Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

In Chicago, 1924, illegal booze was all the rave, jazz music played into the wee hours of the night, and the number of killings committed by women had jumped 400 percent in the last forty years... And no, I'm not saying there is a connection. I can drink some wine and listen to some jazz tunes and I don't shoot my husband dead..

These women did tho. And the press was on them like white on rice. Back then, woman killers were glamorous. They would look thru the cell bars with their big innocent eyes and when appearing in court, the proper hats and furs usually got them acquitted in no time. This book tells their tales in a fascinating and surprisingly, non biographical way. It wasn't boring as you would expect most nonfiction books to be. Douglas Perry has told these women's stories in such a way that I could literally picture the things happening in and out of Merry Murderess' Row.

First up: The one woman in this book who is NOT a killer, but a reporter. Maurine Watkins.

She waltzed into the Chicago Tribune (and this is a time in which women reporters were deemed inadequate and editors claimed they couldn't depend on the "variable feminine mechanism" with no reporter or crime writing experience whatsoever and asked for a job. She got it and with it, the women's murder trials of the century. Maurine wasn't fooled by these women either. She told it like she seen it and with a sense of humor as well.

Dr Springer, she wrote, "identified the gin bottle which was found lying on the floor of the car. Belva's jury, selected for their lack of prejudice in favor of the Volstead act, pepped up a bit at sight of this, and Belva herself leaned forward. But it was empty."

An interesting woman tho she didn't fascinate me as much as the killers themselves. (Wonder what that says about me?) She wasn't as traditional a Catholic girl as she was supposed to be. Despite the fact she wore her skirts and hair in a traditional way, her thoughts were not traditional. She had a love of gangsters and how they put their women on pedestals and was quoted as saying, "Gunmen are just divine. My idea of something pleasant is to be surrounded by gunmen." She was also deemed so beautiful that her male co workers were distracted to the point that the editor claimed he would hire no more women.

After following the Chicago lady killers and interviewing them incessantly, Maurine turned to screenwriting and wrote the famous play turned musical, "Chicago", based on the following real life murderess'.

Now, our first lady killer: Beulah Annan. (AKA Roxie Hart) This role was most recently played by Renee Zellweger.

Looks innocent, huh? Not so! Beulah didn't shoot her husband. She cuckholded her husband. She shot her lover dead and danced around his body for an hour. Upon going to jail, her story changed numerous times, ending with a claim of pregnancy and "we both reached for the gun." Her beauty and her big eyes got her an acquittal. She even had some say so in the jury selection for her trial. She would nod her head at her attorney if she liked a potential juror or pout a "no." After all, in Chicago 1924 no beautiful white woman had been convicted of murder yet. Maurine is quoted as saying that for women, "Chicago is the ideal locale for getting away with murder."

Upon her acquittal, Beulah immediately divorced her husband for being "too slow" for her.

Our second lady killer and my personal favorite partly because she has cojones and partly for her fabulous quotes, Belva Gaertner. (AKA Velma Kelly) This role was recently played by Catherine Zeta Jones.

In "Chicago," Velma shot her husband and her twin sister. In real life, twice divorced cabaret dancer, Belva shot her car salesman boyfriend in her Nash. This was a woman who fondled her gun at her vanity in the morning and said, "Gin and guns - either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they?"

In Belva's case, her rich ex husband, her furs, and her regal bearing got her an acquittal so her "dickens of a mess" only last a few months. She did provide some great quotes during her jail time tho.

"I hope they won't put me to work. I hate to work." LMAO!!!

"No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more." (She claims to have killed her lover not because of love, but a coin toss game.)

Another woman killer with a role in this book that interested me is Sabella Nitti. She didn't make it into the musical version, (at least it wasn't a memorable role if she did) but her story needs to be heard all the same.

In a time when no woman had yet been convicted of murder, Sabella Nitti was the first. Why? She was branded "grotesque foreigner," spoke no English, was an Italian immigrant and poor farmer. She did not even realize that her own son betrayed her, did not understand she was convicted even. The crime: having her boyfriend kill her husband and disposing of his body. Due to her poor appearance and her broken English, she got poor representation and was awaiting hanging when Beulah and Belva joined her in Cook County Jail. Their frienship (Belva offered fashion tips and gave comportment lessons) and a young Italian woman lawyer, Helen Cirese are credited with finally getting Sabella "off the hook."

Not to be outdone, other female inmates of the Cook County Jail have stories brought to light in this as well. Perry briefly touches on both Wanda Stopa, a Polish lawyer turned bohemian murderess and Katherine Malm. Stopa had some issues and the night before attempting to shoot her lover's wife (but hitting a household employee instead), threw all her jewelry at people into a crowded party, ranting and raving all the while. At her funeral, a mother and child got slapped repeatedly by Stopa's family members. Katherine Malm was a ganster's girlfriend taking the rap for her man. Or did she commit the crime?

I loved this book. Of course, I'm a huge fan of non traditional women and I have watched the movie probably 15 times. My love of the latest musical is what led me to request and receive this from Viking Press. I also have the soundtrack. In conclusion, I must say, read the book and form your own opinions.

Did the fellows have it coming?

Did they have only themselves to blame?

If you'd have been there...

If you'd have seen it...

Would YOU have done the same?

Perhaps he would have ran into your knife ten times? (evil laugh)

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