The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry

Posted December 18, 2019 by Amber in Reviews / 0 Comments

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago

by Douglas Perry

Publisher: Viking Books on January 1, 2010
Genre: Crime, History, Non-Fiction
Target Age Group: Adult
Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

Chicago, 1924.

There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's "hanging paper." Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister's daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan - both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers - the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on "Murderesses' Row" as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins's favorites.

In the tradition of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal. Fueled by rich period detail and enlivened by a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage, The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the age and its sober repercussions.


First off.  In the extended title of this book, it says “who inspired Chicago”.  It literally took me half the book to realize “Chicago” meant Chicago, not Chicago.  The play, not the city.  Before that, I had thoughts about the way the story had been drawn out, and why there was so much time with the reporters and not just with the murderesses (I wanted more murderesses, dammit) and it’s a whole different perspective, to be honest.  In that light, The Girls of Murder City is fabulously done.

I’m more an ancient history person, and years of reading traditional fantasy has me deeply interested in Western Europe… but something about Chicago pulls me in.  From a purely romanticized perspective,  Chicago was its own world of blood and deceit and danger.  Between The Girls of Murder City and The Devil in the White City, color me officially intrigued in Chicago.  The city pulled me into this book, and it ended up being a hybrid of crime history and theatre history and I gobbled it up.  I’m sure there is a lot to Chicago that’s beautiful and fabulous, but I’m so drawn by its dark history.

Douglas Perry does a fantastic job of laying out the narrative.  There were a few times where I thought I heard the same quotes more than once, but as a general rule, the story felt like a story.  The best historical narratives, in my opinion, are the ones that bring history to life.  The Girls of Murder City makes you curious about Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.  They’re brought to life through various interviews and articles, but they are kept separate from Maurine Dallas Watkins – the reporter who covered their stories in the ’20s, and author of Chicago.  You’ll learn about these women’s trials than you will from their Wikipedia articles, and with a little innocence creative eloquence, they fly off the page.

Not just Beulah and Belva, though.  Several women of murderesses row – or at least of that period in Chicago history – jump off the page.  If anything, Perry makes them seem larger than life, far more stylish and beautiful than they were in actuality.  If you’re even vaguely interested in the sordid history of the Second City, or in crime history in general, The Girls of Murder City is a fascinating, interesting story and told in such a way that it would hold anyone’s attention.

In short?  I loved the way the history was told and I enjoyed dipping into this period of history for the first time in several years.  If the subject interests you at all, I highly recommend it.


Ratings Breakdown

Writing: ★★★
Pacing: ★★★★
Sources: ★★★ 1/2
Detail: ★★★
Delivery: ★★★ 1/2
Subject: ★★★★★
Narrator: ★★★★
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
Total: ★★★★


Have you ever been to Chicago?  I haven’t, but it’s a city I’d love to go to!  If nothing else, I’d love to see the remnants from the World’s Fair, but the city has such an interesting history.  Share your Chicago memories in the comments!

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