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The truth about Roxie and Velma

Cover of The Girls of Murder City:
A review of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry

I've seen the movie Chicago - which is about the fictional Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly who get away with murder - and had been aware that it was based on real goings-on in 1920's Chicago. But I didn't realize how closely the story tied to actual events and that the original play (which would later become the musical) was written by a female reporter who wrote about the real murders for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. In The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago Douglas Perry delves into the string of murders by women who were acquitted in most cases - especially if the killers were young and pretty.

The two who are the focus of the play, Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan clearly did the crimes. Belva shot her lover in the midst of a very drunken spat about who was the better shot. At the time of the murder, Belva had already been something of a media sensation because of her messy divorce from millionaire William Gaertner. The former showgirl led a wild and unconventional life and the press loved her as fodder for the voracious public. When she shot Walter Law, Belva became a media darling who had reporters recording her every word. Her center-stage press run ended when Beulah Annan killed her lover.

Beulah shot the man with whom she'd been having an affair and waited hours (while he lay dying on her bedroom floor) to call her husband. Unlike Belva, Beulah never denied shooting Harry. Her story changed many times from her original confession, but she didn't back away from the actual crime. None of that mattered to most of the press and the public because Beulah was the "prettiest murderess" in the Cook County Jail. And Beulah knew it. She put her looks to good use in managing her own PR campaign in the press and later in her trial where she faced an all male jury.

This is a fascinating look at a time and place almost like no other. Why did so many women (over 100) murder their husbands and boyfriends in a relatively short number of years in one metro area? Was it a perfect storm of circumstances? The end of the first world war, prohibition with its resulting increase in all crime, women experiencing new freedoms, etc? Hard to say. The press at the time bemoaned the jazz age and how it was going to be the ruination of all social norms - while playing up every sensational detail. Many feared that the country was going to hell in a handbasket. But is that any different then what we hear in the press nowadays? Many worry about the collapse of societal norms and we still have sensational murder trials where someone is acquitted under questionable reasoning. Perhaps it's just a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Jan 8, 2020