When Maurine Watkins wrote the play Chicago in 1925, she lifted the details straight from her own news stories in the Chicago Tribune. She based the two gun-toting protagonists—Roxie and Velma—on the real-life defendants Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. Dressed to kill, Gaertner even sat in the audience during the first week of performances of the play at the Harris Theater (the current site of the Goodman) in 1927.
In a new book, The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago (Viking; $25.95), Douglas Perry, an editor at The Oregonian, retells the true-crime stories that Watkins covered as a young reporter. As he discovered, Annan and Gaertner weren’t the only Chicago women who made headlines for murder in the 1920s. Perry describes a rash of forgotten cases involving “murderesses” who captivated the city during that decade but have been a footnote since.
He isn’t the first to tackle the subject. Jeffrey S. Adler chronicled a slightly earlier era in his 2006 book First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875–1920. During the period he studied, the homicide rate for women shot up more than 400 percent, outpacing men. One reason: more wives killing abusive husbands.
“It was exceedingly rare for white women to be convicted of homicide,” Adler says, adding that black women were not shown such mercy. The era’s all-male juries had trouble believing that white women would commit premeditated murders, he explains.
Perry noticed a similar pattern. “If a woman were to commit a terrible crime, there had to be reasons for it,” he says. “You know: She was drunk. And of course, her boyfriend made her drunk. Or it was a crime of passion. Women were fragile beings; they needed their men, and they were possessive of their men. The man was cheating on them, and it made them snap, and it was forgivable for that reason.”
Perry’s book explains why Annan and Gaertner were acquitted: They played on the sympathy of male jurors. But he also details two rare convictions: Sabella Nitti, described by the Tribune as a “cruel animal” after her husband was beaten to death with a hammer, and Kitty Malm, who was nicknamed Wolf Woman and Tiger Girl after a robbery with her husband went wrong and a security guard was killed. “The nicknames had nothing to do with Kitty’s alleged crimes,” Perry writes. “They simply made for good headlines.” He says juries may have been biased against these poor immigrants. “It was very class based.”
Another notorious case involved one of the few female lawyers at the time. Wanda Stopa allegedly tried to shoot the wife of a man she loved, but she ended up killing Henry Manning, a handyman at the woman’s Palos Park home. Stopa went on the lam as the story made front-page news, but before police could track her down, she swallowed cyanide in a Detroit hotel room. When her family set up her coffin for viewing in their apartment at 1505 W. Augusta Street, huge crowds came for a glimpse. “When you think about 20,000 people trying to push into this little apartment, it’s heartbreaking,” says Perry, who believes that Wanda Stopa’s funeral may have had a more profound effect on Watkins than anything else. “Maurine was thunderstruck at how, in death, everybody seemed to love Wanda Stopa,” Perry writes. “It no longer mattered that the woman had shot and killed an innocent man; it mattered only that her beautiful face and mournful words appeared above the fold of every newspaper in the city.”
Watkins, a shy minister’s daughter from Crawfordsville, Indiana, was also appalled by what she viewed as miscarriages of justice. “It definitely bothered her that Beulah Annan got off,” Perry says. Watkins wrote Chicago as a way of righting that wrong, he adds. “She wanted Beulah to be guilty.”