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The Real Roxie Hart Was Too Beautiful to Execute

And other tidbits from a new book on the real-life women who inspired Chicago.

Beulah Annan with her third husband.
Beulah Annan with her third husband. She was acquitted earlier of killing her lover. Photo: Chicago Tribune Historical

1 The 1926 play that preceded the Broadway musical (and the films of the same name) was written by Chicago Tribune reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, who had a flair for covering sensational homicides — including the Leopold and Loeb case. As Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather recount in He Had It Coming: Four Murderous Women and the Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories, she once told an interviewer: “I got so I prayed for murders. Not that you ever have to pray long for murders in Chicago.”

2 After leaving the Tribune, Watkins studied playwriting at Yale University, where the first draft of Chicago (originally titled A Brave Little Woman) earned her a grade of 98 percent. Not everyone at the university would be enamored of it, however: When Chicago debuted onstage there, a Yale Divinity School professor supposedly stormed out, calling it “entirely too vile for public performance.”

3 The story of Chicago’s main character, Roxie Hart, bears close parallels to that of accused murderer Beulah Annan. Widely considered too beautiful to be executed — in fact, several jurors were dismissed for saying “they weren’t sure the effects a pretty woman might have on them” — she was acquitted of shooting her lover in 1924 but died a few years later of tuberculosis. All three of her ex-husbands came to her funeral.

4 Unlike the suspected Hungarian murderess she inspired in Chicago (variously known as Moonshine Maggie, Hunyak, and Katalin Helinski), Italian immigrant Sabella Nitti was acquitted of restraining her husband while her lover beat him to death with a sledgehammer. Her second husband — the same man tried for killing her first husband — later disappeared.

5 Assistant state’s attorney Harry Pritzker — great-uncle to Governor J.B. — prosecuted not one but two of the defendants on whom Watkins based Chicago’s characters. Katherine Baluk, the basis for the musical’s Go-to-Hell Kitty, was convicted of a murder committed during a robbery gone wrong. Meanwhile, Belva Gaertner, later fictionalized as Velma Kelly, was acquitted of shooting her married lover, even though the body was found in Gaertner’s sedan, a bottle of gin nearby. Said the defendant: “Gin and guns — either one is bad enough, but together they get you into a dickens of a mess, don’t they.” Harry Pritzker’s reaction to Gaertner’s acquittal: “Women — just women!”

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