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Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

by Douglas Perry

Pub Date: Aug. 9th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-670-02197-0
Publisher: Viking

A chronicle of the wild spring and summer of 1924, when Chicago was afflicted with a seeming epidemic of female murderers.

The hit Broadway play Chicago has its roots in the night of March 12, 1924, when Belva Gaertner was arrested for drunkenly shooting her boyfriend Walter Law. The daily newspapers instantly seized on the story in part because Gaertner was the ex-wife of a well-known industrialist, but also because a female killer was an appealing target for Prohibition-era conservatism. The moralizing only intensified a month later, when Beulah Annan stood accused of shooting her lover—dancing to a jazz record while his body lay cold, some reported—and a young bohemian named Wanda Stopa was on the run from authorities for killing a man in jealous fury. Oregonian online features editor Perry (co-author: The Sixteenth Minute: Life in the Aftermath of Fame, 2005) provides consistently entertaining back stories on these women and others in the Cook County Jail, but more interesting is the author’s exploration of the sexist attitudes that turned the women on “Murderess’ Row” into odd celebrities. (One female inmate was likely saved from hanging simply by making herself look more attractive at a court appearance.) Perry also captures the hypercompetitive newspaper culture that fueled the alleged trend, following the cases through the eyes of Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Watkins. Breaking through a sexist newsroom culture to deliver slyly satirical—if not entirely accurate—dispatches on the women’s trials, Watkins occasionally pushed the bounds of journalistic integrity to argue that Gaertner and Annan were guilty. After both were acquitted and public interest moved elsewhere, she abandoned journalism to skewer scandal-sheet culture in her play Chicago. In a similar manner, Perry critiques the newspapers for being ruthlessly eager to play loose with facts and reduce the women to news fodder. But his prose sometimes echoes the papers’ pulpy tone, reflecting his comment in the endnotes that the media tended to overdramatize events.

A lively history, though better at describing media sensationalism than the women who were caught up in its whirlwind.