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

the girls of murder city


The true story of the murderesses who became media sensations and inspired the musical Chicago

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special – worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a “girl reporter” for the Chicago Tribune, the city’s “hanging paper.” Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister’s daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make “Stylish Belva” Gaertner and “Beautiful Beulah” Annan – both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers – the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on “Murderesses’ Row” as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins’s favorites.

In the tradition of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal. Fueled by rich period detail and enlivened by a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage, The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the age and its sober repercussions.

My Thoughts

(Disclaimer – I read this book a few years ago, but never reviewed it, so, after reading it for a second time, here we go!)

Months, even years, before the Janet Smith murder rocked Vancouver with its twisted details and sensationalist journalism, there was Chicago. Chicago in the roaring twenties is the heart of flash, glam, guts, and gore. Where there’s booze, there’s blood. The things that occurred during this time seem too outrageous to be true. And yet, for everyone involved, it was all too real.

As a massive fan of the musical Chicago, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book!! Douglas Perry has researched every minute detail of the lives of the women who inspired first a stage play, then two films, and finally, the musical. His hard work has most certainly paid off. From the murderesses themselves, to their lawyers, and even the journalists covering the case, Perry’s research is factual and exhaustive. I’ll certainly be checking out some of his sources to add to my book collection!

This book is fascinating in that it doesn’t dryly relay the events – it explores every angle. Readers are privy to the opinions of the journalists covering the cases. We learn about the lives of the prosecutors. In a very real way, we, ourselves, are involved in the goings on of Murderess Row at the Cook County Jail.

It’s very eye-opening to see the overlap of real events, in comparison to the plot line of the musical adaptation. Not only did these women get away with murder, they felt completely entitled to their freedom – despite having taken a life. They truly did not believe that they had done anything wrong! (The Cell Block Tango has been playing on repeat for half an hour, just to drive this point home to me.)

We see many of these events reiterated to us through the journalistic tactics of the Chicago Tribune‘s whipper snapper crime reporter Maurine Watkins – a no-nonsense, satirical writer. She never held back her opinions – she knew these women were getting away with murder, and never once let her disgust slide. The incredible ridiculousness of the situation is what led her to penning the stage play, inspired by the events of the trial of Beulah Annan. Oh, how I would have loved to witness the original play!

Chicago in the 1920s was a city in full-swing party mode. The war is over, soldiers are back, and it’s time to celebrate! This is the atmosphere of the city – a city with little to no remorse for its less than legal activities.

The Girls of Murder City offers a very interesting insight into the infamous gunner girls who inspired plays, movies, and musicals with their antics and cases. What feels like the fictional events of a sensational film noire are things that really transpired. And that, in my opinion, is the greatest appeal and fascination of the era known as the roaring twenties.


~ by Aubrey Smith on March 27, 2017.

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