Douglas Perry’s book, The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, is a fascinating look at Murderess’ Row in the Cook County Jail in the early 1920s.
The story focuses on Maurine Watkins, a minister’s daughter from Indiana. If ever there was a woman least likely to become a crime reporter in the 1920s, it was Watkins. But this churchgoing young woman found herself in the den of inequity, Chicago, and hired by the Chicago Tribune. Women who worked for newspapers in the 20s worked mostly in the classified area and as secretaries. Maurine managed to talk herself into a job as a reporter and found herself at Cook County Jail covering the two of the most scandalous stories of the day. “Stylish” Belva Gaertner and “Beautiful” Beulah Annan had both murdered their lovers in strange circumstances.
Beulah Annan killed her lover and then claimed he was trying to rape her. She later claimed that she was pregnant. Needless to say she wasn’t pregnant and instead was getting comfy on her sofa drinking cheap booze as her husband was slaving away at work. Beulah was a good actress. The number of times her story changed was incredible.
Belva or ‘Belle’ Gaertner, was a woman with an important ex-husband. She shot her married lover in her car when he attempted to break up with her. She later claimed she couldn’t remember anything about the night because she had been drinking. Her poor ex-husband, who loved her despite the fact that she had slept with many men while they were married, supported her through out the trial.
The book also includes details on the other women on Murderess Row including Sabella Nitti, an immigrant woman who convicted to hang by a jury (probably only because she didn’t speak good English and was ugly). Her attorney Helen Cirese water later able to appeal the case and Nitti went free. Wanda Stopa didn’t end up in jail because she killed herself before the police were able to catch up with her. Stopa, a brilliant law student, had a bit of a drug problem and fell in love with a married man. One evening she went to his house to convince his wife to divorce him. When his wife refused, Stopa killed their handyman and the wife fled. Stopa then got back in her waiting taxi and drove back downtown. Kitty Malm, the “Wolf Woman” who was convicted after a security guard was killed in a robbery she committed with her husband.
Perry does a good job describing the setting. It was a much simpler time and it’s easy to look at this cases with modern eyes and wonder why these woman went free. But it was a different time and men didn’t believe than women were capable of murder. There were excuses, like they were under the influence of alcohol. I’d also like to think that if women were allowed to serve as jurors at the time, more of the women would have been convicted.
You don’t need to be familiar with the musical or movie Chicago to enjoy this book. Perry does an excellent job of bringing the cast of characters and era to life.