The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

3.7 24
by Douglas Perry

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The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So


The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's "hanging paper." Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister's daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan - both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers - the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on "Murderesses' Row" as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins's favorites.

In the tradition of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal. Fueled by rich period detail and enlivened by a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage, The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the age and its sober repercussions.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A series of murders committed by women in Chicago in the 1920s provide juicy material for drama in this racy history, as well as the musical. Perry paints a vividly detailed picture of the events with a range of viewpoints, from interviews with the murderers to police reports. Peter Berkrot has a deep and projecting voice that's easy to follow and enjoy. He handles the straightforward narrative smoothly, using pause and emphasis to highlight more important passages. If his female voices require more work, he excels at quoting newspapers and other firsthand accounts, cleverly mimicking their sensationalized, breathless tone. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 12). (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"[Perry's] savvy, flamboyant social history illuminates a dawning age of celebrity culture." —Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


Thursday, April 24, 1924

The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.

The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women’s quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She’d greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage.

But that was when she was the undisputed “prettiest murderess” in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed. She knew that today, for almost the first time since her arrest almost three weeks ago, there wouldn’t be a picture of her in any of the newspapers. There was a new girl gunner on the scene, a gorgeous Polish girl named Wanda Stopa.

Depressed, Beulah chanced getting undressed. It was the middle of the day, but the stiff prison uniform made her skin itch, and the reporters weren’t going to come for interviews now. They were all out chasing the new girl. Beulah sat on her bunk and listened. The cellblock was quiet, stagnant. On a normal day, the rest of the inmates would have gone to the recreation room after lunch to sing hymns. Beulah never joined them; she preferred to retreat to a solitary spot with the jail radio, which she’d claimed as her own. She listened to fox-trots. She liked to do as she pleased.

It was Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish” woman on the block, who had begun the daily hymn-singing ritual. That was back in March, the day after she staggered into jail, dead-eyed and elephant-tongued, too drunk—or so she claimed—to remember shooting her boyfriend in the head. None of the girls could fathom that stumblebum Belva now. On the bloody night of her arrival, it had taken the society divorcée only a few hours of sleep to regain her composure. The next day, she sat sidesaddle against the cell wall, one leg slung imperiously over the other, heavy-lidded eyes offering a strange, exuberant glint. Reporters crowded in on her, eager to hear what she had to say. This was the woman who, at her divorce trial four years before, had publicly admitted to using a horsewhip on her wealthy elderly husband during lovemaking. Had she hoped to make herself a widow before he could divorce her? Now you had to wonder.

“I’m feeling very well,” Belva told the reporters. “Naturally I should prefer to receive you all in my own apartment; jails are such horrid places. But”—she looked around and emitted a small laugh—“one must make the best of such things.”

And so one did. Belva’s rehabilitation began right there, and it continued unabated to this day. Faith would see her through this ordeal, she told any reporter who passed by her cell. This terrible, unfortunate experience made her appreciate all the more the life she once had with her wonderful ex-husband—solid, reliable William Gaertner, the millionaire scientist and businessman who had provided her with lawyers and was determined to marry her again, despite her newly proven skill with a revolver. He believed Belva had changed.

Maybe she had, but either way, she was still quite different from the other girls at the jail. She came from better stock and made sure they all knew it. Even an inmate as ferocious as Katherine Malm—the “Wolf Woman”—deferred to Belva. Class was a powerful thing; it triggered an instinctive obeisance from women accustomed to coming through the service entrance—or, in this lot’s case, through the smashed-in window. Belva, it seemed, had just the right measure of contempt in her face to cow anybody, including unrepentant murderesses. She was not beautiful like perfect, young Beulah Annan. Her face was a sad, ill-conceived thing, all the features slightly out of proper proportion. But arrogant eyes shined out from it, and there was that full, passionate mouth, a mouth that could inspire a reckless hunger in the most happily married man. She’d proved that many times over. When Belva woke from her blackout on the morning of March 12, new to the jail, still wearing her blood-spattered slip, she’d wanly asked for food. The Wolf Woman, supposedly the tough girl of the women’s quarters, hurried to bring her a currant bun.

“Here, Mrs. Gaertner,” she’d said with a welcoming smile, eyes crinkled in understanding, “eat this and pretend it’s chicken. . . . It makes it easy to swallow.” With that, Katherine Malm set the tone. By the end of the week, the other girls were vying for the privilege of making Belva’s bed and washing her clothes.

To her credit, Belva adapted easily to her new surroundings. The lack of privacy didn’t seem to bother her. The women’s section of the jail, an L-shaped nook on the fourth floor of a massive, rotting, rat-infested facility downtown, was crowded even before her arrival, and not just because of the presence of Mrs. Anna Piculine. “Big Anna,” the press said, was the largest woman ever jailed on a murder charge. She’d killed her husband when he said he’d prefer a slimmer woman. Then there was Mrs. Elizabeth Unkafer, charged with murdering her lover after her cuckolded husband collapsed in grief at learning of her infidelity. And Mary Wezenak—“Moonshine Mary”—the first woman to be tried in Cook County for selling poisonous whiskey. Nearly a dozen others also bunked on what was now being called “Murderess’ Row,” and more were sure to come. Women in the city seemed to have gone mad. They’d become dangerous, especially to their husbands and boyfriends. After the police had trundled Beulah into jail, the director of the Chicago Crime Commission felt compelled to publicly dismiss the recent rash of killings by women. The ladies of Cook County, he said, were “just bunching their hits at this time.” He insisted there was nothing to worry about.

The newspapers certainly weren’t worried; they celebrated the crowded conditions on Murderess’ Row. Everyone in the city wanted to read about the fairest killers in the land. These women embodied the city’s wild, rebellious side, a side that appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming everything else. Chicago in the spring of 1924 was something new, a city for the future. It thrived like nowhere else. Evidence of the postwar depression of 1920–21 couldn’t be found anywhere. The city pulsed with industrial development. Factories operated twenty-four hours a day. Empty lots turned into whole neighborhoods almost overnight. Motor cars were so plentiful that Michigan Avenue traffic backed up daily more than half a mile to the Chicago River. And yet this exciting, prosperous city terrified many observers. Chicago took its cultural obsessions to extremes, from jazz to politics to architecture. Most of all, in the midst of Prohibition, the city reveled in its contempt for the law. The newly elected reform mayor, witnessing a mobster funeral attended by thousands of fascinated citizens, would exclaim later that year: “I am staggered by this state of affairs. Are we living by the code of the Dark Ages or is Chicago part of an American Commonwealth?”

It truly was difficult to tell. Gangsterism, celebrity, sex, art, music—anything dodgy or gauche or modern boomed in the city. That included feminism. Women in Chicago experienced unmatched freedoms, not won gradually—as was the case for the suffragettes—but achieved in short order, on the sly. Respectable saloons before Prohibition didn’t admit women; speakeasies welcomed them. Skirts appeared to be higher here than anywhere else. Even Oak Park high school girls brazenly petted with boys, forcing the wealthy suburb’s police superintendent to threaten to arrest the parents of “baby vamps.” Religious leaders—and newspapers—drew a connection between the new freedoms and the increasing numbers of inmates in Cook County Jail’s women’s section.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry

Copyright © 2010 by Douglas Perry

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"The recounting of the murders is gripping stuff, but where Perry shows a particularly gifted touch is in the sights and smells of a 1920s newsroom." -The Portland Oregonian"The Girls of Murder City spans several categories-true-crime, comedy, social history. It turns out that behind "Chicago" there was a sexy, swaggering, historical tale in no need of a soundtrack. Liked the movie. Loved the book." -The Wall Street Journal"Fans of true crime and popular history will enjoy the book's oversized female characters and its hardboiled background of crime and no punishment." -The Boston Globe"For true crime buffs, history fans or anyone interested in the roaring 1920s, this one's a sure-fire hit." -Minneapolis Star Tribune"Perry takes a sturdy foundation of murder, sex and Chicago's scandal-happy newspapers and builds a nonfiction marvel. His bouncy, exuberant prose perfectly complements the theatricality of the proceedings, and he deftly maneuvers away from the main story without ever losing momentum...The Girls of Murder City not only illustrates the origins of a new media monster, but reminds us that we've never been that innocent." -BookPage"A jazzy reprise of a time when the criminal justice system in Chicago let good- looking killers off the hook and newspapers exploited every lurid detail of dalliances turned fatal for their front pages." -Shelf Awareness"As entertaining as Chicago (on stage or screen), and far more informative, The Girls of Murder City recaptures a moment in which the Victorian feminine ideal was (and wasn't) giving way to the "churning change" of the flapper lifestyle - and ebulliently elucidates the emergence of the criminal as celebrity. It's this summer's "not guilty" pleasure." -NPR, Books We Like"Consistently entertaining...A chronicle of the wild spring and summer of 1924, when Chicago was afflicted with a seeming epidemic of female murderers." -Kirkus Reviews"[A] well-researched, fast-paced story behind the story." -Booklist

Meet the Author

DOUGLAS PERRY is an award-winning writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The San Jose Mercury News, Details, and The Oregonian. He is the online features editor at The Oregonian and the co-author of The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Girls of Murder City 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 24 reviews.
Coconut_Librarian More than 1 year ago
Type: {Impress Your Friends Read: notable; prize-winner or all around intelligent crowd conversation piece.} Rating: {Me Likey: Enjoyable! Particularly for fans of this genre.} Why You're Reading It: - You love history. - 1920's Chicago, prohibition, jazz-age really gets you going. - You love the play Chicago. - You're a true crime junkie. What I Thought: Whoa nelly! I love anything having to do with the jazz and art deco age - the 1920's/ 1930's are my bag, baby. Especially if it has anything to do with Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or Paris during that time. But wow - what a completely different time in the way of what was acceptable and what wasn't. Murder was nothing new - not even in nice areas like the old Hyde Park of Chicago, and murders by women were actually fashionable; imagine! What started as a possible wave of feminism (women starting to stick up for themselves after decades/centuries of being their husband's property) took a new turn as women started popping off husbands and lovers. Many of these were somewhat crazy - but in 1920's Chicago womanhood was still synonymous with virtue. And if virtue could kill, then the man had it coming. On top of it all, juries were made up of men only, so if a woman came in on trial and she was beautiful. fah-get-abboud-it; all the evidence went out the window. Throughout Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City we follow Maurine Watkins, new reporter who wanted to get some experience writing before she started her real career (which would prove to be playwriting, maybe you've heard of the musical Chicago?). She covered the crime beat in the early twenties and was a keen observer of the absurdities that surrounded these women as they became celebrities through the publicity given to them while awaiting their trials in Cook County Jail. From her experiences she penned the now famous Chicago as a satirical look at what happened with the infamous Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner (who became Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly respectively in the stage version). Watkins pulled not only the story lines, but actual quotes straight from her articles and put them into her script. This thought provoking, very detailed account of the stories of the woman of Cook County Jail and the reporters who covered them, conjures up some questions about if and how much things have really changed. These trials were the inception of criminals becoming celebrities; a conundrum still relevant today. And one has to wonder if women are still considered virtuous with their style, beauty, and personal lives taken into account when charged for a crime. Regardless of how it relates to the murder trials of the 21st century, it will make the reader hurry to Netflix to add Chicago t0 their queue!
Cherthom More than 1 year ago
This book is a really interesting book. Full of history of Chicago and their outlook on female criminals. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Chicago and crime stories!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
&rdquo;Chicago was Bedlam: debauched, violent, unimaginable&mdash;and full of exciting opportunities&rdquo;&mdash;page 29 The stories behind the stories that inspired the successful play, and award winning musical&mdash;stage and movie&mdash; <i>Chicago</i>, THE GIRLS OF MURDER CITY: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, by Douglas Perry; just keeps getting better and better. Young, bright, (and a bit self-righteous) Maureen Watkins, wannabe playwright fresh from academia, lands a dream job as a police reporter for the prestigious Chicago Tribune and, over the next several months of 1924, covers some of the most incredible murders of prohibition-era Chicago. All true. All stranger than fiction. And all engaging reading. Recommendation: Fans of the musical will love reading the backstories&hellip; &rdquo;Belva Gaertner, another of those women who messed things up by adding a gun to her fondness for gin and men, was acquitted last night at 12:10 o&rsquo;clock of the murder of Walter Law. &lsquo;So drunk she didn&rsquo;t remember&rsquo; whether she shot the man found dead in her sedan at Forrestville avenue and 50th street March 12&mdash;&rdquo;&mdash;page 223 NOOKbook edition, 317 pages
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Florinda3RsBlog More than 1 year ago
I'm not sure when I learned that the musical CHICAGO was fact-based, but it was when I read Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City that I discovered just how "ripped from the headlines" - of 1924 - it really is. By the way, the word "Chicago" in the book's subtitle really is properly offset by quotation marks or a change in font, because it refers to Chicago the show, not Chicago the city; while the "merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail" certainly did captivate the city, I'm not sure how truly inspiring they were. Having said that, Perry's book is also concerned with another woman - reporter Maurine Watkins, who indeed was inspired to base her first stage play on two of the sensational murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune. I think she was pretty inspiring, to be honest. Perry relies on both contemporary accounts and later works in his exhaustive research for The Girls of Murder City, but the last adjective that describes this work of narrative nonfiction is "dry." Its primary subject is the consecutive murder trials of "Beautiful Beulah" Annan and "Stylish Belva" Gaertner - the models for Chicago's Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly - both in court during the spring of 1924 to defend against charges of shooting and killing men who were not their husbands. Both cases were salacious and scandalous, and Chicago's many newspapers fed the public appetite for news about the glamorous defendants. Women were rarely convicted of murder by Chicago's all-male juries - especially if they were good-looking women - but following a couple of recent guilty verdicts, there was more at stake for Beulah and Belva. Within this framework, Perry also delves into the stories of several other Chicago murderesses of the time, the reporters - mostly women, including Watkins - who told those stories to the public, the way things operated and the challenges faced by women at the newspapers where those reporters worked, and the unrestrained climate of Prohibition-era Chicago, where underground jazz clubs flourished and illegal liquor flowed freely. (If you ask me, Prohibition is an object lesson in irony.) He's got great material to work with, and he crafts it into a page-turner with a firm sense of its time and place. The pace is brisk, and the writing is vivid and occasionally breathless, but Perry succeeds in putting the reader right in the midst of events, including Watkins' application of her satirical eye to shape them into a hit, prize-winning stage comedy (the musical adaptation came years later). The environment described in The Girls of Murder City seems to be the birthplace of the celebrity-obsessed, fame-for-its-own-sake mindset we know all too well these days, and it's fascinating in much the same way. Despite being almost a century old, the story here has a sense of immediacy and a contemporary feel, and its blend of true crime and modern history absolutely held my attention.
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memsie More than 1 year ago
Now we know where the play/movie "Chicago" came from. A book of moderate interest, but much longer than it should have been, given the material.
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HistoryGirlFL More than 1 year ago
A good read for those who enjoyed Chicago in musical and movie form. At times the details of the trials and testimony can be a bit tedious but it does serve to illustrate the mood in the courtroom. Overall, a very decent read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For gangs free
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