wedding. On New Year’s Day 1919, she gave up and married Obenchain.

Within 24 hours, she told him she made a mistake and was still in love with Kennedy. The groom traveled back to Illinois alone and gave her no resistance when she arrived at his home later and demanded a divorce.

“I’ll give you anything you want, darling,” he said. “I just want you to be happy.”

Kennedy kept promising weddings, but nothing happened. The couple kept up this dance through the spring of 1921. Then Madalynne called on her other old friend — Arthur Burch. She wrote that she needed him and signed her telegram with one word — Goddess.

He rushed west and set himself up in the Russell Hotel, across the street from Kennedy’s office.

On Aug. 5, 1921, Madalynne and Kennedy spent the night on the town and stopped at his cabin in Beverly Glen.

Madalynne, the only witness, said they were climbing the stairs to the cabin when she remembered she had hidden a lucky penny under a rock about a year earlier. Kennedy said he wanted to find it.

As Madalynne went back down to the car for matches, she heard two shotgun blasts. Kennedy fell to the ground. His last words were, “Good night, Madalynne,”

She told police two “roughly dressed men” emerged from the underbrush and then ran from the scene. She dashed to the road where a passing motorist gave her a lift to the local police station.

Investigators were already suspicious of Madalynne’s story when a tip came in from an unlikely source — the proprietor of the Russell Hotel. He reported that a man had checked in, requesting a room with a clear view of the building where Kennedy worked.

On the afternoon of the murder, the guest left, carrying a wrapped package about the size of a shotgun. When he returned in the dead of night, he had no package.

The man, Arthur Burch, checked in about two weeks earlier. During his stay, he was frequently visited by a woman who said she was his cousin.

Hotel workers said that the cousin looked a lot like the pictures of Madalynne that ran in the papers.

Police picked up Burch on a train heading east. He and Madalynne were charged with first-degree murder.

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When Ralph heard the news, he dropped everything — including his law practice — and rushed to her side. “I love her still,” he declared. “No matter what she may have done, I will stand by her always.”

There were five trials — two for Madalynne and three for Burch. All were based on circumstantial evidence, and all ended in hung juries.

When Madalynne was freed, she told reporters that she would serve in a leper colony. But she stayed in Los Angeles and lived a quiet life until her death in 1962.

Despite Ralph Obenchain’s hopes, they never remarried.

In 1924, Ralph returned to Chicago and married another Northwestern University beauty. Sadly, this union was cut short by his death in 1939.

Burch, divorced twice, died in 1944. In his will, he left everything to Madalynne, who asked the court to turn the estate over to Burch’s son.

JUSTICE STORY has been the Daily News’ exclusive take on true crime tales of murder, mystery and mayhem for more than 100 years. Click here to read more.

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