Looking back at crimes that inspired ‘Chicago’
Editor’s note: The following is the prelude to the new Chicago Tribune book “He Had It Coming,” which tells the true stories of four women on “Murderess Row” in 1920s Chicago who inspired the characters of the hit play and film “Chicago.” This book is available now exclusively at the Chicago Tribune Store.
The first murder in the notoriously bloody history of Chicago took place on June 17, 1812, when a quarrel broke out between two fur traders. They were Jean La Lime and John Kinzie. The latter fatally stabbed the former, fled to Canada, got away with the crime, and became one of the city’s most prominent early residents.
Over the next century and beyond, most of our local murderers have been men. So were most of their victims. But women began to get into this nasty business soon enough and by the 1920s they were sufficient in number to occupy their own section in the Cook County Jail.
This was a decade thick with larger-than-life characters living in a world of gangland violence, bootleg liquor, celebrity, sex, art and music. Morals were loosening, societal bonds relaxing, and the combination of bootleg gin and guns was becoming an increasingly dangerous one.
There were plenty of stories to fill the pages of the many daily and weekly newspapers in the city, all of them fighting for readers and for those unusual stories — man bites dog — that would grab their eyes.
Female killers perfectly fit that bill. You would have heard then, as you can now, that female murderers are rare. True enough, and that is why the media (which in the 1920s meant exclusively newspapers) eagerly sensationalized their crimes. (The latest available statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, covering the years 2003-2012, show that 88% of homicides are committed by men).
In this remarkable book you will read about some of the more “interesting” of these women, a group that comprised “Murderess Row,” a then-new section of the
County Jail reserved for women waiting to stand trial for murder. In 1924, there were more than a dozen women there, most accused of killing a husband or lover. And, thanks to the deep and vivid archives of the paper, you will see them too.
In general, the mood from cell to cell was surprisingly sunny. The women received fan mail and flowers. Some cut one another’s hair, gave one another manicures, and discussed cosmetics and fashion. These “damsels” did not feel in any great distress, knowing there was a longstanding tradition of all-male juries failing to convict attractive females of murder, despite what was often a mountain of the evidence.
As uncommon as were female killers, so were female newspaper reporters. Newspapering at the time was a raucous and male
dominated realm, slowly crawling its way from the dusty past into the fast-moving modern century.
At the dawn of the 1920s, city delivery of the Tribune was still accomplished with more horsedrawn wagons (68) than motorized trucks (48). But newspapers, specifically this one, had begun to get with the times. Some of that came in efforts to offer stories aimed at female readers, especially in the Sunday editions. In doing so, female editors and writers were hired in the hope that they could provide stories from a woman’s perspective for this new female audience.
Fanny Butcher became the paper’s literary editor in 1913, and Mary King was named the Sunday editor two years later. Slowly — fueled in part by the success of the women’s suffrage movement that gave women the right to vote in 1920 and the what-does-it-all-mean? psychological restlessness in the wake of the horrors of World War I — the newsroom began to feature more women, and some started to do more than fetch coffee or run errands for the “guys.”
Though many female reporters still wrote primarily for the society sections, a few worked their way onto the front page. Into this male milieu in February 1924 walked Maurine Dallas Watkins. She distinguished herself from the outset, especially when — editors thinking the assignment too “boring” for their male reporters — she traveled south to visit “Murderess Row.” The women she met, the trials she covered and what she later made of it all is detailed on the following pages. It is a great story, and Watkins is as interesting and enigmatic as any character she met in jail.
She was not in town long, but did cover a sensational murder that would come to be known as the “Crime of the Century” — the beating death of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by two wealthy University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.
Watkins left Chicago in 1924, shortly after the departure of another of the city’s legendary reporters, Ben Hecht. It is not known if Watkins and Hecht ever met. But both were deeply inspired by what they saw on the streets of the city. Hecht and his newspaperman pal Charles McArthur wrote “The Front Page,” the play that forever defined the rough-and-tumble newspaper business. Watkins wrote “Chicago.”
It seems somehow fitting that she beat the boys to the stage: “Chicago” premiered on Broadway in 1926, “The Front Page” two years later.
“Why Did Five Chicago Women Commit Murder?” asks the Muncie Evening Press on April 25, 1924.