In 1921, the baby name Madalynne saw a curious spike in usage:
1923: 8 baby girls named Madalynne
1922: 25 baby girls named Madalynne
1921: 39 baby girls named Madalynne
1920: 10 baby girls named Madalynne [debut]
Because of 28-year-old society beauty and femme fatale Madalynne Obenchain, who was accused of murder that year.
Born Madeline Connor in Wisconsin in 1893, she changed the spelling of her first name to “Madalynne” sometime before heading off to college at Northwestern University. There, at least two classmates fell in love with her. After college, while living in Los Angeles with her mother, she gained yet another admirer. The three men were:
Arthur C. Burch
J. Belton Kennedy
Ralph R. Obenchain
All three wanted to marry her. Finally, in 1919, she made her decision: it would be Obenchain (who was, by then, working as an attorney in Chicago).
But the marriage didn’t stop her from seeing Kennedy on the side. After a few months, Madalynne decided she preferred Kennedy, and her “extremely understanding husband allowed her to divorce him, gave her $80 a month in alimony and blank checks as needed.”
Madalynne and Kennedy had a tumultuous relationship, though, and Madalynne became frustrated by Kennedy’s refusal to commit. At some point in the summer of 1921, she wired Burch, who, himself recently divorced, “hopped on the next train [from Illinois] to Los Angeles to aid the woman he called his “goddess.””
On August 5, 1921, Kennedy “was found shot to death on the stairs of his cabin on Beverly Glen Boulevard, in a then-rustic neighborhood near the Los Angeles Country Club.”
A few days later, both Madalynne and Burch were charged with first-degree murder.
Obenchain, the generous ex-husband, left his job in Chicago to come to Madalynne’s defense.
Over the course of 16 months, five trials were held — two for Madalynne, three for Burch. The public — fascinated by the idea of these “cultivated, college-bred folk in the grip of overwhelming passions” — followed along via the newspapers.
Here’s one paper’s summary of the goings-on during Madalynne’s second trial (in July of 1922):
“Dream Girl” Accused of Perjury Plot! — Madalynne Obenchain, whose love brought death to one man, divorce to another and prison to a third, is now, during her own trial for murder, embroiled in charges of conspiracy by which it is said she tried to lure a fourth man to commit perjury that she might be free.
(This fourth guy to come under Madalynne’s spell was Paul Roman.)
All five of the trials ended in hung juries. “Legal experts interviewed at the time theorized that the male jurors who voted for acquittal in Madalynne’s trial were all in love with her.”
What are your thoughts on the baby name Madalynne? (Do you like this spelling?)
P.S. The debut of the name one year earlier may be due to unnamed baby girls born in 1920 finally being named “Madalynne” after Madalynne Obenchain became a fixture in the news in mid-1921. Delayed baby-naming wasn’t uncommon in the early 20th century.
Looking for baby names that feature the appealing letter-pair PH?
I’ve collected a hundreds of options for you in this post!
Before we get to the names, though, let’s get one big question out of the way…
Why does PH sound like “F”?
In English, PH is a digraph, which means that it’s a pair of letters that make a single sound. (It’s interesting that the word “digraph” contains a digraph, isn’t it?)
Most of the English words that have PH were derived from Greek — specifically, from Greek words that included the Greek letter phi:
In ancient times, the Greek letter phi made an aspirated p-sound. (The unaspirated p-sound, on the other hand, was made by the Greek letter pi.)
When Greek was transliterated into Latin, the letter phi was written as “ph” to denote this aspiration — that is, to signal that the letter “p” was accompanied by a brief puff of air.
So, what happened?
In the first several centuries A.D., the pronunciation of the Greek letter phi changed. It slowly evolved from an aspirated p-sound into an f-sound.
As a result, the letter-pair “ph” underwent a corresponding (though somewhat illogical) pronunciation change. It, too, came to represent an f-sound — and still does to this day.
Now, back to the names!
Top baby names with PH
Let’s begin with the most popular names with PH (including a few names that start with PH):
Top girl names with PH
Top boy names with PH
Sophia Josephine Sophie Phoebe Daphne Phoenix Ophelia Stephanie Murphy Persephone
Joseph Christopher Phoenix Memphis Philip Phillip Raphael Kristopher Ephraim Murphy
Now here are the same names again, but this time around I’ve added some details (including definitions, rankings, and popularity graphs).
Christopher + Kristopher
The name Christopher was derived from a pair of ancient Greek words: christos, meaning “Christ” or “anointed one,” and phoros, meaning “bearing” — hence, “Christ-bearing.”
Kristopher is a slightly simplified form of Christopher (perhaps influenced by the Scandinavian spelling, Kristoffer).
Christopher is currently the 52nd most popular boy name in the nation, and Kristopher ranks 936th.
Other forms of the name include Christoph (German) and Christophe (French).
The name Daphne was derived from the ancient Greek word daphne, meaning “laurel.”
In Greek myth, Daphne was a naiad who was saved from the advances of the god Apollo by being transformed into a laurel tree.
Daphne is currently the 288th most popular girl name in the U.S.
One variant form of the name is Daphna. The name is also sometimes spelled Daphnie, Daphney, or Daphni.
The name Ephraim is the Biblical Greek form of a Hebrew name meaning “fruitful.” It’s pronounced a variety of ways: EHF-rum, EEF-rum, EHF-fray-um, etc.
Ephraim is currently the 978th most popular boy name in the nation.
The name is also sometimes spelled Ephram or Ephrem.
Joseph + Josephine
The name Joseph is based on Ioseph, the Biblical Greek form of a Hebrew name meaning “he adds.”
Josephine comes from Joséphine, the French feminine form of Joseph.
Joseph is currently the 28th most popular boy name in the U.S., whereas Josephine ranks 72nd for girls.
The Dutch form of Joseph is Josephus. Other feminine forms include Josepha (German) and Josephina.
Memphis was the Greek form of the ancient Egyptian city-name Men-nefer, which meant “his beauty.” (The nefer element is also evident in the Egyptian name Nefertiti.)
The Egyptian city is long gone, but a city in Tennessee was named Memphis in the 1820s.
Memphis is currently the 404th most popular boy name in the nation.
The Irish surname Murphy was derived from a medieval Irish given name comprised of the elements muir, meaning “sea,” and cath, meaning “battle.”
Murphy is currently the 716th most popular girl name in the U.S. (It’s also sitting just outside the top 1,000 for boys.)
The name is also sometimes spelled Murphie, Murphee, or Murphey.
The name Ophelia was derived from the ancient Greek word opheleia, meaning “aid, help, succor.”
It’s not a name found in Greek myth, but William Shakespeare used it for a character in his play Hamlet around the year 1600. And, much more recently, the Lumineers featured the name in their 2016 song “Ophelia” [vid].
Ophelia is currently the 321st most popular girl name in the nation.
The French form of the name is Ophélie.
The etymology of the Greek name Persephone (pronounced per-SEH-fuh-nee) isn’t known for certain, but one modern theory suggests that it means “she who threshes ears of corn.”
In Greek myth, Persephone was the daughter of Demeter (the goddess of agriculture) and Zeus.
Persephone is currently the 778th most popular girl name in the U.S. (It entered the top 1,000 for the first time in 2019.)
The name is also sometimes spelled Persephonie or Persephony.
Philip + Phillip
The name Philip was derived from a pair of ancient Greek words: philos, meaning “beloved, loving,” and hippos, meaning “horse” — hence, “lover of horses.”
Phillip-with-two-L’s is a common variant of Philip.
Philip is currently the 451th most popular boy name in the nation, and Phillip (two L’s) ranks 523rd.
Other forms of the name include Philipp (German) and Philippe (French). Feminine forms include Philippa and Phillipa.
The name Phoebe was derived from the ancient Greek word phoibos, meaning “pure, bright, radiant.”
Many characters in Greek myth had this name, including a Titaness who was the daughter of Uranus and Gaia. This particular Phoebe was the grandmother of the sun god Apollo and the moon goddess Artemis.
Phoebe is currently the 247th most popular girl name in the U.S.
The spelling Phebe (used in certain translations of the Bible) was more prevalent in previous generations. Among the babies born in the city of Providence in 1868, for instance, we find four girls named Phebe, but none named Phoebe.
The name Phoenix was derived from the ancient Greek word phoinix, meaning “crimson” or “purple.
In Greek and Egyptian myth, the phoenix was a bird that periodically self-immolated and then rose again from its own ashes.
In fact, the capital of Arizona was named “Phoenix” because early settlers, in the 1860s, noticed archaeological evidence of the previous Native American inhabitants and recognized that “the new town would spring from the ruins of a former civilization.”
Which of the PH names above to do you like most? Let me know in the comments!
P.S. If you’d like to see popularity graphs for any of the more common names in this post, just check below for the long list of tags. Each tag is a name, so find the name you’re interested in and click through. The graph will take a moment to load — it’s grabbing a lot of data — but it will allow you to see at a glance the name’s current and historical U.S. usage.
Years ago, I discovered three documents with relatively complete lists of births for the city of Providence, Rhode Island, for the years 1866, 1867, and 1868. I’ve already created Providence’s baby name rankings for 1866 and 1867 using the first two documents, and today (finally!) I’ve got the third set of rankings for you.
Let’s start with some stats:
1,762 babies were born in Providence in 1868, by my count. According to the introduction of the document I’m using a source, however, the total number is 1,866. I don’t know how to account for this discrepancy.
1,617 of these babies (791 girls and 826 boys) had names that were known at the time of publication. The other 145 babies got blank spaces. Either their names hadn’t been registered yet, or they hadn’t been named yet, or perhaps these babies died young and never received a name.
284 unique names (143 girl names and 141 boy names) were shared among these 1,617 babies.
And now, on to the names!
A quick look at the top 5 girl names and boy names in Providence in 1868:
Top baby girl names
Top baby boy names
1. Mary 2. Catherine 3. Sarah 4. Ellen 5. Margaret
1. John 2. William 3. James 4. Charles 5. George
All Girl Names
Mary, 149 baby girls
Clara & Martha, 11 each (tie)
Hannah & Lucy, 10 each (tie)
Bridget, Grace, Jennie, Julia & Maria, 9 each (5-way tie)
Annie, Florence, Jane, Minnie & Susan, 8 each (5-way tie)
Agnes, Caroline, Cora, Ella & Harriet, 7 each (5-way tie)
Transcendentalist writer and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed to his second wife, Lydia Jackson, via letter in January of 1835.
We do not have Lydia’s reply to the proposal, but it came swiftly. […] Within a week he was calling her Lidian (though he continued for a while to write Lydia on the envelope) and they began planning a life together. It has been suggested that Emerson called her Lidian in order to head off the inevitable New England pronunciation of her married name as Lydiar Emerson, but all that we know for certain is that he remarked to a cousin at the time that “the philistines baptized her Lydia, but her name is Lidian.”
Ralph married Lydia/Lidian later the same year, in September.
In her correspondence, she signed herself “Lidian” when the letters went to her husband or to individuals within the Emerson circle; to her sister, she remained “Lydia.”
On her gravestone, her name is written “Lidian Emerson.”