Interviewed by Claire Doty
Claire Doty: What made you interested in the history of these particular women?
Douglas Perry: I saw the musical Chicago on Broadway and enjoyed it immensely. Not only was it hugely entertaining, [but] it also struck me as insightful, clever and topical. The best work Kander and Ebb ever did, in my view. The playbill mentioned in passing that Maurine Watkins, the author of the original play on which the musical was based, had been inspired by actual murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. This intrigued me, and I went looking for books, articles, essays—anything that had been written about the play’s source material. But I was surprised to find there was very little information available about the events that inspired the play and musical.
CD: Where did you start your research?
DP: I started in the Chicago Public Library, where I spent days going through its newspaper archives. There were half a dozen daily newspapers in 1920s Chicago, and newspaper coverage was a lot different—and far more entertaining—than it is now. Reporters routinely impersonated police officers to get information. They broke into and ransacked the homes of murder victims in search of diaries and photographs. Crime reporters at this time could walk freely through police stations and jails at all hours. They sat in on and participated in police interrogations. They investigated crimes themselves, trying to stay a step ahead of homicide detectives. Reporters hung out at the Cook County Jail and interviewed “the girls of Murderesses’ Row” at length, over and over, without the women’s attorneys present. While it was, in some ways, a more brutal time, it was also a more naïve time. These women who were facing murder trials were often remarkably candid when talking to reporters.
The newspapers, of course, were only the beginning. I delved into government records, where I unearthed a lot of valuable information. Belva Gaertner’s divorce records, for example, proved to be a treasure trove. The documents walked me through her life almost year by year from about 1917 to about 1926. They included long interviews with Belva and her husband, and detailed reports from private investigators. One of the great things about historical research is that you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start looking. These divorce records were in Cook County’s archives, sitting untouched in a dusty box for 80 years. No one knew they were there. They hadn’t been digitized and put online, and they probably never will be. Such records aren’t about celebrities or world leaders, and they’re mostly commonplace documents, so they are a very low priority for archivists. But there are some fantastic stories there. Having gotten started, I began tracking down and reaching out to descendants and others who knew (or knew about) those involved in the events. One thing kept leading to another.
CD: What inspired you to write about Chicago's crime history?
DP: I moved to Chicago right after college and lived there for most of the 1990s. I instantly fell in love with the city. Chicago is always changing, evolving, reaching out to the future—but its history remains front and center. You can walk through the neighborhood where Maurine Watkins lived in 1924 and still get a fair sense of what it was like then. The building where Eliot Ness and the Untouchables worked looks—on the outside—almost exactly the same today as it did 80 years ago, though it’s been converted to residences. It’s not far from Columbia College, of course. I used to live just blocks from the Biograph Theatre, where John Dillinger met his end. My favorite used bookshop—now gone, sadly—was two doors down from the theater. I learned the city during my first year in Chicago by spending my weekends riding the El, getting off at random stops and walking around. If you keep your eyes open, the city’s whole history is right there for you.
CD: What intrigues you about Chicago?
DP: It’s the all-American city, by turns beautiful and terrifying. There’s just an excitement about Chicago, and it’s something very different from what New York offers. “Stormy, husky, brawling,” as Carl Sandburg wrote. It’s the most interesting city in the country.
CD: How would you categorize your book?
DP: The Girls of Murder City is history, but I like to think it’s more than that. It’s about unique events that took place in 1924, but like the musical Chicago, it speaks loudly and clearly to today’s celebrity culture. It’s also. . .funny. It showcases how there’s really no such thing as normal. We all want to fit in—and we’re in a conformist era right now—but people are odd, and strange things happen. Thank God for odd people and strange happenings.
CD: In crime and gangster history, especially in Chicago, the focus is always on men. Do you think there is almost more respect for men who engaged in crime rings in the 20th century than there is for women?
DP: Chicago’s famous gangster era was a man’s world, there’s no way around it. The early twentieth century was a time of social upheaval and transformation. Women were gaining new freedoms, and this inevitably had a dark side. But of course a lot of people still had 19th-century attitudes, and so they had a very difficult time coming to terms with the very idea of women committing crimes. Violence was widely considered an unnatural act for a woman. When it happened, there had to be extenuating circumstances: the woman had been abused by a man or tricked by a man, or—ye Gods!—was in love with a man and so had lost her mind. A woman who killed surely had been overwhelmed by alcohol or feminine emotions, or both, and so she was not responsible. Cook County juries were all male, and so women—especially good-looking women—were almost always acquitted, no matter how much evidence there was.
CD: What is your opinion on the glamorization of certain crimes?
DP: I’m not in favor of glamorizing crime. While researching the book, I found Belva and Beulah to be endlessly fascinating. And my heart broke for Wanda Stopa, the pioneering “girl lawyer” who ended up killing a man. She was even bigger news than Beulah and Belva. The newspapers called the public’s appetite for her story “the Wanda sensation.” But I tended to relate to Maurine Watkins, who was appalled that women murderers were being treated like celebrities. It infuriated her that Beulah and Belva were using their gender and sex appeal to manipulate the justice system. She did everything she could to help secure convictions for them.
CD: What did you want readers to take away from your book?
DP: The march of technology increasingly makes earlier generations seem very strange and distant to us, but people haven’t changed much down through human history. Our motivations are the same generation after generation, and so there is much we can learn by studying the past, the “small” events and people as well as the big ones. And in this era of 24/7 entertainment and 400 scripted TV series, I would like readers to realize that truth really is stranger than fiction. At book events, I heard over and over from readers that they had no idea Chicago was based on real events. They would say: These beautiful, murderous, in-your-face women—how could their stories be true? But if you study history, you know the real question is—how could they not be?
To learn more about Perry's writing visit his website.