Academic journal article Journalism History

The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison

Article excerpt

Cairns, Kathleen A. The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007. 295 pp. $25.95.

The sensationalist newspaper press of the 193Os is just one of many "characters" in this thoroughly enjoyable, true-life murder mystery. The Enigma Woman recounts the trial, conviction, condemnation to death, and eventual release of Nellie May Madison, who served time in a California prison for shooting and killing the man who she believed to be her husband.

Nicknamed "The Enigma Woman," "The Sphinx Woman," and "The Iron Widow" in headlines, Madison nearly became the first woman to be executed in California. Kathleen Cairns uses her story to explore "the intersection between one exceedingly contradictory woman and larger social and cultural forces ... ; the rise of mass popular culture and its impact on individual lives; Los Angeles as myth and reality; [and] criminal prosecution as a force for social control during the Depression."

Though The Enigma Woman is not a media history, it is an interesting study in how the press can "elevate and destroy individuals" and foster damaging stereotypes. Madison did not fit into the "comfortable categories" that the culture of the day demanded of women. "Stripped of her identity, she became a caricature rather than a human being," Cairns writes. "Only one reporter, Agness Underwood, took the time to get to know Nellie. All of the others saw her as an archetype: the one-dimensional and deadly femme fatale prevalent in pulp magazines and in dozens of novels in the Depression-era literary genre called 'noir fiction."'

As Cairns notes, the "real story is somewhat different, though no less dramatic, than the media-generated version." Although readers learn Madison's fate in the first few pages, Cairns delivers a suspenseful pageturner. Using myriad primary sources as evidence, she puts readers right in the room with Madison as she hides from police, is captured, tried, and imprisoned. …

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