The Girls of Murder City
Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago
by Douglas Perry
I’ve seen the 2002 film of the musical Chicago, I’ve seen the live stage performance, but I never realized just how much of the story was based on fact. Perry tells the nonfiction tale of the actual murderesses, the crimes they committed and the media frenzy that followed in their wake. I thought the book was fascinating because the true story is even more intriguing than the fictionalized stage version.
In 1924 there were a surprising number of murders committed by women in Chicago. Two of the most famous cases involved Beulah Annan and Bella Gaertner. Both women were arrested and tried for murder and both were acquitted. The two women inspired the characters of Roxie Hart (Beulah) and Velma Kelly (Belva) in the 1926 play Chicago (originally called “Brave Little Woman”).
The play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. She covered both trials while working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She took a course at Yale on play writing and Chicago was the result. It didn’t become a musical until the 1970s. I did think it was fascinating that Beulah and Belva actually saw Chicago performed live!
The entire time I was reading the book I kept hearing all the songs from the musical in my head. When I read about the defense lawyer I heard “All I Care About” and during the descriptions of Beulah roping her husband into covering for a murder she committed “Funny Honey” was on repeat in my brain.
I related the most to the reporter Maureen. She was originally from Crawfordsville, IN, about 15 minutes from the city where I worked when I was first a reporter at a daily newspaper. I actually covered a few trials in Crawfordsville during that time.
Watkins also reported on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, which quickly overshadowed the coverage of the murderesses’ verdicts. It’s interesting how a piece of news can become a huge deal, or so easily be cast aside depending on what else has happened that day. Like celebrities dying on the same day, Michael Jackson’s death left no room for coverage of Farrah Fawcett’s and the same is true for other major events in history. If it had been a slow news day, the women’s acquittals might have been a huge deal, but instead they were barely noted while all eyes focused on the now infamous Leopold and Loeb case, which inspired the film Murder by Numbers and the play Never the Sinner.
So if you’re looking for a great nonfiction read in the same vein as The Devil in the White City or if you’ve ever been curious about the story behind Chicago, this one is for you.