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Murderesses Row: guns, gams, and glamour in 1920s Chicago

Douglas Perry, author of "The Girls of Murder City," talks about the true cases that inspired the musical "Chicago."

By Randy Dotinga / September 3, 2010

The pretty and prim Maurine Watkins became a star crime reporter in 1920s Chicago and turned her reporting on an infamous murder into the satirical play "Chicago."

Courtesy of Douglas Perry


Here's a name for you: Roxie Hart.

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If you're a fan of musicals, you may already be humming a tune from "Chicago." "When You're Good to Mama," maybe. Or "We Both Reached for the Gun."

There was a Roxie in real life. While she had a different name, she absolutely did reach for the gun. Her paramour, a man who didn't happen to be her husband, may have grabbed for it, too.

Unfortunately for him, she got there first. And a celebrity criminal was born, a glamorous and modern 1920s woman whose killer story lives on in the fictional Roxie Hart, a star character on the stage and screen for more than 80 years.

How much of "Chicago" – the play-turned-musical-turned-movie – is based on reality? Did newspaper "sob sisters" really conspire to free the women of Murderesses Row? And was there really a sleazy lawyer like the one played to perfection by Richard Gere on the silver screen?

Oregon journalist Douglas Perry answers these questions in his captivating new true-crime book, "The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired 'Chicago,' " an epic tale of guns, gams and glamour.

I asked Perry about life (and death) in the Second City and the young reporter of faith who turned violent life into timeless art.

Q: Even though there were plenty of killers on Chicago's "Murderesses Row" in the early 1920s, almost all of them were ultimately acquitted of murdering their boyfriends or husbands. How come?

A: Juries in Illinois remained stubbornly all-male, and one of the absolutes for the average juryman was the Victorian feminine ideal: Women inherently were morally superior to men, and they weren't capable of premeditated violence. When a woman turned violent, there had to be exculpatory reasons for it.

Some of the Chicago newspapers had "sob sisters," who covered crime by women and tried to elevate them. When a woman shot her husband or her boyfriend, the sob sister played up the tragedy of it: not what happened to the victim but to the woman.

There had to be a good reason for the crime. One reason was that the woman was drunk and, in that era, a man had to be responsible. Another common reason was that she'd been abused. Or the modern city, the clamor and bustle and pollution, made her insane.

Q: Why were so many women up to no good at that time?

A: Just a few years earlier, a respectable woman didn't go out without a chaperone. Then, beginning in the early years of the 20th century and accelerating with Prohibition and the suffrage movement, women were out in the world, going to speak-easies and ballrooms.

Women were feeling their oats and enjoying freedom and independence.

Add in the availability of guns and the celebration of lawlessness that came with Prohibition, and it makes sense that more women were committing violence.


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