Part of the appeal of Chicago – the longest-running American musical in Broadway history – is that although the events unfolding on stage occurred almost 100 years ago, they feel current. Audiences feel as if they’re watching an episode of Law & Order, with sensational characters, gripping plotlines, and crimes ripped from the headlines.
That’s because they were.
In 1924, 28-year-old Maurine Dallas Watkins arrived in Chicago, a city quickly becoming a mecca for crime, liquor, and jazz. Watkins was an aspiring writer and playwright from Harvard University, and news writing was recommended as a way for writers to hone their craft and gain exposure to a broad range of human experiences.
Watkins hit the gold mine at The Chicago Tribune, where she was assigned the Cook County Jail’s infamous “Murderess Row,” a beat editors thought too boring for men reporters. It was on Murderess Row that Watkins met, covered, and was ultimately troubled by Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan, women she would later immortalize as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart.