Elevate Difference

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago

During the 1920s, a rash of killings rocked Chicago. The murderers were young women who drank, and most killed their lovers. Most were white and all-male juries that refused to believe women were capable of cold-blooded murder released most of them. During this time, the crimes were reported in the newspapers by “sob sisters,” female reporters who were able to interview female inmates and victim’s family members.

The Girls of Murder City is about this period in time, two killers in particular, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, and a female reporter, Maurine Watkins. Beulah and Belva both killed their lovers after the men threatened to leave them. Both were beautiful, rich, white, and relatively young. The newspapers gave both women a chance to be famous, and both used it to their advantage.

Maurine Watkins was a hardworking, pious Christian who came to Chicago with the plan to use her column to show the evils of the world. Her sarcastic, strong-willed writing was often the only counterpoint to the sob sisters’ tales of woe in the papers. She would eventually use her stories to write the play Chicago, which would become the long-running musical.

The book tells an interesting story about the rise of the “girl gunners” and the creation of Chicago. The problem is that the story feels a bit unfocused. Maurine is not the main focus of the book, but neither are Belva and Beulah (or Chicago characters Velma and Roxie, if you will). The book explores their cases and delves into the lives of the other women in jail with them, but then switches to focus on Maurine. As a result, the story feels a bit shallow. I wanted more from both of the stories. Other narratives, like the story of the murder of Bobby Franks by teenaged killers Leopold and Loeb, are shoehorned into the story and feel tacked on.

Most importantly, the book is very poorly cited. For a while, I did not know if I was reading a non-fiction book or a “non-fiction” fiction book like In Cold Blood. Douglas Perry included details he seemingly could not know unless he had been there. There is an extensive note section in the back of the back of the book, but without explanation as to where each note belonged, reading them was slow going. More confusingly, there are footnotes in the book, but not to the main facts. They function more as author asides. Actual footnotes would have made the book much better, and given it much more authority.

I enjoyed The Girls of Murder City, but it could have been much better.

Written by: Taylor Rhodes, April 12th 2011