The Extraordinary Case of Nellie May Madison

Nellie May Madison made headlines in the 1930s for the murder of her husband. She was vilified by the press, convicted by a jury, and sentenced to the death penalty. But her story had many twists and turns along the way, changing not only her own life but the entire legal system as we know it.

Nellie May Madison / Nellie May Madison / Nelly May Madison.
Source: Pinterest

This is the full story of Nellie May, from her early years as a child in Montana to Irish ranchers through to her rebellious teenage years and her fateful relationship with Eric Madison. It’s a rollercoaster ride, filled with incredible moments from start to finish.

Born in Montana

The woman the world came to know as Nellie May Madison was initially known as Nellie May Mooney. She was born in Red Rock, Montana, on the 5th of April, 1895. Her parents were Edward Mooney and Catherine Doherty Mooney.

An image of Montana.
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The Mooneys were originally from Ireland and had moved to the United States in the 1880s to start a new life. They had benefited from the government’s homestead program and started their sheep ranch, not far from the city of Dillon, Montana.

A Special Kind of Childhood

Nellie May was the youngest of three children in the Mooney family. She experienced a unique kind of childhood and upbringing in a lot of different ways. She was raised as a staunch Catholic, learning what she could from the priest who would visit the Mooneys now and then on horseback.

A portrait of Nellie May as a young girl.
Source: Pinterest

Growing up on the ranch, she had to fend for herself and learn many critical skills from an early age to help out the family. Even as a young girl, she already knew how to ride a horse and shoot a rifle.

A Crack Shot Before Her Teens

Life on ranches involves a lot of manual tasks and hard labor. It was vital for Nellie May to understand this and take an active role in family life to help her parents and siblings. So, she worked hard to hone her skills.

A photo of a young Nellie May.
Source: Pinterest

She became a proficient rider, but her shooting skills helped her stand out. She was known locally as a “crack shot,” even before reaching her teenage years, and could fire a gun with incredible precision.

The Rebellious Teenage Years

Many teenagers go through a “rebellious phase” in which they rebel against their parents, teachers, and other authority figures, deciding to break the rules and do things differently to demonstrate their independence. Nellie May entered that particular phase quite early in life.

A photo of Nellie with a melancholic expression on her face.
Source: Pinterest

As she entered her teens and grew into a young adult, the more impulsive, risk-taking side of her personality began to emerge. From the age of 13, she started doing things that many people would have seen as risky or dangerous, including her very first marriage!

Married at the age of 13

Yes, Nellie May Mooney was only 13 years of age when she got married for the first time. She tied the knot in October of 1908 to a man named Ralph Brothers. Ralph was a 24-year-old cowboy.

A portrait of Nellie May.
Source: Pinterest

He was a bold and flashy man, precisely the kind of man that young Nellie May had started to become attracted to. So, after meeting Ralph, she didn’t think twice about eloping to Ogden, Utah, and becoming his wife.

Nellie May’s Parents Intervened

After learning that their daughter had eloped and gotten married without their approval or knowledge, Nellie May’s parents decided to intervene. They got the marriage annulled shortly after learning about it and tried to get Nellie May under control.

A portrait of Nellie May’s parents.
Source: Pinterest

Edward and Catherine, Nellie May’s parents, brought her back to the family home and tried to get her to concentrate on her studies. They succeeded for a little while, but Nellie May’s reckless nature and tendency to take risks had plenty more surprises in store for the whole family in the years that followed.

Making the Move to Idaho

In 1912, Nellie made the move to Boise, Idaho. She had enrolled in Links Business College and was ready to pursue her studies in the hopes of a successful future. And it was in Boise that she met her second husband, Clarence Kennedy.

A vintage postcard of Boise, Idaho.
Source: Pinterest

Clarence Kennedy was a firefighter. He and Nellie May tied the knot in 1917. Little is known about their relationship, except for the fact that it didn’t work out. By 1919, the pair had divorced, and Nellie, who was only in her 20s at the time, had already had two divorces.

Husband Number Three for Nellie May

It didn’t take Nellie May long to meet her next husband after the divorce from Clarence Kennedy. Husband No. 3 was a man named Wilbert Trask, also known under the nickname “Earl.” Earl was a local mechanic who had fallen in love with Nellie.

A portrait of Nellie May.
Source: Pinterest

He and Nellie got married and decided to move to Los Angeles together a year later. Not long after that, once again, Nellie filed for divorce and separated from her third husband. She had no children from any of her marriages.

One Husband After Another

Before she turned 30 years old, Nellie May Mooney had married and divorced on three separate occasions. This demonstrated her impulsive nature and tendency to dive into things, especially relationships and commitments, without thinking them all the way through.

A picture of Nellie May and one of her husbands.
Source: YouTube

In 1925, when she turned 30, Nellie May married her fourth husband, William Brown. William was a lawyer who was well-known in California, where Nellie was living at the time. Before getting a divorce, she and William stayed married for five years, a record for Nellie.

Moving on in the World

Nellie May got her fourth divorce in 1930. And it was then that she also made another change in her life. She moved to Palm Springs and got a new job as the manager of the Desert Inn.

A photo from the Desert Inn facade.
Source: YouTube

The Desert Inn was a hotel that mainly catered to celebrities and exclusive guests in the area. Nellie worked there for a few years, without any major changes to her life or any big relationships to speak of. But in 1933, all of that was about to change.

Meeting Eric Madison

It was in the spring of 1933 that Nellie May Mooney met Eric Madison. Eric was a charming man. He was also someone with big ambitions, with exciting dreams for the years ahead. He wore fancy clothes and drove a sporty coupe car.

A view of the swimming pool area at the Desert Inn.
Source: Pinterest

In short, a lot about him matched well with the sort of men that Nellie tended to go for, and she was drawn to him very quickly. The couple had a whirlwind romance, and it wasn’t long before they were engaged, and Nellie was ready to enter her fifth marriage.

Tying the Knot

Nellie and Eric had only been together for a few months when they decided to get married. Eric proposed to Nellie May, and the pair tied the knot in Salt Lake City. Their marriage was in July of 1933.

A man slips an engagement ring into his fiancée's finger.
Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was Nellie’s fifth marriage, and perhaps she hoped that it would be her final one to a man who seemed like her perfect match. But in reality, her new husband was hiding some dark secrets and malicious intentions, and she was about to find out exactly what kind of person he really was.

A Dark Secret

In reality, Eric Madison was a conniving schemer with a lack of scruples. He had a history of rude, aggressive behavior, and he had shown in the past that he wasn’t afraid to hurt people or toy with their emotions to get what he wanted.

A portrait of Eric Madison.
Source: Tumblr

Even though he drove a nice car and wore fancy clothes, he hadn’t had much success in his career, repeatedly fired from jobs like coffee shop management due to his aggressive approach. He was a much colder and darker man than he had seemed in the eyes of Nellie.

Married for the Money

Another of Eric’s secrets, which would later be revealed to Nellie and others, was that he had only decided to marry her because of her money. Indeed, he only proposed after discovering that Nellie was set to inherit $1,000 from her family.

A picture of Nellie / A portrait of Eric.
Source: Pinterest

As soon as the couple tied the knot, they sped off to Dillon, Montana, to collect the cash. Any outside observer may have been able to see that Eric was up to no good, but Nellie was blinded by her love and attraction towards her exciting new husband.

Heading Back to California

A little while after picking up Nellie May’s inheritance money, the newly married couple decided to head back to Southern California and get “matching jobs.” They both went to work for a business that is known all over the world: Warner Bros. Studios.

A view over Los Angeles, California.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The pair rented an apartment beside the WB location in Burbank and were hired as cashiers at the commissary. It seemed like a very convenient situation for both of them, but things were about to go very badly wrong.

Eric Got Fired After Two Weeks

As mentioned earlier, Eric Madison tended to be rude and aggressive to those around him. Even in the world of work, he was unable to control his temper and follow the rules. So, it was unsurprising that he didn’t last long at the Warner Bros job.

An exterior view of Warner Bros. concrete building.
Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images

He was fired after only two weeks. It was studio head Jack Warner himself, who fired Madison after he yelled at the director Alfred Green and shoved Green around and overcharging him for a box of cigars.

Nellie Continued to Work

Unlike her husband, Nellie was able to control the more impulsive and rebellious side of her personality when she was at work. She acted professionally and followed the rules to keep her job, and she knew how important it was.

A view inside Warner Brothers Film Studio.
Photo by Keystone Features/Getty Images

It was clear to see that, with Eric’s reckless nature, a lot of pressure was on Nellie’s shoulders to earn money and keep the couple afloat. She worked hard in her role each day; while unemployed, Eric spent a lot of time at the couple’s apartment.

Tensions Start to Rise

Initially, Eric and Nellie’s relationship had seemed like a beautiful whirlwind romance. They’d met and fallen for one another so quickly and deeply, and it seemed like they could be the perfect match, ready to say, “I do” and live happily ever after.

A photo of Nellie crying.
Source: Pinterest

However, for Nellie, the grim reality of her newly married life was beginning to set in. She found herself arguing more and more regularly with her husband after he got fired. Tensions were rising between the pair as the financial pressures of their situation started to weigh on them.

Caught in the Act

In March of 1934, Nellie’s life changed dramatically in a way she hadn’t seen coming. She’d been out at a movie that night while Eric had stayed home. When she got back, she was blown away to find her husband in bed with another woman.

A portrait of Nellie wearing a sad expression on her face.
Source: Tumblr

Eric was sharing the bed with a 16-year-old girl, and it later turned out that she wasn’t the only one. Eric had secretly been cheating on his wife, mostly with teenage girls. Nellie’s faith in her husband was shattered in that instant.

Eric Reveals the Truth

When Nellie caught Eric cheating, she flew into a rage. But instead of being apologetic and trying to explain himself, Eric responded with his usual aggression and anger. He shouted back at Nellie and beat her, revealing the dark character he’d always hidden away from her.

A picture of Eric.
Source: Pinterest

He revealed that the only reason that they’d married in the first place was that he wanted her money. He also claimed that the marriage was fake, and he’d tricked Nellie into the whole thing. Nellie couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

The Beatings Continued

After that fateful night, the couple went past the point of no return. They shouted and argued, day after day and night after night, and the beatings and physical abuse continued for Nellie May. According to sources, the beatings carried on for six more days.

An image of a man’s fist on a table making his point.
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And as the days went on and the ordeal showed no signs of coming to an end, Nellie was becoming more and more desperate. She didn’t know what to do to escape such a terrible, dangerous situation. It seemed like there was no way out.

Nellie Takes a Stand

Nellie knew that she couldn’t allow the situation to continue. Not only was Eric abusing her, but he’d also forced her to sign a note stating that their marriage was false and that she had been unfaithful, rather than saying that it was him.

A picture of Nellie sitting at home.
Source: Tumblr

Nellie felt utterly trapped in the situation, facing public shame if the note got out, as well as physical, emotional, and mental harm if she stayed with Eric. So, she decided to take a stand. She bought a gun with the intent of threatening Eric to let her go and destroy the note.

The Night of the Crime

On March, 24 of 1934, just before midnight, Eric and Nellie were at home, having another argument. Eric was lying in bed while Nellie stood at the foot of it. It was then that Nellie revealed the gun she’d purchased and aimed it at Eric.

An illustration of the crime.
Source: YouTube

She had only intended to threaten him, but he immediately responded with threats of his own, reaching beneath the bed for some knives and throwing a couple in Nellie’s direction. As he turned around to get another knife, Nellie fired.

Eric Was Shot Five Times

Nellie, fearing for her life and in a state of panic, fired five bullets into Eric’s back. He collapsed onto the floor, dying quickly from his wounds. The sound of the gunshots caught the attention of neighbors, who started to gather in the hall of the apartment building.

An image of a shirt with bullet holes.
Photo by Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Fortunately for Nellie, she had the perfect excuse to explain the noise. A gangster movie was being filmed at the Warner Bros studio nearby, and Nellie, who had also gone into the hall, suggested to neighbors that the sounds had likely come from the film set.

She Made Her Escape

Nellie’s neighbors seemed to agree with her idea that the gunshots had come from the film set and decided to head back indoors and go back to bed. She did the same, re-entering the apartment where her former husband’s body was lying on the floor.

A photo of Nellie taking her coat.
Source: YouTube

It is believed that she spent a few more hours in the apartment before leaving. A neighbor claimed to have seen her departing in the early hours of the following day, looking quite pale in the face and carrying a small box under her arm.

Caught by the Cops

Some people flee from crime scenes and elude the authorities for months or even years. Still, Nellie May Madison was caught relatively quickly, even though she had fled the scene without drawing too much attention to herself and gone out to a remote mountain cabin 80 miles from LA.

An image of Nellie in prison.
Source: YouTube

The cops discovered Eric’s body the day after the shooting and then told Nellie’s former brother-in-law that she might be up in the cabin. They made the journey out there and found her hiding in a closet. She was arrested on the spot.

The Case Begins Badly

Nellie was charged with the murder of her husband, and before the trial had even started and any evidence or arguments had been presented, it was clear that she had a big uphill battle in front of her. The Los Angeles County District Attorney, Buron Fitts, announced that he would be seeking the death penalty.

A photo of Nellie sitting next to her attorney in court.
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Deputy district attorney, George Stahlman, stated, “Mrs. Madison shot her husband in the back; any motive is of no concern to the prosecution.” Without even wanting to know the whole story, the forces working against Nellie were already making plans to have her executed.

A Hanging Judge

As the build-up to the trial continued, the odds continued to stack up against Nellie May Madison. The judge in charge of the case was Charles Fricke. He was a very media-savvy, well-known judge, reputed as a “hanging judge,” a term used for judges who tend to hand out death penalties and severe punishments for the cases they preside over.

A photo of an electric chair in prison.
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Fricke made his intentions for the case clear when he later agreed to a prosecution request to bring the “death bed” from the Madisons’ apartment into the court, complete with blood-soaked sheets, to present in front of the jury throughout most of the two-week trial.

The Media Painted a Dark Picture

So, the judge was ready to hand out the harshest sentences to Nellie. The prosecution was also eager to have her hanged, even before any explanation for the crime had been provided. The local media also did not help Nellie’s case, with newspapers painting her as a dark, emotionless woman.

A mugshot of Nellie.
Source: Tumblr

The case attracted a lot of attention, especially when it was learned that Nellie might become the first woman in the state of California to be executed. Local reporters gave her nicknames like “Enigma Woman” and “Sphinx Woman,” The media reports often made her seem like a cold, calculated killer.

Public Opinion of Nellie Was Very Low

Thanks to the media reports, the general public consensus of Nellie May Madison was very negative. People had heard the stories of her many marriages, multiple divorces, unique shooting skills, and cold, expressionless way of communicating.

A portrait of Nellie.
Source: YouTube

After hearing all of those reports, many public members felt convinced that Nellie had committed the crime and did indeed deserve to face the hangman’s noose. So, as the trial began and went on, it seemed that absolutely everything and everyone was against her.

Nellie’s Defense Attorney Was Out of His Depth

Even Nellie’s defense attorney, Joseph Ryan, seemed to treat Nellie with disdain and appeared entirely out of his depth in the courtroom. Even though Nellie had told him the truth about what happened, he decided against discussing the abuse she had suffered.

Nellie speaks with her attorney during a recess.
Source: UCLA Library

Instead, he came up with a bizarre and unbelievable story. He suggested that the body was not Eric’s. It was simply a stranger who had entered the apartment after Nellie was away. Nellie played along, saying that she hadn’t seen Eric and didn’t know the dead man.

The Sentence Is Announced

With such a weak defense and such overwhelming odds against her, the result of the case was a foregone conclusion: the jury found Nellie to be guilty of first-degree murder, and she was sentenced to death by hanging.

The judge announces the sentence.
Source: UCLA Library

At the sentencing in July, Judge Fricke set a date of September 24th for the execution, and Nellie was sent off to the Women’s Institution at Tehachapi, the only women’s facility in the state at the time, to be placed in solitary confinement until that date.

A Failed Appeal

Nellie was mere weeks away from execution. The only hope she had was to launch an appeal. Her lawyer, Joseph Ryan, did his best, appealing against various factors from the case, such as the exhibition of the death bed and the judge’s alleged bias.

Nellie sits with a sad expression on her face.
Source: Pinterest

However, the response to the appeal was firm and clear. All of Ryan’s points were refuted. It was decided that the trial had been fair and legitimate, and the only positive outcome was that her execution was pushed back to October, giving her a little more time.

Nellie Tells the Truth

Nellie was desperate for any help she could get. It came in the form of her ex-husband, the lawyer William Brown. Brown, having heard Nellie’s true story, told her to make it public. He urged her to open up and finally tell the truth about what had happened.

A mugshot of Nellie.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nellie also fired Ryan and hired a new attorney, Lloyd Nix. At first, the authorities were unmoved by her claims, but then Eric’s ex-wife, Georgia Madison, also came forward to say that he had abused her, too. This helped strengthen Nellie’s case and change her image in the eyes of the media and public.

Aggie Underwood Lends a Hand

Suddenly, everything was starting to change for Nellie. The media were now writing stories about her as a lonely, struggling victim of terrible abuse, trapped behind bars simply for defending herself against a ruthless aggressor. And one of the most important people in Nellie’s corner was Aggie Underwood.

A photo of Aggie working in an office.
Source: LA Times

Aggie Underwood was a very prominent journalist at the time. She researched the case, finding out that Eric had a history of abusing his former partners and had also cheated on them regularly, often with teenage girls. She led the charge to defend Nellie and fight for her execution to be called off.

Public Perception Changes the Game

Thanks to the hard work of people like Aggie Underwood, the public perception of Nellie transformed dramatically. People around California and elsewhere across the US started writing letters to the state governor, Frank Merriam, asking him to commute the sentence.

A picture of Frank Merriam sitting behind a desk.
Source: YouTube

Every single member of the jury that had convicted Nellie petitioned Merriam to call off the execution. The governor was a tough man who had won his place after a campaign focused on “law and order,” but he eventually relented. In September 1935, he commuted Madison’s sentence to life in prison.

Nellie Was Finally Freed

Nellie was relieved to have avoided execution, but she didn’t want to spend life behind bars simply for defending herself against an abusive man. So, in the years that followed, she carried out a letter-writing campaign, first focusing on Governor Merriam and later on his successor, Culbert Olson.

A picture of Nellie standing in a garden.
Source: Pinterest

By 1940, Nellie was communicating directly with Olson’s aide, a young lawyer named Stanley Mosk. Mosk advised Nellie on the proper channels to follow and steps to take to seek a pardon. It took seven and a half years, in total, but Nellie’s lobbying finally paid off. She was freed on the 27th of March 1943.

She Married One Final Time

By the time she got out of prison, Nellie was an older woman. Her youth was behind her, her health had deteriorated, and many of the friends and family members she had once known had passed on. At that point, all she wanted was a quiet, simple, everyday life for the remainder of her days.

A photo of San Bernadino.
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She moved to San Bernadino and got married one final time. Her sixth and last husband was John Wagner, a house painter. John and Nellie remained married until her death from a stroke in July of 1953. She had spent ten years out of prison by that point.

She Left Behind a Legal Legacy

Nellie’s life was a dramatic one, filled with ups and downs and twists and turns. She was a victim of her times. Back then, the concept of spousal abuse as a defense for murder was unheard of, and the media’s tendency to paint women who kill as villainous femme fatales harmed her chances, too.

A photo of Nellie.
Source: YouTube

Fortunately, with the help of people like Aggie Underwood, along with her hard work and determination, Nellie managed to battle back against the system and win her freedom, setting a precedent that changed legal proceedings for countless women in the years that followed and making the legal system as a whole, reassess its way of handling cases involving domestic abuse.