Tender Murderers: Women Who Killby Trina Robbins
The did it for love or money...or both!
Some of them fabled femme fatales of yesteryear. some headliners in yesterday's newspapers. Jean Harris, Ruth Snyder, Kate Bender, Belle Starr, Bonnie Parker, Phoolan Devi, Lizzie Borden, Grace Marks, Valerie Solanas, Amy Fisher and more - true - life who, where, why, when, and howdunnits. Bandit queens, gun molls,… See more details below
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The did it for love or money...or both!
Some of them fabled femme fatales of yesteryear. some headliners in yesterday's newspapers. Jean Harris, Ruth Snyder, Kate Bender, Belle Starr, Bonnie Parker, Phoolan Devi, Lizzie Borden, Grace Marks, Valerie Solanas, Amy Fisher and more - true - life who, where, why, when, and howdunnits. Bandit queens, gun molls, mothers, and widows (often self-made)- this array of real-life women who murdered makes for fascinating reading. Thoroughly researched, with archival photos and illustrations.
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WOMEN WHO KILL
By Trina Robbins
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2003 Trina Robbins
All rights reserved.
They Did It for Love
Beulah May Annan and Belva Gaertner
Gin and Guns
Beulah May Annan could not have known, when she phoned the police on that afternoon of April 3, 1924, that she would inspire a Broadway play, three movies, and a hit Bob Fosse musical, or that in them her character would be played by the likes of Ginger Rogers and Gwen Verdon. All she could think of at the time was that her lover, Harry Kolstedt, lay slumped against her wall, dying from her gunshot wound, as she told Sgt. John O'Grady at Chicago's Wabash Avenue station, "I've just shot a man!" The startled cop could hear music playing in the background on the other end: it was a jazzy little pop tune called "Hula Lou" ("Who had more sweeties than a dog has fleas").
By the time the cops arrived at Beulah May's apartment they found two men. One was the now very dead Kolstedt, and the other was hubby Albert Annan, who'd arrived after the phone call and tried to take the rap by swearing it was he who shot the guy. Beulah wouldn't allow this and went willingly to the police station. Kolstedt "tried to make love to me," she insisted, and she had killed him to protect her honor.
Then she started changing her story. First she admitted that, well yes, she and Harry had been "fooling around" for two months. He came over that afternoon to end their affair, and after sharing what was variously reported as two quarts of moonshine liquor or a half-gallon of wine, she'd shot him rather than give him up. But wait, wait, that's not the way it happened! Actually, she "was the one who was going to quit him." He got mad and—no, no, what really happened was that she had learned about his time in prison. She called him a "jailbird," and he got mad. There was a gun on the bed. He went for it, and she went for it. It was self-defense. And anyway, she was drunk. And anyway, "I fainted." And all the time this was happening—pick your story—she kept rewinding the phonograph, playing "Hula Lou" over and over.
This is a good time to mention that Beulah May was absolutely gorgeous. A farmer's daughter from Kentucky who'd married and had a baby at sixteen, she had dumped hubby number one and their kid for the fast lane in fabled Prohibition-era Chicago. She was a twenty-three-year-old jazz baby, a sizzling flapper with big blue eyes, bobbed red hair, and the cutest li'l ole southern accent, and she deserved the title she earned: Chicago's Prettiest Woman Killer. While in jail, she acquired admirers—jaildoor Johnnies, who sent her steak dinners and flowers. The newspapers dutifully reported each outfit she wore during her trial: "A simple fawn colored suit with dark brown fur piece that framed the flowerlike face," "slim and straight in her new brown satin crepe frock, with furpiece thrown over one arm," "navy twill tied at the side with a childlike moiré bow—with a new necklace of crystal and jet."
Most of these articles were written by a young journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Maurine Watkins. The twenty-eight-year-old Watkins, no slouch in the looks department herself, had just gotten her big break while covering the story of another murderess, a thirtyish divorcee named Belva Gaertner. Like Beulah May, Belva shot her man because he was doing her wrong–leaving her, that is—about a month before Beulah May dispatched Harry Kolstedt. And like her red-haired flapper sister on Chicago's Murderess's Row, her defense was that she was drunk and couldn't remember a thing. "Gin and guns–either one is bad enough," she said, "but together they get you in a dickns of a mess, don't they."
It was Beulah versus Belva, competing for headlines and selling papers. Chicago's newspaper readers were having the time of their lives, and Maurine Watkins was racking up bylines. News photographers posed the two murderesses together for the front page. Belva, a one-time cabaret dancer, was a bit too over-the-hill for the Prettiest Killer title, so Watkins dubbed her The Most Stylish of Murderess's Row, and outdid herself describing her outfits: "A blue twill suit bound with black braid, and white lacy frill down the front; patent leather slippers with shimmering French heels, chiffon gun metal hose. And the hat—ah, that hat! helmet shaped, with a silver buckle and cockade of ribbon, with one streamer tied jauntily–coquetishly–bewitchingly–under her chin."
The Assistant State's Attorney queried a prospective juror, "Would you let a stylish hat make you find her 'not guilty'?"
Belva's lawyer wisely postponed her trial until after Beulah's. If Beulah got off, so would Belva. And Beulah played her trump card: she was pregnant! "Beulah Annan Awaits Stork, Murder Trial," ran Watkins's headline.
Beulah May had yet another tale for the jury: When a drunken Harry Kolstedt came to her door, she begged him to leave, and "I told him I was going to have a baby." She threatened to send him back to prison if he wouldn't leave her alone, and they both went for the gun. Beulah got the gun, and Kolstedt turned to get his hat and coat, but "didn't get that far."
And why didn't he get that far?
"Darned good reason," testified Beulah May. "I shot him."
On May 25, 1924, a jury of handsome young bachelors found Beulah May not guilty. Less than a month later, Belva Gaertner was also found not guilty. Beulah divorced Albert, the faithful husband who'd stood by her during her trial, and married an ex-prizefighter named Edward Harlib. That lasted about a year, until Beulah discovered that he was already married.
As for Maurine Watkins, she went on to study at the Yale School of Drama, and wrote a play based on the story of Beulah May Annan: Chicago. On the stage, Beulah May was given the classier name Roxie Hart, and Belva was re-christened Velma. The play, a satiric comment on media circuses and trials of the century, opened on Broadway in 1926 and was an instant hit, playing for a respectable 172 performances. Chicago was turned into a silent movie in 1928, and filmed again in 1942 as Roxie Hart, with Ginger Rogers in the title role. Finally it was adapted into the classic Bob Fosse musical, opening on Broadway in 1975. The most recent incarnation of Beulah's story is the 2002 movie, an adaptation of Bob Fosse's musical starring Renee Zellweiger as Roxy and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma, a.k.a. Belva.
Belva herself, dressed to the teeth, came to the opening of the 1926 play. "Sure, that's me," she said, of Velma.
Beulah May didn't make it to the opening. She'd had a mental breakdown after her third divorce, signed herself into a sanatorium under an assumed name, and died there of tuberculosis, a year later.
Even though it was filmed in black and white, Ginger Rogers dyed her blonde locks orange for the role of the floozy flapper Roxie Hart in the 1942 film. The movie's snappy dialogue borrowed heavily from the original play, which in turn borrowed heavily from Maurine Watkins's own real-time articles and interviews with the celebrity murderesses. There was one fatal difference: post-code Hollywood simply couldn't make a film in which the killer, male or female, got away with it. Crime Doesn't Pay was the byword of the day. Never mind that fate stepped in for the real Roxie to make sure that she did eventually pay for her crime; Roxie Hart was a comedy that most certainly could not end with the heroine's death in a sanatorium. So the story was changed to make Roxie innocent! In the movie, it's Roxie's husband who shoots his wife's lover, but Roxie, a wannabe hoofer, is persuaded to take the rap because it'll make her famous and be good for her career.
Rent the video, if you can find it, to see Ginger Rogers turn in a topnotch performance as the gum-snapping, wisecracking Roxie, and to see her dance, without benefit of Fred Astaire, a fabulous Black Bottom.
Winnie Ruth Judd
"Count the Heads!"
This much is agreed upon: On October 16, 1931, pretty, blonde, twenty-six-year-old Winnie Ruth Judd shot to death Anne LeRoi and Hedwig "Sammy" Samuelson, stuffed their bodies (one of which was dismembered) into two trunks and sent them by train to Los Angeles.
The rest of the story depends on whom you want to believe: Winnie or the prosecution.
In 1930, Winnie left her husband of four years and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, for her health. She had tuberculosis, and in those days Phoenix, with its dry hot air, was where you went for the cure. Anyway, her marriage was a shambles: her doctor husband was fat, balding, and twenty-two years older than she, his practice was a flop, and he was addicted to his own drugs. She found work as a medical secretary at a clinic, and took up with "Happy Jack" Halloran, an influential, well-to-do Phoenix businessman, who happened to also be married. She also took up with Anne and Sammy.
Thirty-two-year-old brunette Anne and her roommate, twenty-four-year-old blonde Sammy, had met in Alaska, and moved to Arizona together because of Sammy's TB. Winnie roomed with them briefly, but after some typical roommate clashes–Winnie was a bit of a slob, the other two were neatniks–she moved into her own bungalow.
Anne and Sammy were what in those days were called "party girls"–possibly also, according to newspaper reports, bisexual party girls and lesbian lovers. (The newspapers delicately called it "strange intimacies." It was even hinted that Winnie might have been part of a lesbian triangle.) Whatever the truth, no one argues over the party girls bit. The girls threw shindigs in their studio duplex for various married Phoenix businessmen, one of whom was Happy Jack. The men would supply bootleg booze, and leave behind wads of dough. We can assume that what was played in that little duplex was more than simple games of Mah Jong. Winnie knew about Happy Jack's relationship with Anne and Sammy, but said nothing. After all, who was she to cast the first stone?
Anyway, she loved Happy Jack. So much, in fact, that she even helped him get girls. Sometime during the week of October 15, 1931, Happy Jack told Winnie that he and his pals planned a deer-hunting trip to the mountains. Winnie introduced him to Lucille Moore, a pretty nurse who worked at her clinic. Lucille came from that part of Arizona, knew the terrain and animals, and would love to come along. Winnie must have guessed what would go on between Happy Jack and Lucille during that hunting trip. At any rate, Anne and Sammy did.
On Friday night, October 16, Happy Jack was supposed to take Winnie out to dinner, but he stood her up. Annoyed, and with nothing else to do, she took the trolley to Anne's and Sammy's duplex, hoping to get in on a game of bridge. By the time she arrived it was getting late, and the roommates suggested she stay over; the trolley would soon stop running for the night, and in the morning she could go to work with Anne, who also worked at the clinic.
It was when they all got to bed (drinking warm milk!) that the fur started flying. Anne started it: How could Winnie have introduced Jack to Lucille? Didn't she know that Lucille had syphilis and would give it to Jack? Anyway, Winnie was a tramp, and what would her husband think if he knew how his wife was carrying on with Happy Jack? Winnie fought back: Oh yeah? Well, everybody at the clinic, she said, knew that Anne and Sammy were nothing but lesbo-perverts.
At a certain point, went Winnie's later testimony, she decided she'd had enough, and went to the kitchen to put her empty milk cup into the sink. Hearing a noise behind her, she turned, and there stood Sammy with a gun aimed at her chest. Winnie grabbed a bread knife from the counter, and the two women fought. She stabbed Sammy in the shoulder; Sammy shot her in the hand. Meanwhile Anne was hitting Winnie over the head with an ironing board, yelling for Sammy to "Shoot her!" Winnie got hold of the gun and shot them both dead.
She threw on her dress and shoes and fled. The trolley was still running; she took it home and arrived there around 11:30, to find Happy Jack on her doorstep, drunk as a skunk. Not believing her hysterical report, he drove them back to the duplex to see for himself. She wanted to call the cops. After all, it had been self-defense. No way, Jose, said Happy Jack, he would take care of it, and she mustn't tell a soul.
Winnie mopped the bloody kitchen floor, and Jack dragged a huge trunk in from the garage. She was to go home, he'd take it from there. The next evening, when Winnie met Jack back at the duplex, the bodies had been neatly stashed in the steamer trunk. He admitted that he'd had to "operate on" Sammy a bit, to get her to fit. His plan was to ship Winnie, along with the trunk, to Los Angeles, where he'd have a man meet her and dispose of the bodies. He got her a ticket for the Golden State Limited express train to Los Angeles.
Immediately, everything went wrong. The deliverymen hired to lug the trunk to the train station told her it was too heavy; she'd have to separate the contents into two trunks. Jack had conveniently disappeared, and Winnie was left with the gruesome task of dumping bits and pieces of Sammy into another trunk. As Winnie described it, "I didn't lift (the body parts), I lowered them over the edge and they fell into the lower (trunk)."
After distributing the various parts evenly in the two trunks, there remained only Sammy's legs. She stuffed them into her valise. The landlord and his son helped her get the trunks to the train, where she had to pay $4.50 extra because they still weighed too much.
Of course nobody was there to meet Winnie on the station at Los Angeles, and when she phoned Jack she was informed that he was gone on a hunting trip. Meanwhile the two trunks, stinking to high heaven and leaking blood, were opened by suspicious railroad officials. Here's the description from the Los Angeles Examiner for October 20:
In the larger one was the body of an older and larger woman.... In the body of (a) younger woman were three bullet wounds.... She had been stuffed into the smaller trunk, for the body had been severed by a keen-edged instrument–cut completely into three pieces, but the portion from the waist to the knee was missing!
The missing parts were found that evening, still dressed in the remains of pink pajamas, stuffed into a valise and hidden behind the door of the lady's room in the train station.
The newspapers ate the story up! Almost as soon as news of the gruesome discovery reached his desk, Los Angeles Examiner reporter Warden Woolard was on the phone to Detective Bill White for juicy details. How many bodies were in the trunk, he asked. White answered, "I dunno, it's just one helluvamess." Woolard snapped, "Good God, Bill, can't you count the heads?"
Headlines referred to Winnie first as "The Tiger Woman," and "The Velvet Tigress," then as "The Trunk Murderess." That Sammy's body had been chopped up to fit in the trunk made her crime all the more titillating to the public, despite the fact that, if you think logically about it, chopping Sammy up didn't make her any deader than she already was.
A massive womanhunt finally ended when Winnie was found hiding out in, ironically, a mortuary. And when she was brought to trial, things really heated up. Winnie claimed self- defense. The prosecution said she'd killed the two women while they slept, in a fit of jealousy over their relationship with Happy Jack. As for lover boy himself, the Phoenix high muck-a-mucks protected their buddy as best they could. Although he was named in every other newspaper in America, the Phoenix papers simply referred to him as "Mister X." Neither he nor Winnie were even called to the witness stand. And of course, the lesbian angle was brought up. At one point, the trial psychiatrist, after being told by Winnie that she loved both her husband and Happy Jack, asked her if she was polyandrous. She shot back indignantly, "There was nothing between those girls and me!"
On February 8, 1932, poor Winnie was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
But it didn't end there. The general public, from children who sold magazine subscriptions door to door to help her defense, to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, thought Winnie had been railroaded to protect a certain party. The petite, 100-pound woman, they felt, couldn't possibly have managed dismembering the bodies and squeezing them into a trunk all by herself. Eventually, thanks to the combined efforts of Sheriff John R. McFadden and prison warden A. G. Walker, Winnie won a Grand Jury hearing and then a sanity hearing. The sanity hearing opened on April 14, 1933, the day she'd been scheduled for death. She was ruled insane and committed to the Arizona State Mental Hospital for life.
Excerpted from TENDER MURDERERS by Trina Robbins. Copyright © 2003 Trina Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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