Theater of Cruelty

Douglas Perry
The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago
(Viking, 2010)

Close on the heels of reading Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Penguin, 2010), comes Douglas Perry’s true crime history The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, which turned out to be a welcome companion piece.

The former is a dissection of New York City’s use and rapid improvement of nascent forensic medical techniques during the Prohibition era.  Murder after murder is lovingly recreated—especially those involving poisons—and then deconstructed by über CSI experts. The latter book takes us to Prohibition-era Chi-town, where the weapon of choice wasn’t poison but pistols, and the bad guys were bad gals.

Perry relies heavily on the purple prose and yellow journalism of the day to revisit the fact that nine times out of ten, if you were pretty and white, not only were you going to get away with murder at the hands of an all-male jury, you were going to become famous.  Newspapers, newsreels, and radio broadcasts from coast to coast would see to it. The 1920s were arguably the beginning of the age of celebrity, when being a murderer just might make you a multimedia superstar.  

One such cold-blooded, doe-eyed vixen was Beulah Annan, a bored housewife carrying on a moonshine-soaked affair with coworker Harry Kalstedt.  She shot him during a quarrel one afternoon and let him bleed out on her living room floor for three hours while she continued to polish off her bootleg liquor, crank up the jazz on her record player, and dance about while children played outside.  She became the inspiration for a 1926 Broadway hit, a biting little satire called Chicago.  The evergreen play became a silent film, then a talkie, and then in 1975 a Kander, Ebb & Fosse musical, which in 2002 became an Oscar-winning film.

The play’s author, Maurine Watkins, was a budding Indiana playwright who first tried her hand at the male-dominated journalism of gritty Chicago as a way to gain life experience and witness evil up close. She came to the right place, quickly becoming a star reporter for the Chicago Tribune—“a real hanging paper—out for conviction always”—covering the girls of Murderess’ Row, the women’s section of the Cook County Jail, in the same zinging style that she would later apply to the likes of fictional stage siren Roxie Hart.

The book is a wickedly fun read that often had me chuckling aloud, such as when Assistant State’s Attorney Roy Woods arrives at Kalstedt’s murder scene, introduces himself to the apparently traumatized Beulah, who asks him through her drunken tears if he can “frame it to look like an accident.”  (“You don’t ‘frame’ anything with me,” he replied coldly—oh, how wrong he was.)

 Perry has written the book’s several murder yarns in a hardboiled staccato style that emulates the journalism of its time and place. We learn about hipster and murderess Wanda Stopa:  “That was why she went to law school, time and again the only girl in a classroom full of boys. That was why Kenley Smith’s exhortations for the unconventional life, real life, resonated. That was why she went to bed with him. She never recovered.” 

With so much style, the book ought to be a thrill ride from cover to cover.  However, this same writing is part of the book’s undoing.  Perry often relies on newspaper articles for his source material while he simultaneously mocks them for their heavy slants, leaving us to question the veracity of Perry’s own sensationalist take on the events.   When the cops arrive at Beulah’s place, the disheveled killer’s cheeks are “splotchy from crying, her nose red, breasts like crashed dirigibles.”

When upper crust murderess-to-be Belva Gaertner comes in from a ride, “her thighs and buttocks glowed, radiating from the inside out like a clay pot right out of the fire—a beautiful soreness.”  Such lurid leaps to enhance tales raunchy enough on their own were a source of amusement, but for the wrong reason. We’re laughing at Perry instead of with him.

Despite the book’s overall fun salaciousness, its biggest failure is its whitewashing of the topic—it almost completely ignores the burgeoning black and immigrant populations of jazz-era Chicago. How on earth does one write a book about jazz while ignoring its roots in the African-American experience? The author seems satisfied highlighting the case of Italian murderess Sabella Nitti and her particularly unfair treatment by reporters, the Trib’s Genevieve Forbes describing her as a “gibbering…animal.” Nitti went on to become the first woman in Cook County to receive a death sentence (it was later commuted to life in prison after she took a cue from her white cellmates and started prettying herself up for reporters and judges). But when ugly black-white race riots intrude into the plot they are given short shrift and hurried past, without mention of the names of black leaders who spoke for or against the riots, or any of the mostly black murder victims, or even black criminals brought in on charges. However, much space is set aside for detailed descriptions of the white husbands, lovers, and lawyers of the book’s antiheroines. 

Even in the book’s concluding pages, the author can only muster up the energy to tell us that Annan’s and Gaertner’s acquittals brought an end to the Chicago media’s fascination with Murderess’ Row.  After all, “two of the remaining murder suspects were black women...”  It might have been criminal for white editors and reporters, even our heroine Maurine Watkins, to give them short shrift at the time, but it’s unforgivable for Perry, with all of his homework, not to have at least taken the time to check their case records to tell us their names and, more importantly, their victims’ names, and the details of the charges against them. Even if they weren’t given much coverage by the white media, were their no black-owned newspapers in the South State Street area that might have covered such events and provided Perry with a few photos?

Overall, the book is a fun and informative read, and a poignant reminder, even now, to take what you read in the paper, or see on Nancy Grace, with a grain of salt.  If we’re lucky, half of it is probably true.

Contributor

Jeffrey Stanley

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