Look­ing back at crimes that in­spired ‘Chicago’

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - By Rick Ko­gan

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.

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