Can't Touch This

by Susie Hodgson

She was born a screaming little whippersnapper in Red Rock, Montana in 1895. She was bratty and rebellious, not especially happy, but an expert horsewoman and markswoman before she was ever really a woman – more like a kid. At the age of 13 she ran off and married an ex-con eleven years older than she until her father found them and had the marriage annulled. Dear ol’ Dad put her back in school where she managed to get married two more times! They called her Nellie, sometimes Nellie May, and she was a wild child.

Nellie grew up to be a tough broad but a looker, a real dame. She was married several times, often consecutively. Hubby #5 was a real lady killer. Or was Nellie the killer?

The husband’s name was Eric Madison. Nellie met him in the early 1930’s while she was working at a swanky resort in Palm Springs called The Desert Inn, popular with the Hollywood crowd. “Welcome to the desert, Mr. Gable!” Eric worked at a local coffee shop, but was handsome, drove a flashy new car and had a way with the ladies. And not just ladies -- other women too. Eric heard that Nellie had inherited $1000 (which would be the equivalent of nearly $20,000 today) so he married her. And she became Nellie May Madison.

Soon the couple got “matching jobs” at Warner Brothers as cashiers in the commissary and moved to Burbank. But just like that, the hot-headed Eric got in a fight with director Alfred Green, leading studio head Jack Warner to fire him – and his little wife too. Things were not looking too good – remember, this was during the Depression – and they were about to get worse.

One day Nellie came home early from a movie. (Tip: Never come home early!) She and Eric lived in an apartment building called “The Sterling Arms” across the street from a back lot at Warners. Walking into her apartment, Nellie was shocked to find her husband in a “compromising position” with a 16-year-old girl. (Guess he was a lady-killer with jail bait, too.) The girl ran off, but the couple remained and fought. Eric beat his wife to a pulp and he continued to do so for six straight days. That’s when Nellie was able to get herself a gun.

She swore she only meant to scare him with it. But Eric found a box of butcher knives he had hid under the bed and began throwing them at Nellie. So she shot. Five times… in the back. The Burbank PD found her a few days later, holed up in Frazier Park, and booked her for murder. It was March of 1934.

According to later reports, Nellie swears her own lawyers lied about her defense. They claimed Nellie thought she was shooting a stranger. But the jury didn’t buy it and not only was Nellie convicted of Murder 1, but they also slapped her with the death penalty which was unheard of for women.

But Nellie fought back! No, she didn’t kill her husband because she thought he was an unknown burglar – it was because he was beating her, abusing her! She fired her original lawyers and hired a prominent L.A. attorney instead. It turns out the DA in her case had even heard that her husband was a “wife-beater,” but he didn’t care. “Her motive is of no concern to the prosecution,” he said. “She shot her husband in the back.”

But Nellie and her new crack lawyer were persistent and smart. They appealed to the public about her plight, about how terrifying Eric Madison was. Now, Nellie wasn’t an easy sell. She wasn’t particularly warm; she had been married multiple times and she had no children. She was no All-American Girl! Her story, however, was compelling. Eric’s former wife came out of the woodwork to state how he beat her, too. Another former flame said he’d choked her. A prominent journalist named Aggie Underwood wrote article upon article fighting for Nellie. The Governor received hundreds of letters on Nellie’s behalf. In September of 1935, Nellie’s death penalty was commuted to life.

But Nellie didn’t stop fighting there. She wanted a shorter sentence. Another letter-writing campaign began. All twelve jurors plus the alternates agreed with Nellie. The Governor eventually agreed with them as well. On March 23, 1943, Nellie walked out of prison a free woman. And THAT’S what started the abused woman defense.

Nellie changed her name to Helen Brown and moved to San Bernardino. She married Husband #6, a house painter, and even stayed married to him until she died quietly of a stroke in 1953 at the age of 58.

“Nellie May Madison” may not be a name you recognize, but she sure was one smart cookie. We owe her a LOT. Never underestimate the power of a rebellious woman!

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