Before Velma and Roxie in ‘Chicago,’ there were Beulah and Belva and a bevy of other good-looking inmates
A gorgeous young woman in 1920s Chicago takes a short-cut out of an extramarital affair: She guns down her lover—and convinces her husband to pay for her defense. In prison, she joins Murderesses’ Row, a veritable chorus line of gals accused of knocking off their men for one flimsy reason or another. Will our Jazz Age heroine beat the rap? Just watch her lawyer give ’em the old razzle-dazzle!
Belva “Belle” Brown in her cabaret-performing days before an ill-fated marriage to William Gaertner in 1917
Before director Rob Marshall made the story a box-office success with the 2002 movie musical “Chicago,” before Bob Fosse turned it into a Broadway hit in the 1970s (a 1990s revival inspired the movie), before the tale was dramatized for the stage in 1926 by former Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins, there was the real-life arrest and prosecution of Beulah Annan for murder. Watkins covered the trial for the Tribune.
Now comes “The Girls of Murder City,” Douglas Perry’s colorful account of how it happened in 1924 that the Cook County jail came to be packed with young women accused of murder. Their stories riveted the city. Their crimes were viewed as symptoms of a troubled era. Prohibition was backfiring spectacularly. Everyone, women included, seemed to be drinking. Everyone, women included, seemed to be packing guns. Firewater and firearms—not a good combination.
“That was what Prohibition did—it pulled everyone down into the pit,” writes Mr. Perry. Chicago newspapers hired a few of their own beauties to interview and write about the jail’s so-called “sob sisters.” Among the young reporters was Maurine Watkins, a minister’s daughter from Crawfordsville, Ind., who thrilled at the chance to write about the lurid lives of these wayward women.
Watkins helped turn the sob sisters into stars. He described Belva Gaertner, widely considered the most stylish woman on the cell block, as “a handsome divorcée of numerous experiences with divorce publicity,” and Beulah Annan—young, slender and possessed of a soft Southern accent—as “the prettiest woman ever charged with murder in Chicago.” Another of the accused, Kitty Malm, was not so attractive—Watkins and other reporters referred to her as “Wolf Woman.” But even Malm tried to look her best in court: All-male juries in Cook County at the time proved incapable of convicting pretty women of murder, so these accused killers worked hard getting dolled up while awaiting trial. The city’s crime reporters, feeding readers’ appetites, worked hard to help the inmates boost their sultry images.
Maurine Watkins, who covered Belva’s 1924 murder trial for the Chicago Tribune.
The prisoners—more than a dozen in all—were known to cut each other’s hair in the latest styles and trade tips on how to apply cosmetics. An obliging reporter told readers that when one prisoner had a trial approaching, “Belva gave her some really good ideas on costuming, coiffure and general chic.”
When Kitty Malm was finally convicted of murdering a guard during a botched robbery and sentenced to life in prison, experts at the time attributed the result in part to her looks. Mr. Perry quotes a phrenologist telling reporters that murderous women “all have broad heads. You can put it down as a basic principle that broad-headed animals eat the narrow-headed ones.” Such women are “show me” people, he said, “who have to experience to understand, and the jails are full of this type. Food and sexual interests make a strong appeal to them.”
Chicago in the 1920s did seem like Murder City. Machine guns popped on Michigan Avenue. Cops were in the pockets of gangsters. Murderers were often glamorized, seldom convicted. It was easy enough for a man like gangster Al Capone or a woman like Beulah Annan, who vamped for 8photographers even in her cell, to come to believe that criminals could also be stars.
Ultimately, “The Girls of Murder City,” like “Chicago,” is less a crime story than one about celebrity. But in the stage and screen versions, the accused killers are the stars; in Mr. Perry’s book, newspaper reporters are at the heart of the action.
Maurine Watkins happily joined the pack in glamorizing these deadly women—Belva Gaertner was acquitted, though she almost certainly gunned down her beau—but the reporter clearly didn’t want her work to help set them free. In dry, sardonic language, she attacked her subjects, stripping away the lies and conceits that they wore like so much makeup. “What counts with a jury when a woman is on trial for murder?” she asked in one story after Beulah Annan had stunned the public by declaring (falsely) she was pregnant. “Youth? Beauty? And if to these she adds approaching motherhood?”
Another reporter, H.H. Robertson, writing for the Atlanta Constitution, was clearly smitten by the defendant Beulah. “Shaking her Titian hair and relaxing in a dimple smile,” Robertson wrote, “Mrs. Annan gazed coyly at her husband and other relatives and said she had learned a lesson.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Watkins soon became fed up with the newspaper business as it was practiced in Chicago in the Roaring ’20s. In 1926, two years after the Gaertner trial ended, Watkins quit the Tribune and lit out for the East Coast. She studied playwriting at Yale University. For a class assignment she wrote “The Brave Little Woman,” later renamed “Chicago,” with the murderer-turned-celebrity Roxie Hart based on Beulah Annan and nightclub-singer-turned- murderer Velma Kelly inspired by Belva Gaertner. In the original version of the play Velma played a small role. But she had enough lines that when Gaertner attended the show’s Chicago premiere, she told a reporter: “Gee, this play’s sure got our number, ain’t it. Sure, that’s me.”
The lust for publicity—to provide it, to be its object, or to consume it—in these early days of the mass media was a new phenomenon. Watkins hoped to expose how the nascent celebrity culture had corrupted the newspaper business and the legal system. Lucky for Watkins, she managed to vent her frustrations without losing her sense of humor. “Oh God . . . God . . . Don’t let ’em hang me—don’t,” she has Roxie say after her confession. “Why, I’d . . . die!”
The play scored laughs with its audience even as it excoriated the Midwestern Murder City. “Chicago” opened on Broadway in late 1926—a solid hit, one that produced a road show and inspired at least two movies, a silent film in 1927 and “Roxie Hart” (1942) starring Ginger Rogers.
Over the years, Watkins refused requests to turn “Chicago” into a musical. But after her death in 1969, Watkins’s family sold the rights. The acclaimed choreographer Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the show, and a story taken from long-faded headlines was given new life.
Watkins in the 1920s had a taken a familiar news story and successfully turned it into entertainment. Mr. Perry faced essentially the opposite task: dragging the popular “Chicago”-style tale back to the land of fact. His biggest challenge was one he set for himself by putting Maurine Watkins at center stage. We care about her, but let’s face it: She was a reporter, not a woman on trial for her life. In “The Girls of Murder City” the courtroom scenes are dramatic and well written, but they serve only as sideshows. It’s Watkins we care about, but she faces no great danger, no perilous challenge, and her personal life is tidy.
Mr. Perry overcomes this hurdle the old-fashioned way: with vivid storytelling. “Maureen had never seen so many men in one place,” he writes of the Tribune newsroom as Watkins encountered it. “They barked into telephones, leaped up, slammed hats on their heads, and strode from the room. They whooped and hollered and smoked cigarettes.” Later: “Young men and women arrived in Chicago from across the world and promptly lost their identities—or reforged them into tougher, more vital versions of themselves.”
Sometimes Mr. Perry goes too far, telling us what his characters thought or felt: “She was wide-eyed drunk, scared into some semblance of clarity”; “her heart rate spiked”; “the shame showed on her: It lit her up, coloring her cheeks a deep, invigorating pink, flushing away her guilt.”
But such misdemeanors are easily pardoned, given the book’s merits. “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.
Mr. Eig, a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, is the author, most recently, of “Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.”
Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704164904575421630562374368.html
‘Girl of Murder City’
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.