January 9, 2012

January 9, 2012

Things I’ve Read: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

Chicago is a great town, innit? To call it “the New York of the Midwest” wouldn’t do it justice. Sure, it’s the Second City, but to anyone who grew up with casseroles and snow pants, Chicago was the place to be. If you were lucky, your parents took you there to see the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. To marvel at the Sears Tower. To peruse the wares on Michigan Avenue (and an actual American Girl store, squee!). If it weren’t for the snow, I would quite possibly be living there now.

Yet for all its current charm, Chicago has a pretty sordid history. Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City recounts serial killings during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Everyone knows about the political corruption, which apparently continues rather unabated. Chicago is the kind of town where gangsters, bootleggers, and stockyard workers co-mingle with those American Girl fans. The kind of town where Roxie Hart could kill a man and get away with it.

Oh, yeah, did you know that Roxie Hart was a real person? As the intern at my office would say, totes true.

Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago describes a string of women who committed various murders in 1920s Chicago and got away with it. (Technically, they were found “not guilty,” but we all know what THAT means.) The cases of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan inspired one female reporter to create Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart. Chicago, which was first a (non-musical) stage show, then a silent film, then a talking film, then a Bob Fosse musical, then a 2002 movie, lifted plotlines and even dialogue directly from the trials. If you’re at all familiar with any of Chicago’s iterations, you’ll have no problem following this book. They’re that similar.

(I myself personally love Chicago—it is my absolute favorite musical. While reading this book, I found myself mentally singing “They both, they both, reached for the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, for the gun” on an almost constant loop.)

So what factors allowed for the egregious injustice? How could Belva, Beulah, and the handful of others mentioned in the novel go free, even when evidence, testimony, and their own confessions pointed to guilt? Turns out it’s all about a pretty face. In 1920s Chicago, only men were allowed to serve on juries. And it’s just not gentlemanly to sentence a woman to death, you know. Hanging is so gruesome. And in Roxie’s Beulah’s case, you have the unborn baby to think about.

These women (and their counsel) knew how to play to the crowd. They purchased new clothes, they got makeovers, they displayed the posture and voice of helpless innocence. Sure, maybe they’d shot someone….but only because he was going to shoot them first! Or hurt them! Or ruin their virtue! They both reached for the gun!

The era’s sensational journalism just stirred the pot. In those days, reporters sat in on prison interviews, hung out at the police station, and even got close enough to murder scenes to get blood on their shoes. Since TV was non-existent, movies were silent, and radio was still young, newspapers were the shiznit and they knew it. A string of beautiful murderesses, sometimes rich and high society, were like a gift from above.

The epilogue, always my favorite part of any non-fiction work, reveals that most of the freed murderesses died shortly after the ‘20s, in relative obscurity. They left their husbands (again), moved far away, or both. The reporter who covered much of the trials, Maurine Watkins, never equaled the success of Chicago. But oh, what a one-hit wonder.

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