Book Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

In Chicago, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became the biggest celebrities of the day.

Though subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago,” this concise and fascinating piece of social history by no means requires a familiarity with the Bob Fosse musical. It’s about crime in Chicago. It’s an effective portrait of the golden age of newspaper reporting. It’s a multiple character study. But more than anything it’s about the cult of celebrity. We tend to think idol-worshipping exploded in the late twentieth century, but it ran rampant in the 1920s, juiced up by the many competing newspapers that once graced major cities — and nowhere more so than in the Second City.

There, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became celebrities. Maurine Watkins, a talented greenhorn reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the trials, filing incisive and sarcastic reports that made her a popular correspondent. Disgusted by the way all-male juries kept acquitting glamorous female criminals, Watkins then wrote a successful play based on her reporting. The stage play Chicago established her career (though she never again matched its success). Two movie versions followed. The first was silent; the second starred Ginger Rogers but bastardized the story to comply with the morality code of the 1940s, which didn’t allow characters to commit bad behavior and get away with it.

Not until after Watkins had died, though, did the Bob Fosse musical come about. Its current Broadway production has become the longest-running revival in Broadway’s history, and between that, the tours, and the Best Picture-winning 2002 movie version of the musical, an awful lot of people know the story, however obscure the original play may be today. But you need not know it at all to get a lot out of this book.

Perry neatly tracks the stories that splashed across the front pages of the Chicago papers in 1924. “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, immortalized in the play as Roxie Hart, and sophisticated Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for the character of Velma, were only the most glamorous of a number of female prisoners who had murdered men, usually lovers or husbands. Perry’s account of their crimes and their trials shines a light on the attitudes of the time, so different from now. Women weren’t thought fit to serve on juries — they couldn’t be objective enough. And they weren’t tough enough to be trial lawyers, though the book also profiles a trailblazing young attorney named Helen Cirese who successfully represented the unglamorous convict Sabella Nitti.

For similar reasons, many people believed women couldn’t commit crimes unless something — drink, passion, the loose living that was blamed for so many problems at the time — had led them astray. “Violence, after all, was an unnatural act for a woman. A normal woman couldn’t decide to commit murder or plot a killing…The violent woman was by definition mentally diseased, irreparably defective.” Beulah had been “lured into the world of jazz and liquor, had broken her marriage vows, like so many young married women forced by financial necessity to work outside the home.” A “respectable lady [like Belva Gaertner] who shot her husband or boyfriend…didn’t scare men: She was a romantic figure, a representation of how much women in general, with their overflowing emotions, loved and needed their men.”

Maurine Watkins, intelligent, moral, and religious, couldn’t accept this, and crusaded in print for the women she believed guilty to get what they deserved. But, though the string of acquittals had been broken in another case, both Beulah and Belva got off despite strong evidence against them. In the process, even their lawyers became celebrities. Hearst’s sensationalizing papers, according to Perry, “sought to mold news to their liking, which meant the commonplace blown up bigger and better than in any of their competitors.” The “commonplace blown up”…just like today’s reality shows. Tens of thousands of strangers swarmed upon the funeral of Wanda Stopa, another beautiful killer who’d avoided trial by committing suicide — “group madness, a sight so incredible, it stayed with the reporter for years.” It led Watkins from Chicago to Chicago, “a deeply cynical satire of the celebrity mania that she saw as the dominant feature of twentieth-century urban life.” Perry’s analysis of the play’s genesis sums up both its theme and, to a degree, that of this book:

From her experiences as a reporter in Chicago, she’d determined that human imperfections, individual and collective, had become monstrous. Real life had become farce…traditional comedy and farce…comedy and tragedy…were all one and the same in a superficial modern world of mass communication and overpopulated, spirit-crushing cities, a world that produced anonymous men and women seized by insecurity and a frantic desire for money, status, and attention.

We know how straight-laced society reacts. From Mae West’s 1927 conviction for doing a “kootchie dance,” through Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest in Miami for exposing himself, to the bizarre excoriation of Janet Jackson for her “wardrobe malfunction,” America has always been an uncomfortable mix of the puritanical and the freewheeling and licentious.

Maurine never wanted her play made into a musical. Perry isn’t sure why, but he makes a convincing case against a commonly supposed reason: that she’d become a born-again Christian and ashamed of having sensationalized the lurid stories she’d reported on. Maurine Watkins was religious all her life; she was never “born again.” And she hadn’t sensationalized and glamorized the murderesses; to the contrary, she’d tried her hardest to turn the tide against Beulah and Belva. This book, among its other accomplishments, restores and buttresses the reputation of Maurine Watkins, who for a brief shining moment was the top crime reporter of her day, and then turned her experiences into a bitter, cynical, but eternally fresh and powerful piece of our culture.

Originally published as “Book Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry” at Blogcritics.