‘Chicago’: The Real Women of “Murderess Row” and the Woman Who Told Their Story

IMG_4690_Dylis Croman as Roxie Hart Credit Jeremy Daniel
Part of the appeal of Chicago – the longest-running American musical in Broadway history – is that although the events unfolding on stage occurred almost 100 years ago, they feel current. Audiences feel as if they’re watching an episode of Law & Order, with sensational characters, gripping plotlines, and crimes ripped from the headlines.

That’s because they were.

In 1924, 28-year-old Maurine Dallas Watkins arrived in Chicago, a city quickly becoming a mecca for crime, liquor, and jazz. Watkins was an aspiring writer and playwright from Harvard University, and news writing was recommended as a way for writers to hone their craft and gain exposure to a broad range of human experiences.

Watkins hit the gold mine at The Chicago Tribune, where she was assigned the Cook County Jail’s infamous “Murderess Row,” a beat editors thought too boring for men reporters. It was on Murderess Row that Watkins met, covered, and was ultimately troubled by Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, women she would later immortalize as
Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart.

If Chicago were a person, she’d be Belva Gaertner.

A cabaret singer and society divorcee, Belva Gaertner climbed her way into high society. Between divorces from William Gaertner, a man 20 years her senior, she was
arrested in March 1924 at the age of 40 for the murder of her 30-year-old lover.

Walter Law was found shot dead in his car after a night on the town with Gaertner. Found in her apartment with bloodstained clothes and admitting she found Law dead, Gaertner was arrested. Her best defense was that she didn’t remember what happened. Blaming it on jazz and drink, she played the card of the fallen woman. She used class, charm, and high fashion to turn her image around, and the press and all-male jury ate it up.

Gaertner was acquitted after almost four months on Murderess Row. After her trial, she again married William Gaertner. They separated a year later (after he accused her
of trying to kill him), and she lived out her life traveling and living with her sister before dying at the age of 80.

Famous for being famous.

If Gaertner was the classiest murderess in Chicago, Beulah Annan was the prettiest. Annan was 25 years old and married to her second husband when she was arrested in April 1924 for the murder of her lover and boss, Harry Kalstedt.

For a little under two months, Annan, who was born in nearby Owensboro, KY, used her Southern charms to manipulate those involved in the case. Every interview and picture was an opportunity to play out her sob story in the public eye. She even faked a pregnancy to gain sympathy. Despite being found with the body and confessing immediately afterwards, Annan altered her story several times and ultimately settled on a story of self-defense. After a celebrity circus with “sold-out” courtroom seating, Annan was acquitted on May 24, 1924.

Afterwards, Annan turned her divorce from her husband, who stood by her the entire trial, into a photo op. However, her chances at fame were cut short. She died at the age of 29 of tuberculosis.

Watkins’ coverage of these trials and those of several other women on Murderess Row were widely read. The Chicago Tribune was one of several competing newspapers that
covered the Cook County Jail. Others took a sentimental approach, but Watkins’ reporting was both sensational and satirical. It was clear from Watkins’ coverage that she believed many of the women were guilty and they had gamed the system.

American comedy is born.

After only seven months in Chicago, Watkins moved to Yale University to finish her academic career. She channeled all her cynicism and disenchantment into a play titled The Brave Little Women. The play was ultimately performed – to rave reviews – under the name Chicago. Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were born. Annan’s lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W.W. O’Brien, merged into the smooth-talking lawyer, Billy Flynn.

Chicago opened on Broadway in 1926 and toured for two years. It was made into a silent movie in 1927, and in 1942 it became a movie called Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers. Bob Fosse sought the rights to the play but Watkins refused. After her death in 1969, Fosse bought the rights from her estate and worked with John Kander and Fred Ebb
to create Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville, opening on Broadway in 1975. The 1996 revival of Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history, and second longest-running musical of all time (The Phantom of the Opera holds first place).

Watkins’ story was a true original and what some say exemplified a new American style of comedy. Shocking, hilarious, and exploitative, Chicago remains, almost 100 years later, a uniquely American story of celebrity, satire, and cynicism.

Chicago runs March 20-25, 2018 at the Aronoff Center as part of the 17/18 Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati season presented by TriHealth.  Tickets and information

This article is written by Rebecca Price, a museum and marketing professional with a passion for women’s history. She has been working in the field for over a decade at museums, historic homes, and national associations. She holds an M.A. in Museums Studies/Art History from George Washington University and is also the Director of Membership Development, Marketing, and Communications for the American Association for State and Local History. Her website is ChickHistory.com.

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