The Real Women of “Murderess Row” and the Woman Who Told Their Story

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.

Belva Gaertner sitting at a table and looking at her defense attorney, Thomas D. Nash.  (c) Chicago History Museum.
Belva Gaertner sitting at a table and looking at her defense attorney, Thomas D. Nash.
(c) Chicago History Museum.

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.

Read my full article for SPOTlight, a weekly online magazine for the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s