Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

1st January 2014

pg1*I purchased this book.

The subtitle of Douglas Perry’s The Girls of Murder City tells it all: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago. Though I’ve long loved the music of Chicago (my mother is especially – and disturbingly – fond of the line, He ran into my knife ten times!), I never realized it was based on the true story of a spate of murders in Chicago in the early 20s. 

In 1924, the Cook County Jail was full of women killers. Perry briefly discusses the phenomenon, citing the new found freedom of women in Chicago in the Jazz Age as a possible reason for the higher female crime rate. If you were pretty, you got off. If you weren’t, or worse, were a foreigner, then the jury was a bit harsher. Disturbed by the indulgent treatment of these female killers in the media, young journalist Maurine Watkins decided to lend her hand to the court of public opinion. With all-men juries showing leniency to the attractive inmates, Chicago’s female inmates began to learn a nice dress and a new hairdo worked wonders for their trials, and Maurine was determined to document the ridiculousness of it all.

Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan were the worst offenders in Maurine’s opinion – both having killed lovers without much remorse. But even though both women were accused of lewd behavior and illegal drinking, they became the darlings of the Chicago papers and later, the juries. Anxious to attempt redress for the injustice, Maurine writes her play, Chicago, what New York Times reporter Brooks Atkinson said was “a satirical comedy on the administration of justice through the fetid channels of newspaper publicity – of photographers, ‘sob sisters,’ feature stunts, standardized prevarication and generalized vulgarity.”*

Though the end of the book drops off a bit as it discusses Maurine’s subsequent failures as a writer, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating – and sometimes amusing – look at a true phenomenon of Chicago in the Jazz Age. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in feminism, true crime, the musical Chicago, and more specifically, as a great intro to someone looking to read more nonfiction.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

*This is a nice reminder that the “good old days” of journalism never really existed…

  • JulzReads

    Ah, I bought this book for my dad for Christmas and paired it with a bottle of Absolut Chicago!

    • That is PERFECT!

  • I remember seeing somewhere that Chicago was based on a true story, but I didn’t know the specifics. This does sound interesting!

    • I had no clue, but it’s amazing how similar the play and the true story are.

  • I had no idea that Chicago was based on true events, either. I definitely want to read this now.

    (And I agree with your mom–that is a fantastic line and always makes me laugh.)

    • It is a fantastic line. Cell Block Tango is just such a great song, and I loved learning the truth behind the play. So cool.

  • Farah Ng

    Hi Jenn! Happy New Years! I had no idea that Chicago was based on a true story. That’s crazy and fantastic. I’m always looking for non-fiction page-turners. Thanks for sharing.

    • Happy New Year to you! And I had no clue either. I love finding out tidbits like that.

  • iliana

    I’m usually not a fan of true crime but this sounds very interesting. Hope you had a wonderful holiday season!

    • pickygirl

      I did! I hope you did too.

      And I’m beginning to like more and more true crime. So interesting.

    • I did! I hope you did too.

      And I like more and more true crime. This one was particularly interesting.