Thursday, April 24, 1924
The most beautiful women in the city were murderers.
The radio said so. The newspapers, when they arrived, would surely say worse. Beulah Annan peered through the bars of cell 657 in the women’s quarters of the Cook County Jail. She liked being called beautiful for the entire city to hear. She’d greedily consumed every word said and written about her, cut out and saved the best pictures. She took pride in the coverage.
But that was when she was the undisputed “prettiest murderess” in all of Cook County. Now everything had changed. She knew that today, for almost the first time since her arrest almost three weeks ago, there wouldn’t be a picture of her in any of the newspapers. There was a new girl gunner on the scene, a gorgeous Polish girl named Wanda Stopa.
Depressed, Beulah chanced getting undressed. It was the middle of the day, but the stiff prison uniform made her skin itch, and the reporters weren’t going to come for interviews now. They were all out chasing the new girl. Beulah sat on her bunk and listened. The cellblock was quiet, stagnant. On a normal day, the rest of the inmates would have gone to the recreation room after lunch to sing hymns. Beulah never joined them; she preferred to retreat to a solitary spot with the jail radio, which she’d claimed as her own. She listened to fox-trots. She liked to do as she pleased.
It was Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish” woman on the block, who had begun the daily hymn-singing ritual. That was back in March, the day after she staggered into jail, dead-eyed and elephant-tongued, too drunk—or so she claimed—to remember shooting her boyfriend in the head. None of the girls could fathom that stumblebum Belva now. On the bloody night of her arrival, it had taken the society divorcée only a few hours of sleep to regain her composure. The next day, she sat sidesaddle against the cell wall, one leg slung imperiously over the other, heavy-lidded eyes offering a strange, exuberant glint. Reporters crowded in on her, eager to hear what she had to say. This was the woman who, at her divorce trial four years before, had publicly admitted to using a horsewhip on her wealthy elderly husband during lovemaking. Had she hoped to make herself a widow before he could divorce her? Now you had to wonder.
“I’m feeling very well,” Belva told the reporters. “Naturally I should prefer to receive you all in my own apartment; jails are such horrid places. But”—she looked around and emitted a small laugh—“one must make the best of such things.”
And so one did. Belva’s rehabilitation began right there, and it continued unabated to this day. Faith would see her through this ordeal, she told any reporter who passed by her cell. This terrible, unfortunate experience made her appreciate all the more the life she once had with her wonderful ex-husband—solid, reliable William Gaertner, the millionaire scientist and businessman who had provided her with lawyers and was determined to marry her again, despite her newly proven skill with a revolver. He believed Belva had changed.
Maybe she had, but either way, she was still quite different from the other girls at the jail. She came from better stock and made sure they all knew it. Even an inmate as ferocious as Katherine Malm—the “Wolf Woman”—deferred to Belva. Class was a powerful thing; it triggered an instinctive obeisance from women accustomed to coming through the service entrance—or, in this lot’s case, through the smashed-in window. Belva, it seemed, had just the right measure of contempt in her face to cow anybody, including unrepentant murderesses. She was not beautiful like perfect, young Beulah Annan. Her face was a sad, ill-conceived thing, all the features slightly out of proper proportion. But arrogant eyes shined out from it, and there was that full, passionate mouth, a mouth that could inspire a reckless hunger in the most happily married man. She’d proved that many times over. When Belva woke from her blackout on the morning of March 12, new to the jail, still wearing her blood-spattered slip, she’d wanly asked for food. The Wolf Woman, supposedly the tough girl of the women’s quarters, hurried to bring her a currant bun.
“Here, Mrs. Gaertner,” she’d said with a welcoming smile, eyes crinkled in understanding, “eat this and pretend it’s chicken. . . . It makes it easy to swallow.” With that, Katherine Malm set the tone. By the end of the week, the other girls were vying for the privilege of making Belva’s bed and washing her clothes.
To her credit, Belva adapted easily to her new surroundings. The lack of privacy didn’t seem to bother her. The women’s section of the jail, an L-shaped nook on the fourth floor of a massive, rotting, rat-infested facility downtown, was crowded even before her arrival, and not just because of the presence of Mrs. Anna Piculine. “Big Anna,” the press said, was the largest woman ever jailed on a murder charge. She’d killed her husband when he said he’d prefer a slimmer woman. Then there was Mrs. Elizabeth Unkafer, charged with murdering her lover after her cuckolded husband collapsed in grief at learning of her infidelity. And Mary Wezenak—“Moonshine Mary”—the first woman to be tried in Cook County for selling poisonous whiskey. Nearly a dozen others also bunked on what was now being called “Murderess’ Row,” and more were sure to come. Women in the city seemed to have gone mad. They’d become dangerous, especially to their husbands and boyfriends. After the police had trundled Beulah into jail, the director of the Chicago Crime Commission felt compelled to publicly dismiss the recent rash of killings by women. The ladies of Cook County, he said, were “just bunching their hits at this time.” He insisted there was nothing to worry about.
The newspapers certainly weren’t worried; they celebrated the crowded conditions on Murderess’ Row. Everyone in the city wanted to read about the fairest killers in the land. These women embodied the city’s wild, rebellious side, a side that appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming everything else. Chicago in the spring of 1924 was something new, a city for the future. It thrived like nowhere else. Evidence of the postwar depression of 1920–21 couldn’t be found anywhere. The city pulsed with industrial development. Factories operated twenty-four hours a day. Empty lots turned into whole neighborhoods almost overnight. Motor cars were so plentiful that Michigan Avenue traffic backed up daily more than half a mile to the Chicago River. And yet this exciting, prosperous city terrified many observers. Chicago took its cultural obsessions to extremes, from jazz to politics to architecture. Most of all, in the midst of Prohibition, the city reveled in its contempt for the law. The newly elected reform mayor, witnessing a mobster funeral attended by thousands of fascinated citizens, would exclaim later that year: “I am staggered by this state of affairs. Are we living by the code of the Dark Ages or is Chicago part of an American Commonwealth?”
It truly was difficult to tell. Gangsterism, celebrity, sex, art, music—anything dodgy or gauche or modern boomed in the city. That included feminism. Women in Chicago experienced unmatched freedoms, not won gradually—as was the case for the suffragettes—but achieved in short order, on the sly. Respectable saloons before Prohibition didn’t admit women; speakeasies welcomed them. Skirts appeared to be higher here than anywhere else. Even Oak Park high school girls brazenly petted with boys, forcing the wealthy suburb’s police superintendent to threaten to arrest the parents of “baby vamps.” Religious leaders—and newspapers—drew a connection between the new freedoms and the increasing numbers of inmates in Cook County Jail’s women’s section.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry
Copyright © 2010 by Douglas Perry