Inside Info on Uncle John’s Nellie


As a journalist, I learned a long time ago to roll my eyes when I got a phone call or email from someone claiming to have “inside” information on a topic or person I’d written about. Oh, right. Sure thing.

Last February, when the LA Times published a story about my forthcoming book, “The Enigma Woman: The Death Penalty of Nellie May Madison,” I got an email from a man purporting to be the nephew of Nellie’s last husband, John Wagner. I’d spent months scouring all available sources, looking for information on Wagner and, out of the blue, here it was. Oh, right. Sure thing.

I wrote him back — polite but distant. “Thanks so much for your email. Glad you enjoyed the story.” I couldn’t be too rude though; I wanted him to buy the book.

Imagine my surprise when he emailed me right back, giving me a birth
date, December 1896; and a death date, summer 1976. I did have those,
though the caller didn’t know it. His information was dead-on.

But my general elation (and brief embarrassment at being so
cynical) was tempered by the fact that his information had come too
late to include in the book.

The caller had never met Nellie, so he couldn’t tell me anything
about her and her life after prison. But the caller’s sister, as it
turned out, had a box of keepsakes that Wagner had kept after Nellie’s
death. In Nellie_at_work
it was a poem she wrote about mothers—a beautiful and
sentimental poem; surprising, because I never envisioned her as a
sentimental person. There were also some photos. I couldn’t wait to get
my hands on these, but couldn’t afford the time to drive four-hundred

Two weeks ago I opened my email to find a note and an attachment
from myNellie_in_garden_3
new best friend—Nellie’s nephew-in-law. There were the
precious photos!

In one, Nellie is at work, wearing a protective visor as she sits
at a table, leans into the camera and smiles. In another, she sits on
the front bumper of a car, hands planted firmly on hips. In the third,
she’s dressed up and standing in a lush garden. Again, hands on hips.

Though the photos are undated, all three appear to have been taken
in the late 1940s or early 1950s. At a time when modest and tasteful
dresses were the housewife’s traditional garb, Nellie wore pants in all
three photos! She also seemed happy and bursting with self-confidence.

Clearly, after her devastating conviction, death sentence and
imprisonment, she had gotten her game back. And that makes me
extraordinarily happy – though still cynical.

–Kathy Cairns       


Kathleen Cairns’ The Enigma Woman: The Death Sentence of Nellie May Madison tells the story of the first woman sentenced to death in California.  Her other book, Front-Page Women Journalists, 1920–1950,
is also available from the University of Nebraska Press.  Kathy is a
lecturer in the Department of History at California Polytechnic State
University, San Luis Obispo.

You can read review excerpts for The Enigma Woman here.