On March 11, 1924, Belva Gaertner, a twice-divorced cabaret singer, shot and killed her lover Walter Law (a married man with one child). Law was found sprawled out dead in the front seat of Belva's car, a bottle of gin and a gun with three shots fired lying beside him: Belva, found at her apartment, with blood-soaked clothes on the floor, confessed that she was drunk, and had been driving with Law, but couldn't remember what happened. Maxine Watkins covered the story: Belva told her "No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren't worth it, because there are always plenty more. Walter was just a kid - 29 and I'm 38. Why should I have worried whether he loved me or whether he left me? Gin and guns - either one is bad enough, but together they get you in a dickens of a mess, don't they?" Belva Gaertner was defended by William Scott Stewart.
On April 3, 1924, in the bedroom she shared with her current husband, Beulah Sheriff Annan shot Harry Kalstedt in the back. She sat drinking cocktails and playing a fox trot record, Hula Lou, over and over for about two hours as she sat watching Kalstedt die, then called her husband to say she'd killed a man who "tried to make love" to her.
Beulah's story changed over time: first, claimed she shot Kalstedt in self-defense, fearing rape; later, she confessed to the murder. Then she claimed she had told Kalstedt she was leaving him, and that he reacted angrily and she shot him. Prosecutors surmised that Kalstedt had threatened to leave Beulah and she shot him in a jealous rage. Her final story, at trial, was that she had told Kalstedt she was pregnant, they struggled and...that's when they both reached for the gun.
Her husband Albert Annan stood by her, pulled his money out of the bank to get her the best lawyers, and stood by her throughout the trial. The day after the trial ended in acquittal, his wife announced, "I have left my husband. He is too slow." And she divorced him.
Here's how Watkins covered "Beautiful" Beulah's trial:
"I'm the only witness," Beulah boasted. "Harry's dead and they'll have to believe my story."Her case was taken up by mob lawyer William W. O'Brien, and Maurine Dallas Watkins was assigned to cover the trial.
But which one?
The confession she made to Assistant State's Attorney Roy C. Woods (with a court reporter present) in her apartment at 9 o'clock the night of the crime, when she said she shot Kalstedt, whom she barely knew, to save her honor as he approached her in attack?
Or the statement that she made at the Hyde Park police station (also with court reporters present) three hours later? Then she broke down and admitted that she shot him in the back.
One of the defense ploys was announcing during the trial that Beulah was pregnant: she was not.
Watkins' played up the "sob-sister" aspects of both cases and her coverage may well have played a role in the not guilty verdicts both obtained.
With these two additions, there were six women on death row in Chicago, but Watkins dismissed four of them as unnewsworthy: "Two of those left are colored : Minnie Nichols and Rose Epps. The other two, Sabella Nitti and Lela Foster, are middle aged and - well, neither is cursed with the grace or the beauty of Diana. Then, too Beulah and Belva killed young men friends, and these ladies only 'bumped off' their husbands."
Watkins played up the exciting aspects of her two cases: two "jazz" babes corrupted by men and liquor, the one of them, Beulah Annan, the "beauty of the cell block", and the other, Belva Gaertner, characterized as the "most stylish of Murderess Row."
Gaertner's story was that Law might have killed himself: she was acquitted.
Another sensational murder case was soon to occur in Chicago, Bobby Franks's body was discovered May 23, 1924; Beulah was acquitted of murder two days later, on May 25, 1924. Watkins did some reporting on the Leopold and Loeb case, which quickly overshadowed the coverage of the Belvah Gaertner verdict, but she soon left journalism to take up playwrighting, studying under George Pierce Baker at Yale University. As a class assignment in his famous 47 Workshop playwrighting course, she wrote a fictionalized version of the two murders she had covered as a reporter, calling it first The Brave Little Woman , then Chicago, or Play Ball, and finally Chicago.
Beulah Annan became "Roxie Hart"; Belva Gaertner became "Velma Kelly". Albert Annan became "Amos Hart". The two lawyers, William Scott Stewart and W. W. O'Brien, became a composite character, "Billy Flynn".
Why these names? There's only one that has a clear antecedent. In 1913, near Watkin's hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana, a man named Walter Runyan shot and killed Arlie Stull to stop him from telling Walter's wife that Walter was having an affair -- with a woman named Roxie Hart!
She faded into obscurity in the 1940s.
In 1947, the story was made into a vehicle for Ginger Rogers and filmed as Roxie Hart - reversed, this time, with Roxie confessing to a murder which she did not commit.
By the 1950s Watkins consistently refused permission for new productions of Chicago: some speculated that she felt some shame for her role in getting two killers found not guilty of murder: others felt that she was tired of being known as the author of only that one play.
She developed a disfiguring facial cancer and by 1968 was reclusive, leaving her apartment only when heavily veiled.
She had become religious and left her fortune of over $2,000,000 to found chairs at university for Biblical studies.
Following her death from cancer, in 1969, her estate sold the rights to the play, leading to the development of Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb, produced in 1975, and revived in 1997, and which formed the basis of the movie Chicago in 2002.