Between 1875 and 1920, 102 women were tried in Chicago’s Cook County for killing their husbands. Only 16 were convicted, and of those, nine were African-American. In 1923, a streak of 29 acquittals of alleged murderesses was finally broken with the conviction of a poor Italian immigrant, who spoke almost no English. It wasn’t considered a true win for the state, which was having a seriously hard time persuading all-male juries that attractive white women could be guilty of murder.
In his first solo book, The Girls Of Murder City: Fame, Lust, And The Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, journalist Douglas Perry covers Chicago’s girl-gunner obsession through the lens of two of the city’s most famous examples. “Beautiful Beulah” Annan confessed to shooting her lover when he threatened to leave her. Double divorcée Belva Gaertner allegedly shot her married lover while both were drunk. Chicago Tribune police reporter Maurine Watkins seemed to be the only writer convinced they were guilty, and crusaded against them in the newspaper’s pages.
Previously, Perry co-authored The Sixteenth Minute, a look at what happens to people after their 15 minutes of fame are up. In this novelistic non-fiction book, he steps back to explore how the media creates celebrities, and the public’s perverse fascination with lurid news. One of the book’s most poignant and disturbing stories is that of Wanda Stopa, a young lawyer who murdered a man while trying to kill her lover’s wife. When she committed suicide soon after, her viewing and funeral became a spectacle, with police having to disperse thousands of people. Mobs swarmed around the pallbearers, and strangers stole roses from a wreath as mementoes.
Perry uses a combination of excerpts from newspapers, police records, and other research to spin the tales of the manipulative murderesses, presenting the setting and characters of Prohibition Chicago in straightforward style. The book’s main problem is that it drags on after his best material runs out. It feels like it should end with its stars’ acquittal, but instead, it lingers, describing how Watkins wrote Chicago, transforming Beulah and Belva into Roxie Hart and Velma. While the gushing newspaper quotes about the criminals’ beauty and assumed innocence were an excellent way to show the biases at work, using the same method to share how reviewers loved Watkins’ play makes for dull reading. In a book about a thrill-seeking era, the long denouement is a letdown.