When I saw the film version of the musical Chicago a few years ago, I had no idea that the story was drawn from true cases. I thought it was just sensational entertainment, a perception that would probably distress playwright Maurine Watkins. Watkins was a Chicago Tribune court reporter in 1924 who covered a string of highly-publicized cases featuring women who murdered men. In these cases, if the women were beautiful, they were found innocent; if not so pretty, the men in the jury found them guilty. Watkins was so profoundly troubled by these events that she wrote a play. Her drama Chicago was intended to shock audiences with the injustice and spectical created by the courts and newspapers. The 1926 play was a hit on Broadway and then toured the nation.
Author Douglas Perry tells about Watkins and the attention-seeking murderesses in his new book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. While he recounts the crimes of five women, he focuses on two - Beulah Annan and Belva Brown. Filmgoers will recognize Beulah as the model for Roxie Hart in the play and the later musical. Like Roxie, Beulah shot her lover in her appartment and called her fawning husband to ask what to do. To the police and reporters she wavered between claiming innocence and admitting her guilt. Called by the newspapers "Beautiful Beulah" and the "prettiest murderess," at no point did she seem the least bit distressed that her lover died. She hoped the publicity from the case would help her become a movie star.
Before her murder case, Belva Brown was known as the dance hall girl who had married a rich older man and then divorced him dramatically. Like Beulah, she enjoyed sitting with a circle of reporters spinning tales about what she did and her future plans. She was also the woman who advised all the other women in the Cook County Jail how to dress for their court appearances. Just as in the movie, these jailed women seemed to be at liberty to visit each other and entertain guests in their cells.
In The Girls of Murder City, Perry describes 1924 Chicago as a city wracked with crime, much related to breaking Prohibition laws. Citizen wanting to witness all the lurid events flock to court hearings and funerals. Newspapers were the hot media of the time.
The Girls of Murder City joins Devil in the White City and Sin in the Second City as a sort of trilogy about classic Chicago crime. All are great reading narratives that may attract fiction readers to cross over the nonfiction line.
Perry, Douglas. The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Viking, 2010. ISBN 9780670021970