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

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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.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published August 5, 2010

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About the author

Douglas Perry

11 books48 followers
Doug is the author of "Eliot Ness: The Rise and Fall of an American Hero" and "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago."

An award-winning writer and editor, his work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Oregonian, Tennis, and many other publications.

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5 stars
877 (18%)
4 stars
1,837 (38%)
3 stars
1,564 (32%)
2 stars
380 (8%)
1 star
86 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 547 reviews
March 8, 2020
Actual rating: 2.5 stars.

This book could have been Slightly Very Interesting Indeed (SVII™). It is, after all, supposed to be about a delightful bunch of somewhat homicidal (and ofttimes boozed out as fish) damsels in no bloody shrimping distress. Who kind of murdered lovers and husbands left and right in 1920s Chicago. And quite wonderfully managed to get away with their crimes because being young and pretty and stylish in the wonderful age of all-male juries was guaranteed to get them a Get Out of Jail Free card. (Being a poor, unattractive, non-English speaking immigrant—or an African American—was sure to get your not-so-lovely derriere convicted for all eternity and beyond, though. Such lovely times these were.) Now that’s what I call Most Yummilicious Potential (MYP™)! And MYP™ tends to make me feel a teensy little bit like this:

It may not look like it but this is actually a celebratory dance. Just so you know.

Anyhoo and stuff, imagine all the Quite Fascinating Stuff (QFS™) the author could have explored here! He could have investigated why there were so many murderesses in Chicago at that particular time in history. He could have examined their personalities and motivations. He could have questioned how unethically close some reporters were to the jazzy jailbirds, and how full of sensationalist crap most of their articles were. He could have analyzed the impact of all-male juries on the American justice system. But he didn’t, so he didn’t.

See, even the best all-male jury in the history of all-male juries is discombobulated as fish over this.

So. What did the author do, you ask? Well, he…

Fictionalized the shrimp out of this supposedly nonfiction book. So much so that most of parts of it read like passages from a trashy romance novel, and not factual accounts of real events. Therefore killing deadly dead any impact (or appeal) the book might have had. Not to mention that the author spends way too much time focusing on Totally Superfluous Details of the Most Dubious Veracity (TSDotMDV™), while completely leaving out essential information and facts that needed explaining.

Generously sprinkled his work with news article excerpts. And, doing so, kinda sorta shot himself in the foot pincer, since said excerpts tend to be more interesting than the book itself. And reveal a lot bloody shrimping more about 1920s Chicago than the author ever does.

Shifted the focus of his book to Maurine Dallas Watkins (the reporter who wrote the original play on which the Broadway musical Chicago was based) faster than it takes to say “Fleet Admiral DaShrimp, unleash the crustaceans!” Which wouldn’t have been a problem if this had been Dallas Watkins’ biography. But it’s not, so it is.

Spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the Leopold and Loeb trial. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if this book had been about white, privileged college students who kill teenagers as a hobby. But it’s not, so it is.

So. What this all comes down to is, ① + ② + ③ + ④ =

Yeah, pretty much.

Nefarious Last Words (NLW™): pretty sure the author would be next on Belva’s, Beulah’s or any of their lovely fellow murderess’ hit list if they found out a lowly, despicably non-homicidal reporter had outrageously upstaged them in their own book. Quite revolting, that.

[Pre-review nonsense]

What to think about this book I do not know. Much better indeed it could have been. But not much crispily nefarious yumminess ultimately it offered. A little perplexed by this I am. And so are the deliciously murderous damsels this book is about, from what I hear.

Yes, this is what a slightly mystified deliciously murderous damsel looks like. You're welcome.

Review to come and stuff.
Profile Image for Josh.
1,649 reviews155 followers
September 3, 2018
The Girls of Murder City provides an interesting insight into the prohibition era murderesses who painted Chicago red with their wares and bullets throughout the 1920's; leaving blushed faces on the living and blood spatter on the dead.

Douglas Perry's true crime account of the real-life characters who inspired the Chicago musical is as entertaining as it is head-shake-inducing at the ludicrous laws which walked these dangerous dames.

Primarily centered around Chicago crime reporter Maurine Watkins, 'the prettiest woman ever charged with murder in Chicago' Beulah Annan, and 'queen of Chicago's cabarets..Cook County's most stylish murderess' Belva Gaetner, The Girls of Murder City chronicles a time where a murderess, if pretty could avoid conviction, shining a spotlight on the farce that was the justice system in the age of bootleggers, mobsters, and frustrated reporters (there were 6 daily newspapers in Chicago during this time).

The vast majority of the book is loaded with interesting factoids about the inhabitants of 'murderess row' while the later stages focus on the play Chicago developed by Maurine Watkins and her subsequent years away from Second City which I didn't find as interesting.

My rating: 4/5 stars. The Girls of Murder City is a book which can be read in isolation from the musical, Chicago. If you're looking for something a little different to the mobster tales of prohibition Chicago but still want the grit that comes with that era, then this one is for you.
Profile Image for Ashley Marie .
1,299 reviews393 followers
March 16, 2020
Entertaining at first, but it devolved into pancake-land. The narration jumped around considerably and it's difficult to agree with the subtitle ("Beautiful Killers") when the book seems to focus more on the female reporter, Maurine Dallas Watkins - yes, she's the one who wrote the original 1926 play that the musical was based on, but don't lie to me and tell me the book is about the murderesses when it's about the reporter instead. The inclusion of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial later in the book felt very out of place. The basis for the musical Chicago is very clear, but the author's style of writing lends itself more to the feel of a novel than a work of nonfiction.
Profile Image for ambyr.
907 reviews79 followers
February 5, 2018
Sometimes, you need to stop and ask yourself: Do I actually want to be a historian, or am I instead a frustrated romance writer? Around the moment that you pen the sentence "Maybe he would take her now, right here on the couch. Yank her underthings off and split her open, with the breeze from the window rolling over them" is probably one of those times.

I wanted, as promised in the jacket blurb, a "crackling social history," something that would set in historical perspective the tumultuous events on which Chicago was based. Instead I got a summary of contemporary newspaper articles peppered with entirely too many unsupported suppositions of what people thought and felt and entirely too little broader context of how Chicago came to be a murder capital of the world and what shifting social forces tugged on the people of the period.

In conclusion: I should probably stick to reading histories by historians.
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews111 followers
January 26, 2022
Wow! I love the movie/musical Chicago but had no idea it was based on real events that happened in the mid-1920's and were originally captured in a play by crime reporter Maurine Watkins working for the Chicago Tribune. She was enamored by the number of women who had likely murdered husbands or boyfriends and were acquitted by all male jurors primarily, in her opinion, because of their looks combined with slick lawyers and a willing press. She seemed to be among the few who saw and understood what they were able to get away with and wrote the play to satirize what happened. It became very popular on Broadway and also with approving crowds in Chicago where some people attended who saw themselves represented on stage. It was then made into a silent movie by Cecil B. DeMille, revived on stage and screen again, getting further away from Maurine's original intent. It was more recently revived successfully on stage as a musical by Bob Fosse and then the popular film in 2002 both of which returned to the original theme as written by Maurine. Highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of the movie, Chicago, the 1920's, etc.
Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,106 reviews748 followers
August 6, 2016
This book is nonfiction history that reports on a time in 1924-25 Chicago when the mutually reinforced interplay between news about several alleged murderesses and intense competition among the local newspapers combined to fire up public interest to an absurdly passionate level. The book then finishes the story by following Maurine Watkins, a reporter at the trials, as she goes on to write a satirical comic drama based on what she had witnessed. Her stage play was performed on Broadway and had a long and successful run. This same drama was many years later (after Watkins' death) adapted into the musical Chicago and then into a 2002 movie of the same name that won six of its twelve Oscar nominations.

I was surprised that a book with such a colorful subtitle could be nonfiction. The narration within the book is equally colorful which is surprising given that it's nonfiction. Then it dawned on me what the author was doing. He was repeating some of the colorful writing that was published in the Chicago newspapers at the time. They were reporting on the story of an unusually large number of women who had been charged with murdering men. An important part of the story was how physically attractive these women were.

In those days only men served on juries, and there was a long running tradition in Chicago of male juries refusing to convict women for murder if they were pretty. I might also add that juries were willing to convict females if they were negroes or immigrants that couldn’t speak English. But the women in the news at the time were white and pretty, and everybody was in suspense as to whether the juries would be willing to convict them. I’ll let you read the book to find out how the trials ended.

The media event of the trials for the women was somewhat diminished in their later stages when news of the sensational murder of Bobby Franks and the subsequent trial defense of Leopold and Loeb by Clarence Darrow.

This book provides a glimpse into the justice system, journalism and social conditions of the 1920s era in Chicago which were generally worse then than now. However, I must add that journalism was in its heyday at that time. So in terms of importance, newspapers are now ghosts of their former selves.

This book is very well written and utilizes carefully structured timing in its presentation to the reader. It probably deserves five stars based on its writing. But I’m giving it three stars because I’m sort of embarrassed to have read a book with such a salacious title and subtitle.
Profile Image for Amy.
2,628 reviews414 followers
March 17, 2017
A fascinating look at the women killers, journalists, and even (to a slight extent) lawyers of prohibition Chicago. At the end, the author focuses on the creation of the musical "Chicago." Similar to something Erik Larson would write but more holistically interesting. I particularly enjoyed the description and feel of the courtroom. The author uses the engaging language of the newspapers of the time to describe the murderesses and their crimes and it spices up the story.
Definitely one of those books that makes you want to learn more about the subject.
Profile Image for Natalie.
358 reviews7 followers
May 16, 2014
Just okay for me. This book was just missing something. It was part biography of the playwright and part historical Chicago crime chronicle, but couldn't decide which it wanted to be. Perry knew he could get more money out of using the identifiable play as a headline to draw readers in, but his coverage of those stories and the trials wasn't all that interesting. Then he talked about the Leopold and Loeb case as well as a couple of other stories that weren't really part of the main story but which were included because the playwright covered those stories in her reporter days. Though I found these other stories somewhat interesting, it didn't all tie together well and his coverage of them left a bit to be desired in terms of thoroughness. Some of the factual tidbits were interesting but mostly, I was a bit bored and felt it could have been better.
Profile Image for Abby.
850 reviews141 followers
January 17, 2019
I adore Chicago. I've seen the show on Broadway and listen to the cast album on repeat. So of course I wanted to read about the true story that inspired the musical. 1920's Chicago was a pretty corrupt place with an extremely high crime rate. And this crime was sensationalized by the press. Beautiful women consistently got away with it because the all-male juries were entranced with them. Roxie and Velma are real-life murderesses Beulah and Belva. Honestly, I was surprised at how similar the musical was to the events. I thought it'd be way different, but that wasn't the case. But then you find out the woman who wrote it was the investigative reporter who wrote about their cases in the Chicago Tribune. Pretty interesting stuff.
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,480 reviews104 followers
February 6, 2011
This book is a story within a story.......the tale of women who killed their husbands/lovers and the reporter who covered the trials and turned them into the hit play "Chicago".

Murder in Chicago in the 1920s was a daily occurrence but what captured the public's interest for a short period in between gang killings were the "beautiful killers", women who killed and consistently were acquitted. Beauty trumping guilt. The novice reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Maurene Watkins is assigned to the trials and her attitude to the accused was not one of forgiveness. Her satirical reporting gained her a modicum of fame and it led to the writing of her play which was a hit on Broadway and film.

An interesting book, well written, and providing some insight into a facet of Chicago crime that is overlooked due to the focus on bootlegging, gang killings, and Al Capone. Recommended for the mystery/history lover.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,858 reviews1,356 followers
October 19, 2021
Somehow both bland and trashy at the same time. Douglas Perry's The Girls of Murder City focuses on the brief period in 1920s Chicago when a number of women who had almost certainly murdered their husbands or boyfriends were not only acquitted of their crimes but became minor local celebrities—a phenomenon which ultimately inspired the play and later the musical Chicago.

But while the marketing for this book promised a gripping social history, this is really a fairly shallow recounting of the events (Perry mentions in passing that African American women in similar circumstances were treated very differently, but foregoes the opportunity to trace one of their stories and so look with a clearer eye at how whiteness played a role in the construction of the "Beautiful Killers") with some truly awful prose ("Maybe he would take her now, right here on the couch. Yank her underthings off and split her open, with the breeze from the window rolling over them"? Ugh). Forgettable.
Profile Image for Paul Pessolano.
1,348 reviews39 followers
February 19, 2011
The minute I finished this book I ran downstairs and put my DVD of the musical "Chicago" in and found new meaning and enjoyment of it.

"The Girls of Murder City" is the true story of the beautiful killers who inspired the Academy Award winning musical "Chicago".

The story is told through the eyes of Maurine Watkins who reported their stories and wrote the play.

Chicago, at this time, had all male juries, and all male juries did not convict women, especially beautiful women.

The Cook County Jail had a "Murderess's Row" which housed the likes of:

Belva Gaertner - double divorcee - Cook Counties most stylish murderer.

Beulah Annan - the prettiest woman ever chared with murder in Chicago.

Kitty Malm - the Tiger Girl - convicted because she wasn't quite refined.

Sabella Nitti - the first woman ever sentenced to death in Cook County.

The author does a marvelous job of telling their stories but doesn't stop there. At the end of the book he informs us what happened to these ladies in later life.

The author also gives an account of the life of Maurine Watkins who found fabulous success with the play but was unable to continue that success.

A wonderful read that gives new meaning to the muscial "Chicago" and the reader will be amazed at how close the actual facts come to the production. Put this on your must read list.
Profile Image for Tara Chevrestt.
Author 27 books295 followers
August 1, 2010
In Chicago, 1924, illegal booze was all the rave, jazz music played into the wee hours of the night, and the number of killings committed by women had jumped 400 percent in the last forty years... And no, I'm not saying there is a connection. I can drink some wine and listen to some jazz tunes and I don't shoot my husband dead..

These women did tho... read the full review by clicking the link below.

Profile Image for Marti.
372 reviews11 followers
June 23, 2022
I didn't really realize the story behind the play (and later musical) Chicago was mostly true. The whole thing sounds implausible today, although there is still a tendency to believe that anytime a woman murders a man, he probably had it coming.

What is even more difficult to believe is that the author of the play, Maureen Watkins, a nineteen year-old girl with no journalism experience, wangled a job at the Chicago Tribune despite flubbing the interview due to shyness. What she did have was a stellar cover letter.

However, the editor gave her a job because she came off as a religious girl-next-door. It was believed she might get subjects to open up and reveal certain details of a story where the more hard-boiled types would fail. Shortly after being hired, she was assigned to the Cook County Jail to cover a colorful group of women murderers awaiting trial.

Unlike other female journalists, Watkins was not a "Sob Sister" (the term ascribed to a writer of the type of melodramatic tear jerker stories favored by the Hearst papers). Watkins wrote in a more satirical tone and advocated jail time or the death penalty (because it was rare for an all-male jury to sentence a woman to prison or "the chair," unless she was ugly).
3,442 reviews50 followers
October 3, 2020
3 1/2 stars. Very interesting. This is about the an almost unbelievable trend of women who got off on murder charges for decades in Chicago, particularly if you were beautiful and white (it didn't extend to African Americans). Two particular scandalous cases crossed the path of a woman reporter with a crusading mindset who was determined that these women should be convicted. It was a wild time in Chicago: the jazz age, changing women's role, prohibition, corruption and the violence of gangs and these strange but true stories inspired the play Chicago.

There's a little too much of the writer portraying what was going on in a person's mind without actual documentation of that moment and time but there was plenty of quotes in newspapers to probably get a fairly good idea of what might have been going through people's mind.
Profile Image for Christine (KizzieReads).
1,376 reviews93 followers
February 2, 2019
It was just alright. It got interesting in the middle when it talked of the trials of Beulah and Belva, but it was just bland for most of the book. It lacked something. At the beginning, it was almost like a history lesson on reporters and newpapers, by the end, it was adding any case that happened around the same time to prove that those cases weren't as flamboyant as the two woman's cases were. You also don't really get a history of the girls themselves. Just a few snippets of info, but that's it.
Profile Image for Amber.
1,054 reviews37 followers
March 17, 2019
I really enjoyed the whole aspect of the book. Set around the 1920's the deeper look and feelings of the court room was really interesting. The information on the real life murderesses and the information of the woman who went on to write Chicago very great. This is another book that while you're reading it you often feel like you are reading a novel, not something non-fiction.
Profile Image for BookishStitcher.
1,154 reviews44 followers
April 19, 2020
A fascinating look at the true story behind the play/musical Chicago. I really enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Melissa.
673 reviews155 followers
August 10, 2012
I’ve seen the 2002 film of the musical Chicago, I’ve seen the live stage performance, but I never realized just how much of the story was based on fact. Perry tells the nonfiction tale of the actual murderesses, the crimes they committed and the media frenzy that followed in their wake. I thought the book was fascinating because the true story is even more intriguing than the fictionalized stage version.

In 1924 there were a surprising number of murders committed by women in Chicago. Two of the most famous cases involved Beulah Annan and Bella Gaertner. Both women were arrested and tried for murder and both were acquitted. The two women inspired the characters of Roxie Hart (Beulah) and Velma Kelly (Belva) in the 1926 play Chicago (originally called “Brave Little Woman”).

The play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins. She covered both trials while working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She took a course at Yale on play writing and Chicago was the result. It didn’t become a musical until the 1970s. I did think it was fascinating that Beulah and Belva actually saw Chicago performed live!

The entire time I was reading the book I kept hearing all the songs from the musical in my head. When I read about the defense lawyer I heard “All I Care About” and during the descriptions of Beulah roping her husband into covering for a murder she committed “Funny Honey” was on repeat in my brain.

I related the most to the reporter Maureen. She was originally from Crawfordsville, IN, about 15 minutes from the city where I worked when I was first a reporter at a daily newspaper. I actually covered a few trials in Crawfordsville during that time.

Watkins also reported on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, which quickly overshadowed the coverage of the murderesses’ verdicts. It’s interesting how a piece of news can become a huge deal, or so easily be cast aside depending on what else has happened that day. Like celebrities dying on the same day, Michael Jackson’s death left no room for coverage of Farrah Fawcett’s and the same is true for other major events in history. If it had been a slow news day, the women’s acquittals might have been a huge deal, but instead they were barely noted while all eyes focused on the now infamous Leopold and Loeb case, which inspired the film Murder by Numbers and the play Never the Sinner.

So if you’re looking for a great nonfiction read in the same vein as The Devil in the White City or if you’ve ever been curious about the story behind Chicago, this one is for you.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,563 reviews101 followers
August 15, 2014
"Sure, I whipped my millionaire husband, but it was he who gave me the whip." --socialite murder suspect Belva Gaertner

"My God! What did they do?" --Katherine "Tiger Girl" Malm, on hearing of her murder conviction

"This is one time when my face was my fortune." --Chicago Tribune reporter Margery Currey, learning that the new no-women-in-the-newsroom ruling did not apply to her because she was so unattractive that her presence wasn't distracting

"No woman can love a man enough to kill him. There are always plenty more." --Gaertner again

"Oh, don't accuse me of such a thing. Murder is bad enough." --Murder suspect "Beautiful Beulah" Annan, scolding a reporter for misstating her age as 29 rather than 23

"Nice face--nice clothes--shoot man--go home." --Murder suspect Sabella Nitti, explaining that her limited English, immigrant status, and shabby clothes meant that jurors judged her more harshly than they did young, pretty women. (Illinois juries were all-male until 1939.)

"A pretty woman's never been convicted in Cook County." --Female inmate at Cook County Jail

"The verdict is in your hands, and you must decide whether you will permit a woman to commit a crime and let her go because she is good-looking. You must decide whether you want to let another pretty woman go out and say 'I got away with it!" --Assistant State's Attorney William McLaughlin addressing a jury

"There's no justice in Illinois!" --widow of a murdered man

"Things being what they are, I don't see why the state doesn't charge admission to trials and lighten the taxes." --Crime reporter Maurine Watkins

Interesting but uneven. This is really a biography of Maurine Watkins, a timid graduate student who became a crime reporter, covered the Leopold and Loeb story among many others, and wrote the hit play Chicago. But I guess the author couldn't sell the book as a biography, so it's packaged as a history of 1920s Chicago murderesses . . . which makes the Leopold and Loeb stuff out of place.

I didn't realize that WGN planned to broadcast the Leopold and Loeb trial on the radio, but public opinion forced them to back down. People felt that the trial would be so disgusting and upsetting that it shouldn't be broadcast, and it wasn't.

I really hope that none of the Kardashians reads this book. It would be a shame if they stopped divorcing and started shooting.
Profile Image for Heidi.
307 reviews23 followers
August 22, 2020
This came highly recommended by my friend Katherine Bruce, and although it took me some time to chase up a copy via the local library and then sit down and read it, I'm very glad I made the effort.

The book is about the real-life crimes and trials that were later turned into a play by Maurene Watkins, two different (not well-regarded) movies, and ultimately, the musical Chicago. It also looks at the wider context in Chicago (the city) of "murderesses" and the influence of the press and the ongoing press wars between various newspaper owners. The descriptions of Wanda Stopa's funeral kicked off some ponderings in my own head about celebrity and social media and crowd behaviour that I'll be musing about for some time.

There's very little about the musical itself here: a page or two in the epilogue at most. But if you know the musical well you can get a lot of insight by drawing your own lines between the real people and where they ended up on stage. That's not a criticism at all: it's an observation.

Honestly, my biggest criticism was something that no one could have done anything about: I just wish that the two main women had names that were more different. I found it difficult to distinguish between Beulah and Belva unless their surnames were attached (Annan and Gaertner, respectively), which meant a lot of flicking back and forward to work out from context which of the two women was the focus at any particular time.

Definitely recommended, especially if you're interested in that Chicago backstory.
Profile Image for George.
802 reviews85 followers
June 5, 2015

”Chicago was Bedlam: debauched, violent, unimaginable—and full of exciting opportunities”—page 29

The stories behind the stories that inspired the successful play, and award winning musical—stage and movie— Chicago, THE GIRLS OF MURDER CITY: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, by Douglas Perry; just keeps getting better and better.

Young, bright, (and a bit self-righteous) Maureen Watkins, wannabe playwright fresh from academia, lands a dream job as a police reporter for the prestigious Chicago Tribune and, over the next several months of 1924, covers some of the most incredible murders of prohibition-era Chicago. All true. All stranger than fiction. And all engaging reading.

Recommendation: Fans of the musical will love reading the backstories…

”Belva Gaertner, another of those women who messed things up by adding a gun to her fondness for gin and men, was acquitted last night at 12:10 o’clock of the murder of Walter Law. ‘So drunk she didn’t remember’ whether she shot the man found dead in her sedan at Forrestville avenue and 50th street March 12—”—page 223

NOOKbook edition, 317 pages
Profile Image for Kate.
135 reviews23 followers
October 18, 2018
I have a few gripes with this books. First, the author certainly took some creative liberties with history and actual people that I don't think were wholly appropriate. Second, the inclusion of male murderers doesn't really make much sense, given the title. It was contextual and historical, I guess, but it's a book about female murderers, so like, why?

That aside, this was a super entertaining read! I love the movie Chicago and I didn't know that the musical was based on a play that was based on real events! I also am fascinated by the 1920s as a decade of odd, transitional culture. The world was changing at a rapid pace and I loved learning more about how the people of that time dealt with that - even if it was the murderers, journalists, playwrights, and lawyers of the time.

This book is accessible for people who don't tend to read nonfiction (like myself) and pleasantly detached from the realities of today. It almost reads like fiction, though it is in no way presented like fiction. (I actually had to remind myself a few times that it was nonfiction because the story is so wild that it seems like it can't be true. And yet!)

I think ultimately this book is for people with some niche interests - true crime, women police reporters, the movie Chicago, the 1920s, etc. - but I think most people WOULD find this a fun, interesting dip into a piece of history most people really don't talk about.
Profile Image for May.
241 reviews10 followers
January 7, 2018
What a disappointing first book of the year.

This is an uninspired retelling that parrots the newspapers without context framing, except spending paragraphs upon paragraphs describing in fine detail just how beautiful or ugly every single woman mentioned was.

I think that the author was trying to forward a thesis that what the events boiled down to was that a beautiful woman can get away with anything, including murder. While this is honestly just a reiteration of the thesis in Chicago: the Musical, it seems interesting enough. Except that he also deemed it necessary to describe in fine detail how attractive or unattractive not only the murderesses were, but the newspaper women, and the wives, and literally every other female presence you could think of. Which was not only boring, but came off as incredibly pigheaded.

All in all, I don’t think this added anything to my previous knowledge that a cursory google search wouldn’t have, and it bored me. So do with that what you will, obviously, and maybe if you’re a huge fan of the musical you’ll enjoy it more than I did, but I really can’t think of anything redeemable about this book that, for literally being focused around “the girls of murder city,” so wildly misunderstood what it’s like to be a woman.
192 reviews1 follower
January 24, 2022
Another book I've had on my To Read list since 2013.. as a big fan of the musical, I was immediately intrigued by this, but also didn't really know what to expect. When I first learned of the musical back in grammar school, I had no idea it was based on real events.. and I certainly never would have guessed how closely it was based on real events and real people. The musical is so sensational and over-the-top, it doesn't even seem like it could be anything other than fiction. It was wild to me how many lines from the songs had been lifted directly out of witness statements, transcripts and newspaper articles. It is unfathomable that anything like this could have happened in real life.

It also was so striking to me how different the practice of law was back then. Seeing them ready to try a murder case in a few weeks was astounding. The fact that a front page murder trial could be wrapped up in under 2 days was something I would think is impossible. I also could not get over how blatantly the attorneys were suborning perjury as if it were nothing. Not only did it seem like nothing, but it seemed to be packaged as good lawyering.. and I guess it's easy to tell yourself that when your client gets acquitted.
Profile Image for Lauren Schnoebelen.
792 reviews4 followers
May 7, 2022

Chicago is known for many things especially its history of crime but only one part of that history was made into a famous Broadway musical. Depicting a time when women were not found guilty of murder in Cook County due to their looks, the Girls of Murder City tell the story of the women who inspired the musical. Explaining the sensation of the stories told in the newspapers and what happened in the jail cells while waiting for trial, this is the history of the unique history that started it all.

Growing up in Chicago I obviously knew the musical and even the history of murder and organized crime but not so much about the fact that the city was known at one point for never finding a beautiful woman guilty of murder. This really piqued my interest and I enjoyed learning more about the roles the newspapers played in swaying opinion in the trials. I will say though that the actual story behind the writer of the musical didn't really intrigue me which made me care less near the end of the book. Overall, I thought it was a unique bit of history that doesn't get talked about a lot and a fun fact I can bring up in the future.
Profile Image for Leigh.
38 reviews
March 13, 2018
This book was okay. I enjoyed hearing about the murderesses and the period details about Chicago in the early 20th century, but during the first half of the book I kept thinking, “I’d like to hear more about Maurine Watkins!” I googled to see if there’s a published biography about her—none that I could find. I found the young, female Chicago Tribune crime reporter in a male-dominated profession fascinating. Then the focus of the book shifted and Maurine came into the spotlight, and either she’s not as interesting as I thought, or the book just lost tension after the trials. Either way, I thought the second half dull and the point meandering. Great concluding line, though!
Profile Image for Jason Oliver.
265 reviews9 followers
November 24, 2022
In 1920's Chicago, there were a string of murderesses who were found not guilty by all male juries. This book is the true story of two women who killed their boyfriends and were tried shortly after the first female murder conviction in Chicago and a female report who covered their story. The reporter later went on to write the play "Chicago", based on the real-life events, and that play was later adapted into the 2002 musical "Chicago"

This book is a little all over the place. It is not very linear, but the story is still interesting enough. In my opinion, the reporter is the main character/focus of the book as well as her tongue in cheek social commentary of the time, but it's very hard to tell. The author is very repetitive especially when describing the women and their clothing.

I enjoyed the read enough but maybe it would have been better as a podcast?
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