As Mark Twain said, truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why yours truly often chooses nonfiction over fiction for personal reading. Which explains my predilection for historical true crime books. What intrigues me are criminals who are so odd that it’s hard to believe they were real. Whose stories, at the same time, are simply too bizarre to make up. Especially when these involve a real place like Chicago. A place that’s also known as…Murder City!
From its start, Chicago seemed a veritable hotbed of crime and immorality. By the 1840′s there was an identifiable criminal underworld. Even the Great Fire of 1871 failed to end the city’s image as a modern Sodom and Gomorrah. By the 1890′s, Chicago was a full blown study in contrasts – home of the amazing World Columbian Exposition’s brilliantly lit White City as well as the notorious Levee vice district located by the downtown Loop. Two interesting books about this period are Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul (written by Karen Abbott in 2007) and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Film rights for this 2003 book were just purchased by the actor Leonard DeCaprio, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.
Even after the turn of the century, Chicago dominated the news as a corrupt city known for criminal superstars popularized by a sensationalist press. Douglass Perry released a fascinating investigation of the period last year in his book The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired “Chicago.” It tells the true story of Belvah Gaertner and Beulah Annan, good looking but loose married women who shot and killed their lovers after drunken brawls. Their sordid stories, plus those of other women who’d slain men and landed in Cook County jail, became a fascination for Americans who couldn’t get enough “news” about hard drinking jazz babies turning morality on its head. Maurine Watkins, an aspiring writer and reporter, followed their stories closely in her daily newspaper columns. And was outraged when both were acquitted by male juries who refused to believe pretty women could be killers. From this experience, she wrote a darkly comic play that became a Broadway hit.
Watkins’ 1926 play was, of course, Chicago. A work that inspired three different movies, including a silent film. Of these, the Library owns both Roxie Hart (a 1942 black and white film starring Ginger Rogers) and the 2002 film musical Chicago starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who won an Oscar for her role), and Richard Gere. The Library owns several soundtracks of the film and Broadway productions as well.
There are a number of books about Chicago history, including many about Prohibition and gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger. To find out about these and other strange denizens of Murder City, take a look at Weird Chicago: Forgotten History, Strange Legends, and Mysterious Hauntings of the Riverbend Region. This is part of the “Weird U.S.” series that features unusual stories and legends from sites around America.
So check out these real reads about the windy city, and…come on, babe, why don’t we paint the town…and all that jazz? We’re gonna rouge our knees, and roll our stockings down, and all that jazz. Start the car, ’cause there’s a whoopee spot. Where the gin is cold and the piano’s hot. It’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl. AND…ALL…THAT…JAZZ!