The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago
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.
I recommend this book if you like Chicago and/or true crime–if you like both, then you definitely should read it! I had no idea that the musical was 1) based so closely on actual events or 2) adapted from a play written in the 1920s by a reporter who witnessed and reported on the events and trials herself.
Too cool! And fascinating, in a train wreck, I-can’t-believe-this-really-happened kind of way.
Not to mention aggravating–if you were pretty enough (or figured out how to dress better and do your hair and makeup on time to make a difference in front of the all-male jury) you literally could get away with murder in Chicago. If you were “ugly”, not originally from America, or not white, however? There was a good chance you would not only be convicted, but you could get the death penalty.
My only complaint about the book? I listened to it on audio (the recording itself very well done–narrator did a great job) and it was a little hard to keep track of all the people discussed as the story went on. There are so, so many people in the story, murderesses and others. I seriously needed a cheat sheet. Fortunately I listened to it with Mini Moe #2 and we managed to help each other (mostly) keep everyone straight. I just might have to check the book out of the library, though, just to double check who is who again (and look for pictures… ;))
Rating: 4 stars / B+